UC Berkeley NewsCenter contributed to this report
UC Berkeley linguistics professor Lev Michael and nine graduate students studied the complex indigenous language of Garifuna, according to a UC Berkeley press release.
There are approximately 200,000 Garinagu living in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. There are also some transplants to Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and New York City.
The group worked with native Garifuna (pronounced Ga-RIF-foo-nah) speaker Philip Tim Palacio of Rocklin, California.
The Garifuna people trace their origins to a wrecked African slave ship that washed ashore in the Caribbean in 1675. On the ship were Calinago, Carib and Arawaks who inhabited the Eastern Caribbean Islands including St. Vincent.
Intermingling of the Caribs, Africans and indigenous Arawaks resulted in the Garifuna language, which also was influenced by English, Spanish and French. Garifuna belongs to the Arawak linguistic family, whose members are mostly found in the Amazon Basin.
The language, music and dance of the Garifuna were collectively proclaimed a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2001.
Palacio acknowledged that Garifuna can be challenging to translate. “For example, when my dad used to see any of his seven children were wasting time and not working as hard as they should, he would tell us that we were ‘ataha gañé’ (drinking eggs), ‘éleha mesu’ (peeling cats), or ‘adimureha dabarasi’ (talking pan). These expressions are similar to the English expression of ‘being in la-la land.’”
Students will present their work in a “Garifuna Fest” mini conference on campus on Monday, April 23. In the coming weeks and months, Palacio and the National Garifuna Council in his native country of Belize will print and distribute a Garifuna grammar book based on the students’ work for use by the general public.
The book will be helpful to Garifuna people in the Caribbean island country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines “who have lost the language completely, as well as people seeking to retrieve or learn the language throughout much of Central America and in the United States, too,” said Palacio.
“I am happy to do my little part to help save and retrieve the Garifuna culture,” added Palacio, noting that less than 5 percent of the population of Belize speaks Garifuna and most of those speakers are elderly.
“On a personal level,” he said, “my children do not speak Garifuna, and the same goes for the majority of Garifuna people that I know in my age group. If concrete steps are not taken to retrieve the language, it will definitely be lost.”
Take a listen to the NPR segment to hear some Garifuna language and music.