The Caribbean is a melting pot of linguistic diversity. Among the many languages spoken within this region, one generally finds Spanish, English, French, or Dutch spoken alongside a variety of creole or an indigenous language. Indeed, many insular Caribbean communities are bilingual or multilingual whereas the continental areas are more typically monolingual.The language with the greatest number of speakers is Spanish. It is the official language of three islands–Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico–and of the majority of continental countries with a Caribbean coastline: these nations, which are located in either Central America or South America, are Mexico (Yucatán), Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia and Venezuela.

The second most spoken language within the Caribbean is English. Among the continental countries, it is the official language of Belize and Guyana. With respect to the islands, English is spoken in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

French also has a significant presence in the Caribbean. It is an official language of four major islands–Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique and Saint Martin–and their smaller counterparts: la Désirade, Marie-Galante, Saint Barthélemy, and Îles des Saintes. French is also spoken in just one South American country–French Guiana.

Dutch is spoken in the Caribbean, but its presence is quite limited. It is the official language of Aruba and of the islands called the Netherlands Antilles: Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. On the South American continent, it is the official language of Suriname.

While Spanish, English, French and Dutch do have a significant presence in the region, the Caribbean is also home to a number of creole languages. Almost every island possesses its own variety (e.g. Jamaican) and, along the continental shoreline, there are many creoles as well. One way of categorizing these creoles is by their lexifier–the language that provides the base vocabulary.

English lexified creoles comprise the largest grouping. Among the Caribbean islands, there are varieties known as Anguillan, Antiguan, Bajan (from Barbados), Cayman, Grenadian, Jamaican, Montserrat Creole, Saint Kitts Creole, Saint Martin Creole, Tobagonian, Trinidadian, Turks-Caicos Creole, Vincentian Creole and Virgin Islands Creole.

English lexified creoles are also found in many areas of Central and South American countries with Caribbean coastlines. In Belize it is called Kriol and it is similar to Mískito Creole, which can be found in Nicaragua; Limón Coastal Creole, which is another similar variety, is spoken in Costa Rica; in Panama there are creoles in Bocas del Toro, Colón, and Rio Abajo. Along the South American coastline, San Andres-Providencia is an English lexified creole in Colombia; Aukan and Sranan Tongo are spoken in Suriname as is Saramaccan, which can also be found in French Guiana.

Examples of French lexified creoles are Antillean and Haitian Creole. The former, which still exists on some English speaking islands like Grenada, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago, is primarily spoken in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and the smaller islands of la Désirade, Marie-Galante, Saint Barthélemy, and Îles des Saintes. The latter, Haitan Creole, is similar linguistically but, politically, has the prestige of being a co-official language of the island nation.

Spanish lexified creoles like Papiamentu constitute the smallest group. Spoken in the ABC islands and understood by most natives of the Netherland Antilles, it is one of the official languages in Aruba and Curaçao. There is debate, however, regarding its lexifier language. There are those who suggest that Papiamentu and Saramaccan are, in fact, Portuguese lexified creoles.

With regard to indigenous languages spoken in the Circum-Caribbean region, there are many. Indigenous populations on the islands were decimated by disease and warfare shortly after Columbus’ discovery. Historical accounts reveal, nevertheless, that the languages spoken in these areas were Arawak and Carib. In modern times, these two can still be found in Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. Along the Central American isthmus, Black Carib also known as Garífuna is spoken in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It should be noted that many other indigenous languages exist in Central and South America but due to their small demographic numbers, we do not list them individually but rather, refer to their language classifications: Chibchan, Choco, Mayan and Tucanoan.

Dr. Lisa Noetzel, Washington College

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