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)

a Jewish language born of a Caribbean creole

In my last post, I wrote a bit about the development of Papiamentu on the island of Curaçao. It’s an interesting language, given the array of sources that contributed to it: Portuguese, Spanish, West-African languages, Arawak, Dutch. Creoles are often a mix of totally unrelated languages, though, so this kind of blending is not particularly unusual. What is unique about Papiamentu, however, is that it was spoken across class boundaries, by all sectors of the population, from very early on in its history. This is in stark contrast to other Caribbean creoles, which have tended to be mistaken for corrupted or unsophisticated versions of the parent language spoken by the upper class.

For example, Haitian Creole, a French-based creole language, was for most of its history considered to be merely “bad French”. The French-speaking elite ignored the fact that Haitian Creole had its own grammar and vocabulary and was a language in its own right. Perhaps because Dutch, the language of the government and education, had no direct relation to Papiamentu (aside from a limited amount of loanwords), Papiamentu could be seen as its own language from the beginning and not merely a corrupted version of the prestige language. At any rate, Papiamentu took hold at all levels of society, and on Curaçao this included a community of Sephardic Jews.

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

Sephardic Jews started coming to Curaçao in the 1650’s. These families had their roots in Portugal and Spain, but after being driven out by the Inquisition,  many sought refuge in Amsterdam. When the Netherlands took control of Curaçao, many Jewish families continued on to this newly acquired trading post. Some Jews had gone first to Brazil, setting up plantations and businesses there, but when the Netherlands ceded Dutch Brazil to Portugal, the Jews were forced to leave and many ended up on nearby Curaçao. By the end of the 17th century, at least ten Sephardic families had moved to the island. They dealt in agriculture, banking, the importation of goods from the Netherlands, and some were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Since they were mostly (Judeo-)Portuguese and (Judeo-)Spanish speaking, the transition as a community to the use of Papiamentu would not have been a huge shift, and this may in fact have helped contribute to the widespread use of the language over Dutch throughout the island.

The synagogue of this early community still stands today in the center of Willemstad.  Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. The current building dates from 1732 and continues to serve a congregation of about 350 members. The floor is covered in smooth white sand, and this is definitely its characteristic feature.  A number of explanations for this are given, beginning with a passage from Genesis (13:16), in which God says to Abraham: “I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heaves.” Another account indicates that the sand is in memory of Conversos, or “secret Jews” in Spain in Portugal who had to practice Judaism covertly until they were able to safely emigrate to the Netherlands. These Conversos would put sand on the floor of the rooms where they worshipped in in order to muffle the sounds of their prayers. A third explanation states that the synagogue was designed to emulate an encampment in the Sinai desert during the time when the Jews were fleeing from slavery in Egypt, a rather ironic sentiment for a community with members that participated in the buying and selling of other humans as slaves, but I digress. This impressive building once housed a flourishing congregation, the descendants of which to this day still carry out some very old and particular customs and traditions. During Shabbat services, there are a few prayers that are still said in Portuguese, the language of the original Jewish colonists, including a prayer for the Dutch royal family.

Within a generation or two of their initial arrival, the Sephardic population of the island had become solidly Papiamentu-speaking. It is unclear how much Portuguese or Judeo-Spanish was still known or used by the community, but many sources attest that Papiamentu quickly became the daily language for most Jews on Curaçao. While at the synagogue gift shop, I came across a book that caught my attention, as it was one of only a few books in Papiamentu. Ta asina? O ta asana? Abla uzu i kustumber sefardí (Is it like this or like that? Sephardic language, lifestyle and customs) was written by May Henriquez as an expression of her love for her language and culture, and it became her life’s work. She began by asking friends and family for any expressions or vocabulary that they felt were particular to the Papiamentu of Sephardic Jews, and over many years she gathered enough information to compile this wonderful book.

May notes that the Papiamentu of the Jews contained many loanwords from Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish, and French. This is in addition to the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and West African elements already present in the Papiamentu of the general population. There also seems to be a greater prevalence of Portuguese vocabulary in the speech of the Jews, probably due to the language of the original Jewish islanders. Below is a sampling of vocabulary items, with example sentences taken from May Henriquez’ book.

Fica – from the Portuguese ficar, to stay. This word is sometimes used instead of the more standard Papiamentu keda (from Spanish quedar), though with different nuances.

Koïtado – from the Portuguese coitado, pitiful or wretched. Ai, bo no ta mira ku e pober ta un koïtado malu, lagué na pas! (Oy, don’t you see the poor guy is a miserable wretch, leave him in peace!)

