Friday, November 12, 2021

The Arawakan meaning of Cunucu

Q: Ok I have another Arawak question. There is a breed of dog called the Arubian Cunucu. Apparently this kind of dog was bred by Arawak people in the Caribbean Islands and the name Cunucu is supposed to mean "country" or "countryside" in the Arawak language, but I can't find any confirmation of that. Is it true?

A: "Cunucu" (also spelled a few other ways such as cunuco, conuco, kunuku, etc) is a local Caribbean word for a farming field or for anything rustic. However, there is no word like this in any Arawakan language we are aware of.

The best etymology I have heard suggested is that it comes from an African language. In Bantu languages of Africa, words like "kuna," "kunu," and "kukuna" mean to plant or sow, and -ko and -ku are common noun endings. There are many Afro-Caribbean people, and words of African origin have often become part of the languages of this region.

Hope that is interesting, have a good day!

Further reading

Arawak languages
Caribbean culture area

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Interested in using your artistic skills for a language project?

We are currently developing a new worksheet series, Members of the Family. For this project, we will need pictures of faces for a family tree-- so we are putting a call out for Native artists interested in drawing some for us!

Send us an email at if you are interested in working on this project. We need 12 faces, though we could probably be fine with 6 (male and female children, adults, and elders) as long as they have shirt or caps we could make different colors to tell the older and younger brothers apart and so on. :-)


Saturday, October 9, 2021

Blackfoot Numerals

Q: Thank you for your page about the Blackfoot alphabet. But I only see letters on the chart, not numbers. How do you write numbers in Blackfoot?

A:Using Arabic numerals, the same way English does-- 1234567890. Blackfoot, like most languages of the world, does not have its own numeral system.

The only indigenous culture of the Americas I know of which had developed a full numerical system of its own is the Maya civilization. Here is a link to the Mayan mathematical system, which uses Base 20 (as opposed to the Base 10 used by Arabic numerals.)

New symbols for base-10 numerals were developed for Cherokee and Inuktitut in post-colonial times, but most Cherokee and Inuit people continue to use the 1234567890 numerals even when they are writing words in their own scripts.

Q: If they didn't have numbers, does that mean they weren't able to count?

A: No. They had words for numbers ("one" is "ni't" in Blackfoot, "two" is "náátsi," "three" is nioókska," etc), just not special symbols for them. You don't need numerals to count, add or subtract-- only to do more complicated math, like the Arabs and Mayas did. Europeans didn't have a mathematical number system till the 12th century either, but of course they knew how to count and trade!

Many Native cultures kept track of numbers with tally marks, marking down the correct number of dots or lines and then counting them later. Some South American tribes, like the Incas, recorded numbers on a sort of abacus made of knotted strings, called "quipu" in Quechua. Here's a website about this innovative accounting system: Quipu, the ancient computer of the Inca civilization.

Hope that's interesting, have a good day!

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Arawakan meaning of Guajiro

 Q: On Wikipedia, it says that the Cuban word "guajiro" (which means a campesino or farmer and is the name of a certain style of Latin music) comes from an Arawak word meaning "lord" or "powerful man" but it says this is from an unreliable source. Can you confirm if it is true?

A: Yes, this is true. It comes from the Wayuu word "washirü," which means "rich" or "powerful" and was also used as a respectful way to address a man, like "sir." This word became the name of a Wayuu settlement in Colombia, whose name then became La Guajira in Spanish, and the Wayuu people (who are an Arawakan tribe) also became commonly known as Guajiros.

In Colombia, the word "Guajiro" can refer either to the indigenous Wayuu people, or to people of any ethnicity who live in the La Guajira region. In parts of the Caribbean, the word began to mean rural or rustic, and over time lost its association with Arawak or Indian people. In the well-known Cuban song whose refrain is "Guajira Guantanamera," that is not meant to suggest that the young lady is an Arawak, only that she is a country girl.

Hope that is interesting, have a good day!

Further reading
Wayuu language

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Cahuilla for Grandmother

Q: My mother comes from the Cahuilla tribe and I am expecting my first child, I would like to know the word for "grandmother" for my son or daughter to call her.

A: Congratulations! The answer depends on whether you are male or female. Children call their maternal grandmother (mother's mother) Tuutu in Cahuilla (pronounced too-too) and their paternal grandmother (father's mother) is Kaaka (pronounced kah-kah.)

Hope that helps, have a good day!

Further reading
Cahuilla language
Cahuilla culture

Monday, July 26, 2021


Q: Do you recognize the (Penobscot?) word Kiwa’kwe, documented by Frank G. Speck? It was the name of a game children played about a man-eating ogre, and, I understand, the ogre's name.

A: Yes, this is a man-eating ice giant of Wabanaki folklore. It is spelled many different ways such as Giwakwa, Kee-wakw, Kiwahq, etc. The reason for all the spelling
variations is that the Wabanaki languages were traditionally unwritten. At the time Frank Speck wrote his book, there wasn't any standardized Penobscot alphabet. In the modern Abenaki-Penobscot spelling system, the word is spelled Giwakwa. Here's our online information about this legend: Giwakwa

Our Abenaki and Maliseet volunteers have also heard this was the name of a children's game, but it's not one they ever used to play so we couldn't tell you how it goes!

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Mohawk Diacritical Marks

Q: On your website you give the Mohawk word for "bear" as Ohkwa:ri. On another website it says the word is spelled Ohkwá:ri with an accent mark. Which is the right way for me to spell it and why?

A: Some Mohawk/Kanien'keha people use diacritical marks (accents over the vowels), and others do not. The accent mark doesn't indicate a difference in pronunciation, it just shows which syllable is stressed (usually the next to last syllable, as in this word.) The stressed syllable is normally pronounced with a rising tone in Mohawk--if it is pronounced with a falling tone the accent mark is written in reverse, like à.

Fluent Kanen'kehaka speakers don't need accent marks to know how to pronounce a word-- after all, there are no accent marks in English to show where the stress is for each word, even though syllable stress in English is much more irregular than in Mohawk. However, the accent marks can be a useful tool for language learners--perhaps we should add them to our site!

The colon, by the way, indicates that the vowel before it is long. Some older Mohawk people leave that off as well, so you should keep your eye out for vowel length when reading Mohawk.

Further reading:
Mohawk language
Mohawk orthography standardization project