When the first Europeans arrived in the West Indies, a few of the islands of the Lesser Antilles were inhabited by some people who called themselves “Callinago” or “Caliponam”1  and spoke a language which, because of the preponderance of Arawakan elements, is classified as an Arawakan language (Taylor 1977).  Later in Saint Vincent the natives gave refuge to some shipwrecked and escaped African slaves and as a result of some intermarriage and the incorporation of that African element into the population, a new breed of Black Caribs arose, who adopted the language and to a great extent the culture of the original population.  The Caribs, black and “yellow”, greatly valued their freedom and fiercely resisted the efforts of the English and the French to dominate them until 1797 when they were finally routed and forcibly relocated to Roatan and the other Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras.  It is believed that just over 2,000 persons were shipped from Saint Vincent.

The Garinagu or Garifuna2, as the deportees and their descendants called themselves, did not waste any time in moving to the mainland of Central America, first to Honduras, then on to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.  By the end of the year 1802, they had spread and were very much present as far north as Belize, to the extent that one of the English settlers felt compelled to write to the Magistrate of the Colony complaining that “he sees great danger in the presence in this settlement, so far from any assistance, of numerous “Charibs”, he believes to the number of 150″ (Burdon 1934).

Today, the Garifuna live in a number of towns and villages scattered along the Central American coast from Nicaragua to Belize.  There does not seem to be any reliable indication as to how many inhabit the area, but in the mid 1950’s it was estimated that they numbered about 30,000 (Meyers 1965).  There also exist today, sizeable Garifuna communities  in inland cities like Tegucigalpa in Honduras, Guatemala City, and some American cities like Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.

The Garifuna people have been exposed to a number of different linguistic influences during the last three centuries.  There are many instances of Spanish and French loanwords in Breton’s dictionary which he compiled while working as a missionary in Dominica between 1637 and 1654.  Many additional lexical items borrowed from Spanish, English and French have found their way into the language since then, and even today the influence of non-Garifuna languages and cultural institutions continue to be felt on Garifuna language and culture.  Most of the people today are at least bi-lingual.  In Belize they invariable speak English or the English-based Creole which is the lingua franca there, while in the other Central America countries the other language is Spanish which is the official language of those countries.

But the intrusion of English and Spanish has gone even further.  As far as language preference is concerned, a growing number of Garifuna people are speaking English/Creole or Spanish as a first language and losing proficiency in Garifuna.  Furthermore, the writing systems of English and Spanish have contributed to the differences between orthographies developed in Belize and those emerging from work done in Guatemala or Honduras.

The question is often asked if Garifuna is a written language.  This question can be interpreted in at least two ways so that one can ask, firstly, if the people are literate in their language and, secondly, if written material is available in Garifuna.  We will now consider each of these two questions.

The Garifuna have always had high regard for education, at times undergoing great hardships and privations to ensure that their children make use of educational opportunities that exist.  Until recently children were often sent from Honduras and Guatemala to live with relatives and friends or even non-Garifuna acquaintances in Belize so that they might attend school “in the Colony”.  This practice seemed to have stemmed from the assumption that education obtained in the colony was superior and that it was desirable, even in the Spanish republics, that people be literate in English.  In addition, it appears that Belize was ahead of both Honduras and Guatemala in the provision of free and compulsory primary education.

In spite of what has been said about the preference for and greater availability of education in Belize, the Garifuna in Honduras and Guatemala have made great use of the educational facilities to which they have access.  As a result, even in the absence of the relevant statistics, one can claim with some confidence that the Garifuna have for a long time been among the most literate people of the region.  In fact, the pioneering work of Garifuna men in the early expansion of education in Belize is widely acknowledged.  They, more than others, were willing to take up the challenge of accepting teaching positions all over the country and enduring the hardships involved in working even in the remotest villages in the country.

