The value of word choice and identity in urban and rural Papiamentu of Curaçao

WillemstadThis summer, I spent 17 days in Curaçao conducting an investigation on word choice in a creole language, Papiamentu. This language is spoken in the Dutch territories of Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire. While researchers classify this language as a Hispanic creole, it is also peppered with Dutch and English contributions because of its history with the communities that speak those languages. My project seeks to analyze the social domains in which these English and Dutch words are used in Papiamentu, connecting them with the island’s history and its current day culture and industries.

A week into my trip, I was able to conduct research in two sites thanks to the generous help of two community members: the public library in downtown Willemstad and the city’s neighboring rural area, Bandabou. Through my investigation, I have noticed some preliminary differences between the varieties of Papiamentu spoken in these areas. The Papiamentu spoken within the rural community contains a few Dutch loanwords and no English loanwords. The Dutch loanwords used by rural speakers are typically associated with long-standing establishments, such as winkel ‘shop’, and place names and streets. Meanwhile, the variety spoken within the city by both young and old speakers had a much higher rate of English and Dutch loanwords. In fact, when speaking about technology in particular, a group of young women used primarily English nouns that were placed into sentences with Papiamentu grammar.

When speaking with both communities about this difference, tourism and modern development were the most commonly mentioned accounts. While most Curaçaoan citizens can comfortably speak Dutch, Papiamentu, and English, the people in urban areas are more willing to adapt quickly to the multilingual tourist industry and developing technology. Additionally, the use of English was considered “cool” among young speakers of Papiamentu. However, some informants insisted that there are no differences between the Papiamentu spoken in these two areas because of the solidarity they felt from being citizens of their island of 153,000 people. On the flipside of its developing tourism industry, this island has felt even smaller due to the current ease of travel access to rural areas such as Bandabou, which lead rural speakers to believe that the differences between these varieties is now negligible.

While the original intention for this project was to analyze word choice within social domains, this trip has illuminated the varying language attitudes within the island regarding Willemstad Papiamentu, rural Curaçaoan Papiamentu, and the Papiamentu spoken on the other islands within the Netherlands Antilles. Through my conversations with people on the island, there appears to be a division in attitudes between rural and urban Papiamentu based on the amount of Dutch and English influence. Some informants reported that the rural Papiamentu is the “real Papiamentu” because it has preserved its original culture from not blending as freely with Dutch and English or by creating adapted Papiamentu versions of Dutch and English words. On the other hand, urban speakers view rural Papiamentu as “stuck in the past” because they feel the residents of Willemstad have adapted with the advent of new technology and the incoming tourists from many linguistic backgrounds. These attitudes extend to the neighboring islands of Aruba and Bonaire regarding their degree of adaptation to the changing world and their maintenance of the original heritage of Papiamentu.Will-self (2)_edited

It remains to be seen whether the perceived differences of loanword use is statistically significant until my final analysis of my entire corpus. However, thanks to the support of the CLACS Summer Research grant, this trip has uncovered more research questions to answer in my career regarding language attitudes in Curaçao and its neighboring islands.

-Margaret Glide is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at IU.


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