A NY Times story by Simon Romero describes the unusually promising situation of the Caribbean language Papiamento:

Papiamentu, a Creole language influenced over the centuries by African slaves, Sephardic merchants and Dutch colonists, is now spoken by only about 250,000 people on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. But compared with many of the world’s other Creoles, the hybrid languages that emerge in colonial settings, it shows rare signs of vibrancy and official acceptance.
Most of Curaçao’s newspapers publish in Papiamentu. Music stores do brisk business in CDs recorded in Papiamentu by musicians like the protest singer Oswin Chin Behilia or the jazz vocalist Izaline Calister.
“Mi pais ta un isla hopi dushi, kaminda mi lombrishi pa semper ta derá,” goes a passage in Ms. Calister’s hit song “Mi Pais.” (That roughly translates as “My island is a lovely place, where my umbilical cord forever lies.”) […]
“While English and French Creoles get more attention, the extension of Papiamentu into different domains like writing, education and policy is incredibly high,” said Bart Jacobs, a Dutch linguist who studies Papiamentu. “This bodes very well for the language’s chances to survive, and possibly even thrive well into the future.”
Scholars, writers and composers here say Papiamentu’s resilience has roots in a mixture of radical politics and pragmatic planning. They often tie Papiamentu’s resurgence to a violent uprising against symbols of Dutch power on May 30, 1969, known here as Trinta di Mei. […]
Papiamentu’s vibrancy is related to the creation in 1998 of the Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma, a language institute that maintains an orthography. Papiamentu also thrives on the street level, with immigrants from Haiti and Suriname often picking up the language quickly and using it instead of Dutch.

Nice to see an upbeat story on a “small” language for a change. (Thanks, Bonnie!)


  1. michael farris says

    Hopi bon! Nice to see Papiamento get some press coverage. I took a course in it some years ago and it was always fun.
    I think two of the biggest factors in favor of Papiamento/u are:
    1. The Dutch (for all their other faults) weren’t as agresssive in pushing their language as the other colonial powers were.
    2. The lexifying language (whether you accept the Spanish or Portuguese origin theory) doesn’t have any official status. English, French and (other) Portuguese creoles have to directly compete with those languages.
    Also, you can still find sites in both orthographies on the web (or at least I did several months ago when I was looking for Papiamento news sites).

  2. Not pushing their language might have been a byproduct of a different Dutch fault, indifference to the education of the locals. (That’s speculation on my part, I’m not familiar with the history).

  3. Dutch is also useless for anything else other than emigrating to the Netherlands. Compare Romero’s earlier story on Suriname.

  4. michael farris says

    I’ve always been puzzled at how in the developing world, questions of language policy are often discussed in an almost perfect vaccuum.
    The only factor that actually seems to get discussed much is ‘usefulness’ which is usually shorthand for ‘usefulness for those who can get out of this place’. (that’s a gratuitous cheap shot at certain former colonies whose educational systems seem to be designed around producing emigrants rather than local citizens).
    And (the Surinamese article is a good example of this) the discussions seem to leave out all sorts of practical implementation and cultural compatability issues.
    I often think of the English-at-all-costs cult as a modern version of the Cargo Cults of the Pacific (and just about as effective).

  5. I can’t help but note that in Surinam a massive shift to Dutch is now under way: since the local Creole (Sranan), like Papiamentu, is not Dutch-based, I suspect that the strength of Papiamentu has more to do with local conditions than with Dutch colonial/educational policy.
    I know of two such differences in local conditions (N. B. what follows is an educated guess rather than a theory):
    1-Sranan, although for a long time the uncontested local lingua franca, was the first language of the creoles only: because of the ethnic tensions between different ethnic groups, Dutch may have quickly spread to new domains as an “ethnically neutral” language.
    2-The economy of the ABC islands is much healthier than that of Surinam (largely because of the oil industry): this may have fostered the growth of a local Papiamentu-speaking upper class, thereby weakening the association of the local creole with poverty/ignorance, thereby making it more prestigious.

