Papiamentu, the language of Curaçao

Jul 8, 2010 by

Unlike many other creoles that are endangered and whose extinction is just a matter of time, Papiamentu, a Creole language spoken by some 200,000 people on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba, is thriving.

The origins of Papiamentu are fascinating: it was born in a Dutch colony yet based on Portuguese and Spanish (even though Dutch Creoles crystallized elsewhere in the Dutch empire). Some scholars say Papiamentu evolved from a Portuguese-based pidgin once used in West Africa, which developed further in the 17th century when Curaçao was an entrepôt for South America’s slave trade and a cosmopolitan Dutch outpost settled in part by Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Jews. Throughout its history Papiamentu has been influenced by African slaves, Sephardic merchants and Dutch colonists, and one can hear in it rhythms of Brazilian Portuguese, sprinkled with words from Dutch and English as well as from the Spanish of nearby Venezuela.

One reason for the relatively robust status of Papiamentu (especially compared to other, English-, French- and Spanish-based creoles) is the relative weakness of Dutch compared with other colonial languages, says Derek Bickerton, one of the leading authorities on creoles. Unlike English, French or Spanish, Dutch never had the same predominant social position in the colonies. And as a result, Papiamentu never had the same social stigma as many other creoles did. As a result, Papiamentu shows rare signs of vibrancy and official recognition. Most Curaçao newspapers are published in Papiamentu. Bookstores sell novels and poetry collections in Papiamentu. Music stores sell CDs recorded in Papiamentu by musicians like the protest singer Oswin Chin Behilia or the jazz vocalist Izaline Calister. Of 30 or so radio stations here, nearly all broadcast in Papiamentu. Turn on the television and there one hears Papiamentu. Even legislators in Parliament debate in Papiamentu.

According to Bart Jacobs, a Dutch linguist who studies Papiamentu:

“While English and French Creoles get more attention, the extension of Papiamentu into different domains like writing, education and policy is incredibly high. This bodes very well for the language’s chances to survive, and possibly even thrive well into the future.”

Transforming status quo into law, in 2007 officials here recognized Papiamentu as an official language, alongside Dutch and English. This is a rare distinction for a creole, and one made in few other countries. Papua New Guinea made its English Creole, Tok Pisin, official, as the island nation of Seychelles did with its French Creole, Seselwa.

But Papiamentu still has not replaced Dutch in all spheres of life. Curaçao’s laws are still written in Dutch. Many novelists still prefer to write in Dutch. Some schools start out teaching children in Papiamentu, but then transition to Dutch, bowing to the economic opportunities the Netherlands still provide for many islanders. And yet, economic opportunities and relative prosperity of the Papiamentu-speaking islands, which have per capita incomes of more than $16,000 a year, help the survival of Papiamentu.

According to NY Times report on July 5, 2010, Curaçao officials say that Papiamentu “will keep its official status when the Netherlands Antilles is dissolved in October”. Curaçao and the Dutch half of St. Maarten will become independent nations in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while three other islands become the equivalent of Dutch municipalities. The Netherlands will continue to oversee the defense and foreign affairs of all the islands involved, as it does now with Aruba.

And Papiamentu is an important tool in this independence process. For the leftists, such as Helmin Wiels, the leader of the Pueblo Soberano party, which favors a complete break from the Netherlands, there is no room for Dutch in Curaçao:

“if Curaçao were to achieve full independence, its official language should be Papiamentu, along with English and Spanish”.

And Dutch? For Wiels, Dutch has no room in Curaçao: “Dutch is a dead language the same as Greek or Latin,” he said. So in a way, Papiamentu is a symbol of Curaçao independence. According to Wiels,

“The preservation of Papiamentu would allow us to absorb the influences of our South American brothers while keeping alive that which makes us unique.”

So perhaps the importance of the proverbial army and navy (and national flag and other trappings of a nation-state) for the survival of this or that language should not be discounted too easily.

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