In a recent discussion on the UCTP forum regarding the matter of the Taino language, it’s development and evolution came up. The particular word being discussed was “Tau” which has been used for several years now as a greeting among Taino online. No one seems to know where the word came from, nor how it developed into it’s present meaning, but, regardless of this lack, it has been, and continues to be used as a greeting in emails, IMs, forums and even in face to face conversations. This particular exchange mentioned the possibilities of finding another indigenous nation who may serve as an example to us and whom we may mold ourselves after with regards to the regrowth and revitalization of our culture, language and society. This is a marvelous idea in concept, but has left much to be desired in practice.
Early in the discussion, I shared the possibility of “tau” being a “neologism“, a word created by the many people that are now interested in the Taino language and are using as much of it as they know. With Taino being a dead language, there is really not that much out there. And if “tau” is, in fact, a neologism, I see it’s present use as an example of people rising to meet the challenges of Taino language revival. To me this is a positive move, for it shows the language has engendered a strong interest and cultural pride. We only have words left to us at this point in time but people are making it a point to use them, choosing the Taino word over English or Spanish, this is awesome!
However, my excitement was not shared. This response was answered instead with the exhortation that we follow the example of the Maori because they are also island people and have suffered the effects of colonization, as we have. The way they have been working on modernizing their language has not been by neologisms, but by protologisms; instead of the spontaneous evolution or creation of a word, it’s a deliberate, thought out invention of new words based on ideas and concepts that exist in the language already. This is done to maintain the world view of the people as well as to make sure that the elders can comprehend what these advances mean.
As lofty as the idea sounds, I cannot subscribe to it. Not taking anything away from the Maori, I believe they are an amazing people with an incredibly interesting culture and traditions, and they are working it! By the same token, they are very different from Tainos. Yes we are both island folk and we both suffered colonization but this is where the similarities end. And, in my opinion, these similarities are too superficial for us to follow their lead.
The Maori were invaded in the last part of the 18th century. At that time, Boriken had already been under Spanish rule over 300 years- we were already colonized by then. The Maori started signing European treaty traps in the 1840’s. The Spanish census of Puerto Rico in 1845 didn’t have the category “Indian”, so we were already being written out of history as well. By the end of the 1800’s the Maori were just wondering if they would survive assimilation, yet we were suffering the effects of a 2nd colonization and a 2nd death- we were no longer considered Jibaros, Criollos nor Boricuas, we were now labeled “Porto Ricans” by the American colonizers. While the Maori were still identified as Maori by both themselves and the colonizers the “Taino” only existed in hidden consciousness.
Consider also that the Maori were conquered by the British while the Caribbean was initially conquered by the Spanish. Although both these countries had been at war throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish clearly had the most experience in torture and brutality. The Spanish arrived to the Caribbean islands fresh out of the Reconquista, an 800 year war, and were in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition. England’s battles at that time, barely left their territories…
Our histories are nothing alike, and when it comes to language, the differences are even more obvious!
The Maori were speaking their language as a society up until the 1940’s or so. At this point in time they still have elders that grew up speaking Maori at home, in other words they still have natural speakers of the language. Maori was an active, viable language in the years our parents were born. So viable, they even had Maori newpapers! Some Maori chose to stop speaking their language because the elders saw an advantage for speaking the conquerors tongue. Their language has survived because there were Maori families that chose to continue speaking Maori at home regardless of what tribal consensus was. We never had this choice.
The Maori people sustained an unbroken chain of language throughout the centuries, from before European contact until today, 2009. Looking at other island people, Hawaii’s history is similar… they too, have had living speakers throughout the years. And considering both these languages survived centuries as living, spoken languages, one is hard pressed to believe that neither Maori nor Hawaiian survived all the efforts at cultural integration- both internal and external- without some measure of adaptation and change. I don’t discount the possibility, but personally, I find it highly unlikely.
This unbroken chain is not true for us, not in our history, nor our language.
In my opinion these differences are too deep for us to follow the Maori’s lead in cultural and language revival. Certain things that work in their favor will not work for us because they don’t exist in our reality. Our histories are different by over 3 centuries- almost 350 years of colonization- about 17 generations of assimilation and genocide. It makes a huge difference in the world view of a people. We suffered the effects of European colonization for a longer period of time. We lost more. We will need to adapt more, we will need to re-create more.
We cannot base ourselves so fully on the experiences of other Nations just because they are islanders, and suffered colonization as we did. Our history and our people are in a unique position, different from anything that has ever happened before. If we really want to seek out an indigenous society that is similar to ours, we need to look elsewhere.
If not, then we need to look into the possibilities we have at hand. We cannot grasp the past so hard we loose sight of the creative potential we were born with, and inhibit the re-emerging of our nation’s natural beauty.
(c) Anita “Nanu” Pagan, April 2009