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A crash course on the Miskitu language as an inroad to a culture

Laura Sauls*

By Inter-American Foundation on Comment

Hugging the Caribbean coast of western Honduras into eastern Nicaragua, the Muskitia has long been a storied region. Its rich and conflict-laden history has given the region many names — Muskitia, La Mosquitia or even The Mosquito Coast, like the Paul Theroux novel. For hundreds of years, its jungles have remained shrouded in mystery from the outside world, a place where rogue slaves and renegade buccaneers could disappear. One of the IAF’s Grassroots Fellowship recipients for 2016-2017 is conducting research in Nicaragua and Honduras, where she is learning to navigate not only this historic land, but also the language of the Miskitu people.


My first interaction in the Miskitu language in nearly five months caught me a little off guard. I had met up for coffee with one of my language instructors from summer 2016 – he’s a medical student in the Nicaraguan capital city of Managua – and he immediately launched into Miskitu:

Instructor: Naksa Laura! Nahki sma ki?
Me: Ummmm…pain! Pain sna! An man?
Instructor: [to me incomprehensible Miskitu]….me entiendes?
Me: Apia!

For those wondering, the brief passage above makes it clear that I’m still a beginner. However, I was pretty pleased to be able to respond to the first question in Miskitu since a six-week introductory program! Here’s the conversation recap:

Instructor: Hi Laura, how are you?
Me: Ummmm…fine! I’m fine. And you?
Instructor: [incomprehensible Miskitu] …do you understand me? (in Spanish)
Me: Nope!

I admit that the exchange above is fairly uninspiring — both in content and in my degree of comprehension — but this is an entirely different kind of language from English or a Romance language. I’m glad that I’m able to recall something because I am going to need to use it!

A man runs around a circle of children in a game like duck, duck, goose on a tropical beach

Teaching children in the village of Haulover the game of 'Duck, duck, goose' - only we called it 'Pig, pig, dog' or 'Kwirku, kwirku, yul' because we did not know how to say duck or goose!

While I’m currently in Nicaragua at the start of my dissertation fieldwork, my plan is to do multi-sited, non-comparative research. That means that right now, I’m essentially working in an office in Managua supporting a coalition of indigenous and forest-based groups from across Central America and Mexico, the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB). For the first half of my time in Central America supported by the IAF, I will interview leaders in the coalition, attend meetings and workshops, and help organize events and programs with AMPB. My research questions center on the role of regional collaboration between these types of groups in advancing community or territorial claims to natural resources, and how this collaboration has developed over time.

In June 2017, I’ll head north to Honduras, where I’ll focus my research on one of the member groups of AMPB and how they engage regionally and act locally to secure natural resource rights. During this period, I’ll live in Puerto Lempira, the capital of the Honduran Muskitia, and work with AMPB-member MASTA, which represents nearly 60,000 Miskitu people on the Honduran side of the Atlantic Coast of Central America. While I will be able to work in Spanish most of the time, the day-to-day language of life on the coast is Miskitu. Further, some elders, especially women, do not speak much Spanish and are hesitant to try. If I want to speak to them, I will need to at least get to a rudimentary level of spoken Miskitu! 

A group of performers and other people stand near a bright yellow truck and canoe in a tropical setting

Celebrating Sihkru Tara - the annual festival that brings Miskitu from Honduras and Nicaragua together - in Bilwi (August 2016).

I plan to visit with some of the outlying communities to learn about the ways in which the government’s recognition of Miskitu rights to territory have influenced how people access and use their natural resources. The process of learning this distinct language will take much longer than six weeks of formal instruction, but I feel like I have the basics for learning in situ. My research will be stronger because of my efforts, as I will be able to indicate to the people I work with my commitment to their region and my sincere interest in their culture and history.

The language itself is fascinating and draws on a more than 400-year interaction with various colonial powers, escaped African slaves, and missionaries. Take a look at the bolded phrases in this sentence:

Yang Miskitu bila lan takisna Miskitu uplika nani aisaia an Miskitu sturika nani nu kaia dukiara.

I am learning Miskitu in order to talk to the Miskitu people and to know their stories.

Large shrubbery grows in still water in a mangrove

 Mangroves on the route to Haulover. Marine and riverine transportation play an important role in Miskitu economies and culture.

Lan takisna is the first-person conjugated form of lan takaia. Takaia is a common “helping verb” that is added to a noun derived from English to create a new verb. Here, lan comes from the English “learn”’ or “learning,” and lan takaia literally means “to do/take learning.” In the same vein, kaia (to be) is a helping verb for nu, which comes from the English word “know” — nu kaia translates as “to know.”

Ultimately, I am excited to head back to the coast and to keep learning Miskitu. The support of the IAF is fundamental to undertaking this dissertation research across borders and with an eye on regional and international trends. It is also laying the foundation for my future as a grassroots development researcher, allowing me to develop skills, friendships, and new ideas across three languages. 


Laura Sauls, a doctoral student at Clark University in Massachusetts, is one of 16 IAF Grassroots Fellowship recipients for 2016 to 2017. She is in Central America researching regional coalitions, natural resource governance and grassroots development alternatives among indigenous and forest dependent communities

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