Papiamentu Language Beats The Odds

In an age in which we lose an average of 10 languages forever each year, it’s heartening to see that at least one language is beating the odds. Although Papiamentu, a Creole language spoken in Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba, only boasts around 250,000 speakers, according to the New York Times it is actually gaining ground in terms of official acceptance and cultural prominence.

The Times notes that Dutch continues to be the language that Curacao’s laws are written in, as well as the language its children are taught in, at least in the upper grades. However, if you set foot on the island of Curacao, you can expect to hear Papiamentu just about everywhere. It’s on the radio, in the songs of local artists. It’s the language you hear on the TV, and the language spoken by politicians. In short, it’s a part of daily life there, not a second-class language at all.

Papiamentu is interesting because even though Curacao was a Dutch colony, the language bears little if any Dutch influence. Instead, it’s a blend of Portuguese and Spanish, with a dash of English thrown in for good measure. Linguists think that the Portuguese came from the West African slave trade, while the Spanish influences came from both the Spanish-speaking Jews who helped settle the island and, more recently, nearby Spanish-speaking Venezuela.

In the New York Times article, linguist Bart Jacobs explains why Papiamentu has a better chance of survival than most Creoles:

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.

What makes Papiamentu different from other, less healthy Creole languages? According to the New York Times, part of the difference lies in the fact that Dutch has fewer speakers than other colonial languages like English and Spanish. So, while people on the islands tend to learn Dutch to seek jobs in the Netherlands, there’s no incentive to allow Dutch to overshadow the language they grew up speaking. Theres also the fact that the islands that speak Papiamentu are both peaceful and wealthy.Finally, there is Papiamentu’s history as a way for islanders to resist Dutch colonial rule.

In the New York Times, Helmin Wiels, party leader for Pueblo Soberano, which favors breaking off Curacao’s official relationship with the Netherlands completely, explains:

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

20 replies
  1. Wolfboy89
    Wolfboy89 says:

    South American brothers??
    Did he missed out that its an PORTUGUESE creole
    We should stay close to our source instad of making papiamentu sooner or later into a spanish dialect.

    • Zulay
      Zulay says:

      Calm down. It is a creole that borrows from Spanish AND Portuguese, as well as West African, Arawak Indian, and some Dutch. And Brazil is in South America. Last time I checked, the official language there was Portuguese.

  2. Didn't Ms A Thing
    Didn't Ms A Thing says:

    Did you miss out that Papiamento is a “creole” that has a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, (African), and English?

    Perhaps the fact that Curaçao is close to Venezuela- a Spanish speaking country surrounded by other Spanish speaking countries, was sort of vague.

    Either way, Curaçao natives are proud of their heritage and have made it a point to be culturally independent of The Netherlands. While some have absolutely immersed into the Dutch culture, some still resist and fight to keep the traditional Curaçao culture alive. This includes dancing tambú.

  3. John The Realist
    John The Realist says:

    This is a joke right? Take away the foreigners who come enjoy the beaches the local island community is only lucky to have..everyone would starve…INCLUDING the papiamento. Ban ta serio! pasa un bon dia sjonan.

  4. Piet Snorr
    Piet Snorr says:

    “Papiamentu is interesting because even though Curacao was a Dutch colony, the language bears little if any Dutch influence.” There is actually plenty of Dutch influence in the papiamentu language. Many words have their origin in Dutch, but they are slightly altered while others are not altered at all. It may not be as influential as Spanish or Portuguese but it is undoubtedly there.

  5. dirk van haaren
    dirk van haaren says:

    A very superficial explanation and a valid comment by wolfboy.
    Papiamentu originated in west-africa as a means of communication basically between portuguese slavers and africans of various language families. In Curacao it was further developed with dutch (actually about 25% of the vocabulary) and spanish input. There is indeed a real danger of replacing the dutch, african and portuguese roots to conform to spanish standards and in this way killing off the original creole.

  6. Curtis Fraser
    Curtis Fraser says:

    Correct Dirk van Haaren!!

    Papiamento first came to be when African slaves needed a means of communication. Proof of this can be found to this date…if you visit the Cape Verde (Cabo Verde) islands you’ll hear a language that resembles Papiamento.
    If you speak Papiamento you can actually communicate with them; which is incredible. If you’re a local from one of the ABC’s, try searching YouTube for music from a local Cape Verde artist.

    Of course once the language came to the ABC islands it got injected with Dutch (much more than just a little) and Spanish. Today Spanish is the biggest treat since, in my opinion, too many Spanish versions of words are being used instead of the Papiamento word.
    The islands are addressing this by including Papiamento as a language in the curricula starting from elementary school.

    However, Papiamento would benefit the most if the ABC islands can streamline their remixes and unite on a orthography!

  7. catalinasastre
    catalinasastre says:

    I agree that it’s a rather superficial explanation and linguists are divided on the relative weight of Spanish and Portuguese. But I don’t think anyone can deny the West African roots and the role of the Portuguese slave trade.

