Papiamentu: a ray of hope among the creoles of the world

Papiamentu is demonstrating renewed vigor as a Creole language of the Caribbean. This article attempts to present various aspects of the life cycle of this language in order to show how it has resisted language death and how it can serve as a model for other Creole languages that are attempting to develop a role in modern society. It will provide evidence not only of the socio-historical factors that have been vital to its conservation in the past, but also of the numerous community and institutional efforts that continue to strengthen its role within the A-B-C Islands of the Caribbean, particularly in Curaçao.

Background and Birth

Papiamentu is spoken in the Leeward Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao and Bonaire) and Aruba. The three islands have traditionally been known as the A-B-C islands. However, in 1986, Aruba was granted an autonomous status, thus becoming a separate entity within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. On the sister islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten in the Windward Islands to the northeast, an English Creole is the main language, although Papiamentu is also spoken there (Kouwenberg & Muysken, 1995). Most historians agree that the language emerged in the second half of the 17th century. For instance, Munteanu (1996) gives 1650-1700 as the probable date and Curaçao as the place of origin. After the Spaniards sighted the island in 1499, they made meager attempts to colonize it calling it one of the islas inútiles. Even so, they left their linguistic mark on the Arawaks that inhabited it during that period.

The Dutch took over the island in 1634 and shortly thereafter, two important events prepared the way for the advent of the budding language. First, Portuguese-speaking Sephardic Jews arrived in 1642 from Holland and Brazil, fleeing the Portuguese Inquisition and establishing the first Jewish community in the hemisphere. To this day, Curaçao is known as «the cradle of Judaism in the Americas». By the end of the 18th century, the Jews made up more than half of the white population on the island (Reffes, 2003). In 1650, African slaves began arriving, and by 1685 there were approximately 20,000 in Curaçao alone. (Many linguists agree that Papiamentu’s grammar is essentially African, especially as it relates to its verbal system and its syntactic constructions (Ferrol, 1982)). Maurer (1998) identified the Bantu (from modern day Congo and Angola) and Kwa (from Ghana-Togo-Benin) families of African languages as the two major contributors to the Creole language (p. 193). By the end of the 17th century, the five basic linguistic ingredients were in place for the birth of Papiamentu: Amerindian, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and the African languages. The first reference to the language dates back to 1704, when Father Schabel made reference to an español bastardeado or «bastardized Spanish» spoken in Curaçao. The first use of the name of the language as such appeared in 1805 (p. 194).

Papiamentu emerged essentially as the lingua franca among the groups listed above. Though Dutch was, and continues to be, the language of government and education, Papiamentu began to fill the functions of commerce, religion and everyday living. In fact, the Jewish congregation mentioned above subsequently abandoned Portuguese, preferring Papiamentu as its official language (Munteanu, 1996, p. 42).

The great debate concerning the origins of the language has revolved around the issue of whether it evolved from an Afro-Portuguese proto-Creole that arrived with the slaves and later was relexified by the other European languages, or whether it emerged on the islands directly from Spanish. Birmingham (1971) and Lenz in Holm (1989) argue that the language originated in and around the Gulf of Guinea as an Afro-Portuguese proto-Creole. On the other hand, Ferrol (1982) and Goodman in Kouwenberg & Muysken (1995) stress the role of the Sephardic Jews in contributing the original, strong Portuguese elements of the language. Extensive contact with Spanish, however, later obscured this earlier contribution (Kouwenberg & Muysken, 1995, p. 205). Ferrol offers as important evidence of the latter position a letter written in 1776 by a young Jew to his wife, girlfriend or mistress (the versions vary). The differences between the Papiamentu used in the letter and the modern-day language are minimal. The Spanish base is unmistakable. Besides proving that the Creole was already a full-fledged language by the middle of the 18th century and that it has manifested impressive stability for over 200 years, it reflects a stronger Spanish rather than Portuguese influence on the language. For extensive details on this apparently minority view on the origins of the language, see Ferrol.

