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Arawakan languages

From every country in South America, except Ecuador, Uruguay and Chile, to Central America and the Caribbean (migration path)
Linguistic classification: Macro-Arawakan ?
  • Arawakan
  • Northern
  • Southern
ISO 639-5: awd
Glottolog: araw1281[1]
Maipurean languages in South America (Caribbean and Central America not included): North-Maipurean (clear blue) and South-Maipurean (dark blue). Spots represent location of extant languages, and shadowed areas show probable earlier locations.

Arawakan (Arahuacan, Maipuran Arawakan, "mainstream" Arawakan, Arawakan proper), also known as Maipurean (also Maipuran, Maipureano, Maipúre), is a language family that developed among ancient indigenous peoples in South America. Branches migrated to Central America and the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, including what is now called the Bahamas. Only present-day Ecuador, Uruguay and Chile did not have peoples who spoke Arawakan languages. Maipurean may be related to other language families in a hypothetical Macro-Arawakan stock.

The name Maipure was given to the family by Filippo S. Gilij in 1782, after the Maipure language of Venezuela, which he used as a basis of his comparisons. It was renamed after the culturally more important Arawak language a century later. The term Arawak took over, until its use was extended by North American scholars to the broader Macro-Arawakan proposal. At that time, the name Maipurean was resurrected for the core family. See Arawakan vs Maipurean for details.


  • Languages 1
    • Kaufman (1994) 1.1
    • Aikhenvald (1999) 1.2
    • Walker & Ribeiro (2011) 1.3
  • Arawakan vs. Maipurean 2
  • Characteristics 3
  • Phonology 4
  • Shared morphological traits 5
    • General morphological type 5.1
    • Alienable and inalienable possession 5.2
    • Classifiers 5.3
    • Subject and object cross-referencing on the verb 5.4
  • Some examples 6
  • Geographic distribution 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


The classification of Maipurean is difficult due to the large number of Arawakan languages that are extinct and poorly documented. However, apart from transparent relationships that might constitute single languages, several groups of Maipurean languages are generally accepted by scholars. Many classifications agree in dividing Maipurean into northern and southern branches, though perhaps not all languages fit into one or the other. The three classifications below all accept:

An early contrast between Ta-Arawak and Nu-Arawak, depending on the prefix for "I", is spurious; nu- is the ancestral form for the entire family, whereas ta- is an innovation of one branch of the family.

Kaufman (1994)

The following (tentative) classification is from Kaufman (1994: 57-60). Details of established branches are given in the linked articles. In addition to the family tree detailed below, there are a few languages that are "Non-Maipurean Arawakan languages or too scantily known to classify" (Kaufman 1994: 58), which include:

Another language is also mentioned as "Arawakan":

  • Salumã (AKA Salumán, Enawené-Nawé)

Including these unclassified languages mentioned above, the Maipurean family has about 64 languages. Out of these, 29 languages are now extinct: Wainumá, Mariaté, Anauyá, Amarizana, Jumana, Pasé, Cawishana, Garú, Marawá, Guinao, Yavitero, Maipure, Manao, Kariaí, Waraikú, Yabaána, Wiriná, Aruán, Taíno, Kalhíphona, Marawán-Karipurá, Saraveca, Custenau, Inapari, Kanamaré, Shebaye, Lapachu, and Morique.

Northern Maipurean
Southern Maipurean

Aikhenvald (1999)

Apart from minor decisions on whether a variety is a language or a dialect, changing names, and not addressing several poorly attested languages, Aikhenvald departs from Kaufman in breaking up the Southern Outlier and Western branches of Southern Maipurean. She assigns Salumã and Lapachu ('Apolista') to what is left of Southern Outlier ('South Arawak'); breaks up the Maritime branch of Northern Maipurean, though keeping Aruán and Palikur together; and is agnostic about the sub-grouping of the North Amazonian branch of Northern Maipurean.

