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Notes on Papiamentu


     About a dozen years ago, back when chat rooms were popular on the internet, some guy in Florida was instant-messaging me one night.  After a while, I asked him where he was from originally.  He wrote back, "I am from Curaçao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean, a part of the Netherlands Antilles."  I was a tiny bit annoyed that he felt the need to write a whole sentence to describe the place, as if I would have no idea where Curaçao might be.  I immediately messaged him back, "Wow, so you speak Papiamentu?"  You never saw such a shocked reaction -- "What?!?  How do you know about Papiamentu?!?!?"  Well, I don't know how, I just did -- it is the native language of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, the "ABC" Islands just off the coast of Venezuela, which are owned by the Netherlands.  It is the only New World creole language to become a fully accepted literary language, used in schools, newspapers, and in government.  I had known about it for years.

     So that little exchange got me more interested in the place and the language.  He sent me a little textbook (the absolute worst language book I have ever had the misfortune to study from, but the only one in print), so I started to work on learning it.  Not because it is a useful language, not at all -- in the big picture, it is practically useless, being only spoken on those three tiny islands in the whole world.  And even there, almost everybody also speaks Dutch, Spanish, or English besides, because they too wouldn't be able to go anywhere else in the world and use their own language. 

     A creole language is a blend of 2 or more languages, created by a group of people brought together from different areas who need to understand each other.  In this case, as so often happened, it was a result of the slave trade.  As far back as the 1500's, when the Spanish and the Portuguese controlled the islands, they started bringing slaves over from Africa to work on the plantations.  Later, the Dutch, English, and French did the same.  There are hundreds of languages in Africa, and people were grabbed from anywhere the slave traders could get them, all over Africa.  So the poor people who found themselves trapped and transported to the New World, winding up on various plantations, were frequently incapable of understanding a single other person around them, even the other slaves; and they certainly couldn't understand the masters.  Neither were they capable of learning proper Spanish or Portuguese, being illiterate, and nobody would have spent the time to teach them anyway.  Life was difficult enough for these sad people, ripped away from all they had ever known and brought to labor in a strange new land; and once there, they couldn't even speak. 

     So gradually, languages like Papiamentu arose on the many different islands of the Caribbean -- mixtures of all the different languages heard around them, plus even some native Indian words from the original settlers of the islands, all stripped down to the barest essentials, with no difficult sounds or irregular grammatical details.  It took decades for this to happen, and like any language, the creole tongues kept developing over the centuries, becoming fully capable of expressing even the most complex thoughts of its speakers. 

    So now, I found myself studying this odd little language, for no reason except that I found it fascinating.  I was amazed at the grammar, once I got into the details of learning it.  I never imagined that it was possible for a language to be so bare-bones, so incredibly simplified, yet still completely viable and expressive.  There are no conjugations, no declensions, no genders, no subjunctives, no aspects, no imperfect tenses, no case endings, no irregular verbs, no formal and informal address, no inverted word order -- it was incredible to find a language that has dropped all that stuff, most of it completely unnecessary, that has been cluttering up the world's languages forever.  Oh, and words are pronounced exactly like they are spelled! 

     They don't even use different words for "I", "me", and "my" -- all are just "mi".  And "he", "him", "she", "her", and "it" are all the same word -- simply "e".  And they certainly don't have 16 words for "you" like Spanish does!  Also, "they", "them", and "their" are all the same word -- "nan".  That word "nan" is also what they use for a plural ending (like putting an "s" on the end of a word in English); so if "tree" is "palu", then "trees" is "palunan", which literally means "tree-them".  "Cars" would be "autonan", "cats" would be "pushinan".  Sensibly, they leave off the plural ending when a number is used before the word -- they feel it would be silly to say "3 kasnan" ("3 houses") when the number makes if obvious that you are talking about something plural -- so they just say "3 kas", ("3 house"), which is perfectly logical.

     They feel no need to use different verb forms, like "we are speaking, we have spoken, we will speak" -- they just use the same one each time, and it works perfectly well:  "nos ta papia, nos a papia, nos lo papia."  Anyone who has suffered through memorizing all the dozens and dozens of verb forms in French or Spanish (or the 500 verb forms in Turkish) will greatly appreciate this. 

     The creole languages have died out almost everywhere else, but Papiamentu survived for an odd reason -- because the Dutch took over the islands. 

     The majority of the words in the language are from Spanish, but simplified; if the Spanish had remained in control of the islands, they would have considered Papiamentu as simply a primitive, baby-talk kind of Spanish, not something that respectable people would speak, and would have eventually discouraged it; after the slaves were freed in 1863 and were able to go to school, they would have taught them proper Spanish, and would have made them feel ignorant and uneducated if they continued to speak Papiamentu.  But this didn't happen.  The Dutch got control of the islands.  The Dutch language has very little in common with Spanish, so when the new rulers heard the natives speaking Papiamentu, they just assumed it was perfectly good Spanish, and so they set up no stigma against speaking it.  They also knew it was impossible to expect all the people to suddenly learn Dutch, which was so different; so they let the creole language continue, and it has flourished to this day, even being used as the main language for instruction in public schools.  Everywhere else in the Caribbean, the creole languages have been repressed, and treated like low-class dialects of the official formal language of the land.  But Papiamentu continues on, with no signs of dying out.  The people are proud of their little language!  

Pasobra Dios a stima mundu asina tantu, ku El a duna su unigénitu Yu,
pa tur
ku kere den djé no bai pèrdí, ma tin bida etèrnu.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son,
that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.


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