Papiamentu and Identity

Curaçao entered the Industrial Age and became known around the world when the Shell Company built its gigantic oil refinery there in 1915. Although the company left the island in 1985, and the refinery was subsequently handed over to the Netherlands Antilles government who leased it to the ISLA Company, these events had a direct bearing on Curaçaoan history and society, including long-lasting effects on the island’s vernacular, as Romer (1987) has documented. He notes, for example, that native Curaçaoans came to be known as landskind, i.e., «children of the land» (p. 41), most of whom consider Dutch a «foreign language» and non-native Dutch persons as «foreigners». Consequently, the arrival of the Dutch company in 1915, with hundreds of workers and their families, resulted in social clashes. The situation was aggravated by the influx of hundreds of immigrant laborers from Surinam, Madeira and a number of the smaller Caribbean islands. The Curaçaoans developed a sense of «in-group» which helped to consolidate Papiamentu as the vernacular. Protestant families of the landskind began to speak the language as a way of warding off the threat that the imported Dutch high society held against them. In addition, the immigrants from the Anglophone islands looked down upon the Curaçaoans for not speaking a «cultural language» as they did. Batiyandi was the pejorative name given by the natives to these «outsiders» who were looked down upon with disdain (p. 48). The Surinamese workers, who also spoke Dutch, were better assimilated because they were more inclined to learning Papiamentu. The language, in essence, became the symbol of cultural identity. In other words, to speak the Creole was to be an «insider».

Anderson and Dynes (1975) describe how the May 30, 1969 uprising, a revolt against the Shell Company, also made its mark on the linguistic history of the island. The rationale behind the disturbance was to demand justice in wages, working conditions and hiring procedures. In essence, the company was being challenged to become more «Antillean» by hiring more locals in technical and managerial positions. It was a protest against the «outsiders» and «exploiters », or makamba as they were called (p. 35). The term referred to «European Dutchmen», i.e. persons of Dutch descent who had recently arrived from Holland, in contrast to persons of Dutch ancestry born in the Antilles. The uprising resulted in thousands marching in the capital city of Willemstad as the economy came to a standstill.

Those who had been on the island a long time and were identified as citizens rather than as «visiting colonials» were seldom harmed. The correct identification was to be able to speak Papiamentu, no matter the color of one’s skin. One incident describes a young blonde Dutch woman who was stopped and threatened by the mob. As she indignantly got out of her car she began swearing in Papiamentu. The crowd, which minutes before had been threatening her, broke out in laughter, and someone yelled “Let her go, she’s one of us!” Another example of this insider-outsider dimension is illustrated by the economic loss suffered by Askenazim Jew merchants, who had arrived recently and were considered as newcomers and outsiders, in contrast to the Sephardic Jews, who were long-term residents, as noted above (p. 132). The dividing line was not physical, ethnic or economic…it was linguistic and nationalistic! The results of this social upheaval strengthened Curaçaoan identity and the position of the Papiamentu language on the island. A new organization during that time called «Obra y Logra» developed educational programs in Papiamentu using the mass media. One of their first achievements or «logros» was the creation of Papiamentu classes for non-Antilleans, thus propagating the language even further.

The VITÓ Movement of 1967, another radical organization that operated outside established politics during those years, was formed by returning students and young intellectuals with the aim of disseminating ideas on the need for radical change in Curaçao. The group published a paper called VITÓ in Dutch, confronting the issues of political and economic exploitation of the masses. Later, when it was published in Papiamentu, thousands of copies were sold weekly, thus kindling the flames of insurrection that erupted on May 30th. Two of VITÓ’s immediate demands were for pay increases and for the stepping down of the government in power. Surprisingly for some, both demands were met. Meanwhile, a television program known as Confrontashon, was aired island-wide to discuss in the vernacular the social issues that needed to be addressed as a result of the uprising (Devonish, 1986, p. 66). All in all, the prominent use of the language was a key factor in achieving this awakening that resulted in “increased pressure toward political independence and a greater emphasis on an Antillean identity” (Anderson and Dynes, 1975, p. 36).

