Voices of Spirit and Blood: Garifuna Language Endangerment

Broach, Alison, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Danziger, Eve, Anthropology, University of Virginia

Languages around the world are being lost at an alarming rate. While this is relatively common knowledge, the sociocultural situations of endangerment and their impact on communities remain largely unknown. As ethnographic research about endangered languages consistently shows, “researchers and communities must come to understand what is happening to the speakers, not just what is happening to the language” (Granadillo and Orcutt-Gachiri 2011:3). This dissertation takes that claim seriously by exploring the effects of and reactions to language shift in the Livingston, Guatemala Garifuna community.

The Garifuna language is an indigenous Arawakan language, spoken by Garifuna people who trace their origins to the mixture of West African and indigenous Island Carib peoples on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent during the seventeenth century. Today’s Garifuna Nation spans Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States, as well as St. Vincent. Garifuna language loss is occurring across this transnational community. There is also an unseen population who are profoundly troubled by language loss—deceased Garifuna ancestors who are active members of Garifuna family networks. These exclusively Garifuna-speaking ancestors communicate with living kin through spirit possession and in dreams.

Understanding language endangerment among Garifuna people is therefore a matter of learning how language is involved with Garifuna kinship and spirituality. In this work, I discuss ways that language is ontologically placed in the spiritual and physical makeup of the Garifuna person as it relates to kinship. I find that the experiences and language of Garifuna ancestors reside in the blood, bones, and spirit of descendants. According to elders, the growing lack of Garifuna fluency among youth threatens to fracture the crucial relations between the living and the dead—relationships upon which the entire Garifuna world and identity rely. I show how Garifuna efforts to revitalize language utilize this logic, and also how the practices that sustain the connection between language, spirituality, and kinship drive revitalization in unexpected ways. In particular, observations of ways that youth employ language suggest that Garifuna language use is emerging in new situations and forms. In these contexts, spirituality and language are woven onto contemporary social landscapes in ways that appear to draw from, but not necessarily replicate, the very spirituality that elders point to as threatened. This is especially true of song as it is currently being employed by the younger generation through popular Garifuna music.

The details I have selected for this work demonstrate the importance of recognizing the particular social role that the Garifuna language plays as a connective force between the living and the dead. It reflects a recent move among scholars and language revitalization activists which insists that each language endangerment situation is culturally distinct, and that the specific cultural features of each case should guide the form of maintenance programs (Dobrin 2008; Nevins 2004).

Dobrin, Lise. 2008. From Linguistic Elicitation to Eliciting the Linguist: Lessons in Community Empowerment from Melanesia. In Language 84(2):300-324.

Granadillo, Tania and Heidi A. Orcutt-Gachiri. 2011. Introduction. In Ethnographic Contributions to the Study of Endangered Languages. Granadillo and Orcutt-Gachiri, eds. Pp. 1-12. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.

Nevins, Elinor. 2004. Learning to Listen: Coming to Terms with Conflicting Discourses of 'Language Loss' among the White Mountain Apache. In Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14(2):269-88.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
language endangerment, kinship, ancestors, revitalization, Garifuna, Guatemala
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: