Papiamentu is spoken on the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, which lie near very near Venezuela in the Caribbean Sea. The language was formed after the arrival of Europeans and West Africans in the New World.

Arawak Indians from the mainland populated these islands first. The Spanish arrived in 1527, but decided that the arid climate made them unsuitable for plantations. A few Spaniards remained there with the Indians, raising livestock. The Dutch took possession of the islands in 1634, forcing the Spaniards and most Indians to leave. At this time, the Indians reportedly spoke Spanish (no Papiamentu yet). The Dutch took some Indians as slaves on Curaçao and sent others to Bonaire and Aruba, but they probably didn’t communicate with the Indians in Dutch. The Dutch often preferred to use Dutch amongst themselves and Spanish or Portuguese or creole Portuguese with conquered peoples.


IMG: Arnie Sacknooson. E A G L E B E A C H. Flickr. CCBY

The Dutch began to import West African slaves in 1648; at least some probably spoke Pidgin Portuguese. Curaçao had no large plantations, as other Caribbean islands did. It was used primarily as a rest area and auction block. After their long, hard ocean voyage from Africa, slaves were allowed to recuperate in Curaçao (usually for up to 3 months) before being sold to plantations in North or South America, or other places in the Caribbean. Those Africans who were too old or sick or mentally ill to be sold for a good profit elsewhere were sold to slave owners in Curaçao, where they did mostly domestic work. Sephardic Jews relocated from Brazil beginning in 1659, probably speaking a regional variety of Portuguese or Spanish. After 1660, Jews played a major role in the administration of slave camps, often trading with Spanish Americans. By the 1680s, the African population equaled the white population.

Papiamentu probably emerged from the Pidgin Portuguese of the Africans, the Portuguese of the Jews, and a bit of Dutch from the Dutch. Whites (Dutch and Jews) learned the emerging creole to communicate with slaves. The creole probably stabilized on Curaçao around 1700, then spread to Bonaire and Aruba. Papiamentu words are attested in Jewish ship names in 1706, and Dutch documents in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the time the creole was fully established in the late 18th century, Dutch missionaries preached in Papiamentu. In the 19th century, they translated the Bible and other religious documents into the language. Throughout the time when Papiamentu was developing, islanders had frequent contact with the South American mainland, particularly Venezuela, and today Papiamentu contains many words of Spanish origin.

Papiamentu serves as a national symbol on these islands, uniting people of different races who speak it. There is a strong feeling that immigrants should learn the language and use it in order to be fully integrated into the society.

Slaves and ‘free people of color’ mostly spoke only Papiamentu through the 19th century. If they were lucky enough to receive an education, they went to schools sponsored by the Catholic church in Spanish and/or Papiamentu. Jews spoke Papiamentu and Portuguese up to about the middle of the 19th century, and then Papiamentu and Spanish. Descendents of Dutch colonists spoke Dutch and Papiamentu, but there were few in number compared to the other groups, and even their Dutch was sub standard according to European standards. Reportedly white males, who spoke to Dutch Europeans regarding business and government affairs, had an acceptable command of the language (according to reports by European Dutch), while their wives, who had little contact with Dutch speakers and lots of contact with Papiamentu speakers, spoke Dutch heavily influenced by Papiamentu. Their children learned Papiamentu from their black nannies (yayas) and the non-standard language of their mothers. The handful of schools in operation before the 20th century were not particularly successful in teaching children to speak and read Dutch as most students did not possess a knowledge of the language when they started school, and there were few opportunities to make use of the language outside of school. Many schools run by religious organizations opted to use Spanish as a language of instruction rather than Dutch because the priestsbelieved it was more useful. (Remember, the Spanish-speaking mainland is just 14 miles from Aruba and 50 miles from Curaçao, while Dutch-speaking Europe could only be reached by a very long nautical voyage.)


IMG: f. ermert. Klein Bonaire. Flickr. CCBY


The government in Europe was infuriated by the low status of Dutch in the colonies. There were repeated reports of European Dutch who could not communicate with islanders; one even called Dutch ‘a foreign language’ in the colonies. Soon after the abolition of slavery in 1863, the government decided that only Dutch could be spoken in the public schools. This policy had the opposite effect from what was intended. Because the students didn’t know any Dutch when they started school, they couldn’t learn anything when they got there. Many dropped out after only a few years. Teachers were either from Europe or Suriname and spoke only in Dutch, or they were Antilleans who did not have a good command in Dutch, but who were forced to teach in that language anyway. Proficiency in Dutch actually declined after this policy was instituted. In 1906, the government permitted the use of Papiamentu in schools in order to facilitate the learning of Dutch. They retracted this stipulation in 1935, again demanding that ‘only Dutch’ be used in the classroom.

Today, roughly 80% of island residents speak Papiamentu as a first language. Others speak Dutch, English, Spanish, or languages of the Caribbean as a first language. Dutch remains the language of government and education. Portuguese fell out of use by 1850 or so. English has only entered the contact picture on the islands in the 20th century with the introduction of the petroleum industry and is economically important in oil and tourism. Today, Dutch is still the language used most often in the classroom; all students learn English and Spanish in school. Most residents under 60 speak Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish, and English, but despite the multilingualism, Papiamentu does not seem to be in danger of dying out.


