In Trinidad and Tobago, at least ten known and named pre-Columbian languages were spoken by peoples of a variety of Amerindian origins. These languages include those from language families such as Carib, Arawakan and others. Except for Kalina/Kari’ña (Carib), lokono (Arawak), and Warao, most of the other languages once spoken here are now extinct, both here and elsewhere on the American continent.

The 11 languages below were just a few of the languages spoken in Tobago and Trinidad at one time, but today none is spoken natively in these islands. Languages of the Carib family include the following (those in bold are still living languages):

  • Kalina (Carib) (7,500 speakers across Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and Brazil)
  • Carinepagoto
  • Chaima (Chayma)
  • Nepoio (nepuyo) (related to Mapoyo of Venezuela)
  • Yao

Languages of the Ta-Arawakan or Ta-Maipuran family included the following:

  • Lokono/Arawak (2,500 speakers across Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana)
  • Shebaio (Shebayo)
  • Igneri

Other language families include:

  • • Warao, a language isolate (33,000 speakers across Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname)
  • Kalipunian
  • Chaguane
  • and possibly many more

The numbers of speakers noted here, according to Ethnologue, may be outdated or incorrect, and may not necessarily reflect the actual size of the groups in these five mainland countries. A recent census in Venezuela will soon confirm exact numbers, as there are more than 7,500 Kari’ña for Venezuela alone, and more than 33,000 Warao for Venezuela alone. In addition, Marie-France Patte notes that only 700 of 2,051 Surinamese Arawaks speak the language, 150 to 200 out of 1,500 French Guianese Arawaks speak the language, and that there are 15,000 Guyanese Arawaks. This is often because not all members of all groups are native speakers, and so the figures are generally tentative. It should also be noted many of the groups live on borders and move freely between and among these different modern political entities. Further, not all modern researchers and scholars agree and continue to debate various aspects and classifications of this vast and ancient subject of Amerindian peoples, cultures and languages.

The most outstanding linguistic legacy of the First Peoples of Trinidad and Tobago remains the over 200 toponyms or place names. These toponyms are found all over both Trinidad and Tobago (itself thought to be a Taino name, but possibly brought by the Spanish – see Arie Boomert’s discussion: (Taino is a northern Arawakan/Maipuran language, now extinct, from the northern Caribbean, mainly the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas.) The linguistic legacy also includes some flora, fauna and other names. As Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen and Boomert put it in their paper “Amerindian toponyms of Trinidad: Linguistic legacy of past Amerindian occupation,” while this figure (200) may seem small, it actually represents some 450 place names since a single name may signify as many as five to six different situations such as point, bay, river, town, village, mountain, road, county or forest reserve. What is also significant is that the bulk of the island’s MAIN topographical features carry Amerindian names. (See page 1 of that study.)

The work of these authors took a chronological focus. Some surviving Amerindian place names, according to language, include the following. The etymologies are those given in that paper, and some are tentative.

Names of Greater Antillean Taino (Arawakan) origin reportedly came via the Spanish who had been based in Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. These names include: La Canoa (canoe), Guayabal (guava + the Spanish suffix -al, also in Venezuela), Icacos (zeekak, fat pork), Savana Grande (sabana + Spanish grande ‘large’, also in Venezuela), Tabaquite and Tobago (tabaco), and Yaigual (yagua palm, also in Venezuela as Yagua).

Arawak/lokono language place names with known or partially known meanings include:

  • Arouca (arau ‘jaguar’ + cayri ‘island’; also in Venezuela as Aruca, the spellings <ou> and <u> in French and Spanish, respectively, having the same pronunciation; cf. Kairi, Iere, names given to Trinidad)
  • Caroni (-uni, a suffix meaning ‘water’, also in Venezuela)
  • Curucaye (‘incense tree’, including cayri ‘island’)
  • Guayaguayare (waya means ‘clay’)
  • Iere (variation of cayri ‘island’)
  • La Seiva (‘silk cotton tree’, also in Venezuela as Ceiba, with Spanish article la)
  • (A) naparima (‘large water’, or from Nabarima, Warao for ‘Father of the waves’)
  • Siparia (-ari means ‘hard, rough, coarse’, may mean ‘machete’)

Other Lokono names include Cipero, Guaracara, Moruga and Pitch (Lake). Shebaio, another Arawakan language, has given at least these two place names: Aripero and Erin.

