Examining perceptions of threat: Does an influx of Spanish speakers pose a threat to Aruban Papiamento?

Current levels of language loss around the globe are unprecedented. With more than half of the world’s languages thought to be endangered to the extent that there will be no speakers of these languages within the near future, the study of language threat and endangerment is more essential then ever (Krauss, 2000). The reason for such unprecedented language endangerment has come as a direct result of increased globalization, where people and the languages they speak have the ability to move throughout the world and communicate with literally anyone, anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, an ever-globalizing economy has created a space whereby a few languages have garnered extreme power and prestige, which inspires the envy of speakers of minority languages as they witness the economic benefits of being able to speak a language of wider communication.

The threat posed by English to languages throughout the world is well-documented (Crystal, 2004; Dalby, 2003). However, the ever-growing prestige and global influence of Spanish, a Romance language spoken by more than 250 million speakers in North and South America, has not been as adequately documented. This paper documents one context in which Spanish has begun to be perceived as a threat to an indigenous language. Throughout the subsequent sections of this paper I will document the language context in Aruba, where more recently, waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants have affected the linguistic balance of the island prompting locals to reexamine what it means to be ‘Aruban’ and actively promote their native language of Papiamento. Thus, the primary objective of this research is to answer the question: Does the presence of the Spanish language present a real or imagined threat to Aruban Papiamento?


The present research is based on a larger case study of language planning and policy on the island of Aruba. The case study method was chosen because an in-depth and descriptive approach was essential to improved understanding of the complexity of language threat on this island. As is customary in case study research, a variety of different qualitative data sets were compiled, coded, and analyzed in order to triangulate findings (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Merriam, 1998). The case study method provided ample data to create a rich description of the relevant history of language planning and highlight the current status of language maintenance and perceptions of threat on the island of Aruba.

Data collection for this study occurred in the spring of 2008. Various documents concerning Aruban language policy and planning were obtained before a ten-day visit to the island which allowed the researcher to become familiar with the history of the various language polices that have effected the maintenance of Papiamento. After attaining written consent from all participants, formal, digitally tape-recorded interviews with key players in the movement to maintain and promote Papiamento in Aruba. The interviews were conducted with a total of eleven scholars and teaching professionals who were all active in or knowledgeable about the maintenance of Aruban Papiamento. All of the participants of the formal interviews agreed to allow their names to be published in future publications. In addition, informal interviews and observations were written up in the form of field notes. All of the data were immediately transcribed and uploaded in to TAMZ Analyzer, a program used to organize and highlight reoccurring themes that emerged across various qualitative data sets.

Using themes that emerged from the data, a historic and contemporary analysis of the threat that Spanish poses to the native language of Aruba, Papiamento, was made. This article does not pretend to represent the opinions of all or even a majority of Arubans with regard to language threat but is limited to the expertise of the participants who all work in some form in the promotion of Papiamento. Thus, regardless of its limitations, this article provides an overview of the historical background necessary to understand how and why Papiamento is still thriving today and explains how local perceptions of language threat have worked to ensure the future stability of Papiamento on the island of Aruba.

The development of Papiamento in Aruba

The island of Aruba is located in the Caribbean Sea, approximately eighteen miles north of the country of Venezuela. This small island is nineteen miles long and six miles across at its widest part. Aruba, together with Bonaire and Curaçao, form the ABC islands, more formally known as the Dutch Leeward Islands. Aruba is also commonly referred to as part of the Netherlands Antilles, which it was part of until 1986. In 1986, Aruba received Status Aparte from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, granting the island its own local autonomy. Currently, Aruba has two official languages, Dutch and Papiamento, but many Arubans are also fluent in English and Spanish.