  6. michael farris says

    Etienne, my theory (spurred by a random comment on an old usenet thread) is that the real linguistic movers and shakers are the middle class. The poor have no influence (and no one takes their linguistic needs into account) and the elites don’t have essentially no language loyalty (if anything they like to embrace languages that the rest of society doesn’t have much access to).
    But if a middle class gets behind a language it’ll do okay. It might be that Papiamento has something like a middle class behind it and Sranan doesn’t / didn’t.
    I do think that the (relative) hands off language policy of the Netherlands and the lack of a lexifying language in an official position help Papiamento but an emerging middle class might seal the deal.

  7. A few years ago, did I read in some scholarly book that a number of these islands, vastly separated and with very different histories, have a mysterious similarity in their indigenous languages?

  8. caffiend says

    Yes, you probably read about John McWhorter’s “The Missing Spanish Creoles”.
    Who says Suriname is shifting to Dutch? The Times article gave me the opposite impression.

  9. As Michael said in the first comment, Papiamento is not simply a rustic dialect of the official language, so it can’t get ignored by the education system, in contrast to, for example, Jamaican patois or Haitian Kreyol (which seems to have more official status in the USA than it does in Haiti).
    If you learn French, you can, to a greater or lesser degree, understand Kreyol, and vice versa; while Jamaican patois seems incomprehensible only if you listen to it aloud, but written down, in whatever orthography, statements in patois are fairly easy to understand. It’s the Jamaican upcountry accent that makes patois (or even standard English spoken in that accent*)seem so different,but with patience and a little practice, it becomes an almost poetic form of English, although almost impossible to become fluent in if not born into the culture.
    But Papiamento is not a Dutch based language, so it can thrive as a different language.
    In my rather brief experience in Aruba, Papiamento is a vehicle of local patriotism, a way to magnify the island culture. Little handbooks are compiled for the benefit of tourists–I have one buried somewhere in a desk drawer, and you are barely aware that Dutch is the offical language, except when dealing with Customs.
    BTW, wouldn’t Mi pais ta un isla hopi dushi be translated more exactly as “my country/home is a very beautiful/pleasant island”, as the underlying Spanish would suggest (I’m taking dushi to be “dulce”, but I have no idea what the origin of “hopi” might be.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    A parallel might be the English-language (officially) Caribbean nations where the local Creole is French-based (e.g. Dominica and St. Lucia). Does the creole there do better in terms of prominence/prestige/etc. than in islands like Jamaica where the creole is English-based? (The creole in the Seychelles, which have a not-unCaribbean history, considering they’re on the other side of the world, is French-based and I think does alright for itself in the prominence/prestige area.)

  11. I have no idea what the origin of “hopi” might be.
    Probably heap, like in Tonto-speak, but via Dutch hoop[je].

  12. michael farris says

    kishnevi, I’m not sure what the current consensus is, but there used to be a lot of controversy about whether Papiamentu was lexified primarily by Spanish or Portuguese. Being so close to Venezuela (whose radio and tv are easily available) the Spanish element is more ascendant now but there’s a lot of evidence for Portuguese too.
    I wouldn’t call Jamaican or Kreyol ‘rustic dialects’ but part of their problem in acceptance is that the linguistically naive* can easily perceive them that way. Papiamento on the other hand can in no way, shape or form be perceived as a rustic form of Dutch.
    The French creoles in English official areas have the problem of anglophone linguistic agression (again Dutch speakers have no real history of imposing their language on remotely governed peoples that I know of).
    And while I can perceive no good reason for Surinam to officialize English, it would be interesting to see what would happen to Sranan then. While English is the lexifier there’s also no way to perceive Sranan as rustic or broken English.
    *my term for those without any formal training in linguistics

  13. stormboy says

    @J.W. Brewer: “Does the creole there do better in terms of prominence/prestige/etc. than in islands like Jamaica where the creole is English-based?”
    I can’t answer your question but am informed by friends from both St Lucia and Dominica that in recent years there has been renewed interest (including among the young) in the French creoles of these islands.

