Papiamentu: a uniquely Caribbean language

Papiamentu: a uniquely Caribbean language

In the southern part of the Caribbean Basin, approximately 30 miles off the norther coast of South America and a mere 12° north of the equator, lies a triplet of islands that improbably form part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. Roughly 800 km (500 miles) to the northeast lies another trio belonging to the same kingdom. The southernmost set consists of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (also known as the “ABC” or Leeward Islands).

The northernmost, the Windward Islands, are St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Eustatius (Statia) and Saba. These six islands together are known as the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, two autonomous entities within the commonwealth.

With a total population of approximately 275,000 persons and a total surface area of some 993 square km (382 square miles), it is comparatively tiny as nations go.

Curaçao is the largest island of the six, with approximately 136,000 inhabitants and 444 square km (171 square miles), while Saba is the smallest with approximately 1,500 inhabitants and less than 13 square km (five square miles).

The ABC islands, the focus of this article, enjoy an almost ideal climate. They are located just outside of the feared hur-nicane belt, the average annual temperature hovers around 28° C (82° F), and an average of 550 mm (21 inches) of rain falls every year (distributed between “rainy” and “dry” seasons). The heat is tempered by the steady northeast trade winds, so all in all, the weather is quite pleasant.

Although these islands have been in Dutch hands for almost four centuries, the lingua franca of the ABC islands is Papiamentu. On the Windward Islands the lingua franca is English, although a small number of the inhabitants also speak Papiamentu because of family ties and business relations within the Netherlands Antilles. Extrapolating from these total population numbers and adding the approximately 115,000 Papiament-speaking Antilleans and Arubans living in the “diaspora” (mainly The Netherlands), we arrive at a total of close to 350,000 speakers of Papiamentu world-wide. This is more than there are speakers of Maltese (estimated at 330,000 by, yet fewer than the number of Cape Verdean speakers (listed as 393,943 by www, to put things in perspective. But the story of its lilting and melodious creole language, Papiamentu, is rich and fascinating in inverse proportion to the size of the country and the number of its native speakers.

Historical background
Spain “discovered” and promptly conquered the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire in the early years of the sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century, the Caribbean Sea (named after the Caribs, an indigenous tribe) was a turbulent area populated by the explorers and pirates of their day under a myriad of flags. After having been in the hands of the Spanish for about a century, the island of Curaçao was conquered in 1634 by the Dutchman, Johannes van Walbeeck, on behalf of the Dutch West-Indian Company whose fleet he commanded. The West-Indian

Company, driven by a need for salt for its herring trade as well as the necessity of a military base from which to launch its privateering sorties, was always looking for valuable beachheads in the New World. In addition, the Dutch needed a way-station between their territories in Brazil and The Netherlands. Curaçao’s location was perfectly suited for that purpose, and thus began the Dutch influence in the territories presently known as the Netherlands Antilles.

Except for a few brief periods at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, during which they were in the hands of the British, the island group has remained Dutch ever since. In 1954, when the concept of the right of self-determination was in its heyday, the Netherlands Antilles succeeded in acquiring the status of autonomous territory within the Dutch Kingdom, meaning that they would have proportional representation with their own parliament elected by the people. Each individual island within the union also had a status of an “island territory” within the federation model. with a local island council elected by the people. This is still the case, except for Aruba which, after years of struggle, split off from the other five islands of the Netherlands Antilles in 1986 to become an autonomous territory alongside the Netherlands Antilles. To this day, both the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba are parliamentary democracies, with each territory having a figurehead governor appointed by the Dutch crown.

The emergence of Papiamentu
After the Spanish arrived in Curaçao, a majority of the original inhabitants, the Caiquetios (a coastal tribe of the Aruacs), were sold into slavery on the nearby island of La Española (the present Haiti/Dominican Republic). Most of the remaining Indians went to the mainland a century later when the Dutch took control of the island. After 1650, with the arrival of Portuguese Jews and West African slaves, the population started to grow

and become more and more diverse. These islands, with their considerably arid climate, were used more as a slave-depot than anything else. Along with that diversity came a necessity for the different population groups to communicate with one another. Papiamentu started to evolve. Some believe that Papiamentu began to develop almost one hundred years before the African slaves started coming to the ABC islands.

That theory states that around the ports on the west coast of Africa there already existed several Portuguese-African pidgins and creoles (the so-called proto-Afro-Portuguese influence) that were brought to the islands by slaves and traders and passed on to the local population who continued using them as a means of communication. The guene language, which the first slaves to arrive on Curaçao brought with them, provides evi-

dence for this theory. As stated earlier, Papiamentu is the most universally spoken language on the ABC islands, although it is spoken a little differently on each one. We could even speak of three different dialects of Papiamentu (a dialect being defined as a variety of a lanquage used by people from a particular geographic area).