Although the general mood during the years leading to the uprising was one of conscious exclusion of the «outsiders», it could be said that the post-May 30th frame of mind attempted to reconcile the opposing parties and thus, heal the wounds of Curaçaoan society. In spite of this, it seems that the Dutch language/Papiamentu or makamba/landskind dichotomy continues to be an underlying source of tension among the islands’ residents. Ms. Kitty Blankevoort, a Dutch woman who visited Curaçao on her honeymoon thirty years ago and decided to make the island her home, sadly admitted that to this day, she continues to experience a sense of being a foreigner or outsider (Personal communication, 2003). This unconscious exclusion can be interpreted to be a psychological defense mechanism of Curaçaoan society to ensure its own survival in the face of the colonizers.

Problems Facing Papiamentu

As with most Creoles, Papiamentu has been historically subjected to linguistic stigmatization, deemed by some as a second-class language, i.e. substandard, broken, etc. It is interesting, as was stated above, that even English-Creole speaking immigrants from the nearby islands, whose language is also stigmatized, looked down on Papiamentu speakers because of their inability to speak a «cultural language». History shows that this social pressure only served to strengthen the speech community’s sense of self-pride and identity (Andersen & Deynes, 1975).

However, there is also an inter-island kind of stigmatization that occurs between Arubans and Curaçaoans. Aruba, which is located closer to Venezuela and, therefore, receives strong Spanish influence on its culture and language, as noted above, seems to frown on Curaçao’s cultural and linguistic proximity to the Dutch colonizers (Ithel Brute, personal communication, 2003). This «sibling rivalry» came to a fore when the issue of orthography for Papiamentu arose. Aruba opted for an etymological writing system in order to accommodate the Spanish and Portuguese influences in Papiamentu. Curaçao preferred a strictly phonemic system that abounds in the usage of /k/ instead of the Aruban use of /c/ or /qu/ for the same sound (Devonish, 1986). The split did not remain simply linguistic; it was also political with Aruba’s requesting and being granted an autonomous status within the Kingdom, thus separating itself from the other islands for a number of other reasons that are outside the scope of this article.

Attitudes of stigmatization toward the language abound within the island’s educational system; advances in educational policies in favor of Papiamentu have not come without a price. Many parents, students, teachers and school administrators would prefer to do away with the language. In a personal communication (2009), Ms. Ange Jessurun, former Vice-Principal at the Peter Stuyvesant College in Willemstad, capital city of Curaçao, and one of the writers for the Mosaiko Curriculum Project, states: “It has been an uphill battle for us. A very negative self-image exists among many of our people, including our youth, as Papiamentu speakers. There is shame when they compare their native language to Dutch, English or Spanish, which are the other main languages spoken on the island.” This is a self-defeating attitude that undermines the many efforts that are made to strengthen the language’s position and prestige. Ms. Jessurun mentions that for some students “Papiamentu is not a real language because one cannot use it to express everything that can be expressed with the other international languages.” They find it difficult to perceive the language within the panorama of their academic and professional future, since many of them will most likely decide to attend college either in the Netherlands or the United States because of the limited opportunities for higher education that exist on the island. The government provides attractive incentives in the form of student grants and loans to study abroad…only in Holland. Many students will eventually stay in Europe, thus draining the island of its professionals, similar to what occurs on so many Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico. The difference, however, is that the Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico is not weakened, while Papiamentu is, in terms of the number of speakers.

When asked what realities are hindering decision-making to decolonize the educational system in the Netherland Antilles, including the integration of teaching in the vernacular, Prins-Winkel (1981) cites the following:

1) political and colonial chauvinism, 2) official shortsightedness, 3) brainwashing of the people , 4) teachers’ limitations and frustrations, 5) parental hopes and despair, 6) pressure and protests from European-Dutch parents against any idea of change, for fear this might hamper their children’s return to schools in the Netherlands, 7) ex-students who, having married Dutch partners, understandably wish to keep the Dutch school-system safe for their own children, and 8) last, but not least, complacent politicians who have to take the first steps in this complex and controversial matter. (pp 19-20)

Although Prins-Winkel’s response is directed to a particular school system, it is clear that for a Creole language such as Papiamentu to survive, the educational arm of society needs to be strong and willing, which leads right into issues related to the pedagogical strategies that are underway to ensure the health of the language for the immediate future.

