Monday, October 5, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Honduras

A few months have passed since we looked at the languages of Guatemala and Ecuador, so today we're finally returning to the Americas to explore the linguistic diversity of Honduras.

The Official Language

Given its location, it should come as no surprise that the official language of Honduras is Spanish, just like most other countries in Central and South America. Spanish was first introduced to the area in the 1500s with the arrival of famous colonizers that included Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés.

Other Languages

While Spanish is the dominant language in Honduras and is spoken by the vast majority of the population, the country is also home to several other fascinating languages. The largest of Honduras' minority languages is Garifuna, a member of the Arawakan language family that is spoken by approximately 98,0000 Hondurans. Its lexicon is composed of loanwords from several languages, including Arawak, Carib, French, English, and Spanish.

Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, as seen from space.
Interestingly, the second most spoken minority language in Honduras is a dialect of English known as Bay Islands English. There are over 30,000 speakers of this dialect in Honduras, primarily living on the Bay Islands, a group of small islands off the northern coast of the country. English settlers first arrived on the islands in the 1700s, eventually leading to disputes with both Spain and the United States.

Two other prominent minority languages are Miskito and Mayangna, which are members of the Misumalpan langauge family. Miskito, spoken by about 29,000 Hondurans, is the largest language in this family, with over 150,000 additional native speakers in Nicaragua. Mayangna, also known as Sumu, is spoken by approximately 700 Hondurans.

Finally, there are the Pech, Tol, and Ch'orti' languages, which all have under 1,000 native speakers. Pech is a member of the Chibchan language family that is spoken by about 900 people in a few towns in Honduras, while Tol, also known as Jicaque, only has a few hundred speakers.

Ch'orti' is particularly interesting, since it is considered to be a direct descendant of the Maya language that was used to make most of the civilization's famous inscriptions. Due to its close connection to Classic Maya, it is often used to help decipher hieroglyphic writings left by the Maya. Sadly, it is nearly extinct in Honduras since the government has discouraged the use of native languages. However, there are over 30,000 native speakers of Ch'orti' in Guatemala, which has a much more inclusive linguistic policy.