The Spanish crown is recognized as having discovered in 1499 the island of Aruba, which was sparsely populated by Caiquetio Indians who were living off the arid landscape (Razak, 1995). Shortly after the Spanish arrived, the island was declared an “isla inútil” or useless island. The Spanish did not erect plantations on the island, which was customary in their larger colonies, but they did enslave the indigenous population to “raise horses for transportation and sheep, goats and cattle for food and hides” (Razak, 1995: 447). The 17th century saw the emergence of the Dutch as colonizers, and the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire were claimed under the Dutch flag between 1634 and 1636 (Fouse, 2002). The Leeward Islands served as a strategic trading point for the West Indian Company (WIC), which ran the islands administratively until they were formally handed over to the Dutch government in 1792 (Fouse, 2002: 57). The island of Curaçao, with its magnificent natural port, was the focal point of the Dutch expansion into the Americas and was the scene of the majority of the slave trade involving the Dutch. Despite its close proximity to Curaçao, Aruba did not have as much exposure to the slave trade because the island was not colonized until much later than both Curaçao and Bonaire. It was not until the late 18th century that any significant population moved to Aruba.

The first large settlements in Curaçao were comprised of Dutch merchants along with their African slaves, small groups from other European nations, and Sephardic Jews from Brazil whose ancestors were from Portugal. These groups brought a collection of diverse languages, cultures and histories that laid the foundation for what is now Aruba. While the exact language or languages used among the people throughout the 18th century is highly contested among scholars on the ABC islands, most agree that the 18th century was an important period in the creation and formation of the language of Papiamento.

According to Frank Martinus, one of the most respected scholars regarding the origins of Papiamento, Papiamento is a Proto-Afro-Portuguese Creole (PAPC), which he defines in detail in his often-cited book titled: The Kiss of a Slave: Papiamentu’s West-African Connections (Martinus, 1996). Martinus uses historical data and linguistic samples to argue that Papiamento did not originate from Spanish, as many have come to assume, given their great lexical similarities. Instead, Martinus (1996) argues that Papiamento’s syntactic similarities to other Afro-Portuguese creoles prove that Papiamento’s origins “began to develop in the Netherlands Antilles around 1640 as a mixture of several Afro-Portuguese dialects transferred from the west coast of Africa through the slave trade” (Martinus, 1996: 1). Although many scholars still debate the exact origins of Papiamento, scholars on the three islands tend to agree that Martinus is at least on the right track and disagree with earlier theories that Papiamento is a Spanish-based Creole. One of the principal reasons for discounting the connection of Spanish in the creation of Papiamento was the absence of Spanish speakers during the instrumental years of Creole formation.

The formation of Papiamento, as well as its subsequent survival, had a lot to do with its role as a lingua franca among the diverse inhabitants of the Leeward Islands. As is customary when people of different language groups come together, a compromise must be struck in order to communicate. The social context of the Leeward Islands was a little different from traditional colonies in the new world because there were essentially four different groups of people confined to a relatively small space, each using its own language. Such linguistic diversity resulted in the urgent need for a lingua franca that would enable islanders to communicate with one another.

The colonization practices and beliefs of the Dutch were instrumental in allowing a space in which Papiamento could grow. For instance, the Dutch did not view the slaves as worthy of speaking their language, or practicing the same religion. Thus, it is understandable that the lingua franca did not become Dutch because slaves would not have had enough access to learn it. The Sephardic Jews, who settled in Curaçao after having migrated from Brazil, had economic power but relatively little political power. Therefore, it was unlikely they would be able to use their language as the lingua franca. Nevertheless, given the fact that the first known document to be written in Papiamento was a Sephardic Jew, the Sephardic Jewish population is argued to have played an instrumental role in the genesis of the language (Martinus, 1996). Ramon Todd, a professor of Papiamento and education at the Instituto Pedagogico Arubano, articulated this difference in colonization practices in his interview:

It comes from different types of colonization. For example, when the Spanish came to this side of the world and these countries here, they obliged two things. First was their language and second it was their religion. So they obliged the colonized people to take over their language and that is why Spanish is the language over here. But the Dutch didn't want the slaves. They just wanted them as a trade item, to buy and to sell. They didn't want to teach them and they didn't give them any education. The Dutch didn't really oppress the people to take over their language like the Spanish did and the Catholic Church.
Don't forget that the Dutch and the Jews were able to hire the upper class groups, who, they themselves, took over Papiamento. So it wasn't just a language of part of the community, but the language of the whole community which is different from what happened in other communities like with the Spanish where the indigenous languages did not became the language of the community, Spanish did and it stayed like that. (Interview with Ramon Todd)

