I recently had the pleasure of visiting the island nation of Curaçao. The amazing climate and beaches are obvious reasons to visit this small country in the dead of winter, but the linguistic landscape was the real selling point for me. Most people are able to speak pretty comfortably in Papiamentu, Dutch, English, and Spanish, and those that don’t speak all four languages usually speak at least two or three of them. Polyglot paradise. Papiamentu is the primary language of the vast majority of Curaçaoans, and its DNA begins to hint a bit at the reasons behind the multilingual nature of the island.
Papiamentu (also spelled Papiamento) is a creole language spoken on the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Creole languages originate as pidgins, simplified languages usually made up of lexical elements from various existing languages, used as a rough means of communication between different groups when a common language is absent. Pidgins have generally arisen as a result of international trade. When a generation of children grow up exposed to a pidgin, they will essentially “fill in the gaps” of the rudimentary pidgin and develop a more complex and comprehensive grammar and vocabulary in a process called creolization. The end result is a creole language, which in contrast to its parent pidgin(s), is a complete and fully functional community language. The creolization process is often used as an argument to demonstrate the presence of an innate linguistic framework in the human brain.
Portuguese- or Spanish-based?
Papiamentu is generally considered by its speakers on Curaçao to be a Portuguese-based creole with Dutch, Spanish, West African and Arawakan influences on it. However in the linguistic community, there has been an on-going, century-long debate over whether it is in fact a Portuguese-based creole which received Spanish lexical influences or a Spanish-based creole that received Portuguese lexical influences. Given the closeness of Spanish and Portuguese, much of Papiamentu could be argued to come from either source, and various theories have been proposed over the years.
Two of these theories support the Portuguese-based creole stance. One purports the existence of an Afro-Portuguese proto-creole that arose from the slave trade on the coast and islands of West Africa and is the source of other Atlantic creoles, through a process of relexification. In the case of Papiamentu, the language would have been born in Africa and, after its arrival in the Caribbean, taken on Spanish, Dutch, and some Arawakan vocabulary, with a small core of Portuguese vocabulary remaining. The other Portuguese-based theory proposes that Papiamentu came from the presence of Portuguese-speaking Sephardic Jews on Curaçao, starting around the 1650’s, with Dutch and Spanish elements being added later. A third theory proposes that Papiamentu is a Spanish-based creole, dating back to the time when the ABC islands were controlled by Spain (1499-1634), with Portuguese contributions made by contact with Portuguese-speaking Sephardic Jews and slave traders.
Personally, when I first heard Papiamentu, my initial reaction was that it was obviously more related to Spanish, as it is mostly made up of clearly Spanish lexical items and has a lot of phonological similarities to Caribbean varieties of Spanish. However, after I read a bit more I began to subscribe to the Portuguese-based camp. In 1634, when the Dutch took Curaçao from the Spanish, they deported almost everyone from the island. It seems unlikely that any of the Spanish originally spoken on the island could have remained. Furthermore, the Portuguese-derived elements of Papiamentu, tend to be a part of the core vocabulary – pronouns, question words, basic verbs, etc. It is unlikely that these would have been later borrowings.
Finally, Papiamentu has been shown to share striking similarities with Cape Verdean Creole and Upper Guinea Creole (spoken in Guinea-Bissau), two other Portuguese-based creole languages that have their origins in the colonization and slave trade of West Africa. This suggests that the language, or at least its parent pidgin, had already taken some form before crossing the Atlantic. However, there are those that claim that the Dutch on Curaçao did not want their slaves to understand Dutch and instead chose to use whatever Portuguese they knew from trade to speak to them. This usage of Portuguese would have been reinforced by the presence of a Portuguese-speaking Jewish community on the island, and voilà, a generation or two later, we have Papiamentu.
There are plenty of details and viewpoints that I am leaving out in the interest of brevity, but the above will give you a general idea of the theories surrounding the origins of Papiamentu. At any rate, the jury is still out, and many opt to avoid the whole controversy by simply calling Papiamentu an Iberian-based creole, which, despite its lack of precision, is not an untrue statement. Specifics aside, Papiamentu arose from contact between very different peoples and under brutal circumstances.
the other ingredients…
What is unique about Papiamentu as a creole language is how thoroughly it pervaded Curaçaoan society at all class levels. It was not restricted to slaves or the lower classes but was also spoken by the colonizing and land-owning classes as their home language. By the beginning of the 19th century, Papiamentu was the primary language of most families of Dutch lineage, and it had already established itself as the main language of the Sephardic community during the previous century. In the 1800’s, in reaction to the lack of Dutch being used on the island, the government implemented a policy requiring the use of the Dutch language in education and administration. Starting with this increase in the use of Dutch on Curaçao, a significant amount of Dutch vocabulary found its way into the Papiamentu of today.