Linguistic Issues

Throughout most of its life cycle, Papiamentu has demonstrated consistent growth and development, including the fact that it manifests noticeable linguistic variety within the limited geographical area that it occupies. Aruba is a case in point. Because of its closer proximity to the South American coast, Aruba evidences a greater number of Amerindian, Latin American and Spanish features. The Papiamentu spoken there contains many more Spanish words than the varieties on the other two ABC Islands. Curaçao and Bonaire have traditionally identified more with their African heritage, and since the seat of government of the Netherlands Antilles was always located in Willemstad, the influence from Dutch was more evident on the Papiamentu spoken there (Sedoc-Dahlberg, 1990). She makes an interesting comment about the existing language variation on the three islands: “Curaçaoans speak Papiamentu; Arubans sing Papiamentu and Bonaireans wail Papiamentu!” She goes on to say, “The language is one of the most important clues for the identification of the individual with respect to the island of origin. Each island has its special intonation and a partly distinct vocabulary” (p. 54).

With respect to the issue of language variation, Wood (1972) notes that since Spanish can be considered the superstrate language to which Papiamentu is most closely related, the process of hispanization may tentatively be identified as decreolization. He regards this phenomenon as “remarkable” in light of the political fact that Curaçao ceased to be a Spanish possession back in 1634 (p. 857). However, it is not so remarkable, given the pervasive presence of Spanish in the immediate surrounding region. Wood offers several examples of how this process of hispanization can be observed in the language’s acquisition of certain verbal inflections, a progression that moves it away from being a Creole language in the traditional description of the term. For instance, the verbal root form does not usually change in Papiamentu, even when the tense may be different.

e ta papya = He is speaking (or he speaks)
e tábata papya = He was speaking
e a papya = He spoke (or had spoken)

However, under the influence of such Spanish constructions as (él) está hablando, a continuous present tense has come into being in Papiamentu:

e ta papyando = He is speaking (El está hablando.)

And likewise, a continuous imperfect has been created:

e tábata papyando = He was speaking. (El estaba hablando.)

Another example of hispanization at the morpho-syntactic level is the use of the passive voice. Rural, non-literary Papiamentu knows no passive form. Yet, either the passive construction of Spanish, which uses ser, or the Dutch-derived wordu has been incorporated into the verb system to form:

Papyamentu ta ser (or wordu) papyá = Papiamentu is spoken. (Papiamento es hablado.)

Wood states that Spanish influences have contributed to the creation of a separate literary or written dialect of Papiamentu, distinguishable from that of “unsophisticated speakers.” Social dialects have thus been created. The users of this hispanisized dialect are what he calls “high-prestige” speakers circumscribed to the more urban Curaçao (p. 860).

There is another school of educated native speakers that accepts the need for continued growth of the Papiamentu lexicon by means of selected loan words from Spanish. However, these speakers also see a need for the maintenance of unity in the Papiamentu-speaking community. For instance, they try to avoid the excessive use of participles and other borrowed syntactic forms. Wood calls this the puristic or populistic school. Nevertheless, borrowing continues, as the following lexical items attest: elekshon, interes, ekonomia, kompliká, preparashon, antiséptiko, klínika, resultado, ardyente, indiferente.

With these two forces exerting pressure simultaneously – the innovative drive to expand the language through loan words from Spanish and other languages, on the one hand, and the conservative drive to maintain the language as close to the original as possible, on the other – there should be a healthy balance and a level at which this decreolizing hispanization process should be fixed. That is the natural tendency of many languages, and Wood seems to agree that this is what is occurring with Papiamentu.

Andersen (1981) presented a pioneering study at a conference on Papiamentu in which he showed that variation in the use of Papiamentu in Curaçao is systematic and highly structured and that it functions along a continuum of style, status and nativeness (p. 66). He concluded that the way in which a particular person speaks is determined by certain attributes of the speaker and his or her audience – age, education, place of residence, sex, as well as the setting, topic and purpose. He used six different settings or texts such as a conversation, the narration of a story, a television news report, and others. He obtained 70 hours of recordings from more than 200 individuals in the described settings. By adopting a quantitative methodology for analyzing linguistic variation based on the work of William Labov, Andersen found that each of the ten variables presented a continuum of possibilities ranging from a casual style/very informal setting to a very careful style/very formal setting. Several of the variables included deletion features such as final s-deletion, final vowel deletion, “tabata” deletion, and others, all of which were considered stigmatized expressions. He concluded that careful speech in formal settings is characterized by almost total lack of such deletions; the full form, as written in a typical dictionary entry, is required (p. 80). Basically, what Andersen’s study proved is that phonological variation in Papiamentu is orderly and systematic and that the study of these variations leads to a better understanding of the several different norms that currently exist in the use of this Creole, such as is the case of any other natural language.

