Rare Languages #2: Papiamentu

By | February 26, 2023
Curaçao is not only known for its beaches like Playa Porto Marie but also for the language of Papiamentu
Curaçao is not only known for its beaches like Playa Porto Marie but also for the language of Papiamentu. Image: Skitterphoto

In our first article of this series, we explored a very old language in Quechua. In this article, we will shift gears and provide information about a relatively new language: Papiamentu.

Spoken by just over 300,000 people, Papiamentu (or Papiamento) is a unique creole language that originated on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. A creole language is a stable natural language that has developed from a mixture of different languages, often due to colonization or slavery. Creole languages usually have simplified grammar and vocabulary compared to their parent languages, and often have unique features that emerged from the mixing of languages and cultures. The language is a blend of African, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and indigenous Arawak languages. The term used to refer to the language comes from the Portuguese word “papia” and the Cape Verdean Creole word “papear,” both meaning “to chat, say, speak, talk,” and is combined with the suffix “-mento” to create the name of the language itself.

Papiamentu has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade, as enslaved Africans were brought to the Dutch Caribbean to work on plantations. The language developed as a means of communication between the enslaved people, who came from different parts of Africa and spoke different languages, and the Dutch slave masters. The emergence of Papiamentu is attributed to the restrictive language policy of the Dutch colonial administration, which hindered the spread of their own Dutch language in the colonies. The exact history of the origins of Papiamentu language remains uncertain and there are various theories and debates among linguists about its development.

The first known written document in Papiamentu dates back to 1775 and shows only minor differences in grammar and vocabulary when compared to modern Papiamentu. Printed documents have been in existence since 1825, and there has been a remarkable literary production, including excellent translations, especially since the 1950s. In 1969, political turmoil and riots in Willemstad led to a faster process of developing an official orthography for Papiamentu. The protests were triggered by worker strikes, and the Papiamentu newspaper Vitó played a crucial role in organizing the protests.The riots resulted in a growing identification with the Creole language as a defining attribute of local culture.

The first Papiamentu newspaper was published in 1869, and since then, the language has gained ground in the mass media. Nowadays, the majority of newspapers and radio programs on the islands are published in Papiamentu, and the television channels Telearuba and Telecuraçao broadcast a significant part of their programming in Papiamentu. Today, Papiamentu is (alongside Dutch) the official language of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, and is spoken by people of all ages and backgrounds. Despite its relatively small number of speakers, Papiamentu has a rich cultural heritage and is an important part of the identity of the Dutch Caribbean people.

One unique feature of Papiamentu is its orthography. The language uses a combination of Dutch and Spanish orthography, with some unique characters and diacritical marks. Papiamentu has two standardized writing systems, one applied in Aruba and the other in the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire. The variation in the writing systems of Papiamento is evident even in the name of the language, as it is referred to as “Papiamento” in Aruba, and “Papiamentu” in Bonaire and Curaçao. This can make it challenging for speakers to learn to read and write in Papiamentu, but efforts are underway to develop a standardized writing system.

As with many minority languages, Papiamentu faces challenges in maintaining its vitality in the face of globalization and the dominance of larger, more widely spoken languages. However, there are also efforts underway to promote and preserve the language, including language programs in schools and the use of Papiamentu in media and popular culture. Papiamentu is unique among other Caribbean creole languages as it is spoken across all social classes. This lack of social stratification is reflected in the fact that the government often addresses the population in Papiamentu, and it is used at all official levels including in court, despite the lack of adequate translations of Dutch laws.

Some common Papiamentu words and their origins include:

  • Bon dia – meaning “good morning” in Papiamentu, derived from Portuguese “bom dia”
  • Danki – meaning “thank you,” originating from Dutch “dank je”
  • Kòrsou – the Papiamentu word for “Curaçao,” the largest of the ABC islands
  • Hòmber – a Papiamentu word meaning “man,” borrowed from Spanish “hombre.”
  • Bòter – a Papiamentu word for “bottle,” derived from English

In conclusion, Papiamentu is a fascinating example of a rare language with a unique history and culture. Despite its small number of speakers, it is an important part of the Dutch Caribbean identity and a testament to the resilience and creativity of language communities in the face of historical oppression and marginalization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *