What’s the Correct Way to Pronounce “Caribbean”?

You've probably heard two distinct ways. Time to get to the bottom of it—is one actually right?

The word “Caribbean” probably conjures images of beautiful tropical islands with turquoise water and picture-perfect beaches. But what about the word itself? When you read “Caribbean,” how do you say it in your head?

The two most common pronunciations

There seem to be two primary “Caribbean” pronunciations that most people use: “cuh-RIB-be-an,” with the emphasis on the second syllable, and “care-ib-BEE-an,” with the biggest emphasis on the third syllable and a slight emphasis on the first. And unlike many other pronunciations that can mostly be chalked up to regional differences, the “Caribbean” pronunciation doesn’t seem to have much logic to it, at least for Americans.

For some people, it’s a matter of personal preference, but for others it can depend on the situation. For instance, “care-ib-BEE-an” is how they pronounce it as a noun, as in “the Caribbean,” but they’ll say “cuh-RIB-be-an” for the adjective, as in “Caribbean islands” or “Caribbean music.” And, of course, there’s branding. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship line pronounces it “cuh-RIB-be-an,” but when talking about the title of the Disney film franchise, as well as the ride that inspired it, chances are you’ll almost exclusively hear “Pirates of the Care-ib-BEE-an.”

What about similar words?

So, which “Caribbean” pronunciation is right, or are both acceptable? Unfortunately, turning to linguistically similar words really doesn’t help! “If you look at similar words ending in ‘ean’ such as ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Epicurean,’ both of these stress the antepenultimate syllable,” says Sara Dasko, language coach and founder of ESL learning service Free Mind. This would support the “cuh-RIB-be-an” pronunciation. “However, if you look at other similar words including ‘Korean’ and ‘European,’ both of these stress the penultimate syllable,” like “care-ib-BEE-an,” Dasko adds. It’s starting to look like either “Caribbean” pronunciation is acceptable.

The correct “Caribbean” pronunciation

But for a more definitive answer, we can turn to the origin of the word—and, of course, people who are actually native to the Caribbean. Esther Fraser, a native of southern Caribbean country Trinidad and Tobago, says that, first of all, there are actually a lot more than two pronunciations. “Because accents vary from island to island, we all say the word a bit differently. My partner is Jamaican, and there are slight differences, to our ears at least, in the way we say the word,” she told RD.com.

But one thing she’s sure of is that there is a wrong way to say it—and it is in fact one of the common two. “Cuh-RIB-be-an” is incorrect. Why is this? “If you grew up in the Caribbean, you learned in school that the word derives from an indigenous tribe called the Caribs,” she explains. “‘Carib’ is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: ‘CAR-ib.’ Therefore most natives of the islands pronounce ‘Caribbean’ with some version of emphasis on the first and third syllables.”

The pronunciation that’s most accurate to the word’s origin and most respectful to the island natives is “care-ib-BEE-an.” Surprised? Find out some more words you’ve probably been saying wrong.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.