While it is not the intention of this paper to be exhaustive in citing investigations in linguistics demonstrating the vitality of Papiamentu and the importance the language has for current linguistics, it is pertinent to point to at least a couple of the more recent studies. One of these, an investigation completed by Faraclas et al (2007), demonstrates that, although the tense-modality-aspect (TMA) system of Papiamentu has been described by a number of researchers as «aberrant», «exceptional» or «deviant», the language operates essentially on the basis of the same sound system found in other Creoles of the Afro-Atlantic region. Five specific TMA features that Andersen (1993) cites as «aberrant» are analyzed and all are shown to follow the patterns of grammatical change found not only in Caribbean Creoles, but also in most of their West African substrate languages.

Rivera-Castillo (2004) completed another fairly recent work on Papiamentu describing its tonal system. Her research supplements earlier phonological descriptions of Papiamentu as an intonational language through the use of experimental data focusing on tone and stress distinctions and their phonetic correlates. The fact that the paper expands previous depictions of the tone and stress systems in Papiamentu would tend to indicate that the Creole has been the subject of a myriad of linguistic studies that continue to assert its vitality in modern times.

As recently as 2008, Faraclas, Severing and Weijer edited a groundbreaking volume in order “to bring together current research finds on Papiamentu from a broad range of linguistic disciplines and from many diverse points of view (Faraclas, Severing & Weijer, 2008, p. 6). Such varied topics as the language’s intonational system, focus fronting, language planning and language policies, Papiamentu’s African roots, and the Portuguese elements of the language are included in this fresh publication.

An important question that needs to be addressed at this point is whether Papiamentu is showing evidence of language shift or language decay. The former phrase refers to a choice made by a society as to which language will be used for certain functions (Clampitt-Dunlap, 1995). This choice may lead to the decay or death of another language. If this shift does not occur, or if it occurs only in certain domains of a society, then some degree of language maintenance takes place. She identifies several conditions that tend to foster language shift, among which are societal bilingualism, migration, industrialization, the school’s and government’s use of the language, urbanization and the prestige level of the languages in contact (Chapter 2). All of the aforementioned factors hold true in the Netherlands Antilles, more so in urban Curaçao than on the other islands. What this means is that if any cataclysmic event such as independence or the closing down of the oil refinery were to radically alter any or all of these factors, language shift could become a reality, and then the world would have to wait and see what becomes of Papiamentu…and Dutch. But for the meantime, it seems that the Creole is holding its own.

Fishman (2000) states that if there is no clear compartmentalization of functions or domains, language shift begins. Instability sets in when one language begins to be used in the other’s domains, and this is where language decay and death can become a real possibility. Again, this does not seem to be the case of the Papiamentu spoken in Curaçao. The unique situation of this island is that neither of the major lexifier languages (Spanish or Portuguese) is the official language of the land, so that almost from its very origins the linguistic functions for both Papiamentu and Dutch became clear. Dutch would be the «official» language while Papiamentu would become the vernacular. For educational, economic and political reasons, it was necessary that Dutch be imposed both as the language of government in order to maintain ties with the metropolis, and as the language of public instruction so that students would have the opportunity to continue on to higher education in Holland. Bartens (2001) adds that the Dutch community practiced a type of «linguistic apartheid» that forced the Creole to become the medium of inter-ethnic communication. However, as Papiamentu continues to expand into the educational, publication and technological realms, as will be noted below, it seems that it is Dutch which is undergoing a degree of «decay», at least within the context of the A-B-C islands.

Revitalization of Papiamentu

In his article entitled «Integrating Creole into Caribbean classrooms», Roberts (1994) describes the needs and concerns of the educational systems of the island and territories where English-based Creoles are spoken in the Caribbean. Those needs and concerns coincide dramatically with the linguistic issues related to the teaching-learning environment found in the Netherlands Antilles. Roberts proposed what he calls an “integrative approach model” as a theoretical paradigm for change on the Anglophone islands. Although he proposed this in 1994, it nevertheless describes what has been occurring in the Netherlands Antilles with the revitalization of Papiamentu, as is evidenced in the following paragraphs.