Unfortunately, the price that they have had to pay for involvement in education has been very high.  No regard is given to their cultural background even in the few schools which, because of their location, cater exclusively to Garifuna populations. Indeed, stories abound of instances in which the use of the language was actively discouraged or frowned upon by religious and education workers (often one and the same).  So the Garifuna was schooled so that he became literate in English or Spanish and in many cases learnt to disassociate himself with his own language which the school at best pretended did not exist.  When the young men with the greatest intellectual promise were sent to other villages as school teachers, they and their dependents went not as Garifuna families but as representatives of an alien culture, to teach the language, the lore and the religion of a foreign dominant power.  The results have been devastating as Joseph Palacio demonstrated in a paper entitled “Problems in the Maintenance of the Garifuna Culture”.

The Garifuna, therefore, although reasonably well schooled and literate in English and Spanish, is generally illiterate in his own language.  There are a few persons who are able to read and write the language but these are exceptions that exist in spite of the schooling received.  Also, these are usually persons who have a special interest in some aspect of Garifuna life or are involved in the movement resulting from a recent rebirth of interest and pride in their Garifuna identity and heritage.

The second question has to do with the availability of written material in Garifuna.  In so far as published material is concerned, there is very little, a fact which is not at all surprising given the traditional attitude of the educational institutions towards the language and the culture.  The school just did not foster among teachers or students the sort of interest that would have had to precede attempts to write the language and the production of literature in it.  Nor could the products of the educational systems concerned produce written material in the language even if they were so inclined, for they had not been taught to read, let along write it.  The dearth of written material in Garifuna and the inability of the people (although literate in English or Spanish) to read and write their own language were mutually reinforcing, a state affairs which has generally lasted up to the present.

A great deal of anthropological fieldwork (mostly as research for Ph. D dissertations) has been done among the Garifuna, but not many studies have been done in the field of linguistics.  Nonetheless, the work of three scholars is generally well known to linguists interested in the language.  These are Douglas Taylor, Richard Hadel S.J., following on the work commenced by John Stochl S.J. at Saint John’s College in Belize City, and Ilah Flemming who together with Lillian Howland work for the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Douglas Taylor’s work is perhaps the best known.  Taylor did anthropological fieldwork in Hopkins, a village in Belize, and in 1951 published an ethnography entitled “The Black Carib Of British Honduras”.  His linguistic work includes a large number of papers on Arawakan and Cariban linguistics, among them several papers on different aspects of “Island Carib” and “Central American Carib”, published in a number of reputable journals and other publications.  Unfortunately, Taylor’s work is of no use to the average Garifuna, partly because it was pitched to a scholarly audience specialized in linguistics, and partly because it did not include text that would be of interest to the people.  In other words, Taylor did not write Garifuna; he wrote about it.  And he did not write for the Garifuna; he wrote about them.  He did not even give any thought to the matter of an orthography for Garifuna and was content to use the sound letter correspondences from his phonological analysis with no regard for other considerations as will be shown later.  Taylor’s work was not intended for Garifuna readers, his linguistic publications are generally not available in the area, and his best known work which is an ethnography, a monograph with a chapter on language and a glossary, has limited availability and is known only to a small number of Garifuna scholars.

Towards the end of the 1940’s a group of Garifuna students at Saint John’s College in Belize City, working under the supervision of Father John Stochl S.J., compiled a small Garifuna- English Dictionary.  This was the first work that had the potential for stimulating interest and serving as a tool in promoting literacy in Garifuna.  Yet this was not to be, for very few copies were printed (with a spirit duplicator) and the dictionary did not become available to the general public.  Two decades later, Father Richard Hadel S.J., while doing anthropological fieldwork in Seine Bight, Belize, collected, with the assistance of Roman Zuniga, additional material and enlarged and re-designed the dictionary and had it published in three volumes in limited mimeograph edition again by Saint John’s College.  Again this work had the disadvantage of not being available for general consumption, firstly, because the cost was prohibitive and, secondly, because like the original edition not enough copies were printed.  It is regrettable that this monumental work from Saint John’s College could not have found its way to schools and libraries at least in Garifuna towns and villages, not to mention Garifuna homes, for this failure defeats whatever useful purpose it could have had for the people and relegates the work and the people to the status of mere curios to be viewed and examined for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity and the equally irrelevant (for the speakers of the language) academic needs of others.

