What is Papiamento? Spoken in the Netherlands and son of three continents

By Chiara Canale
Translated by Chiara Canale, proofread by William Stupp
cover picture: Hans Rompel / CC BY-SA ( BY-NC 2.0 


“People in the Netherlands should recognise that multilingualism is an advantage”, so says Nihayra Leona, president of the Papiamento section at the Levende Talen association. “It’s not only European languages ﹘such as English, French, German﹘ that are important and prestigious for someone’s development and ability, but it’s all languages,” she explains.

The Netherlands hosts many immigrant communities and a large population descended from citizens of its former colonies. The country, therefore, should be used to polyglottism. Yet it does not seem to recognise the importance of the many tongues spoken in its territory, including Papiamento, Arabic, Amazigh or Kurdish.

A very different approach is applied to Frisian. Spoken by few people in the North of the country, it is recognised as the official language of the Fryslân region. But Papiamento is not a “migrant language”; it is a native language in the Netherlands, a tongue which, by way of history, has had its DNA shaped by the Dutch language and colonial practices.

Nihayra Leona is a psychologist and researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her mother tongue is Papiamento, which is spoken mainly on the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) and mainland Netherlands. “When you don’t recognise people’s language you don’t recognise a very important part of their identity,” she says.

Ata’ki mi boka    Here is my mouth
Narnishi riba dje    And nose above it
Dos wowo pa mi mira,    Two eyes to see with
Orea pa tende    Ears to hear
Orea pa tende    Ears to hear
Ata’ki mi dede    Here is my finger
Ata’ki mi duim    Here is my thumb
Tur hunte ta diez dede    All together ten fingers
Tur hunte ta dos duim.    All together two thumbs

“Ata’ki mi boka narnishi riba dje” – A children’s song in Papiamento

We do not know exactly how Papiamento was born. “It is a Creole language in the sense that it is the result of contact between people speaking different languages,” Leona explains. It seems to have originated as a result of the slave trade in the 17th century. The first evidence of its existence dates back to the 18th century and proves that, at that time, it was already spoken at every level and by members of all classes.

Atlantic slave route
author: Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider
source: wikimedia
licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

Just how did the trade work? People enslaved in West Africa (a region centered around present-day Nigeria) would be brought to the islands of Cape Verde. Here the slave traders would group them together and then ship them to the Caribbean, mainly to Curaçao, where slaves would be bought and sold. Papiamento contains many words from African languages (such as Guene), Arawak (an indigenous Caribbean language), French, English and Dutch. The largest parts of the language come from Spanish and Portuguese.

This does not mean that Papiamento is a pidgin, like the Jamaican patwa, which is a “variety” of English. Papiamento is a creole, a bonafide language with its own grammar and vocabulary, Leona explains. A language needs to have some development to become a creole language, and that process is quite strong and advanced in Papiamento.

In the European Netherlands, there are people who speak Papiamento as their first language, others who have never heard of it and researchers who study it. But there are also those who borrow some words from it occasionally, sometimes even unknowingly. Some Papiamento words, in fact, have become part of some slang mixing Dutch with other languages. The same has happened with Turkish, Arabic and Sranan Tongo, the most widely spoken language in Suriname.

Papiamento’s struggle against colonial legacy

Leona was born in Curaçao, a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Today, 80% of the population there speaks Papiamento. Colonists from many European countries ﹘Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Dutch﹘occupied the island over the centuries. On Curaçao, Dutch was the language of education for a long time. Even today, many people still think it is more useful to improve one’s study and work prospects, according to Leona. Many students, in fact, move to Holland to go to university. The general belief, not only in the mainland Netherlands, but also on the ABC islands, is that Dutch is more important and more prestigious than other languages. Until 2018, for example, Papiamento was forbidden in high schools, and the final exam was only in Dutch.

This way of thinking often causes friction in Curaçao, both in everyday life and in the media. Arguments often occur because some people ﹘especially Dutch ﹘refuse to speak Papiamento.

“According to the old colonial thinking, your language is better and more important than minority languages,” Leona explains. In fact, Papiamento is a perfectly robust and healthy language, considered to be one of the most developed creole languages in the world. “It’s not facing extinction!” proclaimed Leona.

“The Dutch are becoming more and more patriotic and the language is very important to them, as it is for everyone,” Leona says. The Taal Unie organisation, for example, wants people to speak standard Dutch and eschew local vernaculars, according to the researcher. “I’m not generalising, it’s not everybody, but governmental policy is doing that“, she asserts.

Integration seems to be a very important issue in the Netherlands. But the situation is far from simple: people are often expected to be assimilated rather than integrated into society. Curaçao Chronicle recently reported an example of this approach: the Committee of Experts of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages asked the Dutch government to recognise Papiamento as an official minority language. They argued that not only is it predominant in the islands, the tongue has been spoken in European part of the Netherlands since the 18th century. Today, there are almost as many speakers in the mainland Netherlands as in the Caribbean. The Dutch government brushed off the suggestion.

Map of Curacao, author: alice, source: flickr, licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

But Papiamento native speakers are not giving up; the struggle for the full recognition of their language is ongoing. It was recognised as an official language in Aruba in 2003 and in Bonaire and Curaçao in 2007. In 1986 it was introduced in all schools in Curaçao as an official subject and over the years some institutions have adopted it as their educational language. This is important to create a more familiar learning environment for students. In Curaçao, in fact, only 9.3% of the population speaks Dutch at home.

According to Leona, more debate about minority languages is needed. “That’s the reason I’m president of Papiamento for Levende Talen”. The association is committed to promoting and developing language teaching in the Netherlands, from Arabic to Frisian to sign language.

What does Papiamento “look like”? Here an example in the form of a recipe:

Mula e speserijnan esta siboyo, tomati i promenton. Ta laba e karni mulá. Entretantu ta kaska e batata, korte na dou dou i lagé herebe bira moli. Ora e batata ta kla ta machiké i pone huntu ku e speserijnan mulá, e karni, sous pretu, konofló na puiru, nutmeg i e kuater webunan. Machika e meskla aki bon den otro pa despues forma nos balchinan di karni. Sea ta plat of rondo. Ku kiko bo ke kome e balchinan di karni ? Awel nos ta rekomendabo ku sea aroz, batata of tutú. –

Balchi di karni recipe – meatballs. source:


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