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bulletFAQS > Section I: Caribbean Stuff

Political Divisions

Q1. What are the countries of the Caribbean (a.k.a. the West Indies, and the Antilles)?

A. Of the 51 countries or separate political entities of the Americas, 31 (over 50%) belong to the Caribbean, in both the archipelago and on the American mainland, or rimlands, to use Richard Allsopp's term. They are arranged below on the basis of official language.

    List A.1 - Countries of the Caribbean

    Dutch-official (5) (N = Netherlands)
      • Aruba
      • Curaçao
      • Sint Maarten (also English-official)
      • the Dutch Caribbean: Bonaire, Saba and Statia (Sint Eustatius) (N)
      • Suriname

    English-official (19) (BWI below = British West Indies)

      • Anguilla (BWI)
      • Antigua & Barbuda
      • The Bahamas
      • Barbados
      • Belize
      • Bermuda
      • British Virgin Islands, or BVI (BWI)
      • Cayman Islands (BWI)
      • Dominica
      • Grenada
      • Guyana
      • Jamaica
      • Montserrat (BWI)
      • St. Kitts-Nevis
      • St. Lucia
      • St. Vincent & the Grenadines
      • Trinidad & Tobago
      • Turks & Caicos Islands (BWI)
      • U.S. Virgin Islands, or USVI (USA)

    French-official (4) (F = France)

      • Haiti/Haïti
      • French Guiana/Guyane Française (F)
      • Guadeloupe (F)
      • Martinique (F)

    Spanish-official (3)

      • Cuba
      • Dominican Republic/República Dominicana (D.R.)
      • Puerto Rico (USA (also English-official)
      • .

    Figure 1

Q2. What is the political status of these territories?

A. The majority are independent (including four republics — Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Trinidad & Tobago), 5 are colonies of Great Britain (BWI), 5 belong to the Netherlands (N), and 3 are overseas departments (départements d'outre-mer) of France (F).

Q3. Are Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador considered part of the Caribbean?

A. Yes, they are part of the continental or Greater Caribbean. They are traditionally seen as part of Latin America (to which the insular Hispanic territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic also belong).

These eight Spanish-speaking countries are not traditionally included in the above listing (A.1) of Caribbean countries. List A.1 includes the physical islands of the archipelago (regardless of language affiliation), and the four "linguistic islands" (English, French and Dutch) in an Iberian "sea." (Latin America should really be called Iberian America, since although French is also a Latin language, French Guiana is not included in Latin America.) The four non-Iberian continental "islands" are Belize in Central America, and Guyana, Suriname and Guyane (French Guiana) in South America. (Note that Spanish is also spoken in English-official Belize.)

South and Central America are often thought to be synonymous with Latin America, but they are not. Trinidad, for example, is geologically part of both the Caribbean and South America, but ceased to belong to Latin America upon British takeover in 1797–1802.

The Association of Caribbean States ( ACS-AEC ) includes as member states most territories whose shores are washed by the Caribbean Sea. Included also are El Salvador on the Pacific side of Central America, and France because of its three overseas Départements ("departments") in the Caribbean and South America. (The USA is not included, although southern Florida — especially Miami — has strong cultural connections with the anglophone, francophone, hispanophone and créolophone Caribbean, and Georgia and the Carolinas share strong historical and sociolinguistic ties with the English-speaking Caribbean, and Louisiana with the French-speaking Caribbean.)

Bermuda is not part of the Caribbean due to its location in the Atlantic, but is sometimes included in a listing of Caribbean countries because of common historical links with the Caribbean islands.

Pre-Colombian Amerindians, including those who gave their name to the region, no doubt had their own worldview and way of organising their world.

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Q4. Which are the Greater Antilles and which are the Lesser Antilles?

A. The Greater Antilles comprise Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. The Lesser Antilles comprise the Leeward Islands , the Windward Islands , and Trinidad & Tobago. Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and Turks & Caicos to the north, and the ABC Islands to the south do not belong to any of these groupings.

Q5. Which are the Leeward Islands and which are the Windward Islands?

A. The Windward Islands comprise Grenada, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Martinique, and also Barbados. The Leeward Islands comprise Dominica (which was sometimes grouped with the Windwards), Guadeloupe and her dependencies (St. Martin, Marie-Galante and St.Barths), Montserrat, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Kitts-Nevis, Anguilla, the SSS Islands , and the Virgin Islands. The terms Windward and Leeward are also political terms.

