14 July 2010

Papiamentu Flourishes as a Caribbean Language

by Caroline Mikolajczyk
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.

Editor’s Note: The characterisation that Pueblo Soberano favours “breaking off Curacao’s official relationship with the Netherlands completely” is rather misleading. Under an independent Curacao the political status would naturally evolve into a modern bilateral relationship between two sovereign states based on political equality recognising the shared history, language, culture and other commonalities. Such relations would probably be strengthened, rather than broken off.