A Language Thrives in Its Caribbean Home

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Thousands of languages spoken by small numbers of people, including many of the Creole languages born in the last centuries of human history, are facing extinction. But a little-known language spoken on a handful of islands near the coast of Venezuela may be an exception.

Papiamentu, a Creole language influenced over the centuries by African slaves, Sephardic merchants and Dutch colonists, is now spoken by only about 250,000 people on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. But compared with many of the world’s other Creoles, the hybrid languages that emerge in colonial settings, it shows rare signs of vibrancy and official acceptance....

Papiamentu’s origins fascinate linguists; it emerged in a Dutch colony but its core vocabulary is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. (Dutch Creoles crystallized elsewhere in the Dutch empire.)

Some scholars say Papiamentu evolved from a Portuguese-based lingua franca once used in West Africa, developing further in the 17th century when Curaçao was an entrepôt for South America’s slave trade and a cosmopolitan Dutch outpost settled in part by Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking Jews. Whatever its origins, Papiamentu today evokes a bit of the rhythm of Brazilian Portuguese, sprinkled with words from Dutch and English but also largely from the Spanish of Venezuela....

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