African slaves, who were captured from a variety of different areas on the western coast and hinterlands of Africa, spoke a plethora of different African languages. The slave traders even went so far as to separate slaves from the same language group so they could not plot a rebellion. As the slaves spent more and more time together, they used common aspects of their own languages, mixed with the language used by those in control. The fourth group that would have been present on the islands was the indigenous population. As a result of Spain’s need for slaves, however, “almost the entire Indian population of the ABC islands had been carried off to Hispaniola” by the year 1515 (Fouse, 2002: 41). Thus, the impact of the indigenous population on the language situation in the Leeward Islands was minimal. Nevertheless, the need to communicate among the three major groups in Curaçao and later in Aruba was great. Over time, Papiamento emerged as a viable Creole language that was spoken and embraced by all three groups living in Aruba.

While the slave trade had an enormous impact on the development of Papiamento, so too did the Catholic Church. Most of the priests who worked in Aruba and the other Leeward islands came from the Diocese of Coroon on the northern tip of Venezuela which is only a few miles from the islands. The Catholic priests sent to work on Aruba spent their early years ministering to the indigenous population. When the Dutch took over the ABC islands from 1634-1636, the religious division between Dutch Protestants and Catholics created too large a rift, and Catholic priests were banned from the islands by the WIC. Despite Dutch restrictions, Catholic priests worked, often in secret, on the islands to spread their ministry to the small indigenous populations and later to the slaves. The first real Catholic Church in Aruba was built in 1750, and “[t]he Catholic Church took the lead in providing initial education for the slaves, believing that it would prepare them for the day when they would become emancipated. The Catholic Church also recognized that Papiamentu [1] was an appropriate vehicle to reach out to the slaves” (Fouse, 2002: 125).

Slaves would have used Papiamento for religious services and education, and the Dutch Protestants and Sephardic Jews more than likely used Papiamento to communicate with one another. Papiamento was also used for educational purposes among the slaves until the mid- 19th century, when the Dutch government started to provide the Catholic Church with subsidies for education with the requirement that all education would be in Dutch. The medium of instruction in Aruban schools has been a contentious subject among pedagogues ever since, as Dutch is still the medium of instruction despite the fact that only seven percent of the population speaks it as their first language (Central Bureau of Statistics Aruba, 2001). It is important to note that while the Catholic Church stopped using Papiamento as the medium of instruction, it continued to use Papiamento as the language of church services. Nevertheless, the move away from Papiamento in the schools was contested by many priests who disagreed and felt strongly about the importance of using Papiamento in the schools. The political clout of the priests was not strong enough, however, to reverse the policies of the powerful Dutch government. Nevertheless, Papiamento was still used as the language for religious ceremonies just as it continues to be used today.

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the Dutch government had to start competing with American influence, which was introduced upon the opening of the Lago Oil and Transplant Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. The Aruban participants in this study all pointed to 1929, when the construction for the large refinery started, as a turning point in Aruban history. In contrast to Curaçao, whose refinery was run by Royal Dutch Shell, the Lago Company and its English-speaking owners attracted English speakers from all over the West Indies. Many of these English speakers came from St. Eustatius (an English-speaking island in the Netherlands Antilles) as well as other islands such as Barbados and Trinidad. The new group of English-speaking immigrants started their own community near the southern portion of Aruba in the town of San Nicolaas. San Nicolaas was much closer to the refinery than Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba, and provided the English speakers with a more private and isolated place to live and congregate.

The presence of the English speakers and a major U.S. business changed the linguistic complexion of the island in a matter of years. While Dutch was still the official language, Arubans now had more incentive to learn another language other than Papiamento. After the arrival of the Lago Company, the Dutch continued to symbolize a culture and authority that seemed very distant to many Arubans.

As Aruba’s economy and political status has changed over the years, more attention has been given to developing the tourism industry and becoming less dependent on the refining of oil (Boekhoudt-Croes, 1996). Government-sponsored incentives to bolster the tourist sector created a demand for an additional workforce that Aruba’s population could not fill, resulting in a new wave of immigrants, primarily from Spanish-speaking countries (Emerencia, 1996).