For about 80% of the residents of Bonaire and Curaçao and 70% of residents of Aruba, Papiamentu is the language ‘most spoken’. In addition, many immigrants are second language speakers of the creole. The percentage of households where Papiamentu is most used has decreased from the 1990s–it used to be about 90% in Bonaire and Curaçao and 80% in Aruba–although the total number of speakers has increased. This is probably because of the recent immigration of Latin Americans. Aruba saw a similar wave of immigration early in the 20th century when laborers came from around the Caribbean to work in its oil refinery. At peak employment in 1948, less than 60% of island residents spoke Papiamentu as a first language. Some of these immigrants left the island after being laid off from the refinery; others learned Papiamentu, integrated into Aruban society, and remained on the island. It remains to be seen if the recent immigrants will stay or go. Many came to work in the hotel construction boom, which has slowed, putting many out of work. If they stay, it remains to be seen if they will learn Papiamentu and integrate themselves into society. Islanders are citizens of the Netherlands, and immigrants who gain citizenship often go to the Netherlands in search of work since the economy is better there. For this reason, some focus their efforts on learning Dutch. The government of Aruba recently changed its immigration laws. Immigrants seeking citizenship must show proficiency in either Papiamentu or Dutch. (Previously, Dutch was the only requirement).

Many Latin American and Caribbean immigrants choose to learn Papiamentu because it’s more practical in daily life on the islands, and for Spanish speakers, it’s much easier to learn than Dutch. That’s because Papiamentu has many Spanish and Portuguese words in it. (Those who focus their efforts on Dutch point out that Papiamentu is only useful on three small islands. Many of these people do not consider it a ‘real’ language.)

Papiamentu is widely used in Antillean society. It is the language most often heard on the street and in any informal context. There are daily and weekly newspapers in Papiamentu and each island has a TV station which broadcasts news, talk shows, and other programs in Papiamentu. (Cable and satellite TV brings Venezuelan, American, and European stations to the islands. English stations are most prevalent.) There are many radio stations where all of the talking and some of the music are in Papiamentu. (Other music is in English and Spanish. It’s rare to hear Dutch music on the radio.) 


Bon Dia Aruba (daily newspaper from Aruba)

Diario (daily newspaper from Aruba)

La Prensa (daily newspaper from Curaçao)

Diario (daily newspaper from Bonaire)

Telearuba (Aruba TV station)

Telecuraçao (Curaçao TV station)

Listing of radio stations in Curaçao and Bonaire

Listing of radio stations in Aruba

If you follow the links to Papiamentu newspapers, you’ll notice that Aruba has one orthographic system, while Curaçao and Bonaire have a different one. (Actually, the observant reader will notice small differences between Curaçao and Bonaire writing, too, but they pale in comparison to the other distinction.) The Aruba writing system is etymological. That means, the spelling of the words is based on the way the words are spelled in their source language. When there is a sound like the ‘k’ in ‘keep’, Arubians might spell it with a ‘c’ if the word is from Spanish (example: cas from Spanish casa, meaning ‘house’) or a ‘k’ if the word is from Dutch (example: wak from Dutch waken, meaning ‘watch’). Curaçao and Bonaire use a phonological system of writing. This means that they try to make one letter represent one sound only, though some small variations in the way a sound is pronounced are permitted. (An example from English: we write ‘tap’, ‘cat’, and ‘rattle’ with ‘t’s, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear that these sounds are slightly different.) In Curaçao, ‘house’ is spelled kas, but it is pronounced the same as Aruba’s cas.

It isn’t difficult to adjust to the two writing systems (you get used to it), but having different systems can make things difficult. For example, though Curaçao has developed wonderful educational materials to teach Papiamentu in the classroom, they cannot be used as-is in Aruba classrooms because of the orthographic differences. There are advantages (and disadvantages) to both writing systems, but neither side will give in and adopt the other system.

The official language of instruction in schools in Dutch, but teachers might switch to Papiamentu to explain difficult concepts or check comprehension. In Curaçao and Bonaire, Papiamentu courses have been recently introduced in high schools. Students learn grammar, orthographic standards, and read articles and literature in Papiamentu. Similar courses are in the works in Aruba. Government communications are officially in Dutch, but a citizen with business in a government office can communicate verbally in Papiamentu.

Papiamentu serves as a national symbol on these islands, uniting people of different races who speak it. There is a strong feeling that immigrants should learn the language and use it in order to be fully integrated into the society. Further, natives generally resent people who don’t make efforts to learn and use it, but this is seen more readily with Latin Americans than with Dutch. Islanders often feel that recently arrived European Dutch look down on them and believe that they can’t speak Dutch well. As a result, many islanders, consciously or unconsciously, use Dutch with them in order to ‘show off’ or prove themselves. Latin American immigrants are often poor, uneducated, and work in the most stigmatized jobs. Islanders don’t feel a need to prove their abilities in Spanish to these immigrants. Thus, even though many islanders are quite good in Spanish, some refuse to use Spanish with immigrants because they believe that immigrants should learn Papiamentu. While they have the same feeling about European Dutch immigrants, it is the Dutch immigrants or visitors who have economic and social power over Islanders, and the Dutch language wins out in these situations. Tourists are a different story. Islanders don’t expect short term visitors to learn their language and are happy to converse with them in their language. They are always happy to hear foreigners’ efforts in Papiamentu, though.


This article was originally published by the University of Hawaii Language Varieties program and republished with the permission of the author. The Language Varieties program studies regional dialects, minority dialects and indigenized varieties of language and how they differ from the standard variety used in the media and taught in the schools. 



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