    The percentage of Dutch in the language seems to be debatable, but it is clearly present. The language is called Papiamentu in Curacao and Bonaire and Papiamento in Aruba – so both are correct.

    E ta un dushi lenga!

    tur kos bon

  8. dirk van haaren
    dirk van haaren says:

    As in every language, there are small regional differences.
    PapiamentO is the word used in Aruba.
    In Curacao we call our language: ‘PapiamentU’.
    Whatever English-speakers wish to make of it, is their own decision.
    In the same way, in the past Beijing was called Peking.

  9. Michiel Bijkerk
    Michiel Bijkerk says:

    Posishon ofishal di PHU tokante Papiamentu ta lo siguiente:
    1) PHU ta boga pa rekonosementu legal di 4 idioma ofishal na Boneiru: Hulandes, Papiamentu, Ingles i Spañó.
    2) PHU a skohe Papiamentu komo ‘lengua franca’.

    E puntonan aki ta ankrá den Statuto di PHU.
    Naturalmente esaki tin konsekuensia pa Maneho di Enseñansa di PHU, lokual ta duna un resultado inekspektá. Nos lo bin bèk riba esei na su debido momentu.

  10. Stan Kuiperi
    Stan Kuiperi says:

    My two cents worth: I speak five languages, I have lived in five different countries, and have seen many, many other countries, cultures, and people on this planet. The basis for this is the fact that I hail from Aruba and am a sixth-generation native Papiamento speaker, proudly descending from both European and Latin American ancestors. As a M.Ed teacher, professionally trained in both the USA and the Netherlands, I have taught every single class in my 20-year teacher training college career in Papiamento, even at University level. All the objectors, all the fearful ones, and all the haters, have since either packed up and left, or wisely changed their minds about the priceless value of the Papiamento language. Papiamento is steadfastly growing in speaker numbers, content and implementation, vocabulary, and social importance. Papiamento is a slow-moving but unstoppable force threatening those classes, groups and individuals that have forever criticized, downplayed and obstructed this officially recognized language, for the single reason that it symbolically represents the unavoidable end of their colonial and social dominance in our communities. A dominance held in place through social and educational discrimination, hidden apartheid, and the use of language as a barbed-wire fence towards social upward mobility. I have seen this unlawful (read up on the Universal Children’s Rights charter!) system work its evil in every single classroom in our educational structure. Papiamento is the birthright and educational right of every native child on our islands, a right that is still being denied to many generations under false pretenses. As an official language even for Government use, it is still not perfect. But this is the result of both the unrelenting negative forces against its rightful development and the fact that there are simply no perfect languages in the world (yes, even English, Spanish, French, Dutch, German etc., are all creole languages having risen from the muddy and dark ages of their European births). Papiamento is a brightly shining, artful, positively energetic, highly creative, contemporary and – most important – deeply and truly beloved and enjoyable language, a Caribbean Esperanto of historic and cultural synthesis, a song of freedom and future hope, a story about self-respect, self-confidence and, in the end, undeniable triumph. “Bisa e cos manera cu e ta!” (Tell it like it is!)

  11. Marv
    Marv says:

    I suggest everybody to read about the monogenetic and polygenetic theories about the origin of Papiamento, as well as the lexificators of Papiamento, both historically and contemporary.
    The Aruban variant of Papiamento has more Spanish influence than the other islands due to its history, just like the Curaçaoan variant (Papiamentu) has mote of Dutch an Portuguese influences.
    Bottom line: even though we write it differently, and the idiosyncrasy of the spoken language varies a tad here and there, it is still the same language.
    Papiamentists see beyond futile differences and research the essence of the language in a broad spectrum.
    Mi stima mi idioma.

  12. G Man
    G Man says:

    I was born in Curacao in 1970 Montangne Rey.

    Papiamentu was a dialect. that boroughs words from different countries.
    The word “Knock-out” have no words for. So we use knock out as it is.
    The language is a result of the slave masters that ruled the Island in slavery times..
    Portuguese, Spanish, English, Polish, French, basically every language.
    but in the 80’s it has become an OFFICIAL LANGUAGE with a Dictionary too.
    So is no longer a Dialect it is a language now

    • Michel SILVA ANDRADE
      Michel SILVA ANDRADE says:

      Papiamento comes from the creole born in the Island of Santiago in the Cape Verde archipelago. The Cape verdean creole was used for example by merchant Jews in the coast of West Africa (Senegal, Guinea) for trade (slave trade…) and has been taken to the Caribbean (Curacao…) by slaves, Jews… “It got hispanized” due to the fact that Spanish S. America is so close.

  13. Stella Dublin
    Stella Dublin says:

    I understand there are a few colleges where Papiamento is taught in the USA. could any one tell me which colleges have classes in Papiamento?


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