The following breakdown uses Aikhenvald's nomenclature followed by Kaufman's:

North Arawak = Northern Maipurean
  • Rio Branco = Kaufman's Wapishanan (2) [but with Mawayana as a separate language, with alternative names "Mapidian" and possibly "Mawakwa"]
  • Palikur = Kaufman's Palikur + Aruán (3)
  • Caribbean = Ta-Maipurean (8) [incl. Shebaye]
  • North Amazonian = Upper Amazon (17 attested)
South and South-Western Arawak = Southern Maipurean

Aikhenvald classifies Kaufman's unclassified languages apart from Morique. She does not classify 15 extinct languages which Kaufman had placed in various branches of Maipurean.

Aikhenvald (1999:69) classifies Mawayana with Wapishana together under a Rio Branco branch, giving for Mawayana also the names "Mapidian" and "Mawakwa" (with some reservations for the latter).

Walker & Ribeiro (2011)

Walker & Ribeiro (2011), using Bayesian computational phylogenetics, classify the Arawakan languages as follows.




Western Amazonia

Amuesha, Chamicuro


Central Brazil

Central Amazonia

Northwest Amazonia

The internal structures of each branch is given below. Note that the strictly binary splits are a result of the Bayesian computational methods used.

Arawakan vs. Maipurean

In 1783, the Italian priest Filippo Gilii recognized the unity of the Maipure language of the Orinoco and Moxos of Bolivia; he named their family Maipure. It was renamed Arawak by Von den Steinen (1886) and Brinten (1891) after Arawak in the Guianas, one of the major languages of the family. The modern equivalents are Maipurean or Maipuran and Arawak or Arawakan.

The term Arawakan is now used in two senses. South American scholars use Aruák for the family demonstrated by Gilij and subsequent linguists. In North America, however, scholars have used the term to include a hypothesis adding the Guajiboan and Arawan families. In North America, scholars use the name Maipurean to distinguish the core family, which is sometimes called core Arawak(an) or Arawak(an) proper instead.[2]

Kaufman (1990: 40) relates the following:

[The Arawakan] name is the one normally applied to what is here called Maipurean. Maipurean used to be thought to be a major subgroup of Arawakan, but all the living Arawakan languages, at least, seem to need to be subgrouped with languages already found within Maipurean as commonly defined. The sorting out of the labels Maipurean and Arawakan will have to await a more sophisticated classification of the languages in question than is possible at the present state of comparative studies.


The languages called Arawakan or Maipurean were originally recognized as a separate group in the late nineteenth century. Almost all the languages now called Arawakan share a first-person singular prefix nu-, but Arawak proper has ta-. Other commonalities include a second-person singular pi-, relative ka-, and negative ma-.

The Arawak language family, as constituted by L. Adam, at first by the name of Maypure, has been called by Von den Steinen "Nu-Arawak" from the prenominal prefix "nu-" for the first person. This is common to all the Arawak tribes scattered along the coasts from Dutch Guiana to British Guiana.

Upper Paraguay has Arawakan-language tribes: the Quinquinaos, the Layanas, etc. (This is the Moho-Mbaure group of L. Quevedo). In the islands of Marajos, in the middle of the estuary of the Amazon, the Aruan people spoke an Arawak dialect. The peninsula of Goajira (north of Venezuela) is occupied by the Goajires tribe, also Arawakan speakers. In 1890–95, De Brette estimated a population of 3,000 persons in the Goajires.[3]

C. H. de Goeje's published vocabulary of 1928 outlines the Lokono/Arawak (Dutch and Guiana) 1400 items, mostly morphemes (stems, affixes) and morpheme partials (single sounds) – rarely compounded, derived, or otherwise complex sequences; and from Nancy P. Hickerson's British Guiana manuscript vocabulary of 500 items. However, most entries which reflect acculturation are direct borrowings from one or another of three model languages (Spanish, Dutch, English). Of the 1400 entries in de Goeje, 106 reflect European contact; 98 of these are loans. Nouns which occur with the verbalizing suffix described above number 9 out of the 98 loans.[4]