The last decade has witnessed a marked upsurge in the steps that have been taken to strengthen the viability and vitality of the vernacular of the A-B-C Islands. One of the most outstanding measures has been the advent of the organization known as the Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma (FPI). April 24, 1998, marks the date on which the official act was approved that gave birth to the FPI as an agency of the local government. Its primary goal was to “promote the relevant languages in our community and to regulate linguistic situations related to Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish and English” (FPI homepage Up until October 2007, Dutch had been the official language of Aruba and the five islands of the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius and Sint Maarten), but as the direct result of ten years of intensive work and lobbying on the part of the FPI, a bill was passed in March 2008 designating Dutch, English and Papiamentu as the three official language in the Netherlands Antilles. In 2003, Aruba had already opted for Dutch and Papiamentu as its two official languages (Severing and Weijer, 2008, p. 247). Needless to say, these were two landmark victories for Creole linguists around the world.

The role of education and language planning has been crucial within the revitalization process that Papiamentu has undergone. Back in 1983, when Dutch was the sole language of instruction in all schools on the six islands, the first steps were taken to prepare for the introduction of Papiamentu in the school system. A new office called Sede di Papiamentu (SdP) was established that provided retraining for primary school teachers and developed a provisional method called Papiamentu nos Idioma. As a result, in 1986, Papiamentu was introduced as a compulsory subject to be taught for 30 minutes per day in the primary grades in Curaçao.

Later in 2001, a new plan for a total restructuring of primary education in the Netherlands Antilles was introduced, known as «Foundation Based Education» or Enseñansa di Fundeshi. Under this plan, the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants of each island would be used as the language of instruction. Thus, English would be used in the Windwards (Saba, Sint Maarten, St. Eustatius) and Papiamentu in the Leeward (Bonaire and Curaçao). By the year 2013, FBE has to be completely integrated into the public school system of all the islands. The highlights of the program include: teaching in the vernacular in the primary grades; achieving broad support from schools, policy-makers, parents and teachers; receiving approval from Parliament; an emphasis on the teaching of foreign languages at the primary levels (English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and French) in order to prepare students for higher education outside the territory; the increased use of modern teaching methods and technology; intensive teacher training and extensive staff development (Severing & Weijer, 2008, p. 253).

The rationale behind this far-reaching language planning program is threefold. First, solid cultural and educational policies are in place to counteract cultural estrangement, promote cultural independence and strengthen personal identity. Second, developmental psychology principles foster learning in one’s own language in order to increase student self-esteem and language development. Numerous studies have proven that bilingualism strengthens overall cognitive and personal development (Hamers & Blanc, 1989). Thirdly, didactic reasons exist that relate education to the child’s knowledge and view of the world (World Education Forum, 2000).

Returning to the work of FPI, the Institute has identified four objectives that are worth quoting as a way of providing significant guidelines that may serve as a model for other Creole languages. The objectives are the following:

1) To promote the use of Papiamentu as a shared community language in order to obtain national unity; 2) To promote the use and preservation of Papiamentu in order to promote the preservation of Antillean culture; 3) To promote the development and distribution of relevant vernacular languages; 4) To promote the enrichment of skills for effective communication among citizens in a multilingual setting. (Severing & Weijer, 2008, p. 254)

As has already been stated, the use of Papiamentu has noticeably increased in recent years. The following is a brief overview of the numerous projects and other endeavors that evidence this reality, many of which have been initiated by FPI. First of all, in order to support the ambitious educational program in which Papiamentu is playing an increasingly major role, FPI has designed, published and distributed a wide spectrum of curricular materials and resources that covers the full range of ages from pre-school to college levels. The materials, which include children’s dictionaries, story books, textbooks, and translations of literary works, integrate solid pedagogical principles garnered from serious research and planning. Series titles include Bestia (Pre-school), Trampolin (Primary), Lesa Bon (Primary), Salto, (Primary), Asina mi ke ta (Primary), Mosaiko (Secondary- texts for students and manuals for teachers). Kadans, an innovative approach to the history of world literature, focuses on the literature from the six languages taught in the schools: Dutch, English, Papiamentu, Spanish, French and German (Catálogo de Jubileo FPI, 2008, p. 4-33). A major technological advance has been the creation of the first word processing spelling corrector in Papiamentu. Of the nearly 6,000 languages in the world, roughly 200 have at their disposal a computer program of this type. SpelChek contains approximately 30,000 words and has licenses available for its use by government, business and private institutions (Catálogo, p.34).

