Arawak language

In our Thursday edition we carried a report on a Gina release about the launch of an Arawak language revival project in Capoey. The final paragraph reported Gina as saying that it was estimated there were about 15,000 Arawaks living in Guyana, although only about 1,500 of them could still speak the language fluently, and of those, most were aged over 50.

Coastal Guyanese have never quite appreciated how fortunate they are to share the land space with the speakers of nine separate indigenous languages.  While the authorities on every official occasion hasten to organize displays of Amerindian performance arts, or exhibitions of art and the like, there is little acknowledgement that cultural expression is closely tied to language, and that this provides the framework for the unique perceptions of the environment around us as well as being the vehicle for imparting a world view largely constructed on those perceptions. When a language goes, therefore, a critical element of culture goes with it, and we are all the poorer for the loss.

Indigenous languages all over the world are under pressure from dominant tongues, and many of them will become extinct within our lifetimes. If it is indeed the case that there are only about 1,500 fluent speakers of Arawak left here, then that language too could be doomed.  It is particularly unfortunate in the case of Arawak, because it has existed in written form for so long. As for the Arawaks themselves, they have been in contact with European peoples and coastal society for more than 450 years, and their culture and language have up until now survived the experience.

The earliest known Arawak word lists seem to have been compiled by the English in Trinidad in the 1590s, and thereafter various other lists were made including one by a Spaniard, Espinosa, in the 1620s. In this country, however, the first serious efforts at producing something which went beyond mere vocabularies was undertaken by the Moravians, or the Herrnhutters as they were then known. In 1740 they set up a mission on the Matara Creek, which is a tributary of the Wiruni Creek up the Berbice, and began to evangelise the Arawaks in the surrounding area. The necessity of learning the language was not lost on the missionaries, but they were struggling until a man named Theophilus Schumann arrived, who had great linguistic talent and who in addition to small biblical translations, produced a dictionary and grammar of the language.

It is not altogether clear whether the Moravians reached the stage where they were able to teach the Arawaks who lived in their settlement to read and write their own language, but certainly that would have been the aim in order that in due course they could read the bible for themselves. Schumann died in Berbice in 1760, and the other missionaries fled on the outbreak of the 1763 uprising, which brought an end to their linguistic and conversion efforts in that area.

Another group of Moravians, however, arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, and began working on the Corentyne. Again, they applied themselves to the matter of committing Arawak to written form, and they produced translations as well as a remarkable Arawak work published in Philadelphia in 1799. This group certainly did address themselves to the matter of literacy among the Arawaks, as is evidenced by the survival of an Arawak ABC and spelling book which are also now in the Herrnhut archives in Germany.

The Herrnhutters were all primarily German speakers, of course, although presumably they could manage formal Dutch and/or Berbice Dutch, but in the nineteenth century it was the British who were the colonial authority here, and who supplied the dominant language. Various travellers and missionaries during this colonial phase added to the literature on the Arawak language, but the outstanding contribution in this field came from the Anglican missionary W H Brett, whose translations of the bible undertaken with native speakers will still be familiar to the oldest generation of Arawaks today. Canon Bennett, himself the compiler of the gold-standard  Arawak-English dictionary, called the written language of Brett and the Arawaks with whom he worked, “beautiful” – classical Arawak, if you like.

It seems unthinkable that after all the centuries the Arawaks have lived in what is now Guyana, that their language should die out, more especially as it has a written tradition going back a long way. The Capoey project, therefore, under which village children aged 4 to 10 will be taught Arawak is very welcome, although the experience from elsewhere suggests that that might not be enough. In other countries with minority languages, including the UK itself, it is known that the critical factor in survival is whether or not the language is used in schools.

The Ministry of Education, at least, is aware of this having some time ago introduced a project to teach young Wapishana children in their own language at the primary level. They were hoping thereby to improve literacy levels, and it seems this has had some success. The problem in the case of Arawak, of course, is that there are fewer speakers of the language in relation to the total Arawak population than is the case with the Wapishana. Nevertheless, the Capoey project is a start, although what is critical is its sustainability. In the end, with the best will in the world, the language cannot be preserved from the outside; the Arawak community itself has to want this, and has to be prepared to make the effort to ensure that it happens.

We have already lost two indigenous languages in this country, although not Amerindian ones. These were Essequibo Dutch and Berbice Dutch, which interestingly were not mutually intelligible and were not that easily understood by native Dutch speakers, although they had a Dutch base. Essequibo Dutch seems to have died out in the nineteenth century, and no one has yet located vocabularies in relation to it. Up until a few years ago there were still some surviving speakers of Berbice Dutch, and the language was studied by linguists Ian Robertson and Sylvia Kouwenberg. Most of all, in the case of Arawak – or any other Amerindian language spoken locally for that matter ‒ one doesn’t want to end up in a position where like the two Dutch Creoles, it is only referred to in the past tense.

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