Place names from the Cariban language family are divided among the Kalina/Carib, Nepoio and Yao languages. Kalina/Carib place names with known or partially known meanings include the following:

  • Arena(les) (‘arm of a river’?)
  • Ari-ma (from Hy-Ari-Ma: ‘a poisonous root’ + -ma/-mo, a suffix meaning ‘giant-sized)
  • Aripo (‘gridle for baking cassava bread’)
  • Cachipa (‘balisier’ or ‘heliconia’)
  • Carapo (including + -apo, a suffix meaning ‘place of, name of’)
  • Chaguaramas (‘palmiste palm’, also in Venezuela)
  • Guanapo (‘grass’ + -apo, a suffix meaning ‘place of, name of’)
  • Mucurapo (‘silk cotton tree’ + -apo, a suffix meaning ‘place of, name of’)
  • Tamana (name of a Carib(an)- speaking group from the mid-Orinoco area)
  • Toco (‘wild sapodilla’)
  • Tumpuna (-puna/-pona, a suffix meaning ‘on, upon’)
  • Tunapuna (tona- ‘water, river’ + -puna/-pona, a suffix meaning ‘on, upon’)

Other well-known names of Kalina origin include Ariapita, Caura (from Guara), Chacachacare, Cumuto, Cunupia, Macqueripe, Maracas, Maraval, Matelot(e), Matura, Paria, Piarco, El Tucuche (with Spanish article el), Turure and Yarra. Place names of nepoio (another Carib language) origin include Mayaro (may have been the name of anepoio headman), nariva and Ortoire (originally closer to Guataro). One place name from yao (another Carib language) is Guapo (root + -apo, a suffix meaning ‘place of, name of’).

Baksh-Soodeen and Boomert indicate that other Carib names came from Dominican Caribs/Kalinagos. The latter spoke a language which contained a large number of words of Arawak origin. Some of their contributions include names such as Salybia, based on Chaleibe, the Carib name for Trinidad, Balandra (‘the sea’), and possibly Califo(r)nia (Kallipuna, a name for the Island Caribs). These authors also note that other names from other Carib languages came from Venezuela, such as Carapichaima(carapa ‘crapo’ + chayma, the name of a Cariban-speaking group) and Cumana (Cumanagoto, a Caribanspeaking group + goto, ‘a suffix of many Cariban tribal names’). Others still came via the French Antilles, such as Madamas, Mapepire, Paramin (possibly Arawakan, and possibly related to bara ‘the sea’), Petit and rand Tacarib (from Terre Caribe, Land of the Caribs) and Tragarete. Peons also brought Venezuelan names of various Amerindian origins to Trinidad, and the two countries share an important number of place names through the movement of speakers of a range of languages.

Warao is a language isolate, and one Warao place name is Chaguanas (name of the Warao group). Winer notes that the Warao (or Guarahoons) are the most frequently mentioned group in historical times, but they apparently visited Trinidad rather than residing permanently.

