Monday, May 11, 2009

Papiaments - Chatter in Curaçao, Babble in Bonaire, Anything in Aruba?

Of all the creoles you hear in the Caribbean the oddest is surely the one which comes from the ABC islands - the cluster of three Netherlands Antilles off the coast of Venezuela - Papiamento, as it is known in Aruba (in Curaçao it is called Papiamentu and in Bonaire, Papiamen.

As the great traders of the Caribbean, the Dutch were most concerned most with ports. And in Curaçao, a generally low-lying and barren island, they found a truly magnificent harbour (Bonaire and Aruba they took to protect the approaches from seaborne invasion). Willemstad worked very successfully as a port for centuries, and it gathered, as you would expect, an immense number of different types of people - Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans, even a few Indonesians from the Dutch East Indies. The different strains baked into an extraordinary creole mix. There is even a (culinary) dish that mixes oriental rice and Edam cheese. Very odd.

And you can imagine what happened with the language. A hundred different strains intermingled, to create sounds that are more than the sum of their parts. As an anglo outsider, you think momentarily that it might be Spanish, but then you hear unaccustomed and wayward sounds, as though the words have got out of control. There is the background staccato of Spanish – a taca-taca-taca – with an occasional interloping, possibly Portuguese vowel – a taca-taca-taca-wow – and then the oddest Dutch interjection – a taca-taca-taca-wow-taca-plömpf!

Interestingly, the word Papiament, which - logically at least - means ‘chatter’ or ‘spoken language’, can have the sense of both ‘Parliament’ and ‘babble’. A reassuring thought for all voters...

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