connecting Portuguese-based creoles

For more background information, please visit my previous posts about Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá.

In the past year I’ve had the pleasure of encountering and learning about two Portuguese-based creoles: Papiamentu and Macanese Patuá, spoken on different sides of the world. Having had no prior exposure to either of them, I never would have guessed how similar they would actually be. If the Portuguese language was going to be put into situations of linguistic crisis, in which people had to figure out some way to communicate with each other, in different parts of the world with completely different linguistic environments, it seems to me that the results would be quite unique. However the more I learned, the more I was surprised at just how many characteristics these two languages share. I was encouraged to speak about creole languages at this year’s Polyglot Gathering in Berlin and decided to take a comparative look at these two languages. Here are some my observations regarding Papiamentu and Patuá.

First of all, there are a number of superfluous Romance language characteristics that have been discarded in both languages, and in fact almost all creoles do away with unnecessarily detailed parent-language characteristics. These include grammatical gender, some aspects of grammatical number, differentiation between subject and object pronouns, and all verb inflections. Here is a brief review of personal pronouns in the two languages:

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Papiamentu and Patuá each use only one set of personal pronouns for subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects.

Verb tenses are indicated by tense-marking particles preceding the infinitive/verb root. Not only this, but these particles share etymological origins, and in modern Papiamentu and Patuá they still resemble each other quite closely – see below. In Patuá the use of  is limited to an explicitly present progressive meaning, and in Papiamentu ta is not used with a number of common verbs, but the parallel is nevertheless quite strong. A and , may have differing origins, coming from either , the helping verb used in the Portuguese past perfect tense, or possibly from  (already). Já in Portuguese is the clear origin of the Patuá marker. Lo and lôgo both derive from logo (later).

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Finally, the most obvious similarity is that Portuguese is the main original lexifier for both languages (Yes, I know that there are more Spanish-origin words in Papiamentu, but I believe that most of these are decreolizations of originally Portuguese words or much later borrowings), hence they share countless cognates. With an understanding of Portuguese or Spanish and these few basic grammar points, the two creoles quickly become quite transparent. Below are some sentences compared.

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For all their similarities, though, they are definitely distinct and unique languages. They have vastly differing secondary lexifiers, Papiamentu taking the rest of its vocabulary from Spanish, Dutch, Arawak, and West-African languages and Patuá taking significant vocabulary from Cantonese, Malay, and a variety of Indian languages. In Patuá it is particularly noticeable that words of Cantonese or Malay origin tend to be used most for foods and common household items, probably a result of much of the early female population being native speakers of these two languages. Likewise, many Papiamentu words having to do with reading and writing originate from Dutch, traditionally the language of education in the ABC islands. The sentences below would scarcely be intelligible to speakers of the other language:


Atâi tâ comê chau-cháu com santám. (The boy is eating stir-fry with coconut milk.)

Amochâi, vôs atirâ sapeca tê lap-sap! (Dear, you throw away your money!, lit. to the trash)


Dúnami un buki òf un korant. (Give me a book or a newspaper.)

Nan no tin pòtlot-nan. (They don’t have pencils.)

Pluralization is also handled differently in each language. Neither language requires plural markers in all instances of plural meaning, but where indicated Patuá employs a pluralization pattern taken from Malay, while Papiamentu uses a pattern found in some Volta-Niger languages.

The Patuá pluralization is simply a reduplication of the noun, commonly found in Malay and to a lesser extent in Chinese languages:

fil0 = son     filo filo = sons/children

In Papiamentu, the plural is indicated by adding a plural suffix -nan (also a the third person plural pronoun). This pattern is also found in other Caribbean creoles, such has Haitian Creole.

e buki = the book     e buki-nan = the books

Even with extensive lexical differences and some differences in common grammatical patterns, we can see that there is still a considerable degree of mutual intelligibility.

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Patuá Excerpt taken from PCB Magazine, Edição 11, Recordâ sã vivê. pcbmagazine.blogspot/2013/09/recorda-sa-vive.html

So how is it that both of these languages diverged from standard Portuguese in so many similar ways? The answer to this lies in the instrumental role the Portuguese played in the  establishment of the Atlantic slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. They occupied the islands of Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Príncipe and used them as trading and “processing” posts for slaves taken from nearby continental Africa. Thus the language had a presence on the islands early on. Those working in the slave trade, however, were not always speakers of standard Portuguese themselves. On the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe there had arisen a ruling class of Afro-Portuguese people who spoke Portuguese-based creole languages. These very similar creoles, as well as other Portuguese-based pidgins were used by those both administrating the trading ports and traders traveling back and forth along the west coast of Africa and as far as the Caribbean and Asia.

