The Languages spoken in Cuba
Cuba, known in official circles as the Republic of Cuba, is a nation situated on the Isla de la Juventud, as well as on several archipelagos in the Caribbean Sea. The capital of the country, and by far its largest city, is Havana, located approximately 225 miles from Miami, Florida. While Cuba is officially considered part of North America, its culture is definitely Latin American-based, a dichotomy that has made Cuba a very diverse nation on which many languages can regularly be heard.
Cuba, with whom the United States just recently began diplomatic relations, is the largest island in the Caribbean, and the second-most populous after Hispaniola, with over 11 million inhabitants. It is a multiethnic country whose people, culture and customs derive from diverse origins, including the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples, the long period of Spanish colonialism on the island, the introduction of African slave labor, and a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Although it fares poorly in metrics of political and economic freedom, Cuba is ranked very high in human development by the United Nations, and performs well in health and education.
Below we will discuss the various languages of Cuba, their origins, distribution and prevalence.
The Languages Spoken in Cuba: Introduction
Spanish, one of the romance languages, is the official language of socialist Cuba and the first language of approximately 90 percent of the population. Other languages that can be heard throughout the country include Haitian Creole, Lucumi, Galician and Corsican.
Although the official language of Cuba is Spanish, the socialist regime does not put forth a one language policy. Parliamentary debates are conducted in Spanish and there is no law concerning the linguistic policy in the constitution or in the Gaceta official de la Republica de Cuba. The Spanish spoken in Cuba is somewhat similar to that used in other Latin America countries. However, the Creole language has influenced and also enriched its vocabulary, coloring it by idiomatic expressions. Loan words of Indian, African and Amerindian origin are also present in Cuban Spanish. The African slaves have similarly contributed to develop the Cuban Spanish, giving it the intonation and accent that make Cuban speech what it is today.
Lucumi is a Yoruboid language of the Niger-Congo family. It is a secret language spoken in religious ceremonies only by the Santeria; a community of African slave descent, namely the Yoruba people, who have blended their native religious practices, values and beliefs with traditional Catholicism. Lucumi, unlike the Creole language spoken in Cuba, is a dead language; people don’t use it in the community to interact.
Creole is the first and second language of the Haitian Creole community or their descendants that migrated to Cuba, with most fleeing the Haitian revolution. Most of them live in Guantanamo, Matanzas and the City of Havana provinces. Creole language is a pidgin language, and the second most spoken language in Cuba. Developed out of necessity and for commercial purposes, thus the Europeans, indigenous people, and slaves communicated in Creole. A blending of the three continents, namely Africa, Europe and North America, is ever present in the Creole language.
Within the Cuban population more than 400, 000 speak fluently in Creole, while others understand and speak only rudimentary Creole. Classes in Creole are conducted in the provinces of Guantanamo, Matanzas and the city of Havana, where an important Haitian resident community and their descendants dwell. Creole is spoken in the Antilles Islands (Greater and Lesser Antilles) as well as in the Islands of the Indian Ocean, namely the Seychelles, Reunion and Mauritius Islands.
In around 1992, changes in the linguistic landscape of Cuba have been brought about by the dismantlement of the western block in that country. Today, Cuba has opened its frontiers to many other nations. Galician, Corsican, English, French, and other foreign languages are now being used in the tourism sector as a way to facilitate communication between foreigners (both investors and tourists) and Cubans.
About Cuban Spanish
Cuban Spanish is the variety of the Spanish language as it is spoken in Cuba. As a Caribbean language variety, Cuban Spanish shares a number of features with nearby varieties, including coda deletion, seseo, and /s/ debuccalization.
One of the most prominent features of Cuban Spanish is the debuccalization of /s/ in syllable coda. This trait is shared with most American varieties of Spanish spoken in coastal and low areas (Lowland Spanish), as well as with Canarian Spanish and the Spanish spoken in the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula.
In keeping with the socialist polity of the country, the term compañero/compañera ("comrade") is often used instead of the traditional señor/señora. Moreover, the Spanish of the eastern provinces (the five provinces comprising what was formerly Oriente Province) is closer to that of the Dominican Republic than to the Spanish spoken in the western part of the island.
Of all the regional variations of the Spanish language, traditional Cuban Spanish is most similar to, and originates largely from the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands of Spain. Cuba owes much of its speech patterns to the heavy Canarian migrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Migrations of other Spaniards into Cuba, such as the Galicians, Catalans, Basques, and Asturians, also occurred, although without as much influence as the islanders.
Much of the typical Cuban replacements for standard Spanish vocabulary stems from Canarian lexicon. For example, guagua ('bus') differs from standard Spanish autobús. The word guagua originated in the Canaries and is onomatopoeia stemming from the sound of a Klaxon horn. An example of Canarian usage for a Spanish word is the verb fajarse ('to fight'). In standard Spanish the verb would be pelearse, while fajar exists as a non-reflexive verb related to the hemming of a skirt.
Much of the vocabulary peculiar to Cuban Spanish comes from the different historic influences on the island. Many words come from the Canary Islands, but some words are of West African, French, or indigenous Taino origin, as well as peninsular Spanish influence from outside of the Canary Islands, such as Andalusian or Galician. American English has lent several words, including some for clothing, such as pulóver (which is used to mean "T-shirt") and chor ("shorts", with the typical Spanish change from English sh to ch).