The term Eastern Caribbean often refers to the nine-member Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) which share a common currency, the EC dollar (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Lucia, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and also Anguilla, and the BVI).

Q6. Which are the ABC Islands and the SSS Islands?

A. The ABC Islands of the Southern Caribbean comprise Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. The latter two belong to the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba is independent), as do the SSS Islands — Saba, Statia (Sint Eustatius), and Sint Maarten/Saint Martin — which are further to the north.

Q7. Is it 'on' Antigua or 'in' Antigua?

A. 'In Antigua', or 'on the island of Antigua', never 'on Antigua'. Similarly, one would say 'in Europe' or 'on the continent of Europe', but never 'on Europe'. It so happens that the country of (the Commonwealth of) Dominica, and the country of (the Commonwealth of) Australia to take another example, occupy the whole of their respective islands, whereas the country of Canada occupies part of the land mass of North America. Therefore, the capital of Roseau is in Dominica, the capital Canberra is in Australia, and the capital of Ottawa is in Canada. The same holds for other islands that are not (independent) countries, but places that you live in not on. Prepositions are small but powerful words.

Q8. Where can I get a map of the Caribbean?

A. Search for Caribbean maps at Expedia or Google Maps. Also see Creole language maps.


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Names and Pronounciations

Q9. What are the names of the nationalities of the peoples of the Caribbean (in English), and how are they pronounced?

See Table 2 below. (See Table 2 also for some of the reputedly original indigenous (Amerindian) names of CARIBbean territories. Linguistic origins are specified where possible.

Go to Montray Kréyol for an article in French on indigenous names in the Caribbean, "Du nom indigène des îles de l’archipel des Antilles," by Thierry L'Etang).

Select Phonemic Guide (with reference to one variety of English, i.e., Trinidadian):

/j/ as in 'yes'
/ŋ/ as in 'sing'
/ʃ/ as in 'ship'

/a/ as in 'bat'
/ɑ/ as in 'bath'
/e/ as in 'bait'
/i/ as in 'bean'
/ɪ/ as in 'bit'
/ɒ/ as in 'bottle'
/ɜ/ as in 'burn'
/ʌ/ as in 'but'


Table 2






Anguillans /aŋˡgwɪlʌnz/

Malliouhana or Malliohana (Arawak)

Snakelike or Arrow-Shaped Sea Serpent

Antigua (see Barbuda)

Antiguans /anˡtigʌnz/

Waladli or Wadadli (Carib), also Yarmuaqui (Arawak, for Canoe Island)

Land of Fish Oil



probably Arawakan

if Arawak, Oibubai (Guide), if Carib, Ora (Shell) + Oubao (Island)

The Bahamas

Bahamians /bəˡhemiʌnz/

could be a Lucayan name

not known


Barbadians /bɑˡbediʌnz/ * or /bɑrˡbediʌnz/ , often shortened to Bajans

not known

not known

Barbuda (see Antigua)

Barbudans /bɑˡbjudʌnz/ * or /bɑrˡbjudʌnz/

Wa'omoni (Redonda's name was Ocanamanrou)

not known



not known

not known


Bermudans /bɜˡmjudʌnz/ * or /bɜrˡmjudʌnz/

not known

not known

Bonaire (NA)


possibly Bonay (Arawak)

Low Country

British Virgin Islands

British Virgin Islanders

not known, various islands

not known

Carriacou (see Grenada)



Land of Many Reefs

Cayman Islands

Cayman Islanders


Marine Crocodile


Cubans / cubanos

Cubanacan (Taino)

Centre Place

Curaçao (NA)


also Caiquetio, name of people

name of people


DomiNIcans /dɒmɪˡnikʌnz/

Wai'tukubuli (Carib)

Tall is her Body

Dominican Republic/República Dominicana

DoMINicans / dominicanos /doˡmɪnɪkʌnz/


Mountainous Land

French Guiana

French Guianese/guyanais


Land of Many Waters

Grenada (see Carriacou)

Grenadians /grɪˡnediʌnz/

Camerhogue or Camerhogne

not known

The Grenadines (see St. Vincent)

various islands

various islands

not known


Guadeloupeans / guadeloupéens


Island of Beautiful Waters




Land of Many Waters


Haitians /ˈheʃʌnz/ / haïtiens

Ayiti or Quisqueya

Mountainous Land



Xaymaca (Arawak)

