History of the Language of Curaçao, Papiamentu

Category: | Published on: January 10, 2019 | By Omaily Lucas

Language is an important way to communicate with each other. To say hello, to say thank you, or to simply say ‘I love you’. A language shows the history of a country and its culture. The same can be said for Papiamentu. Every country has experienced its battle and with the evolution of its culture, their language evolved. Papiamentu, the local language of Curaçao, is no different.

Over the years, many committees were built to develop the language and come up with one “universal” way of speaking and writing. Since Papiamentu is spoken on almost all the ABC islands, coming up with one language was no easy task. While you may think that all the islands speak Papiamentu the same way, in reality, they all have their own “dialect”. Well, actually, calling it a dialect won’t be accurate as each island believe that the way they speak and write the language is the correct way.

There are many different theories about the way that the local language, Papiamentu, was created. One of the (most likely) theory was that after 1634 the Dutch West Indian Company were bringing slaves from West-Africa to Curaçao. These slaves had an Afro-Portuguese vocabulary with an African language structure. But, missionaries speaking Spanish would also come along for the journey and had to communicate with the slaves. This resulted in a Spanish influence into the Afro-Portuguese language. When the slaves started working on the island they interacted with Spanish immigrants, Jews, Portuguese immigrants, the Dutch colonizers, and the few Indians left on the island. All these languages melted into one language afterward, Papiamentu, with Spanish having the biggest influence on the language.

Papiamentu was first spoken between slaves and their masters. The language was functional, a lingua franca. Meaning, that it was a language between groups of people that didn’t have the same mother tongue but did have to communicate with each other, one way or another. For the immigrants the Papiamentu became their mother language and then afterward also the slaves started speaking Papiamentu between each other.

Listen carefully to the language and you can still clearly hear the influences:

  • Spanish: olvidar – lubidá
  • Portuguese: espinho – sumpiña
  • Dutch: zoom – zòm

The language is a fairly young language. In 1986 Papiamentu was introduced into elementary schools, in 1991 in high schools, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Papiamentu became an official language. Everyone was writing Papiamentu the way they felt that was best. In 1984 they started standardizing the language to develop one writing style.

The many committees developed different ways to create the language, especially the orthography. One of the latest committees reviewed the work of the two committees before them and resulted in the only research that was accepted by the local government. It based the language on a phonological theory. This means that each sound get a letter, as much as possible. Simply said, you write what you hear!


Papiamentu is not as difficult to speak as it is to write and because of the young age of the language, many locals still don’t know how to write the language correctly. This does give an advantage to any tourist visiting us. Whether you pronounce something right or wrong, no one will blame you for it.

Many people on Curaçao can speak up to 4 languages (if not more), but they do value when visitors take the effort to speak the local tongue. Here are some essential words for you to start practicing with, but remember that knowing the words is half the work, you do need to train it with your friendly receptionist or bartender to really get it going.

  • Bon dia – Good Morning
  • Bontardi – Good Afternoon
  • Bonochi – Good Night
  • Dushi – Sweetheart (but also, tasteful)
  • Danki – Thank You
  • Laman – Beach
  • Solo – Sun
  • Awa- Water
  • Felis/Kontentu – Happy

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