15 June 2009

How did you hear about our island?

My dear friend Khya recently traveled to Bonaire, the lovely island in the Lesser Antilles--the Netherlands Antilles to be exact--off the coast of Venezuela. Not only did he marvel at the climate and topgraphy--desertlike, not tropical--he mentioned the curious linguistic tendencies on the island.

The population of Bonaire is approximately 14,000. There are three official languages. Dutch, Papiamentu and English. English did not become an official language until 2007--and that was only to increase tourism, really. English is not used in official documents. Most widely spoken are English and Spanish--even though Spanish is not even an official language. Khya and I suspect this is because of the island's proximity to Venezuela.

How did this come to be? In 1499, Bonaire was discovered by the Portuguese. In the 152os, the Spanish took over. In the 1630s, the Dutch took over. In the early 1800s, the Brits took over. During World War II, the U.K. and the U.S. protected Bonaire and stationed troops there.

Point being, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English eventually all melted together to form Papiamentu. Khya said it sounded most like Spanish but looked more like Portuguese. He detected no French. (:

We had never heard of this curious Papiamentu. It is apparently also spoken in Aruba and Curacao. (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao are nicknamed "The ABC Islands.") The natives of these islands, before they were discovered, spoke Arawak. Apparently, there are nationalistic divides over how much African influence Papiamento speakers claim.

Officially, Papiamentu is a creole mix of Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, and the native Arawak and African languages. It might even have some Italian up in there. Why not? Of course, the language developed as a mix of communication between the Europeans settling and the natives being taken as slaves.

Those who ascribe to the theory of heavy African influence attribute it to the Afro-Portuguese creoles who settled in the ABC Islands after having been moved from African trading post islands. What weighs in favor of this theory is that creoles in Cape Verde can understand Papiamentu. (In Cape Verde, they speak Portuguese and Cape Verdian Creole.)

And of course, there are dialects within Papiamentu as well. Two main ones. Arubian PapiamentO sounds more like Spanish. Words are more likely to end in "o" and have "c"s. In Bonaire and Curacao, PapiamentU sounds more like Portuguese, with words ending in "u" (note of course, the difference in the spelling of the language name itself) and having "k"s in them.
Both Papiamento and Papiamentu have distinctly Spanish dipthonigization and /b/ instead of /v/ sounds--which is characteristic of both Spanish and Portuguese.

Spelling seems to vary by dialect as well, where Papiamentu is more phonetic, Papiamento is more etymological.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS you could show up and speak just about anything to these people that isn't an Asian language, and they'd probably understand you just fine.

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