In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arawak Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Monographs and Dissertations
  • Edited Collections
  • Articles and Book Chapters
  • South Arawak Languages

Linguistics Arawak Languages
Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0119


The Arawak family is the largest in South America, with about forty extant languages. Arawak languages are spoken in lowland Amazonia and beyond, covering French Guiana, Suriname, Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia, and formerly in Paraguay and Argentina. Wayuunaiki (or Guajiro), spoken in the region of the Guajiro peninsula in Venezuela and Colombia, is the largest language of the family. Garifuna is the only Arawak language spoken in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala in Central America. Groups of Arawak speakers must have migrated from the Caribbean coast to the Antilles a few hundred years before the European conquest. At least several dozen Arawak languages have become extinct since the European conquest. The highest number of recorded Arawak languages is centered in the region between the Rio Negro and the Orinoco. This is potentially a strong linguistic argument in favor of the Arawak protohome having been located there. The diversity of Arawak languages south of the Amazon in central Peru around the Rivers Purús and Madeira must have been greater in the past than it is now. The settlements of Arawak-speaking peoples south of the Amazon are believed to be of considerable antiquity. The Arawak family is also known as Maipure or Maipuran (based on Maipure, formerly spoken in Venezuela). The family got its name “Arawak” from the language known as Lokono Arawak, Arawak, or Lokono Dian (spoken in French Guiana, Guiana, Suriname, and Venezuela by about 2,500 people). The genetic unity of Arawak languages was first recognized by Father Gilij as early as 1783. The recognition of the family was based on a comparison of pronominal cross-referencing prefixes in Maipure, a now-extinct language from the Orinoco Valley, and in Mojo (or Ignaciano) from Bolivia. Problems still exist concerning internal genetic relationships within the family and possible genetic relationships with other groups. North Arawak languages appear to constitute a separate subgroup; so do Campa languages and Arawak languages of the Xingu region. The legacy of Arawak languages survives in many common English words, including hammock, hurricane, barbecue, iguana, maize, papaya, savanna, guava, and possibly tobacco. This article focuses only on the major and most significant works. There are at least an equal number of more minor studies on the languages of the Arawak family.

General Overviews

The Arawak family was first recognized by Gilij 1780–1784. The understanding of the family was refined by Brinton 1891 and von den Steinen 1886, which proposed to divide the family into Nu-Arawak and Ta-Arawak, based on the form of the first person subject and possessor prefix. Brinton 1891 renamed the family Arawak and offered further criteria for its genetic unity. Further studies and classifications include Adam 1890. Aikhenvald 2013 outlines migrations of the Arawak-speaking peoples.

  • Adam, Lucien. 1890. Trois familles linguistiques des bassins de l’Amazone et de l’Orénoque. Annales du Congrès International des Americanistes 7:489–496.

    An early approach to the classification of Arawak language family based on geographical distribution (that is, setting North Arawak languages off from the rest of the family).

  • Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2013. Amazonia: Linguistic history. In The Encyclopaedia of global human migration. Vol. 1. Edited by Immanuel Ness and Peter Bellwood, 384–391. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071

    A brief account of migrations and putative proto-home of Arawak-speaking groups, in the context of other Amazonian groups, based on linguistic and archaeological evidence available to date.

  • Brinton, Daniel G. 1891. The American race. New York: Hodges.

    This is an ethnographic description and an early attempt at linguistic classification of languages of North and South America based on available materials. It contains a concise description of the “Arawak stock” with a list of languages and a preliminary comparison and classification. Arawak languages in the Orinoco area are discussed separately.

  • Gilij, Filippo Salvatore. 1780–1784. Saggio di storia americana; o sia, storia naturale, civile e sacra dei regni, e delle provincie spagnuole di Terra-ferma nell’America Meridionale descrito del abate F. S. Gilij. 4 vols. Rome: Iluigi Perego.

    Volume 1, Della storia geografica, e naturale della provincia dell’Orinoco. Volume 2, De’ costumi degli Orinochesi. The first classificatory, and descriptive, approach to the languages of South America. In this groundbreaking book, the author establishes the unity of Arawak languages (via a comparison between the now-extinct Maipure, formerly spoken in Venezuela, and Mojo, or Ignaciano, an Arawak language of Bolivia; and also of Carib languages). This book has immense historical value.

  • Granberry, Julius, and Gary S. Vescelius. 2004. Languages of the pre-Columbian Antilles. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press.

    An up-to-date comprehensive study of languages and the reconstructed linguistic situation in the pre-Columbian Antilles, involving a few key Arawak languages such as Taino (now extinct) and its grammatical structures and lexical features.

  • von den Steinen, Karl. 1886. Durch Zentral-Brasilien: Expedition zur Erforschung des Schingú im Jahre 1884. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus.

    Karl von den Steinen was the first European to have visited the Xingu area and documented the four Arawak languages spoken there (Waurá, Mehinaku, Yawalapiti, and the now-extinct Kustenaú). This is a fascinating description of von den Steinen’s expedition accompanied by a comparative analysis of Arawak languages (based on state-of-the-art knowledge). Reissued in paperback, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.

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