Many of the new immigrants came from Spanish-speaking countries such as the Dominican Republic, Columbia, and Venezuela, among others. As with past immigration trends, the local Arubans feel that immigrants who do not speak their language and are not willing to adopt their cultural practices are threatening their current way of life. According to Luciano Milliard, a law professor at the University of Aruba, every time there has been a wave of immigrants, there has also been a counter-movement to define and re-define what it means to be Aruban (Milliard, 2008)

Currently, Aruba is one of the most developed islands within the Caribbean (Emerencia, 1998). Valero now operates the oil refinery, first opened by the Lago Company, and together with the tourism industry has created literally thousands of jobs within the last decade. While Aruba no longer has to fight for attention as a member of the Netherlands Antilles, its movement to Status Aparte was supposed to eventually lead to complete independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Such separation now seems much less likely, as the economic infeasibility of becoming completely independent seems to outweigh other nationalistic priorities (U.S. Department of State, 2008). Due to Aruba’s political relationship with The Kingdom of the Netherlands, Dutch is still the primary language of education, the government, and the courts. Thus, while Papiamento has held joint official status with Dutch since March 19, 2003 and is spoken and used in virtually every aspect of daily life, it still plays a subordinate role in domains of education and high government. As such, even though the highest politicians generally use Papiamento to speak among themselves, official correspondence from the government is generally in Dutch, and all correspondence between Aruba and the Netherlands is in Dutch.

The role of Papiamento in Aruban nationalism

While Papiamento is strong in the sense that it is well entrenched in all aspects of Aruban society and there are a number of institutions that seek to maintain and strengthen its status, one of the principal factors that has facilitated the rise and maintenance of the language over the last century has been the role that Papiamento has played in the development of Aruban nationalism. As Papiamento emerged as the lingua franca among the early inhabitants of the ABC islands, it served to mark those who were there first and thus claimed entitlement to positions of power based on their experience and years on the island. As in other places in the world where language has been used to differentiate locals and outsiders, Papiamento historically has been a marker of national identity and a necessary rite of passage to becoming Aruban. In an interview with Ramón Todd, he argued that even the original Dutch immigrants to Curaçao used Papiamento as a reason to discriminate against new arrivals from Holland who did not speak the language.

Anderson (1991) argues that, historically, language has played a fundamental role in the creation of nation states and the creation of imagined communities. Immigration is an important aspect of nation building and has important implications for language attitudes. The next section highlights the impact of immigration upon the continued perception that English and Spanish have both represented threats to Papiamento.


Participants who were formally interviewed, as well as many others spoken to on an informal basis, highlighted the substantial impact that immigration has had on the linguistic makeup of the island. Luciano Milliard asserted that each wave of immigration has made Arubans step back, re-evaluate and cling to what it means to be Aruban, which generally includes being able to speak Papiamento. As discussed earlier, the opening of the Lago Company’s oil refinery was a major jolt to the Aruban economy, but it also attracted immigrants. The arrival of a considerable number of English-speaking immigrants forced Arubans to define or re-define who they were as a form of protection against their new neighbors (Milliard, 2008). Arubans could have reverted to everything Dutch to protect against the large waves of immigrants who all spoke a language of wider communication, but they did not. Instead, despite language policies that limited the use of Papiamento in schools and government, Arubans used their language, Papiamento, to differentiate themselves and maintain their status and power.

The English-speaking immigrants who worked for the Lago Company tried to maintain their variety of Caribbean English and also worked hard to learn Dutch, since it was seen as an important tool necessary to be successful. What is interesting about the children of these English-speaking immigrants is that they also learned Papiamento. Of course, it is natural for children to want to fit in, and English-speaking children growing up in Aruba understood that Papiamento held a very powerful and covert prestige on the island. Therefore, while their parents tended not to claim to be Aruban, these children were caught in the predicament that many children of immigrants find themselves in when discussions of identity arise. Their options were to identify with their ancestral island(s) and/or country(ies) (which many had never even visited), or they could claim to be Aruban, which required the ability to use Papiamento. They generally chose the latter option.