Besides focusing on the modernization of the vernacular, FPI has concentrated part of its efforts on the conservation of the language by reproducing hard-to-obtain texts and manuscripts, thus making them accessible to researchers. Examples of some of these texts are: Prefecto Apostolico di Curacao na Cristian de su mision, the oldest Papiamentu text, published in 1833; Catecismo corticu, the oldest existing catechism in Papiamentu, published in 1837; Ewanhelie de San Matheo, the oldest Protestant publication in the language, dating back to 1844. The importance of this conservation project lies in connecting the newer generations with their sociocultural and historical roots which, in turn, strengthen the continuity of the language itself (Católogo, 2008, pp. 36-37).

A plethora of linguistic and cultural activities, sponsored by the local government under the auspices of FPI, and supported by the general public, is further evidence of the vibrancy and maturity of Papiamentu. Just to name a few, there were drama-writing workshops called Dossier Korsou de la Flying Bridge International, which were designed with youth and adults in mind, and were sponsored in 2002-2003 by Fundashon Paradox. In 2005, the centennial celebration of the first published poem in Papiamentu was held – Un siglo di poesia na Papiamentu. (Incidentally, it was J.S. Corsen, the «father of Papiamentu literature», who was the first to recognize the Creole as a literary language (Van Putte-deWindt, 1998, p. 654)). The Curazao lee reading campaign, sponsored by the Public Library was held in 2006. The following year, the Ministry of Education and FPI organized a two-day symposium under the theme Idioma, Cultura y Traje Tipico. Two annual events attract numerous participants from around the islands: the Arte di Palabra writing and oratory contest, and Siman di Kultura, which facilitates literary encounters, and is organized by Casa Kultura.

Two major international events deserve a special mention here. In 2004, more than 100 linguists from around the world met at the Curaçao Creole Conference (CCC 2004). The organizers included FPI, UNESCO, Fundashon Skol Humanista, Associaçao de Crioulos de Base Lexical Portuguesa e Espanhola (ACBLPE), the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics (SPCL) and the Society for Caribbean Linguistics (SCL). Quite an impressive parade of sponsors, to say the least!

As part of FPI’s 10th anniversary celebration, the 11th Annual Eastern Caribbean Island Cultures Conference met at Piscadera Bay in Curaçao to address issues related to the languages and literature of the region. Needless to say, Papiamentu was one of the central topics. This significant gathering was co-sponsored by FPI, the University of the Netherlands Antilles, the University of West Indies and the University of Puerto Rico (Catálogo, 2008, pp 48-51).

The public mass media has also been decisively instrumental in the revitalization of Papiamentu. In Curaçao alone, there are ten newspapers published in the vernacular, and two are only partially published in Dutch. The islands are serviced by fourteen radio stations, all of which broadcast in Papiamentu, with multilingual programming transmitted by roughly one or two of them. The reader may access many of the radio stations and newspapers directly by going to In addition, there are two major TV stations on the island and both maintain Papiamentu as the leading language (Severing and Weijer, 2008, p. 249).


Several factors have contributed to this consistent and continuous strengthening of the Papiamentu Creole language throughout its history. First of all, there is a robust commitment on the part of the people of the Netherlands Antilles to their history and their heritage. The geographical isolation of the islands, far from Africa and Holland, has made them pull together in order to survive culturally. Despite their proximity to South America and the strong influence of the Spanish language, they do not identify themselves as Latin or South American. They are «Antilleans», «antianos», truly proud of their Caribbeanness. Garrett’s (2008) study on language attitudes and identity of Papiamentu speakers has concluded that there has even been an “expansion in the use of Papiamentu on the part of the younger generations” which has been “accompanied by a more positive evaluation of Papiamentu and a stronger and more positive sense of identity as an Antillean” (p. 42). In reference to her language and culture, Garrett ends her paper with a triumphant note as she joins her voice to those of many of her compatriots by declaring: “Di nos e ta” (It is ours!) (p. 42).