  14. I wouldn’t call Jamaican or Kreyol ‘rustic dialects’ but part of their problem in acceptance is that the linguistically naive* can easily perceive them that way
    The Jamaican accent and idiom is definitely more pronounced among people raised in rural areas, and much less pronounced among those raised in urban areas. I’ve worked for years with a number of Jamaicans, and the pattern seems to hold for all of them; the only difference is that younger immigrants to the US after a short time manage to acquire two accents–native Jamaican and Americanized urban built on a Jamaican foundation. The two are distinctive; the native is kept for fellow Jamaicans, the Americanized for everyone else.
    And the Jamaican patios is as least a matter of accent as it is vocabulary: committed to paper, there would be little a speaker/reader of standard English would not recognize, although the syntax and grammar may be radically different. [F.i. “me eat” means “I’m going to eat now/I’m eating now”.]
    Haitian Kreyol is more precisely linked to class and education, although of course the more rural areas generally trend to the lower levels of income and education, and at the same time appear on the Kreyol end of the Kreyol/standard French spectrum of use (with the upper class/better educated maintaining standard French as their language and the rest of Haiti accepting Kreyol in that role).

  15. To Caffiend: for shift to Dutch in Suriname, see De Kleine (2007), A MORPHOSYNTACTIC ANALYSIS OF SURINAMESE DUTCH. In one of her introductory chapters she points to census data indicating that a majority of Surinamese speak Dutch only at home. We don’t think of Dutch as an Imperial language today, yet the language has “acquired” a new country over the past generation (in the sense that Dutch is becoming its demographically dominant L1).
    To J.W. Brewer: in the case of Saint-Lucia it has been claimed that many children, possibly a majority, are acquiring as their first language a form of (Creole-influenced) English. See Garrett, Paul B., 2000. “HIGH” KWEYOL: THE EMERGENCE OF A FORMAL CREOLE REGISTER IN ST-LUCIA. In: McWhorter, John (Ed.) LANGUAGE CHANGE AND LANGUAGE CONTACT IN PIDGINS AND CREOLES. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. (63-102: see p. 68 on language shift to English).
    All: what Suriname and Saint-Lucia show is that having a creole not stemming from the official language is in and of itself not enough to prevent language shift to (some form of) the official language. Making the case of Papiamentu that much more intriguing.

  16. “anglophone linguistic agression”
    Michael, what is linguistic aggression? Anglphones insisting on speaking English? Insisting on speaking English with people who don’t? Insisting that these people actually learn it? Or does it mean simply that there are so many speakers of a langauge that it becomes ubiquitous? If it’s anything else, it sounds like you are assigning agency to the language itself.

  17. caffiend says

    p. 42 cites a study: “in the early 1970s, 75% of all parents of elementary school children do not speak Dutch to their children, while another 66% of parents of secondary school children do not use Dutch in their homes.”

  18. Caffiend: this is quoted out of context. The author does wonder about the discrepancy between these results you quote and those of the 1985 study indicating shift to Dutch: her conclusion is that the latter is likely to be closer to the truth. To quote her own conclusion (page 43): “The conclusion can still be drawn that the majority of Creole speakers in Paramaribo are exposed to a reasonable amount of Dutch in the home, and thus can be said to acquire Dutch natively”.
    Moreover, if the differences between the research done in the 1970s and the 1985 survey are due to the growing importance of Dutch in Suriname, then I would expect that the shift to Dutch today may be yet even more pronounced.

  19. caffiend says

    I’ve seen reports that Dutch proficiency has increased and reports that English proficiency has increased, but none that Sranan Tongo proficiency has decreased.

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