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By Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png: *Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portugueses.png: *Portuguese_discoveries_and_explorations.png: *Portuguese_Empire_map.jpg: Toklederivative work: Uxbona (talk) – Descobrimentos_e_explorações_portuguesesV2.png, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Naturally, these creole languages were also used to communicate with slaves. When capturing people in Africa and bringing them to these trading posts, the slave traders were careful to separate linguistic and cultural communities, so as to impede communication (and subsequent revolt) among the captives. Having been stripped of their native languages, slaves in turn had to use Portuguese-based pidgins and creoles to communicate with each other. As the slave trade and the Portuguese trading empire in general grew and spread throughout the world, so did these creole languages. Thus, several interrelated varieties of Portuguese-based creoles were taken all over the Caribbean, the coasts of Africa, India, and East Asia.

In the Caribbean, Papiamentu maintained more influences from West African languages, particularly in the area of phonology but also at the syntactic and lexical levels. Extensive Spanish and Dutch vocabulary and some Arawak vocabulary was incorporated, but even as it developed, Papiamentu retained its Portuguese-based core. In Asia, Portuguese-based creoles sprung up in many areas, including Bombay, South India, Sri Lanka, Kolkata, Malacca, and Macau. In Macau, the local Cantonese language became a source for a large amount of vocabulary, as were Malay and several Indian languages, all languages that had left their mark on Portuguese trade creoles along the route to Macau. Despite these influences, though, Portuguese remained the primary component of the Patuá language.

This interconnectedness might lend itself to the creole origin theory of monogenesis, which states that all creoles are derived from 17th century West African pidgin Portuguese, which in turn stemmed from Mediterranean Lingua Franca. By this theory, languges like Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois would have been relexified with French and English vocabulary, respectively, while retaining the grammar and syntactic structure of creolized varieties of Portuguese from Africa.

This theory of course can have no bearing on the origins of creole languages that had no contact with the Atlantic slave traders, such as Hawaiian Pidgin English, but perhaps the 17th century Portuguese creoles of West Africa had farther reaching influences on modern day Caribbean creoles than meets the eye. At any rate, for those creoles whose lexicons remained mainly Portuguese the relationship is clear, and the 16th century creoles of São Tomé & Príncipe seem to be the missing link.

There are those, however, that still press for a unifying theory for all creoles, regardless of origin. Bickerton’s language bioprogram theory posits that given the typical social circumstances that lead to a creole language, the generation of children who convert that language from a pidgin to a creole are relying on innate grammar in their brain structure. According to this theory, our brains are actually hard-wired to create, understand, and use grammar. Thus, unrelated creole languages such as Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea), Nubi (East Africa), and Hezhou (Western China) would have similar structures and characteristics because of the predisposition of the human mind to organise language in certain ways.

It is true, in most cases, that these other creoles with no historical connection to the Atlantic slave trade, do share many characteristics with Atlantic-based creoles, i.e. lack of grammatical gender, minimal to no verb inflections, tense-marking particles, etc. However, this is not enough evidence to prove a unique cognitive or linguistic relationship between them. The same characteristics show up, for instance, in all varieties of Chinese, a group of languages that have developed slowly over time, completely unlike creoles.

It seems that the label “creole” may not actually have much to do with linguistic structure or categorization, but rather describes a socio-linguistic situation repeated again and again throughout history. Creoles have suffered (and continue to suffer) the stigma of being linguistically “inferior” to their parent languages. They are often referred to as “improper” or “incorrect” versions of another, usually European, prestige language. If this is the case, does the term “creole” actually do a disservice to the languages?

“Creole” may perhaps be more meaningfully used in terms of a people’s culture and socio-linguistic history. It describes a set of circumstances and the ability of a community to innovate for the sake of communication. Though there are many linguistic featured shared by creoles, it seems that these features are not necessarily unique in the scope of human language. Furthermore, history has shown us the dangers of haphazard categorization given the stigma that creoles have collectively faced. Creoles are often dismissed as linguistically “simple”, all the while sharing many traits with many other unrelated languages such as Mandarin Chinese, a very high-prestige world language.

To this day it remains unclear what, if any, purely linguistic significance the term creole carries. Papiamentu and Patuá do share linguistic similarities, but this is to be expected considering their parallel histories and common origins. As for how they relate to other creoles in the world, it seems that shared historical circumstances may be the most striking similarity. The emergence of creoles all over the world shows us that humans have an instinct for verbal communication, and this is perhaps all we can know for now.


In addition to the resources used on previous creole posts, the following set provided much valuable information for this article:

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume I: Theory and Structure. (1988)

Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, Volume II: Reference Survey. (1988)


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