When immigration to the island by Spanish speakers occurred later in the 20th century, the English-speaking immigrants and their children had to rethink their view of Papiamento. According to Lydia Emerencia, the current President of the University of Aruba,

These people (the English speakers) also looked down at Papiamento, almost the same as the Dutch people. So what happened is that the Calypsonian songs would be typically in English, but then happened suddenly something and it happened around when the Largo [sic] closed down. And many people left and suddenly tourism came up again and there became a massive immigration. And so they had a new influx of Spanish-speaking people and then you see that English-speaking people started to feel that they were being kind of threatened.

This perception of threat exhibited by English speakers living in Aruba made them rethink their place in Aruba, and because most of those who had been living on the island were able to speak Papiamento, they were able to use that as a marker of in-group identity, a circle that new Spanish-speaking immigrants were not able to penetrate. Once again, a new wave of immigrants provided a context in which identifying as Aruban becomes more relevant when there is the perception that a new group will be competing for the same jobs and socio-political power. With increased development of the tourism industry, Aruba will need a considerable number of new workers to fill future jobs. It will be interesting to see how the children of the most recent Spanish-speaking immigrants identify themselves and how they are accepted in Aruban society in the future.

With each wave of immigration, Aruba has continually had to define itself, and “every time Aruba goes through a new influx of immigrants, Papiamento becomes stronger” (Interview with Lydia Emerencia). Thus, according to those who work on the maintenance of Papiamento, the latest influx in Spanish-speaking immigrants has raised the consciousness of the average Aruban. Nevertheless, despite a history that would point toward future maintenance of Papiamento, the general population continues to ask the questions: will this wave of immigrants be different from those in the past? Or will Spanish speakers be the first not to learn Papiamento?

Language threat

Historically within the context of Aruba, there have been two different fronts upon which Papiamento has been perceived as threatened. The first front is related to the political association with the Netherlands and its strong anti-Papiamento policies at the end of the 19th century and through most of the 20th century. The second front is related to immigration and the various different waves of immigrants who moved to the island throughout the mid to late 1900s. The English speakers who came to the island to work for the oil refinery and later the English and Spanish speakers who arrived to fill positions in the booming tourism industry all prompted a perception of threat to local language and culture. For the purposes of this paper, I will concentrate solely on the common perception that the Spanish-speaking immigrant population represents a threat to the future vitality of Papiamento.

The participants in this study expressed their concern regarding the increased spread and prominence of Spanish on the island as a result of the most recent waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Columbia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and other Spanish-speaking nations. Throughout the data collection period on the island, it became very obvious that a great many Spanish-speaking immigrants resided on the island. The fieldnotes for this study included numerous references to anti-immigrant discourses that were specifically aimed at Spanish speakers. Whether it was a bartender talking about how “everywhere you go, there are Spanish speakers,” or the teacher who felt that schools should not be responsible for teaching Spanish immigrant students, all of whom she assumed were undocumented, the anti-Spanish immigrant discourse was pervasive throughout observations made on the island. Lydia Emerencia, President of the University of Aruba, explained the main difference between the recent Spanish-speaking-immigrants and past immigrant groups rests on the location of the new immigrants. Past immigrants, mostly English speaking, came to work for the Lago Company and were largely confined to San Nicolaas, a town on the south end of the island. However, unlike the English-speaking immigrants who came before them, the Spanish-speaking immigrants have moved all over the island, and their sheer numbers have startled many Arubans. This permeation by Spanish-speaking immigrants has prompted a defensive reaction among Arubans to protect their language and culture. When asked if she thought the average Aruban would feel that Papiamento is threatened, Lydia Emerencia responded:

I think that there are people who feel that, but I would say as a matter of fact though, that I get the sense that our situation resembles that of Puerto Rico in terms of their Dushi Papiamento - I love Papiamento. They would protest firmly against especially Latin Americans who choose not to speak Papiamento because they consider that an insult, they consider that an act of arrogance, and they would really claim that Latin Americans must learn to speak Papiamento. So indeed, in their protest, they do fear that Papiamento would lose because of so much presence. That is true.

