Papiamento: The Dutch Caribbean's Language Of Resistance
Photo Credit: Brett Sayles

Photo Credit: Brett Sayles

Papiamento: The Dutch Caribbean's Language Of Resistance

Aruba , bonaire , Curaçao , news
Brunno Braga
Brunno Braga Jun 11, 2021

Spoken in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, Papiamento presents a history of resistance and strong sense of identity among the people of the beautiful islands located in the so-called Dutch Caribbean. It sounds like Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and African Creole, but the combination of those languages created one of the most intriguing idioms in the world.

There are some theories about its origin, but the most likely theory explains that the origin of this unique idiom was derived from the Portuguese word “papear” (to chat), working as a means of communication between enslaved Africans from many regions and the Portuguese colonizers in the 17h century, during the transatlantic slave trade era. 

Step by step, the language became so popular in the islands that most of their inhabitants started to use it as their first language spoken, even by European descendants in those islands. In the same period, Spain became the colonizer of the islands, but soon after the Netherlands captured the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao) from the Spaniards.

In the book “Valorization of Papiamento in Aruban society and education, in historical, contemporary and future perspectives,” author Joyce Pereira stated that despite the Dutch becoming the new colonizers, the Dutch-speaking group also failed to establish its language to the ever-increasing group of slaves and other people of color in the society.

“Because of all of these factors, Dutch was never spoken by more than a small minority,” she wrote.

After 1815, Papiamento, the language of the majority, suddenly became a forbidden language and Dutch became the only language of instruction that was permitted in the schools.

Since then, Papiamento has become a second-class language. Public statements, official documents, and trade could only be done in Dutch. However, Papiamento resisted. 

“While English and French Creoles get more attention, the extension of Papiamento into different domains like writing, education and policy is incredibly high,” said Bart Jacobs,a Dutch linguist who studies Papiamento, to the New York Times. “This bodes very well for the language’s chances to survive, and possibly even thrive well into the future.”

It took almost 200 years for Papiamento to gain the status of official language in the Islands. Aruba came first. In May 2003, the Aruban government declared Papiamento an official language. Curaçao was the second country, turning Papiamento into an official language in 2007.

Despite its achievements, Papiamento still has a long way to go to gain the same status as Dutch in some spheres. Curaçao’s laws, for example, are still written in Dutch. Some schools started teaching children in Papiamento only a few years ago, and Dutch is still relevant to the economic opportunities in the society.

Therefore, Papiamento can also be seen as a sign of resistance and struggle to enhance the identity of the people. 

For the tourists, listening to a language that evokes a bit of the rhythm of Brazilian Portuguese, the musicality of African creole sprinkled with words from Dutch and English in the streets of Aruba and Curaçao, can be another attraction for the visitors along with beautiful beaches and landscapes found in those islands.