Land of Wood and Water


Martiniquans / martiniquais

Joanacaera, sometimes Madinina

Island of Flowers


Montserratians /mɒntsɪˈraʃʌnz/


Land of the Prickly Bush

Nevis (see St. Kitts)

Nevisians /niˈvɪʃʌnz/


Land of Beautiful Water

Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans / puertoriqueños / puertorriquenos

Boriken or Borinquen

Land of the Mighty Lord

Saba (NA)

Sabans /ˈsebʌnz/

Siba (Arawak) or Amonhana (Arawak)

Rock (Arawak), not known

St.-Barthélemey (FWI)


Ouanalao (Arawak)

not known

Sint Eustatius or Statia (NA)

Statians /ˈsteʃʌnz/

Aloi (Arawak)

Cashew Tree

St. Kitts (see Nevis)

Kittians /kɪˈtɪʃʌnz/

Liamugua or Liamuiga

Fertile Land

St. Lucia

St. Lucians /sentˈluʃʌnz/ , often shortened to Lucians

Hewanorra (Arawak) or Iyanola

Land of the Iguana

St.-Martin/Sint Maarten (FWI/NA)


Oualichi (Arawak)

not known

St. Vincent (see the Grenadines)

Vincentians, (sometimes Vincelonians). The former is pronounced /vɪnˈsɛntʃʌnz/

Hairoun (Carib)

Island of the Blessed




name of people

Tobago (see Trinidad)

Tobagonians /təbeˡgoniʌn/ — Trinbagonians for both. (Note that the Concise Oxford (10th ed., rev ed., 2002) pronunciation /təˡbeɪgʌn/ for Tobagonian is an error. Tobagan is an archaic version of Tobagonian.)

Tobago (See Arie Boomert's article, "Names of Tobago" .)

Tobacco Pipe

Trinidad (see Tobago)

Trinidadians /trɪnɪˡdadiʌnz/ , often shortened to Trinis — Trinbagonians for both (see below)

Kairi or Iere

Island, or Land of the Hummingbird

Turks & Caicos Islands

Turks & Caicos Islanders

Turks — from Turk's Head cactus, and Caicos — Cayo hico (Lucayan name)

String of Islands

U.S. Virgin Islands

U.S. Virgin Islanders

not known, various islands

not known


Here are some general pronunciation rules.

Tobago is pronounced like 'sago', 'plumbago' and 'winnebago'. Here's a limerick of interest:

There was an old man of Tobago,
Who lived on rice, gruel and sago
Till, much to his bliss,
His physician said this —
"To a leg, sir, of mutton you may go."
(Edward Lear's Limericks 1812—1888)

Like the 'a' in Tobago, the second 'a' in Barbados and the first 'a' in Grenada are pronounced /e/, as in 'bay' and 'neigh'. The second 'a' in Bahamas is pronounced /ɑ/ as in 'father', but /e/ in Bahamian (the 'a' in Trinidad /a/, as in 'bat', remains the same in Trinidad and Trinidadian, though some Trinidadians are known to say /trɪnɪˡdediʌnz/, like TriniDAYdians).

The last syllable in Haitian, St. Lucian, Vincentian, Kittitian, Montserratian and Nevisian is pronounced /ʃʌn/.

* In terms of numbers of Caribbean nations, most speak non-rhotic varieties of English — Trinidad & Tobago, the Windward Islands, and most of the Leeward Islands. (Rhotic — from the Greek letter 'rho', transliterated as 'r' in English — refers to varieties of English that pronounce the /r/ at the end of a syllable, or after a vowel.) However, in terms of actual numbers of speakers, it can be said that the majority of Caribbean speakers of English speak semi-rhotic or fully rhotic dialects of English, since most come from Jamaica (2.3 million people), Antigua, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, and Guyana.

Q10. Do Caribbean people call themselves "Caribbeans"?