The Spanish elements can be accounted for by the presence of Spanish-speaking missionaries and their schools on the ABC islands, as well as the wide-spread use of Spanish in neighbouring South America and the Caribbean in general. Spanish is by far the largest source of vocabulary in Papiamentu, and its influence on the language continues to grow due to the proximity of Venzuela and the continual influx of Spanish-speakers to the island. West African characteristics are thought to remain in both phonological patterns (reduction of many consonant clusters and a complex interface of stress and tone), as well as in some patterns of syntax. As for the Arawakan vocabulary in Papiamentu, there isn’t much information readily available, but it seems to center around the names of local flora and fauna. (Incidentally there is a book on the topic, Stemmen uit her verleden; Indiaanse woorden in het Papiamentu, but I wasn’t able to track it down.)
So what does this combination actually look like? Here are a few sample sentences:
Mi tin hopi kos pa hasi. = I have many things to do.
Bo ainda no ta kla? = You’re still not ready?
Mi no tin asina tantu plaka manera bo. = I don’t have as much money as you.
Mi ta papia Papiamentu. = I speak Papiamentu.
You’ll recognise the first and second person pronouns from Spanish/Portuguese mi/mim and vos/você. In Papiamentu there is no distinction between subject or object pronouns. There is also no conjugation of verbs, one form sufficing for all persons. Above you’ll see tin and ta, taken from Spanish/Portuguese tiene/tem and está. Hopi in the phrase hopi kos, means “many” or “very” and comes from the Dutch word hoop (and possibly its diminutive hoopje), meaning “pile” or “heap”, and figuratively “a lot”. Kos is from Spanish/Portuguese cosa/coisa, thus hopi kos = “many things”. A few other origins: hasi is derived from hacer in Spanish, ainda is taken from Portuguese, kla is from the Dutch klaar. Papia means “to speak” and comes from the Portuguese papear, “to chat”. All in all, it’s a fairly easy language to begin to understand if you know either Spanish or Portuguese. If you know Dutch as well, all the better.
Tin hende riba kaya. = There are people on the street.
Pushi i kachó ta animalnan bunita. = Cats and dogs are pretty animals.
Dunami un buki òf un korant. = Give me a book or a newspaper.
Above, pushi is from the Dutch poesje, meaning “kitten”, and kachó, is from the word cachorro, meaning “dog” in Portuguese or “puppy” in Spanish. In animalnan we can easily recognise the first part of the word, but the ending -nan has its origins in third person plural pronouns of Atlantic-Congo languages in West Africa. In Papiamentu, nan serves as both the third person plural pronoun as well as a plural marker that can be added onto nouns. The last sentence is basically half Spanish and half Dutch. Buki, òf, and korant are from the Dutch boek, of, and krant respectively.
Finally it’s worth mentioning the word dushi, as it is an important part of the Curaçaoan identity. Anything that is good, nice, delicious, enjoyable, beautiful, darling, or pleasant can be described as dushi. The word is derived from the Portuguese/Spanish doce/dulce, meaning “sweet”, and it describes very well the synergy of all the different elements that make up Papiamentu.
Papiamentu ta un hopi dushi lenga = Papiamentu is a very lovely language.
As omnipresent as Papiamentu is, Curaçaoans are definitely used to speaking other languages, and you hear quite a bit of Dutch, Spanish, and English on the island. Boats from Venezuela dock to form a floating market selling fruits and vegetables in Willemstad, and the language of the market is definitely Spanish. In many other instances, people approached me speaking either Spanish or English, I suppose identifying me as a tourist, but probably not a Dutch tourist. At any rate, it was either fluent English or flawless Spanish. If I switched to Papiamentu, people were generally very surprised and very happy to help me practice. Further, anyone I addressed in Dutch responded without hesitation in fluent Dutch, sometimes with a thick accent and sometimes crystal clear.
When I made the obligatory trip to a bookstore to get Papiamentu learning materials, I spoke with the cashier in Dutch at first. When she noticed what I was buying, we switched to Papiamentu. I told her I was learning, and she asked how I could already speak it if I had just arrived in Curaçao. I told her I spoke Spanish and that that made it easy to learn quickly, and then we moved on to speaking in Spanish. She eventually asked where I was from, and when I said I was from New York we switched into English for a moment before wrapping up the transaction. It was so much fun.
