Pre-Arawakan languages of the Greater Antilles
Several languages of the Greater Antilles, specifically Cuba and Hispaniola, appear to have preceded the Arawakan Taíno. Almost nothing is known of them, though a couple recorded words, along with a few toponyms, suggest they were not Arawakan or Cariban, the families of the attested languages of the Antilles. Three languages are recorded: Guanahatabey, Macoris (or Macorix, apparently in two dialects), and Ciguayo.
Guanahatabey has in the past been called “Ciboney”. The name is a misnomer. The Ciboney were an apparently Taíno population of the western Great Antilles, whose language is also unattested. A misreading of historical sources confused the Ciboney with the pre-Arawakan population of the islands.
There were three pre-Arawakan populations at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and they were extinct within a century. These were the Guanahatabey of western Cuba, the Macorix (Mazorij) in two populations, the Pedernales Peninsula and northeastern Hispaniola (modern Dominican Republic), and the Ciguayo (Siwayo) of northeastern Hispaniola (Samaná Peninsula). They were evidently completely mutually unintelligible with Taíno. Ciguayo and Macorix were apparently moribund when chronicler De las Casas arrived on the island in 1502. He wrote in his Historia (1527–1559),
- Es aquí de saber que un gran pedazo desta costa, bien más de 25 ó 30 leguas, y 15 buenas, y aún 20 de ancho, hasta las sierras que hacen desta parte del Norte la Gran Vega inclusive, era poblada de unas gentes que se llamaban mazoriges, y otras ciguayos, y tenían diversas lenguas de la universal de toda la isla. No me acuerdo si diferían éstos en la lengua, como ha tantos años, y no hay hoy uno ni ninguno a quien lo preguntar, puesto que conversé hartas veces con ambas generaciones, y son pasados ya más de cincuenta años
- “It’s worth noting here that a large section of this coast, at least 25 or 30 leagues, and a good 15 or maybe 20 wide, up to the hills which together with the Great Plain make up this part of the coast, was populated by peoples known as Mazorij, and others [known as] Ciguayos, and they had different languages than the one common to the entire island. I don’t remember if they differed [from each other] in language, as it’s been many years, and there is not a single person today to ask, as I’ve spoken often enough with both generations, and more than 50 years have passed.”
However, elsewhere he notes that the neighboring languages were not intelligible with each other,
- Tres lenguas habia en esta Isla distintas, que la una á la otra no se entendía; la una era de la gente que llamábamos del Macoríx de abajo, y la otra de los vecinos del Macoríx de arriba, que pusimos arriba por cuarta y por sexta provincias; la otra lengua fué la universal de toda la tierra,
- “Three language on this island [of Hispaniola] were distinct, in that they could not understand one another; the first was that of the people [of the region] we called the lower Macorix, and the other that of their neighbors of the upper Macorix [the Ciguayos], which we described above as the 4th and 6th provinces; the other language was the universal one of all the land [Taíno]”.
Little else is known of the languages apart from the word for gold in Ciguayo, tuob, mentioned in the sentence immediately preceding the first passage above:
- Aquí no llamaban caona al oro como en la primera parte desta isla, ni nozay como en la isleta de Guanahaní o San Salvador, sino tuob.
- “Here they don’t call gold caona as in the first part of this island, nor nozay as in the islet of Guanahani or San Salvador, but tuob.”
Tuob, whether two syllables or one ([tu.ob] or [twob]), is not a possible Taíno word. Both the Arawak and Carib languages had a simple CV-syllable structure, suggesting that Ciguayo was not just unintelligible, but actually of a different language family than the two known languages of the Caribbean. Granberry (1991) has speculated that they may have been related, not to the languages of South America as Taíno was, but to languages of Central America which had more similar syllable structures. Western Cuba is close enough to the Yucatán Peninsula for there to have been crossings by canoe at the time of the Conquest.
From Ciguayo we also have a proper name Quisqueya (Kiskeya), and from Macorix a negative form, baeza. The Guanahani Taino (Ciboney in the proper sense) word for gold, nozay, elsewhere spelled nuçay (nosai, nusai), may be of Warao origin, as the Warao word for gold is naséi simo ‘yellow pebble’. However, trade words like ‘gold’ are readily borrowed.
- Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias, 1986 edition, vol. 1, chap. LXVII.
Transcribed in the 1875 edition  as, Aquí no llaman caona al oro como en la primera parte desta isla, ni nozay como en la isleta de Guanahani ó Sant Salvador, sino tuob. Es aquí de saber, que un gran pedazo desta costa, bien más de 25 ó 30 leguas, y 15 buenas y áun 20 de ancho hasta las sierras que hacen, desta parte del Norte, la gran vega inclusive, era poblada de una gente que se llamaban mazoriges, y otras cyguayos, y tenian diversas lenguas de la universal de toda la isla. No me acuerdo si diferian estos en la lengua, como ha tantos años, y no hay hoy uno ni ninguno á quien lo preguntar, puesto que conversé hartas veces con ambas generaciones, y son pasados ya más de cincuenta años.
- Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias escrita, vol. 5, chap. CXCVII.
- Julian Granberry (1991): “Was Ciguayo a West Indian Hokan Language?”, International Journal of American Linguistics, 57:4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 514–519.
- Douglas Taylor, “Languages and Ghost-Languages of the West Indies”, in the International Journal of American Linguistics, 22:2 (April 1956).