Slavery and the Development of Papiamentu

By Fouse, Gary C. | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Slavery and the Development of Papiamentu


Fouse, Gary C., Journal of Caribbean Literatures


The creole language of Papiamentu enjoys a distinguished status among the creoles of the world. The native language of some 250,000 people on the southern Caribbean islands of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire (and their diaspora--largely in the Netherlands), Papiamentu is not only established in written form, but also is the subject of a long-standing controversy over its origin. Linguistic researchers have still not been able to come to agreement on the question of whether Papiamentu resulted from the contact between the Spanish conquistadors and the Amer-Indian residents of the islands beginning in 1499 (polygenesis theory), or from an Afro-Portuguese pidgin that originated on the west coast of Africa as the African-Atlantic slave trade developed (monogenesis theory).

In looking at the lexicon of Papiamentu, it is clear that it is primarily of Iberian origin. Actually, the term Iberian is a convenient word since it would include both Spanish and Portuguese influences. The similarity between the two languages is a complicating factor in tracing the vocabulary of Papiamentu. For example, some experts, such as Antoine Maduro, have argued that other tongues, such as Galician, have played a role (Maduro, Papiamento: Di un palo pa otro 28). This language--a common language of many Spanish sailors--while considered a variant of Spanish, is actually quite close to Portuguese.

It might also be pointed out early in this essay that Spanish influences are even more prevalent in Aruban Papiamentu than in the Papiamentu spoken on Curacao and Bonaire, where Dutch influences are more frequent, especially in spelling. In present-day attempts to standardize the language, Aruba has preferred to base spelling on the etymology of each word, whereas Curacao and Bonaire favor a phonetic spelling. Thus, the word for "house" would be spelled cas on Aruba and kas on Curacao and Bonaire. Similarly, the suffix "tion" is spelled -cion on Aruba and -shon on Bonaire. Interestingly, Papiamentu uses the Dutch system for naming the months, but the Iberian system for days. One exception is the day for Wednesday, dia rason, which apparently is derived from the Portuguese word for ration (racao) since Wednesday was the normal day that slaves were given their weekly rations. Others attribute the word to the Dutch word rantsoen, which has the same meaning (Martinus 31). Even the spelling of the word Papiamentu varies since, on Aruba, it is spelled Papiamento. The reason here is that in Aruban Papiamentu, the letter "u" does not appear in final position. As for the obvious question about African influence, most agree that it is mostly limited to structure rather than vocabulary. One notable exception seems to be the word nan, a plural and third person plural marker, still used in Papiamentu and commonly believed to be originated in Africa.

While not taking a definite side in the above (monogenesis/polygenesis) debate, this article describes the development of Papiamentu during the period of slavery on the islands. The thesis of this article is certainly not to trace the history of the transatlantic slave trade in detail. However, some basic milestones might be in order to lay the groundwork in discussing the development of Papiamentu.

The Beginnings of African Enslavement by Europeans

The Portuguese in the fifteenth century were the early pioneers of African exploration by the Europeans as they sailed down the west coast of Africa and established trading settlements along the way. Setting up outposts along the west African coast and offshore islands (such as Cape Verde, Sao Tome, and others), the Portuguese established a linguistic impact that continues to this day in former Portuguese colonies. One significant factor was the eventual presence of the lancados, Portuguese expatriates who married African women or fathered African children, thus, becoming integrated into the local scene. The term in Portuguese literally means "thrown or thrust into," in this case, African society. …

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