Code switching seemed to be quite common in Curaçao, especially between Dutch and Papiamentu. I attended a documentary premiere in Willemstad which included a panel discussion afterwards with the director, who was from the Netherlands, and a few other guests, all from Curaçao. The opening and closing words of cordial greeting and farewell were in Papiamentu, and audience members mostly spoke Papiamentu amongst themselves, but the rest of the event – the more formal discussion – was entirely in Dutch. Audience members and panel members were all fluent enough to discuss politics and social issues without the slightest difficulty. Incidentally, the film was in Dutch, English, and some Papiamentu, and the only subtitles provided were in English.
I believe the situation among younger people may be quite different though. In more recent years, Dutch has ceased to be the medium of education in most primary schools in Curaçao, with the exception of a few Dutch-medium schools which are in high demand. Instead it is introduced as a subject in higher grades and used to some degree as the medium of instruction in secondary education. A problem with the reliance on Papiamentu in schools is the sheer lack of resources in the language. There simply aren’t enough books in Papiamentu to support a national education system. This often leads to text books being in Dutch, while instruction is in Papiamentu. There is no chance to attend University in Papiamentu, so Dutch becomes inevitable for higher education, but is less present in the schools. Problems like this have resulted in increased drop-out rates, and many people blame Papiamentu itself for the problems with education in Curaçao. Some even consider it to be too simple a language and not capable of teaching children to think as well as Dutch or English could.
It simply is not true, though, that some languages are inferior and others are superior, or that one language promotes better thinking than another. This is colonialist ideology persisting today. To me, the problem is mainly that there are not enough materials and resources available in Papiamentu and not enough academic possibilities to keep students motivated. In the well-stocked and reputable bookstore that I sought out, there were hardly any books in Papiamentu, but plenty of books in Dutch, English, and Spanish. How can a student understand the joy of learning when they are hard-pressed to find a novel in their language? (In that bookstore, I couldn’t find one.)
Students need to feel proud of and skilled in their mother tongue, but I don’t think that taking Dutch away before adequate resources are available in Papiamentu is the answer. The multilingual nature of Curaçao is a great asset and opens up opportunities for Curaçaoans all over the world. What is missing, though, are higher educational opportunities locally through the medium of Papiamentu. Students should feel that they can enter the world confidently on an international level, but they should also feel that they don’t have to – that they have options at home as well.
from Papiamentu to Papiamundu
The subject of education came up when I visited Gerda Dunk, a Papiamentu language teacher and activist with deep roots in Curaçao. Gerda is the founder of Papiamundu (mundu means world) and has created and patented a method for teaching Papiamentu without the use of grammatical terms and rules and things that generally put students to sleep. Colour-coded origami dice help prompt you to put words in the right order, so that you can start making sentences right away, interact with the language on a physical level, and learn through repetition. Gerda sees value in the simplicity of Papiamentu’s grammar, as it makes the language easy to learn. She proposes the use of Papiamentu far beyond the confines of the ABC islands as a world language and neutral mode of communication to be used in the workplace or wherever people face language barriers. In this model, Papiamentu would stay true to its creole roots and serve as a sort of natural language Esperanto.
Though I’m not sure the world is ready for Papiamundu, the existence of Papiamentu itself is a testament to the human need to communicate. Born out of a linguistic crisis, it is a language that displays it layers of history and continues to add new layers as its world changes. I hope Curaçao remains multilingual, but I also hope Papiamentu remains strong and continues to gain the recognition and support it deserves as a beautiful and valuable, fully functional world language.
The following resources have been indispensable in writing this article:
Goilo, ER. Papiamentu Textbook. 1972.
Henriquez, May. Ta asina o ta asana?. 1988.
Jacobs, Bart. Origins of a Creole: the history of Papiamentu and its African ties. 2012.
Kinney, Lucretia. Origins and Development of Papiamento. 1970.
Martinus, Prof. Dr. Frank E. Un lingwístika di situashon o un modèl nobo di lingwístika general. 2009.
Van Putte, Florimon & Igma. Basiscursus Papiaments: Dòsplak ‘i boka. 2015.
Wiel, Keisha Irma. Perceptions on the Social Status of Papiamentu in Contrast to its Official Significance in Aruba and Curaçao. 2007.