Although Dutch is the official language on the ABC islands, we cannot speak of a superstrate-substrate relationship between Dutch and Papiamentu. This is because none of Papiamentu’s component languages are native to the islands.

Like other creoles, Papiamentu is a language that originated from a nontrivial combination of two or more languages. Creoles typically contain many distinctive features that are not inherited from either – or, in this case, any – parent language and contain radical morphological changes along with a syntax which is not obviously borrowed from any of the parent tongues. Papiamentu is a mixture of dialects of several languages – Portuguese and Spanish, English, Dutch, Caribbean Indian languages (Aruac, Carib and so on) and Portuguese-African pidgins and creoles. The word Papiamentu itself means talk (noun), speaking or speech in Papiamentu and presumably comes from the Portuguese verb paper meaning to chatter modified by the ending -mentu which is used to form a noun.

English and French elements entered Papiamentu along with Dutch. Later, the influence of the Spanish-speaking inhabitants and the proximity to Spanish-speaking South America, as well as sailors and traders from port cities in northern Spain (Cata-luña, Galicia), brought about a hispanization of Papiamentu. Yet another theory posits that Papiamentu is a direct descendant of the Spanish that was used in that era (*Old Span-ish”) and/or Judeo-Spanish, and that later the other languages entered gradually.

In the end, we are still not completely sure if Spanish or Portuguese was the basis of Papiamentu, although we are fairly sure it was some version of one or the other. Because of the similarities between the two languages, it is often difficult to tell whether a particular word came from one or the other. Research continues on the topic.

Characteristics of Papiamentu’s grammar
Standardization of Papiamentu is a work in prog-ress, made more complicated by the fact that there are different schools of thought on each island as to what words to include in the vocabulary and how they should be spelled. For this discussion, I will use the phonetic spelling school in the examples.

First, a few observations. In Papiamentu:

  • the definite article is always e
  • nouns have no special form to indicate gender.

Gender is created by adding words such as homber (man)/machu (male) or muhe (woman) behind the noun: pushi machu = cat male; mucha homber = child male

• nouns do not denote plurality when preceded by numerical modifiers – for example, un homber = one man; dos homber = two men: un hende = one person; hopi hende = many people; un strea = one star: tres strea = tree stars

  • verbs use independent particles to indicate time and aspect, as in Mi ta bai = I am going; Mi tabata bai = I was going; Mi lo bai = I will go

• generally the morpheme that denotes plurality is the same as the third personal pronoun: nan = they; muchanan = children

  • there is a presence of serial verb constructions – for example, Sinta pensa (un ratu) = Sit and think (for a while); Lanta para wak = Stand up and look
  • I reduplication (double-words) is used with different functions: pega-pega (“stick-stick” as in glue)
  • a lizard that supposedly sticks to objects but pegá-pegá (“stuck-stuck”) = very stuck/jammed; poko-poko (“slow-slow”) = careful, very slow, annoyingly slow; pushi-pushi (“cat-cat”) = quietly, as when someone is sneaking around quietly
  • there is a preference for the active voice rather than the passive voice

The long road toward standardization
Although much has been accomplished in the effort to standardize Papiamentu, only about 10,000 words have been standardized so far. There is no official master corpus or source to use as a reference to find the equivalent of a Papiamentu word or expression in another language. Curaçao and Aruba have come a long way, to be sure, but it remains a hard struggle. In 1984, the Standardization Committee for the Papiamentu Language (Komishon di Standarisashon di Papiamentu or KSP) was created. This body actually standardized approximately 10,000 Papiamentu words and has since gone out of existence.

The Antillean Language Institute (Instituto Lingwistiko Antiano or ILA), founded in 1975, doesn’t exist anymore either. The ILA had created the KSP together with the Aruban Language Institute (Instituto di Idioma I Literatura Aru-biano or IDILA) when Aruba still was part of the Netherlands Antilles.

There are, as mentioned earlier, two major movements on the subiect of spelling of Papiamentu, which makes standardization such an awesome undertaking. These are the Curaçaoan/Bonairean spelling (Römer-Maduro-Jonis), which is based on phonetics, and the Aruban spelling (Mansur), which is largely based on etymology. A quick look at the four or five newspapers in Papiamentu available in Curaçao is enough to see that there still is a long way to go before there is consensus.