She went on to say:

I think that they fear it (English), I think people do see it (extent to which English is a threat to Papiamento) but, not in the same extent as the Spanish because I think one reason is that in terms of numbers, we have more Latin American speaking people here, so I think we fear that they are a danger more…Latin American people are everywhere.

Despite the significant presence of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the island, only 13.2 percent of respondents to the Aruban census reported Spanish as the language of their household (Central Bureau of Statistics Aruba, 2001). According to the study participants, the children of these Spanish-speaking immigrants are learning Papiamento. Joyce Pereira reported, “But the second generation of the Spanish speaking people, they speak Papiamento. You see them at the schools, and about, and they don't have problems with the Papiamento.” Pereira also noted the absence of a shift away from Papiamento to Spanish. Nonetheless, the participants pointed to a growing trend among Aruban children in which they pick up on anti-immigrant rhetoric and associate the Spanish language with cheap labor and a language that is not worthy of learning.

The anti-immigrant sentiment among Aruban children was exemplified when different participants in the Department of Education focus group talked about young family members who did not like learning Spanish. These participants also noted how different the younger generation’s ideas toward Spanish speakers were from those of older Arubans who grew up with a very positive view of Latin America, primarily through their access to Venezuelan television channels. Evelyn said in the focus group, “but in terms of Spanish taking over, I don’t think it is possible. And, it is like my daughter and my nephew, they don't really like Spanish, and I don't know where that comes from.” After some reflection and comments from other colleagues, Evelyn discussed why she felt her daughter and nephew did not like Spanish and said, “[t]he kids don't wish to identify with that group (Spanish speakers).”

Aruban’s general ability to speak multiple languages and their willingness to speak to visitors in their native tongue has made Aruba a very inviting place for new immigrants. However, there is currently major concern among Arubans regarding Spanish-speakers not learning Papiamento. Such concern over Spanish-speakers’ seeming unwillingness to learn Papiamento is another reason why Arubans think Spanish speakers could potentially pose a threat to Papiamento. Audrey, a representative from the Aruban Department of Education who was working on a campaign to promote Papiamento, discussed Arubans’ general affinity for language and their willingness to speak to a foreigner in their mother tongue as a welcoming and hospitable gesture. She said:

in Aruba we have been taught to be hospitable. So when people come from other countries, we try to speak with them in their language. But when Spanish speakers came, and then when we realized that they were not learning Papiamento, and you were hearing Spanish everywhere you go, we started changing our attitude.

The perception that immigrants are not learning Papiamento is common in regions and areas where there has been an influx of immigrants, but, as noted above, all of the people who were interviewed agreed that the younger immigrants were generally very successful in learning Papiamento, which begs the question: so then why are Arubans so fearful? Is it that they are just trying to establish a strong front against the increased use of Spanish, understanding that, given time, the Spanish-speaking immigrants will one day speak Papiamento? Or do they think that Spanish-speaking immigrants will be the exception to the historical trend of immigrants quickly learning Papiamento?

Aruban immigrants were faced with a choice: they could either go against the grain, elect not to learn Papiamento, and risk being ostracized and not accepted, or they could maintain their own language at home and insist that their children learn Papiamento as a symbol of their willingness to assimilate into Aruba’s unique culture. The data suggest that there are a number of societal cues that immigrants to Aruba would have picked up on shortly after moving to the island. While Arubans are on the whole extremely supportive of and pleasant to foreign visitors, Papiamento is essential in being able to claim any sort of “Arubanness.” This is felt throughout the island and figures prominently in anti-immigrant discourse. Although Aruba’s anti-immigrant discourse strongly encourages immigrants to use Papiamento, the general multilingual environment and language-as-a-resource orientation encourages immigrants to maintain their native language even as they add Papiamento to their often times complex linguistic repertoire. This is refreshingly different from the language-as-a-problem orientation that seems to permeate many countries throughout the world (Ruiz, 1984). This view, that a minority’s first language is unnecessary and unwanted baggage, is frequently experienced by immigrants in the United States, where anti-immigrant discourses and English-only proponents reiterate the importance of linguistic assimilation.