When speaking to the elderly or to strangers, Cubans sometimes speak more formally as a sign of respect. They shake hands upon both greeting and saying farewell to someone. Men often exchange friendly hugs (abrazos) and it is also common for both men and women to greet friends and family with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Cubans tend to speak familiarly: informalities like addressing a stranger with mi corazón ("my heart"), mi vida ("my life"), or cariño ("dear") are common. Mi amor ("my love") is used, even between strangers, when at least one of them is a woman (for example when being served in a shop). Cubans are less likely to use the formal second person singular pronoun usted when speaking to a stranger, elder or superior. The familiar tú is considered acceptable in all but very formal situations; regular use of the usted form can be seen by some Cubans as an affectation or a mark of coldness.
Minority Languages in Cuba
In addition to the Cuban form of Spanish, which again is spoken by approximately 90 percent of the population, there are a few minority languages that can often be heard throughout the country, including Haitian Creole, Lucumi, Galician and Corsican.
Haitian Creole, often called simply Creole or Kreyòl, is a French-based form of Creole and is one of Haiti's two official languages, along with French. The word Creole is of Latin origin via a Portuguese term that means a "person (especially a servant) raised in one's house." It first referred to Europeans born and raised in overseas colonies, but later was used to refer to the language as well. Haitian Creole is spoken by about 9.6–12 million people worldwide, including some 400,000 people in Cuba, who use it either as a first or second language. Haitian Creole is the first language of 90–95% of Haitians. It is a Creole language based largely on 18th-century French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, Taíno, and West African languages Haitian Creole emerged from contact between French settlers and African slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now the Republic of Haiti). As of 2008, Haitians were the largest Creole-speaking community in the world.
Haitian Creole developed in the 17th and 18th centuries on the western third of Hispaniola in a setting that mixed native speakers of various Niger–Congo languages with French colonizers. In the early 1940s, under President Élie Lescot, attempts were made to standardize the language. Lescot brought in two American linguistic experts, Frank Laubach and H. Ormonde McConnell, to develop a standardized Creole orthography. Although some regarded the orthography highly, it was generally not well received among people on the islands. Its orthography was standardized in 1979. That same year Haitian Creole was elevated in status by the Act of 18 September 1979. The Institut Pédagogique National established an official orthography for Kreyòl, and slight modifications were made over the next two decades.
Lucumí is a Yoruba dialect and the liturgical language of Santería in Cuba It is sometimes known simply as Yorùbá.
In terms of origin, Yoruba is the mother tongue of millions who live in the Western Region of Nigeria and adjoining areas. Their language was first written by Christian missionaries in the early part of the nineteenth century. Yoruba has certain regional dialects but a generally accepted “Standard Yoruba” is being taught in schools and is found in books. There are two slightly different forms of Standard Yoruba; one that corresponds to the Oyo province and the other is associated with Lagos.
Yoruba is a tone language. It has three tones similar to the Chinese language: high, mid tone, low. There is no grammatical gender in traditional Yoruba (ó=he/she/it).
The Yoruba language known as Lucumi in Cuba presents a different challenge for speakers and linguists. Yoruba slaves in Cuba had no possible access to colonial schools or books from Christian missionaries. Therefore, the language inherited in Cuba is the traditional oral speech and its regional variables tend to differ from the Yoruba spoken on the homeland.
Today Lucumi is used mostly in religious services, but it is seldom used outside of the Santeria practices.
Like Spanish, Galician, which is also known as Galician-Portuguese, is a romance language. It originated in Galicia at the beginning of the Middle Ages, and was carried by the Christian conquerors outwards to present day Portugal. The first literary and notary texts using the language date from the 12th century. In the second half of the 14th century, after producing a splendid body of literature, the language split into Galician and Portuguese, for historical and political reasons.
It was the War of Independence against Napoleon, and even more the ensuing struggles between absolutists and liberals, that encouraged a certain literary renaissance of Galician language, especially of a political nature, with pieces in verse and dialogues or prose speeches, which are of interest today from the standpoint of the history of the language and the society of the region. However, the true renaissance did not come until half-way through the 19th century, especially via poetry. It became the co-official language of Galicia in 1981 but it is also spoken in areas of Asturias and Castile-Leon.
Today, nearly two million people speak Galician, including several thousand in the country of Cuba.
Corsican is also a Romance language spoken by about 341,000 people worldwide. Most of the speakers live in Corsica, though there are also speakers in Paris and Marseilles, as well as in countries like Bolivia, Canada, Cuba, Italy, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, the USA and Venezuela. Corsican has no official status in Corsica and French is the official language there.
Corsican is closely related to Italian, particularly to the dialect of Tuscany, and there is considerable mutual intelligibility between these languages. Corsican is essentially an oral language and, as a result, there is considerable regional variation, particularly between the north and south of Corsica.
Corsican first appeared in writing towards the end of the 19th century though the spelling system wasn't standardized until the 1970s. An orthography proposed by linguists P. Marchetti and D. Geronimi was generally accepted, though it isn't always followed. In older Corsican texts there is considerable variation in spelling.
Corsican is used at all levels of education in Corsica. In most cases it is taught as a subject but a few schools use it as a medium of instruction alongside French. Corsican courses for adults are widely available throughout Corsica, as well as in some cities on the French mainland.
An increasing number of books are now published in Corsican annually. There are also a number of Corsican language magazines, often sponsored or produced by political parties or cultural associations, and an increasing number of theatre companies
Corsican is only spoken by a very small minority of Cubans, usually as a second language alongside Spanish.
Click on one of the following links to learn more about the culture, language, education, health & safety, economy, government, history, religion, gastronomy, visas, local services, climate, locations in Cuba.