Zjanta – from the Portuguese jantar,  to dine. Non-Jewish speakers of Papiamentu prefer sena, from the Spanish cenar. No bini lat, nos ta djanta banda di 8 or. (Don’t be late, we’re eating around 8 o’clock.)

Pataka – from the Portuguese pataca, an archaic monetary unit of great value. May mentions that in the synagogue, when members made contributions the amount was announced in patacas, and this tradition continued until the 1960’s. No ta importá mi niun pataka! (It’s not worth a pataka to me! / It doesn’t matter at all!). Incidentally, the pataca is still the currency used today in the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

Znoa – from the Portuguese esnoga and/or the Judeo-Spanish אסנוגה, synagogue. This is the world still used to refer to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.

Mansebo – from the archaic Spanish or Judeo-Spanish mancebo/מאנסיבו, youth or servant. In Papiamentu it means a young man or a bachelor. Keda mansebo (to stay single).

Donsea – from the archaic Spanish doncella, maid. Today it is used to refer to an attractive young woman.

Famia – from the Spanish familia, family. Among the Jews in Curaçao this word can take on the extra meaning of “Jewish”. Mi no konosé nan, ma ta visto ku ta famia. (I don’t know them, but they look like they’re Jewish.)

Expulshon – from the Spanish expulsión, expulsion. This is another word used by the general populace but in the Jewish community it takes on an additional shade of meaning. Here, expulshon refers specifically to 1492 and the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Horban – from the Hebrew חורבן, destruction. In Papiamentu horban means suffering or calamity. Fulano a hinka me den un horban. (So-and-so put me in a bad situation.)

Ganap – from the Hebrew גנב, to steal, thief. El a ganap e buki. (He stole the book.)

Goy – from the Hebrew גוי, used as in English to mean a non-Jew. Famia Cohen ta masha konsterná, nan yu Sarah a namorá un goy. (The Cohen family is appalled, their daughter Sarah has fallen in love with a goy.)

Panim – from the Hebrew פנים, face. Mi n’ gusta su panim. (I don’t like his face, i.e. I don’t trust him.)

In addition to the many Hebrew words used colloquially, there is also a treasure of religiously themed Hebrew words for objects or concepts of spiritual significance.  Anyone familiar with Judaism will recognise mezuzá, menorá, kadish, hupá, kabala, kasher, kipá, talmud, sedaká, seder, sefer torá, shofar, to name a few.

Finally there are also a number of French loanwords found in this Jewish variety of Papiamentu, the traces left by a smaller number of Jews who came to the island from France.

Fasòn – from the French façon, way or manner. Ami ta hasié na mi fasòn, abo ta hasié na di bo. (I’ll do it in my way, you do it in yours.)

Pèl-mèl – from the French pêle-mêle, chaotically or at random. E festa a resultá un pèl-mèl, kompletamente desorganisá. (The party was chaos, totally disorganized.)


The extent of May Henriquez’ work brings up an important question:  could this be considered a Jewish language unto itself? I wrote a post recently that discusses the definition of a Jewish language, or rather the characteristics that all Jewish languages seem to share. Jewish languages are based on already existing non-Jewish languages, and they contain a significant amount of vocabulary originating from Hebrew. In addition, many (but not all) are written using the Hebrew alphabet, and due to the migration of their speakers they tend to preserve archaic characteristics or vocabulary of the parent language. I have found no evidence of Papiamentu ever having been written with the Hebrew alphabet, but all of the other characteristics definitely apply.

Searches for the term Judeo-Papiamentu (or the alternative spelling Judeo-Papiamento) reveal nothing, but I propose that such a language indeed exists, and that the work of May Henriquez has already documented a significant amount of its vocabulary and usage. After all, nothing could be more Jewish than to migrate across the world, adopt the local language, and turn it into something uniquely Jewish by modifying the lexicon to fit the needs and experiences of the community. Though it is true that Judeo-Papiamentu does not differ from non-Jewish Papiamentu to nearly the extent that Yiddish differs from German, I believe it could still be considered to be a Jewish language in the vein of Judeo-Marathi or some varities of Judeo-Arabic. That is, it is not unique in its structure, but rather in the Jewish vocabulary and usage of the language.

Another thing worth mentioning is that May states that many of the entries in her book are from different time periods and do not necessarily represent current or even recent parlance. The current state of Judeo-Papiamentu or the extent of the Jewishness of the Papiamentu in today’s Curaçaoan Sephardic community is unknown. More research will need to be done to find this information, but I hope that acknowledging the existence of Judeo-Papiamentu is a first step towards learning more.

Papiamentu, esta dushi lenga…

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.

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The waterfront of Punda, Willemstad.

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.

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Queen Wilhelmina Park, Willemstad.

Polyglot Island

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.