With regard to flora and fauna, as well as other items, some names extracted from Winer’s 2009 Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago include several of Arawak and Carib origin:


  • Trees: black maho and maho (also Carib), bois cotelette (possibly French and Arawak), carapa tree (and carap oil, possibly Arawak), ceiba (‘silk cotton or kapok tree’), cocorite palm, genip, guatecare, manac, marouba, moriche (‘a palm’) (both carapa and moriche may have other Amerindian origin)
  • Fruits: balata, cashima (‘sugar apple’), zeekak (‘coco plum, fat pork’)
  • Fauna: crappo (also Carib), tay-tay worm (possibly Arawak), yarrow (‘a fish’)
  • Other: benab (‘a shelter’), canoe, manare (‘a basket sifter’, or Warao)


  • Trees: cocoyea, mauby
  • Fruits: plantain
  • Fauna: agouti, balahoo (a fish), batali (a small marine turtle), cachicama or kirtchecom (a type of armadillo or tatou), carite, cici zeb, coryal/corial (a canoe, also thought to be of Arawak origin), huille (a snake), mapepire, piapoco (a bird)
  • Other: canari (‘jar’), catara (‘casareep’, an Arawak name), pirogue, savannah

Other words of Taino origin via Spanish include caiman, cassava, guava, hurricane, iguana, hammock, manatee, pawpaw/papaya; of Tupi-Guarani origin, roucou and tannia (also Carib), and many more, including manicou, mabouia (a lizard), toluma (‘red arrowroot’), and barbecue (Arawak).

It is interesting to note that the ancestral Amerindian languages were first replaced by Spanish, then Patois/French Creole, which in turn has been mostly replaced by English and English Creole. Patois and Spanish continue to be important heritage languages for some members of the Community, particularly in areas such as Brasso Seco, Paria, and Arima, and Adonis has been willing to teach and share his knowledge of Patois.

In Trinidad, the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community today is led by Chief Ricardo Bharath Hernandez and Queen Jennifer Cassar. Chief Bharath Hernandez is supportive of all of his Community’s language learning efforts, and his own origins may be more Lokono than Kalina. Queen Cassar speaks Patois/French Creole (also called Kwéyòl), as does Cristo Adonis, the Community’s payai (medicine man). The Community conducts a number of ceremonies during which ceremonial chants are sung for the purpose of communing with the Creator, Guardians and Nature. The chants may be taught and learned, but many are individual and spontaneous, and for Trinidadian First Peoples, some are aware of what they are singing and have knowledge of some words from their ancestral languages (Lokono and Kariña), but some words may be unknown. These chants are sung on occasions such as the birth of a child, the death of a person, the clearing of land, planting, harvesting, and lately, national interreligious meetings and festivals such as Red Earth. The ceremonies have come to be called ‘smoke ceremonies’ as tobacco is blown out of a pipe, but the focus is connecting with the Creator (thanksgiving and prayers for guidance, permission, etc.). There has been increasing contact with First Peoples from other countries such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname and Belize (including Garifuna/Black Caribs, historically a mixture of St Vincent Arawaks, Caribs/Kalinagos and West Africans, and whose language is mainly Arawakan in origin). During gatherings in Trinidad and Tobago, with visitors from these nations, the ‘smoke’ and other ceremonies become multilingual. From these nations come a variety of languages used and heard in ceremonies and festivals here. The languages include Kalina, Lokono and Warao from the mainland countries, Patois (Kalinagos from Dominica and some Trinidadians), and Spanish (as in the case of a Community member from Lopinot). First nation Canadians have also come, and members of each ethnic group and nation are free to sing or pray in their own language at the gatherings.

Some members of the Santa Rosa First Peoples Community are interested in learning either Kalina or Lokono. Some members are keen on learning both Kalina and Lokono, whether through formalised classes here, or visits to the mainland or through contact with native speakers visiting or living in Trinidad and Tobago. Recently, while learning dances, some children have learned some songs in Guyanese Lokono, taught by Neville Govia, a Guyanese Lokono who practises and teaches carving and weaving at the Santa Rosa Centre.

While it is unlikely that there will ever be a new generation of native speakers of Kalina, Lokono or Warao born in Trinidad and Tobago, there is increasing awareness and sensitivity that the languages are all distinct and different from one another (as Russian is from English, for example), and that these languages are not to be over-generalised as Amerindian or referred to dismissively as mere “dialects”. The languages of the First Peoples continue to live on through important words, especially to do with the natural, spiritual world.

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