A. No, they don't. It is an archaic or obsolete use of the word in modern Caribbean English. As a proper noun, the word "Caribbean" is reserved for the geographic region of the Caribbean. It is used as an adjective for both people and things Caribbean, hence 'a Caribbean woman' and 'Caribbean people'. It would sound decidedly odd to Caribbean ears to say "I'm a Caribbean living in the Caribbean" or "We are Caribbeans living in the Caribbean." 'Caribbean' is never used as a noun by Caribbean people in the Caribbean to describe or refer to themselves, and is in fact considered strange, and/or viewed negatively as non-standard usage. Similarly, one would say 'an Englishman' and 'English people', but never 'an English' or 'Englishes' (for people, although the latter is a neologism used in reference to varieties of English). Anglophone Caribbean people call themselves 'West Indians' or 'Caribbean people'; francophone Caribbean people call themselves 'antillais'; hispanophone Caribbean people call themselves 'caribeños', and Dutch-speaking Caribbean people call themselves 'Caraïbisch' or 'Antillean' in English (this is subject to correction!). We have many names. Gilberto Freyre had a great deal to say on naming oneself and being named.

Q11. Is it 'CaRIBbean' or 'CaribBEan'?

A. Both. Anglophone Caribbean people say either one or the other or both, sometimes both in one sentence. The British tend to say /karɪˡbiʌn/ 'CaribBEan', and Americans tend to say /kəˡrɪbiʌn/ 'CaRIBbean'.

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Q12. How many living languages are there in the world today?

A. According to the, there are approximantely 6,912 living languages in the world today. See the Ethnologue Introduction, and the problem of language identification. See also the LSA article How Many Languages Are There in the World? and other interesting FAQs on language and language-related topics.

Q13. How many languages are spoken in the Caribbean today?

A. According to the, there are at least 59 living languages spoken in the Caribbean today, including 4 endangered or nearly extinct languages.


Figure 2

Most of these 59 languages are not spoken in the insular Caribbean, but in the continental Caribbean, which here includes Central American Belize and the three South American Guyanas, but not the rest of the greater Caribbean: Colombia, Venezeula, and the five Caribbean Central American countries. Including these countries would add 155 indigenous Amerindian (of diverse families), 4 creole languages, 2 immigrant languages, and 5 sign languages to the number below.

The 59 languages include:

    • 22 indigenous Amerindian languages (10 Carib, including Carib, 7 Arawak, 2 Tupi, 3 Mayan), all spoken in the continental Caribbean
    • 5 European languages
    • 21 creole languages (15 English-lexicon, 4 French-lexicon, 1 Iberian-lexicon, and 1 Dutch-lexicon, on the verge of extinction), mostly in the insular Caribbean
    • 4 immigrant languages that came with their speakers during the mid-19th century, post-emancipation
    • 4 sign languages, and 3 unclassified languages.

Creole languages include Haitian Kreyol, St. Lucian Kwéyòl, Papiamentu, Antiguan Creole, Belize Kriol, Jamaican Creole/Patois, Guyanese Creolese, Vincentian Creole, and Berbice Dutch (on the verge of extinction). The post-emancipation languages are Bhojpuri, Javanese, Hakka, and Yoruba. (See below for other languages that were spoken in the West Indies in the past.)

See The Ethnologue.

Q14. What is an 'endangered language'?

A. Check out the SIL pages, as well as our Links page for more info.

Q15. How many languages were spoken in the Caribbean in times past?

A. There were several Amerindian, European, African, Asian and Caribbean creole languages, many of which are no longer spoken in the region.

Some have disappeared altogether, such as Taino, Island Carib (an Arawakan language), Yao, and other indigenous Amerindian languages. Arawak languages related to Taino and Island Carib continue to be spoken in Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua (Garífuna or Black Carib), Venezuela (Paraujano), and Colombia (Wayuu).

Other languages have also disappeared, including colonial European languages such as Danish; African languages such as Twi, Ewe-Fon, Hausa and Kikongo; creole languages such as Negerhollands and Skepi Dutch Creole; and more recent immigrant languages such as Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese, German, and Arabic. Of the latter group, Portuguese and Arabic are disappearing slowly but surely, and Bhojpuri, to a lesser extent. These languages are mostly obsolescent, as the majority of their remaining speakers are bilingual and fluent speakers of their country's official and national and vernacular languages.

Q16. Which Caribbean language has the majority of speakers?

A. Spanish, with over 22 million speakers, mostly in the Greater Antilles, followed by French and French Creole (over 8 million speakers of mostly French Creole), English and English Creole (over 6 million speakers, mostly in the Lesser Antilles), and Dutch (about half a million speakers).


Figure 3

Spanish is spoken mainly in four (4) territories, including Belize, and also in the ABC islands off Venezuela. The ABC islands are home to Papiamentu, an Iberian creole (mainly Portuguese vocabulary, with more and more influence from Spanish).