Next to be considered is work done in Guatemala by the Summer Institute of Linguistics.  The work is done by Ilah Flemming who, together with Lillian Howland, began studying Garifuna in Livingston, a Garifuna township, in 1952.  Those familiar with the SIL know that it is an American based organization dedicated to bringing God to the “heathen” peoples of the world by making the bible available to them in their native languages.  Thus the linguistic work done by the members of the organization is subservient to the higher goal of developing orthographies to translate the bible and making these translations available to the people.  Garifuna material produced by the SIL is divided into two categories: the technical works and the vernacular works.  The former are the works that would be of interest primarily to linguists and are invariably written in English or Spanish; the latter comprise material written for the speakers of the language and typically include translations of the books from the bible and a few folk stories thrown in for good measure.  Quite a number of books with biblical translations in Garifuna have been made available to the people especially in Guatemala.  There are also a few booklets that can be considered as readers with some ?raga (Garifuna folk tales).

The SIL material has the distinction of being the only one of the three listed above to be intended for use by the people. It includes material that is written in the language and published and distributed in a manner, which, it is hoped, would make it easily available to whoever wants it.  This follows logically from the objectives of the organization.  However, the organization does not seem to be engaged in much direct effort to make the people literate in the language.  The assumption is that if the bible is available to the people in their language it will be easier for them to receive the word of God.  There are a few problems attendant on this position, however, at least where the Belizean Garifuna is concerned.  Firstly, the vast majority of the people are Roman Catholic or Methodist, and only those who are converted into the “born again” churches are likely to develop a strong interest in the bible.  Secondly, those who are motivated to read the bible in Garifuna are already literate in English or Spanish and would find it easier and less painful to read the English or Spanish version.  Thirdly, the aim is cultural imperialism rather than the more desirable goal of cultural liberation which can be attained through literacy.  It is my view that in spite of the abundance of vernacular works that have been produced by the SIL, it has failed to have an impact on literacy in Garifuna.

There have also been some lesser works produced in Garifuna.  I refer to them as lesser works for several reasons.  They lack international prestige, they are limited in their distribution, and scope, and are usually ad hoc in nature.  The Roman Catholic Church in Dangriga, Belize, has commissioned several translations of masses and excerpts from the bible to be read in the mass, but these lack internal consistency both in terms of the orthography, and the quality or type of the translations.  There was also an excellent anthology of Garifuna poems “Chuluha Dan”, edited by Roy Cayetano, but this was a one-shot effort whose greatest value lies in making Garifuna readers aware of the sort of work that can be produced when people respond to the creative urge in their own language.

One major obstacle to the development of a body of literature in Garifuna is the lack of a standardized orthography.  Practically each person who writes the language has to create his own, drawing on his own experience in writing (usually English or Spanish), with the result that there are nearly as many orthographies as there are persons who have attempted to write the language.  Thus, we often find the same word written in several different ways; for example, the name of the most important religious ritual is written as dogo (Taylor), dugu (Wells 1980), and d?g? (S.J.C.).  To complicate the matter even further, anthropologists and other transients, in their written reports and other papers, record words some of which their foreign ears have not apprehended correctly, but which once written, carry the brand of authority usually accorded to scholarship and the printed word.

Nevertheless, a great deal of benefit can be gleaned from the work already done by what can be referred to as the three traditions mentioned above, namely, the Taylor, the Saint John’s College (S.J.C.), and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) traditions.  Although they all have their weaknesses when regarded from the point of view of the speakers of the language, each is the fruit of a great deal of linguistic knowledge and scholarship.  Consequently, each is being regarded here as a contributor to what is hoped will emerge as a standardized orthography that will be available to writers of the language, at least in Belize but possibly elsewhere as well.

In the remainder of this paper, I will attempt to accomplish two tasks.  Firstly, to review existing orthographies, that is to say, orthographies developed by or reflecting the three traditions.  This will necessarily entail some examination of the assumptions and the phonological analyses and other considerations on which they are based.  Secondly, the orthographies will be compared and elements tabulated to illustrate the points of convergence and divergence.  Such a comparison will provide the basis for the real purpose of this exercise, which is to propose an orthography that will draw on the strengths, and hopefully overcome the weaknesses, of the three traditions.

