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Facts About The Papiamentu Language

Updated: Sep 13, 2019

Papiamentu is a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and it also has some Arawak Indian and African influences. Papiamentu is one of the few Creole Languages of the Caribbean that has survived to the present day.

Papiamentu is predominately a spoken language among the local people of Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba. The official language is Dutch, and the written Papiamentu is limited to some local newspapers and literature. Also the schooling system is Dutch, and people typically don't get any formal training in their language. There have been some discussions about introducing Papiamentu to be taught at schools as well.

Compared to other languages, Papiamentu is spoken by very few people: less than one third of a million in total. Papiamentu is also a fairly simple language, and it is quite common that certain expressions or more complicated grammatical constructs have to be simplified in order to be translated into Papiamentu.

From island to island, small variations in Papiamentu mainly in spelling and vocabulary can be observed. Some efforts have been made to standardize Papiamentu and its orthography, however, Aruba decided for a spelling that is closer to Spanish, whereas the other islands tried to stay closer to the roots in that respect. As a result, some words may still have more than one way of spelling it, e.g. Papiamentu - Papiamento, Korsou - Korsow, kwater - cuater, sinku - cincu, etc. In general, words are spelled exactly as they are pronounced, e.g. "flet tair" for flat tire.

Papia is the Papiamentu verb for 'to speak' and -mentu is the suffix that forms a noun, meaning approximately 'the way of doing something'. Papiamentu translated would then be something like 'the way of speaking'.

The verbs papia or papea are also found in other Creole languages such as the Cape Verdean creole, Guiné-Bissau creole and Saramaccan. It is probably derived from the Portuguese verb papear 'to chatter', which in turn probably goes back to the French verb papier 'to stammer' or simply 'to speak'. Connections have been made between the French papier and the Egyptian/Arabic papiros, e.g. 'to read from papyrus'.

Papiamento is another way to spell Papiamentu. Sometimes the noun forming morpheme -mentu is spelled -mento like it is done in Spanish and Portuguese.

In the Papiamentu of Bonaire the equivalent to the noun forming suffix -mentu/o is -men (this is one similarity between Provençal and Bonairen Papiamentu). Thus, the Bonairen name for Papiamentu is Papiamen.

The common view on the origin of Papiamentu is that it is an Afro-Portuguese creole (the Proto-Afro-Portuguese creole theory). However, due to the considerable Spanish influence on Papiamentu, a group of authors considers Papiamentu a Spanish-based creole (the Spanish hypothesis).

The Proto-Afro-Portuguese creole theory is the most widely accepted hypothesis about the genesis of Papiamentu. After the Dutch conquest of Curaçao in 1634, Curaçao served as a slave depot that provided Spanish colonies with slaves. The importation of slaves started after the conquest of the Portuguese strongholds in Angola in 1641 by the Dutch, bringing slaves from mainly Guinea and Angola to Curaçao. The basic claim of this theory is that slaves learned the Afro-Portuguese during the long periods of time that they were kept in Afro-Portuguese speaking slave depots before they were shipped overseas. Initially, this theory assumed that all Atlantic Creole languages, including Papiamentu, derive from one language, namely the Afro-Portuguese pidgin-creole that originated as a result of the first encounter between Portuguese settlers and native inhabitants on the west coast of Africa. Currently, several variations of the Afro-Portuguese creole theory exist. One of the main discussions is about whether or not the initial Afro-Portuguese had already developed into a creole, or if it was still a pidgin when it was transmitted to the Caribbean. In Curaçao, Papiamentu underwent Dutch influence, mainly contributing to the vocabulary. Through Dutch, also English and French elements entered Papiamentu. Later on, the influence of the Spanish speaking environment caused a hispanization of Papiamentu.

The Spanish hypothesis comes in two parts. The first Spanish hypothesis suggests that Papiamentu is basically a branch of Spanish that was generated through corruptions. The connection to Africa is not made, however, a Dutch influence is acknowledged in the form of new words introduced to the vocabulary. This is the first known description of Papiamentu and was presented in the 19th century in Italy. The second Spanish hypothesis suggests an African connection, but its defenders argue that Papiamentu does not originate from a kind of Portuguese brought through slaves from West Africa. In their opinion, Papiamentu is a direct descendant of the Spanish that was used in the area during the Spanish rule, and the small Portuguese, English, and Dutch influence came later.

Papiamentu is the local language of Aruba and the two Leeward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles, namely Bonaire and Curaçao. These three islands are located in the South Caribbean off the coast of South America.

Papiamentu also plays an important role on the Windward Islands of the Netherlands Antilles - St. Maarten, St. Eustatius, and Saba. People from these islands came to Curaçao and especially to Aruba for work and their children grew up speaking Papiamentu. Returning to their home islands they took with them their knowledge of Papiamentu. Some natives from Curaçao were also attracted by the expanding tourism in St. Maarten and reinforced the position of Papiamentu there.

Another large Papiamentu speaking community can be found in The Netherlands. Since the Netherlands Antilles belong to the Dutch Kingdom there is constant cultural and economic exchange. People from the islands often move to The Netherlands to study and sometimes stay to work there.

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