The native language of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba is Papiamento, a Creole language in which European and African influences are vividly blended. Creole is a collection of a diverse number of languages, ranging from fully developed languages such as Sranang and Saramacano (spoken in Suriname) and Haitian Creole, the Pidgin English of Jamaica and Barbados (now recognized as two independent languages), to the almost extinct slave dialects still spoken on the coast of Georgia and on the coast of Peru and Chile.
Although all of these languages are unique, Papiamento is the only creole language spoken throughout all levels of society. In contrast, the other creole languages are spoken primarily by the lower social classes and are often despised by the upper classes.
A Historical Overview
Although linguists do not agree on the origin of the creole languages, the most widely accepted theory is that all these languages have one common origin. This so-called lingua franca developed along the west coast of Africa as early as the 15th century as a means of communication between Portuguese merchants and various African tribes, each with its own language. This lingua franca had the basic grammatical structure of an African language and a largely Portuguese vocabulary.
Later, the lingua franca became the main means of communication between the various peoples involved in the overseas slave trade.
In Curaçao, the first independent language to develop from the lingua franca was probably Guene, now an extinct language spoken by the slaves among themselves - and even until the beginning of this century among the lower-class negroid Curaçaoans. (The word Guene itself seems to refer to the ancient name for the west coast of Africa). Today, the name is preserved only in fairy tales, songs and stories recorded in the 1950s and 1960s.
Papiamento, on the other hand, developed as a means of communication between different social and ethnic groups, with Dutch, Spanish, English and also Portuguese influences. As early as the late 17th century, words derived from Papiamento appeared in Dutch texts. By the 18th century, Papiamento had become the most preferred language on the island.
Papiamento was recognized in the 19th century, due in large part to the Roman Catholic Church. The first book in Papiamento was printed by the bishop in 1825, followed by a series of catechisms and religious books.
The church even had its own printing press for Papiamento publications. By the middle of this century, non-religious books appeared, including the first dictionary and the first grammar book. In the 20th century, the thousands of immigrants who came to the island in large groups to work in the refineries picked up enough Papiamento to communicate, despite the fact that their children were taught Dutch in school.
Being a relatively young language, Papiamento is constantly evolving. Like the local culture, Papiamento is a very focused spoken language, with a rich tradition of stories, poems, melodies, songs and folktales that have been passed down for generations. The spoken word sounds pleasantly rhythmic. Like all creole languages, the grammar is simple and the spelling almost entirely phonological.
There are obvious differences in the grammar, vocabulary and spelling of Papiamento of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. Even in Curaçao, there are distinctions in the use of the language according to social class and ethnic differences: some people sprinkle Dutch words through their sentences, while others use Spanish words.
The Papiamento of today
Papiamento is undoubtedly the most widely spoken language in Curaçao, and not Dutch. According to the 1992 census, Papiamento is spoken in 90% of all households. Although official government documents are printed in Dutch, Papiamento is spoken in parliament. Radio and television offer very many programs in Papiamento, and most daily newspapers are also in Papiamento.
There is also an extensive range of literature in Papiamento, including original works and translations. Education is still in Dutch, although Papiamento has been taught as a separate language since 1986.
Today, Papiamento is developing very well. Although no more than 200,000 people speak the language, there is little danger of extinction. Papiamento is an essential part of the true identity of Curaçaoans and is used with pride by people of all social classes.