PUNTA GORDA, Honduras — When Reina Martinez speaks to her 14-year-old granddaughter, she uses Garifuna, the language of her youth in this colorful island village.
But when Cassandra Ballesteros answers, it’s not in Garifuna.
“I understand, but I don’t speak it,” she said. “I can’t.”
She responds in Honduran Spanish, the language she learns in school and the one she’s more likely to hear on the dirt roads that run through her centuries-old village tucked between dense mangroves and vast coral reefs on the island of Roatan.
Mrs. Martinez, 52, and her companion, Celso Zapata, 59, are two of the older residents of Punta Gorda. Throughout the years, the couple have watched their Garifuna traditions fade into memory as the outside world entered their community of about 1,000.
Now, they are watching their language disappear, too.
Children “don’t want to speak Garifuna anymore,” said Mr. Zapata, who runs Punta Gorda’s public-water system. “You’ve got to blame the parents. We parents, we’ve got to teach the kids.”
When he wanders through the community on the north side of the 40-mile-long island, Mr. Zapata is as likely to speak Spanish or even a dialect of English Creole to neighbors as he is to use Garifuna.
“Even the old people, you find many of them who don’t want to speak Garifuna,” he said.
Linguist Genevieve Escure laments what is happening to “a complicated and beautiful language,” with roots in the Amazonian tongues of Arawak and Carib still spoken in parts of northeastern South America. So she is recording the Garifuna, hoping to spark their interest in keeping their language alive.
Still, some of Roatan’s leaders argue that it isn’t the language that is in danger.
“It’s not disappearing,” said Arad Rochez, a Garifuna who is vice mayor of Santos Guardiola, which includes Punta Gorda. “What is disappearing is how we used to live in the past.”
When Mrs. Martinez and Mr. Zapata were young, the Garifuna lived in mud houses with thatched roofs. Men fished from dugout canoes and steamed, rather than fried, their catch. Traditional folk dances were set to the rhythm of African-style drums.
Slowly, Garifuna men started leaving Roatan to find jobs on the Honduran mainland or to work on freighters and cruise ships.
Dugout canoes that once sustained the community were abandoned on shore. The Garifuna are no longer dependent on the fish, lobster and conch that are plentiful in the coral reefs.
In the late 1980s, the Honduran government started developing the island, bringing tourists, retirees and developers attracted by the balmy temperatures year-round. A main road now runs across the spine of the island, from the western end of Roatan, with its luxury beach hotels and exclusive waterfront homes, past Punta Gorda to the still nearly pristine east end.
The hurricanes that belt the island every generation or so — Fifi in 1974 and Mitch in 1998 — also brought change, blowing away the thatched-roof homes of the Garifuna. The villagers rebuilt, first with wood, and then with cement blocks with tin roofs.
Thousands of Central American Garifuna now live in the United States, and the money they send home helps their families buy luxuries such as television sets and refrigerators that would otherwise be beyond reach.
“We hardly live now as we used to,” Mrs. Martinez said.
Their language also is receding with their old lifestyle. Linguists estimate that 190,000 people across the western Caribbean speak Garifuna. But when a language isn’t being used by young people, the numbers can drop fast.
“Everybody agrees we are going to lose half of the world’s languages. Some say 90 percent,” said Lenore Grenoble, a Dartmouth College professor and chairwoman of the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation.
Linguists estimate that the world had about 10,000 languages at one time. Today, there are about 6,800, Mrs. Grenoble said.
Four years ago, Miss Escure, who is based at the University of Minnesota, gave tape recorders to some Punta Gorda residents and asked them to record family and friends as they spoke Garifuna. Most of her work is with older people because few Garifuna younger than 40 speak the language. Even when they do, more and more English and Spanish words find their way into the conversation.
“Spanish is dominant. It is the language you need to be successful in life,” Miss Escure said. “That’s how a language disappears. The speaker doesn’t see any benefit in speaking it. They’d rather switch to Spanish or English Creole.”
Miss Escure and Mrs. Martinez recently had a discussion about the Garifuna word for cassava, the root vegetable that is a dietary staple throughout Latin America and much of the developing world.
“‘The pot with which I cooked cassava,’ OK, how do you say that?’” Miss Escure asked.
“O-yay lay idabway nobowa yucca,” Mrs. Martinez answered.
The hard B’s, G’s, U’s and P’s make it easy to distinguish Garifuna from Spanish, English and French, all of which make up significant elements of Garifuna.
Miss Escure repeats and dissects every phrase, looking for the origins of the words, the way the verbs are conjugated and how the sentences are put together. She also is trying to assemble a vocabulary, get a better understanding of the way the Garifuna use prefixes and suffixes, the way plurals and possessives are formed, and how it all fits together.
These are ancient sounds.
The Garifuna are an extraordinary mix of Arawak Indians who migrated from the Amazon to the Caribbean 1,500 years ago and Africans who escaped when two Spanish slave ships wrecked off the island of St. Vincent in 1635. Their language is a kind of living history, studded with relics of their encounters with other peoples.
Now, it seems to be slipping away. Miss Escure says she alone cannot keep Garifuna alive.
“I am trying to describe the language as it is now,” she said. “You cannot impose a language. It has to come from the community.”