Papiamentu in education
Throughout the process of standardization and running parallel to it, there has always been a discussion – sometimes vehement – on the subject of introducing Papiamentu as the language of instruction in the schools or to keep it simply as a compulsory subject. Papiamentu is the mother tongue of the vast majority of inhabitants of the ABC islands, and having Dutch as the language of instruction in the school system has always been a significant problem for the pupils who come from households where Dutch is not spoken. This has caused a high incidence of dropouts throughout the past few decades. A middle ground has been sought for a long time.

Questions that continually come involve when to introduce the world languages such as English and Spanish; vhether the language of instruction should be English, Spanish or Dutch – or Papiamentu. The ideal solution lies somewhere along the spectrum.

Some headway in solving this problem has been made in the last decade, however. Papiamentu was introduced as a compulsory subject in all grades of the elementary school system in 1986. As of early 2000, all elementary schools use Papiamentu as the language of instruction, while Dutch, English and Spanish are introduced in the later grades (fifth and/or sixth). In Curaçao, Papiamentu became a compulsory subject in the first year of middle school in the 1998-1999 academic year, and in the 1999-2000 academic year it also became compulsory in the second year of middle school. Currently (2005-2006), it is a compulsory subiect in middle school and almost all grades of high school.

After years of deliberation and discussion, the speed with which the decision to introduce Papiamentu in the school system was made seven vears ago has left the creators of curricula and teaching materials at a loss. In an effort to catch up quickly, the Language Planning Foundation (Fundashon pa Plani-fikashon di Idioma or FPI) was created in 1998. The basis for this foundation was laid by the Curaçao Language Institute (Sede di Papiamentu), which was founded in 1983 and which morphed into the National Language Institute (Instituto Nashonal di Idioma or INDI in 1993. The FPI is working hard to meet the demand and has a chronic lack of money and staff, which makes its job more difficult. Suffice it to say that Curaçao is not out of the woods vet as far as the issue of Papiamentu in education is concerned, and there will be a lot of push and pull before a modus operandi is found that will satisfy all parties concerned.

Computing in Papiamentu
Because the language is spoken by so few people worldwide and does not have a standardized vocabulary and grammar, the computing resources available in and for Papiamentu are relatively few.

Most of the work towards creating computer-based resources has been done by Sidney Joubert in Curaçao. He was the first one to publish a well-researched Papia-mentu-Dutch dictionary in 1991 (24.500 entries) and put it on the market in CD-ROM format as well.

There is also a Dutch-Papiamentu dictionary available in hardcover and CD-ROM (22,400 entries). Both run on Windows 95 or higher as well as the Mac system 8.1 or higher or OS X 10.0.4 or higher.

Another database is the Banko di pal-abra electróniko Hulandes-Papiamentu by Thelma Anthonia. A spelling checker called Spelchek, Kontrografia di Papiamentu runs on Microsoft Office 97 and 2000 v. 1.0 for Windows 95, 98, Me, NT4, SP3 and higher as well as WordPerfect and CorelDRAW 8 and 9. It is now also available with an Aruban version (3.0). For learning Papia-mentu, there is Siña papiamentu, Learn Papiamento for Windows & Macintosh, 2000. No machine translation of Papiamentu is available yet.

The future of Papiamentu
I was born and raised and lived until my late thirties on the island of Curaçao. I spoke Papiamentu at home from a very early age, learned English and Spanish at home and was educated in the school system, which was entirely in Dutch. I feel very fortunate to have been raised as a multilingual speaking four languages fluently. I find that one language feeds on the other. Indeed, often natives throw in words from all four languages when speaking, which makes for very interesting and fast talking from the point of view of outsiders and gives one a glimpse into how it is that Papiamentu developed the way it did.

Native speakers of Papiamentu love their language and are proud of how far it has come and what it says about their history and perseverance and good reason. Besides being an emotional topic, the decision of whether and when to introduce Papiamentu in the school system has also become a politically loaded one. The jury is still out on the best method to implement bilingual or multilingual education. There is no question that being multilingual is a goal that all of us must strive to attain in this new global economy.

Whether Papiamentu can be a practical language in that global economy remains a question. The hope and expectation are that the powers that be will realize that the only way present and future generations of Antilleans and Arubans will be able to compete in the world is if they are fluent in one of the world’s major languages. Learning Papiamentu formally early on can help or hinder this learning.

Whatever is ultimately decided, Papiamentu should have its honorable and dignified place as a living and evolving language in the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba and other places where it is spoken because, as the saying goes, “You have to know where you come from to know where you are going.”