Related to this deep sense of identity is the sociocultural/psychological phenomenon mentioned above and referred to as the makamba/landskind dichotomy which became notoriously manifest during the 1969 uprising, but that continues to express itself. This unconscious exclusion of any «foreign» or «outsider» elements that might pose a threat to a sense of Antillean unity has provided the inner strength and determination necessary to struggle for linguistic and cultural survival.

Another significant factor is the support that the linguistic endeavors in favor of Papiamentu have received from the local government. Unlike many of their English-based counterparts, the Dutch islands have been given official backing, at times tacitly, and more recently, outrightly. As many linguists acknowledge, “What we can say with reasonable certainty is that there will be no positive changes in the status quo of pidgins and Creoles unless there is a political will to make those changes. Along with that will must come resources to enable linguists, teachers and writers to develop appropriately the full resources of their language” (Sebba, 1997, p. 260.) The Netherlands Antilles have been fortunate in this respect. Government funding, of course, does not cover the complete cost of financing such ambitious projects; outside resources are constantly being tapped. Hopefully, as awareness and support grow, so will the possibilities for funding.

Yet another contributing factor to Papiamentu’s success story is the high level of literacy of these islands. Holm (1989) puts it at 100% (p. 315) while Severing and Weijer (2008) cite a close 96.3% (p. 250). Undoubtedly this is related to the fact that the islands also enjoy the highest standard of living due to the «black gold» that flows in and out of Willemstad harbor. These factors, coupled with widespread multilingualism, have consequently reinforced the unusual linguistic revitalization and high social prestige of the language. Its recent developments in education and technology are manifestations of its growing importance as a symbol of national identity.

One final factor that undoubtedly has been crucial in the language’s recent revival has been the growing number of persons involved in language policy-making, planning, curriculum design and related tasks. This is clearly evident in the work which is being accomplished by FPI members, writers, educators, linguists, government officials and other professionals. As Ms. Ange Jessurun has stated, “endless hours have been dedicated to this project of reaching the goals of the Fundashon (personal communication, 2009). Certainly, much of the work has been and continues to be accomplished by volunteer and paid staff alike, men and women who are committed to the cause of keeping their identity, their culture and their language alive and well.

The cheering squad is not unanimous, however. There are those who foresee eventual language shift and language death in the case of Papiamentu. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that this Spanish-based Creole of the Caribbean has achieved an overwhelmingly positive status among the Creoles of the world, and the majority of its own people are the first to applaud it.

I would conclude this article by quoting from the minutes of a 1981 international colloquium on the topic «Papiamentu: Problema i posibilidat», held at the University of the Netherlands Antilles. These words, which were published in Munteanu (1996), serve as both a challenge and a ray of hope for Papiamentu and for other Creole languages. They are cited here in Spanish:

El futuro dirá si la Sede di Papiamentu, el departamento gubernamental de la isla de Curazao que se dedica a tiempo completo a la propagación, el estudio y la información acerca del papiamento, y el Instituto Lingwistiko Antiano, órgano del Gobierno Federal (de las Antillas Neerlandesas), lograrán darle a esta lengua una posición firme en la comunidad de las Islas ABC. Es de esperar que el gobierno sepa decidir con juicio acerca del campo de actividad que le corresponderá a esta lengua criolla y el que les será asignado a las lenguas universales que se hablan y se escriben en las islas. (Munteanu, 1996, p. 72)
[The future will say if the Sede di Papiamentu, the governmental department of the island of Curaçao which dedicates full time to the propagation, study and information concerning Papiamentu, and the Antillean Linguistic Institute, the organ of the Federal Government (of the Netherlands Antilles), will achieve giving this language a firm position within the community of the ABC Islands. It is hoped that the government will know how to decide wisely as to the range of activity that this Creole language will have and that which will be assigned to the universal languages that are spoken and written on the islands.]


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