Though a great deal of variation can be found from language to language, the following is a general composite statement of the consonants and vowels typically found in Arawak languages according to Aikhenvald (1999):

labial dental alveolar lamino-(alveo)-palatal velar glottal
voiced stop (b) d k (ʔ)
voiceless stop p t (g)
aspirated voiceless stop (pʰ) (tʰ) (kʰ)
voiceless fricatives (ɸ) s ʃ h
voiceless affricates ts
laterals l
vibrants r
nasals m n ñ
glides w y
front central back
high i, i: ɨ, ɨ: u, u:
mid vowel e, e:
low a, a:

For more detailed notes on specific languages see Aikhenvald (1999) pp. 76–77.

Shared morphological traits

General morphological type

Arawakan languages are polysynthetic and mostly head-marking. They have fairly complex verb morphology. Noun morphology is much less complex and tends to be similar across the family. Arawakan languages are mostly suffixing, with just a few prefixes.[5]

Alienable and inalienable possession

Arawakan languages tend to distinguish alienable and inalienable possession. A feature found throughout the Arawakan family is a suffix (whose reconstructed Proto-Arawakan form is /*-tsi/) that allows the inalienable (and obligatorily possessed) body-part nouns to remain unpossessed.[6] This suffix essentially converts inalienable body-part nouns into alienable nouns. It can only be added to body-part nouns and not to kinship nouns (which are also treated as inalienable). An example from the Pareci language is given below:[7]

my face
(someone’s) face


Many Arawakan languages have a system of classifier morphemes that mark the semantic category of the head noun of a noun phrase on most other elements of the noun phrase.[8] The example below is from the Tariana language, in which classifier suffixes mark the semantic category of the head noun on all elements of a noun phrase other than the head noun (including adjectives, numerals, demonstratives, possessives) and on the verb of the clause:[9]

ha-dapana pa-dapana pani-si nu-ya-dapana hanu-dapana
heku na-ni-ni-dapana-mahka
'This one big house of mine is made of wood.'

Subject and object cross-referencing on the verb

Most Arawakan languages have split-intransitive alignment systems of subject and object cross-referencing on the verb.[10] The agentive arguments of both transitive and intransitive verbs are marked with prefixes, whereas the patientive arguments of both transitive and intransitive verbs are marked with suffixes. The following example from Baniwa of Içana shows a typical Arawakan split-intransitive alignment:[11]

'He sees him/it.'
'He walks.'
'He/it is cold.'

The prefixes and suffixes used for subject and object cross-referencing on the verb are stable throughout the Arawakan languages, and can therefore be reconstructed for Proto-Arawakan. The table below shows the likely forms of Proto-Arawakan:[12]

(mark agent)
(mark patient)
person SG PL            SG PL           
1 nu- or ta- wa- -na, -te -wa
2 (p)i- (h)i- -pi -hi
3NFEM ri-, i- na- -ri, -i -na
3FEM thu-, u- na- -thu, -u -na
impersonal pa-
non-focused agent i-, a-
dummy patient -ni

Some examples

The Arawak word for maize is marisi, and various forms of this word are found among the related tribal languages:

Lokono, marisi, Guyana.
Cauixana, mazy, Rio Jupura.
Wayuu, maique, Goajiro Peninsula.
Passes, mary, Lower Jupura.
Puri, maky, Rio Paraiba.
Wauja, mainki, Upper Xingu River.

Geographic distribution

Arawak is the largest family in the Americas with the respect to number of languages. The Arawakan languages are spoken by peoples occupying a large swath of territory, from the eastern slopes of the central Andes Mountains in Peru and Bolivia, across the Amazon basin of Brazil, northward into Suriname, Guyana, French Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia on the northern coast of South America, and as far north as Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.[13] The languages used to be found in Argentina and Paraguay as well.