But, one may ask, what practical benefit would this have for the Garifuna?  After all, it will be recalled that the three traditions have been criticized on the grounds that their potential for utility for the people have not been realized.  It is believed that this brief study is necessary and will be useful for several reasons.  To begin with, it is one way of making up for the major disadvantage of existing work on Garifuna, namely, limited circulation.  The review of the orthographies will make readers more aware of the existing orthographies and their semi-technical aspects.  Because the means now exist for reaching a wider audience than ever before outside of the Garifuna Community, especially in Belize, reaching the majority of Garifuna teachers, scholars, and organisations is a more realistic objective than ever before.  There are periodicals with fairly large circulation in Belize including “Belizean Studies” and, “The Journal of Belizean Affairs” which provide a forum  for the exchange and dissemination of scholarly ideas.  Some universities abroad subscribe to these periodicals.  The review of the three traditions can therefore serve for many as a systematic introduction to Garifuna writing so that even if individuals continue to device their own orthographies, it is likely that the result would do more justice to the language and be more internally consistent.

The greatest benefit, however, resides in the fact that the final section can make a significant contribution to standardizing Garifuna orthography by proposing one that can gain widespread acceptance in the international Garifuna community, or serve as the basis for a dialogue involving different sectors of the community, thereby resulting in the development of such an orthography.

Those who are familiar with the socio-linguistic realities of Garifuna communities may question the utility of taking  measures to make the people literate in the language, let alone to standardize the orthography.  To support such a position a number of points, some of which have been mentioned above, can be raised as arguments.  It can be argued that:

1 The majority of the people are already literate in at least one other language, the official language of their country of residence.

2 They do not need to be able to read and write the language to be able to communicate effectively in writing.

3 There is not much written literature in the language.

4 At the present rate of acculturation, it is not likely that there will be a Garifuna speech community after the next fifty years.
These and possibly a number of other such arguments are difficult if not quite impossible to refute, and some are even self-evident.  Nonetheless, the Garifuna, although conscious and proud of their national identity as Belizeans, Guatemalans, or Hondurans, have, especially in recent years, become acutely aware and conscious of their cultural identity and heritage so that a new value is being placed on the distinctive elements of that heritage.  As a consequence of this new awareness and the resultant revaluation, a number of movements and organizations have been developed, which because of the nature of their activities have found the ability to read and write Garifuna not only desirable but necessary for at least some of their members.

The National Garifuna Council is an example of an umbrella organisation in Belize that sponsors a host of Garifuna cultural events and activities including dance, drama, speech, poetry, and other talent contests.  In these and other activities leading up to Garifuna Day Celebrations (observed throughout Belize on the 19th November) the need for literacy often arises, as in translating and preparing Garifuna masses, composing and teaching new hymns, writing and preparing speeches and poetry for publication or for use in contests, writing labels for items in exhibitions, producing leaflets and booklets for distribution, and making banners with messages in Garifuna, to name only a few.

Another area of endeavour and concern that requires literacy in the language preferably with the sort of consistency that can be offered by a standardized orthography is the area of cultural retrieval.  Granted that the language may not survive the next fifty years, it becomes necessary for the sake of posterity that as much as possible of the language, culture and lore of the people be captured, collected or otherwise recorded using as many different media as are available.  Among the items that can be recorded in writing are ?raga (stories usually told in the context of wakes), songs, of which there are literally thousands, proverbs, and accounts by key persons, in their own words, of their roles, their activities, their history as a people, and different aspects of life in their villages.  A number of persons are interested in this task of cultural retrieval and obviously their self-confidence would be bolstered considerably if they had some guidelines they could follow in attempting to write the language.  It is also obvious that the more uniform the spelling system, the easier it will be to read or otherwise work with the material that is recorded, especially for persons who, as may be the case of the Garifuna of the future, do not have the linguistic competence of present day native speakers.