Belize is the easiest travel destination in the Caribbean. Why? Everyone speaks English. Sure they speak creole too and some Spanish, but the primary language is English. That makes getting directions, ordering a meal or arranging a diving expedition a simple errand, as opposed to having to fumble around with Google translate for twenty minutes when all you were trying to do is locate an ATM.
Yet just because the language is English doesn’t detract from the country’s cultural lure. Belize has a rich and varied history that still persists and colors the traditions of today.
The History that Got Everyone Speaking English
In 1500 BC the Mayan civilization spread across Belize and thrived until 900 BC. The Mayans spoke dialects called qhuche, cakchiquel, kekchi and mam. Ruins of temples and cities are all across the country, most notably at Caracol and Xunantunich. These are areas that supported communities of over 100,000 people.
The Mayans continued to dominate the landscape until the early 17th century. Had they managed to maintain control of the land, everyone would probably be speaking Mayan today and visitors would probably be calling it something like “qkeulkckquii”, or what’s even more likely, “Q” for short.
Mayan control ended when the British and Scottish came on the scene and took over. These accented English speaking settlers were known as “Baymen” and they established a huge mahogany logging industry using slave labor.
In 1798, in the Battle of St. Georges Cay, the Spanish attempted to take over the country. Had they won, Belize would probably be a Spanish speaking nation just like it’s Guatamalan and Mexican neighbors, and the phrase “mas paella por favor” would be heard uttered in the majority of restaurants. However, the Baymen fought them off and Belize got fodder for its first national holiday.
In 1862, after winning the long battle to abolish slavery in the country, the British officially named the country British Honduras, and their fate of being an English speaking nation was sealed.
Then just after World War II, the economic conditions plummeted. A people’s committee rose up and began to fight for autonomy. It was a long road to independence, but in 1973 Belize was officially called Belize. In 1981 it sealed its independence with documents written in English.
Enjoying Modern Lingual Richness
If part of your cultural travel adventures seem just that much more colorful if your vacation destination speaks a foreign tongue, don’t go writing Belize off for its lingual familiarity. A good deal of the country also speaks kriol. Though it isn’t even a recognized language as of today, there are lots of people working to get it recognized and get it officially listed as Belize’s second mother tongue. You’ll hear plenty of creole while you’re going about your days in Belize. The good news is, though, the next time you need to find a place to rent snorkel gear, you won’t have to pull out your English to kriol dictionary and try to pronounce words like “reef koray” and “naje”.
Note: reef koray and naje mean coral reef and swim respectively.
Brett Renee Stone is a managing partner and director of communications for Palm Reef Resort.