Arawak-speaking peoples migrated to islands in the Caribbean, settling the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas. It is possible that some poorly attested extinct languages in North America, such as the Cusabo and Congaree in South Carolina, were members of this family.[14]

Taíno, commonly called Island Arawak, was spoken on the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. A few Taino words are still used by English or Spanish-speaking descendants in these islands. The Taíno language was scantily attested but its classification within the Arawakan family is uncontroversial. Its closest relative among the better attested Arawakan languages seems to be the Goajiro language, spoken in Colombia. Scholars have suggested that the Goajiro are descended from Taíno refugees, but the theory seems impossible to prove or disprove.

Garífuna (or Black Carib) is another interesting Arawakan language originating on the islands. It developed as the result of forced migration among people of mixed Arawak, Carib, and African descent.[15] It is estimated to have about 195,800 speakers in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize combined.[16]

Today the Arawakan languages with the most speakers are among the more recent Ta-Arawakan (Ta-Maipurean) groups: Wayuu [Goajiro], with about 300,000 speakers; and Garífuna, with about 100,000 speakers. The Campa group is next; Asháninca or Campa proper has 15–18,000 speakers; and Ashéninca 18–25,000. After that probably comes Terêna, with 10,000 speakers; and Yanesha' [Amuesha] with 6–8,000.

See also


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Arawakan".  
  2. ^ Walker & Ribeiro (2011).
  3. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 73.
  4. ^ Deniker (1900), pp. 556–557.
  5. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 80.
  6. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 82.
  7. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 82.
  8. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 83.
  9. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 83.
  10. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 87.
  11. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 89.
  12. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 88.
  13. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 65.
  14. ^ Rudes (2004).
  15. ^ Aikhenvald (1999), p. 72
  16. ^ "Garifuna" (2015).


  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (1999). The Arawak language family. In R. M. W. Dixon & A. Y. Aikhenvald (Eds.), ''The Amazonian languages''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-57021-2; ISBN 0-521-57893-0.
  • de Goeje, C. H., (1928). The Arawak language of Guiana, Verhandelingen der Koninkljke Akademie van Wetenshappen te Amserdam, Ajdeiling Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks.
  • Deniker, Joseph. (1900). The races of man: an outline of anthropology and ethnography.
  • Garifuna. (2015). In M. P. Lewis, G. F. Simmons, & C. D. Fennig (Eds.), Ethnologue: Languages of the world (18th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1990). Language history in South America: What we know and how to know more. In D. L. Payne (Ed.), Amazonian linguistics: Studies in lowland South American languages (pp. 13–67). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70414-3.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1994). The native languages of South America. In C. Mosley & R.E. Asher (Eds.), Atlas of the world's languages (pp. 46–76). London: Routledge.
  • Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Arawakan". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
  • Rudes, Blair A. "Pre-Columbian Links to the Caribbean: Evidence Connecting Cusabo to Taino", paper presented at Language Variety in the South IIIconference, Tuscaloosa, AL, 16 April 2004.
  • Walker, R. S., & Ribeiro, L. A. (2011). Bayesian phylogeography of the Arawak expansion in lowland South America. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1718), 2562–2567. doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.2579

Further reading

  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Derbyshire, Desmond C. (1992). Arawakan languages. In W. Bright (Ed.), International encyclopedia of linguistics (Vol. 1, pp. 102–105). New Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Migliazza, Ernest C.; & Campbell, Lyle. (1988). Panorama general de las lenguas indígenas en América (pp. 223). Historia general de América (Vol. 10). Caracas: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia.
  • Payne, David. (1991). A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In D. C. Derbyshire & G. K. Pullum (Eds.), Handbook of Amazonian languages (Vol. 3, pp. 355–499). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Solís Fonseca, Gustavo. (2003). Lenguas en la amazonía peruana. Lima: edición por demanda.
  • Zamponi, Raoul. (2003). Maipure, Munich: Lincom Europa. ISBN 3-89586-232-0.

External links

  • Arawak Languages - Linguistics - Oxford Bibliographies
  • South American Phonological Inventory Database


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