As citizens of a nation and speakers of a language, ordinary people naturally feel they have something at stake in discussions concerning language – theirs or someone else’s (Cameron, 1995). The opinions of the general population are influenced by their own experiences; hence such experiences operate in developing a fear of other languages and the people who speak them despite data that suggest that such fear is merely a perception. In other words, in line with Cameron (2007), there are language contexts in which non-endangered languages can be considered threatened.

For a particular body of people, fear translates into a perceived threat that somehow the presence of a group of speakers of another language or cultural group will eventually displace the current linguistic norm. Throughout the history of Aruba, three language groups have, to different extents, been perceived as a threat to Papiamento. Participants in the study agreed that Papiamento is a stable language that is not in danger of language shift. Despite its strength and longevity in the region, however, participants cautioned against taking it for granted. For example, Juan Gilbertus Schwengle stated: “Well, I have never seen Papiamento on the list of endangered languages from UNESCO… If I saw it, I would be surprised…But I think we have to be careful not to say this out loud or else we will think, "Oh, we don't have to do anything," and that is a problem.” Thus, while the participants argued Papiamento was in no way endangered, there is a notion that Arubans need to continue to work to maintain the language because, without a conscious effort, it could succumb to other languages of wider communication.

As a result of the early stages of the colonization process, Aruba benefited from an established base of nationalist leaders who did not take kindly to losing their authority to a colonial power. It is important to remember that while the Dutch have controlled Aruba since the 1630s, their policies on the island were quite laissez faire (Interview with Ramon Todd). This allowed locals to become very instrumental in the local government until the early 1900s, when the Dutch created The Netherlands Antilles, and Curaçao was named the capital. In essence, island leaders were working to define core cultural ideals to rally around, which became a necessity in opposing the various colonial policies that sought to assimilate Arubans as Dutch.

It was a commonly held idea that, as a colony of The Netherlands, the Aruban constituents should lose their mother tongue and adopt that of their colonizer to show their solidarity and respect for their government. Political leaders on Aruba, however, countered the colonial ideologies and argued vehemently to maintain their local language and culture (Herrera, 2003). Aruba’s movement toward separation, and the eventual attainment of Status Aparte (local autonomy as they broke apart from Curaçao and the rest of the Netherlands Antilles) underscored the importance of Papiamento as a marker of identity.

Despite the fact that many of the core ideals of Arubanness presumably were present, it was only after major policy changes promulgated by the Dutch that islanders were forced to examine what it meant to be Aruban. Aruba did experience migration of non-Papiamento speakers and the island has always been a multilingual society where one language has been used as the lingua franca. Thus, Dutch, Spanish and English-speaking immigrants learned Papiamento along with their own languages because of the political capital that is associated with each. The Aruban multilingual context contrasts sharply to many other contexts within the Caribbean (e.g. Puerto Rico) that have not witnessed a sizable immigration of speakers of another language.


The linguistic history of Papiamento in Aruba and past and current perception of language threat have created a context in Aruba where new immigrants of Spanish-speaking descent have been perceived as a threat to the local language of Papiamento. The prestige of Spanish is growing throughout the world, and as the presence of Spanish-speaking immigrants grows in Aruba, it is understandable that so too will the perception that somehow Papiamento is threatened. However, as one examines the historic patterns of language use among immigrants to the island of Aruba, one can hypothesize that the perception of threat posed by Spanish speakers will work to revive the importance of the use of Papiamento as a marker of Aruban identity. As a result, the Spanish-speaking immigrants may be forced to assimilate into the larger Aruban population by learning Papiamento or run the risk of becoming and remaining a stigmatized minority group. Hence, while Papiamento is currently in a stable condition, the local government and citizens alike must continue to stress the importance of Papiamento and foment its use in the larger society in order to ensure its existence for decades to come.


[1] In Curaçao the Papiamentu is spelled with the final-u as their spelling follows the phonemic pronunciation whereas in Aruba, Papiamento is spelled with a final-o due to its etymologically based spelling system and the fact that the actual pronunciation is [o] since there is no final vowel closing. Return


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