English is spoken in at least twenty (20) territories, including Puerto Rico and St. Martin/Sint Maarten. Four English-lexicon creoles are spoken in Dutch-official Suriname.

French-lexicon creoles (called Patois especially in the anglophone, and also the francophone, territories) are spoken in seven insular territories and four continental territories. The former include Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Lucia and Trinidad, all former French territories (except for Trinidad which, though not politically colonised by France, was socioculturally influenced by the French and French Creoles). The four continental territories include French Guiana, Brazil, the USA (Louisiana) and Venezuela (through contact with Trinidadians and St. Lucians). Guyana also has a fair number of French Creole-speaking communities of St. Lucian origin.

Q17. How many creole languages are spoken in the Caribbean today?

A. There are almost as many creole languages as there are islands and territories, and possibly more, depending on the definition and delineation of different dialects of the creoles. There are, however, no creole languages to be found in the insular Hispanic Caribbean, only Palenquero in the continental Caribbean, namely Colombia. The following chart shows the number of creole languages of the Caribbean, insular and continental (including Karipúna/Galibi and Amapá French Creole of Brazil, and Venezuelan French Creole), according to the


Figure 4


Q18. Do all English, French and Dutch-speaking Caribbean people speak a creole as a mother tongue?

A. No, this is a stereotype. There are significant Caribbean-born minorities that do not speak a creole language as a mother tongue and/or second language, though members of these groups may be either a) quite proficient in the variety of their territory according to the situation and context, or b) passive bilinguals. The vast majority of West Indians in anglophone, francophone and Dutch-speaking islands do speak the creole language of their territory as a mother tongue, and these Creole speakers may or may not be fluent in the official language of their territory.

Most Caribbean varieties of English are as old as Early Modern English, the period in the history of English (1500-1700) when Modern English began to undergo standardisation. These varieties of English belong more to the 'inner circle' than the 'outer circle' by Crystal's definition (Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language), but the situation is probably much more complex than this. Up to the 1960s, since anglophone Caribbean territories began to gain independence from 1962 onward, most varieties of Caribbean English were identified with British English, because of politics, and despite linguistic differences (some conservative, some progressing in different directions). They have been distinct from modern British English for a long time, some as long as American English has been distinct from British English, others not quite as old. (Antiguan and Barbadian English, in fact, contributed to the development of some varieites of southern U.S. English.) Over four decades later, it is clear that these varieties of English in the Caribbean are separate standards, differing from each other and from non-Caribbean varieties mainly at the levels of phonology and lexicon. At the orthographic level, Commonwealth spelling is still preferred.

Linguistic situations of the Caribbean are, like most language situations around the world, quite complex. It is difficult to say who is monolingual, bilingual, monodialectal, bidialectal, etc., in strict terms. There are also issues of non-standard varieties of English co-existing with English-lexicon creoles and standard varieties of English. While English-lexicon creoles and standard dialects of English may seem to be quite different from each other (in aspects of phonology and grammar), both varieties share a great deal with non-standard dialects of English! In referring to English, many substitute "Standard" or "the Standard," but English is far more than just one standardised variety.

A term such as Guyanese English refers to the English (usually standard) of that territory, not the creole language.

Q19. Where can I get a creole language map of the Caribbean?

A. See SIL's Caribbean Creole Language Maps, prepared by SIL and SCL members Ken Decker and David Holbrook. More language maps to come. Of interest is the Atlas of the Languages of Suriname, by Eithne B. Carlin and Jacques Arends (Ian Randle Publishers, 2003).

Q20. What are the origins of Caribbean creole languages?

A. See below for a discussion on creoles. (More to come on the history of language contact in the Caribbean.)

Q21. What is the working language of the SCL?

A. English by default, because the majority of our members are native anglophones or fluent in English. All of our publications (so far) are in English. However, any one of the official Caribbean languages (Dutch, English, French, Haitian, Papiamentu and Spanish) is an official SCL language. Several papers have been presented in French at SCL conferences and one in Trinidad & Tobago Sign Language.


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FAQS written and compiled by Jo-Anne Ferreira,
Department of Liberal Arts, UWI, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago

(All graphs copyright © J.S. Ferreira)

Thanks to Lise Winer, Keith Laurence, Nicole Roberts, Mervyn Alleyne, Michèle Stewart, Rocky Meade, and Sonya Moze for comments and contributions. All other comments and contributions welcome.






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