From West Africa to the Antilles, dynamic Portuguese Creoles

Posted by Nicolas Quint on September 8, 2011

Nicolas Quint is a Research Director in African linguistic at the CNRS (LLACAN lab – Speech, Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, INALCO/CNRS). He has been working on Afro-Portuguese Creoles (Cape Verdean, Casamance Creole and Papiamento) since 1995, and has produced dozens of publications on the subject.

Nicolas Quint

From one side of the Atlantic to the other, lay a group of Portuguese-based Creoles that are present in three countries of West Africa (Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal) and in the Netherlands Antilles. These Creoles are genetically related, in spite of the geographic distance, and they are known together as the UGC (Upper Guinea Creoles).

Which are these Creoles?

The UGC gather into three main groups:

Cape Verdean Creole, spoken as a mother tongue by about a million people across the planet, 500,000 of which in Cape Verde, and the rest of them in the diaspora. Cape Verdean itself divides into two dialectal groups: the Barlavento Creoles, spoken in the North islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, and the Sotavento Creoles, spoken in the South.

The Afro-Portuguese Creoles known as “continental”, that is:

- Guinea-Bissau Creole, main trade language of Guinea Bissau, with over a million speakers including at least 500,000 native speakers,

- Casamance Creole, spoken in the region of Ziguinchor, Senegal, by dozens of thousands of people,

- the Creole local dialects of the Petite Côte, in Senegal – Joal, Saly-Portudal, and Rufisque – nowadays all extinct.

Papiamento, an Afro-Iberian Creole spoken by some 300,000 people in the Netherlands Antilles (ABC Islands = Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao).


From western Africa to the Antilles, related Creoles

The linguistic proximity between Cape Verdean and the continental Creoles is so strong that mutual understanding remains essentially effective, especially between Cape Verdean of the South and Guinea-Bissau Creole.

As for contemporary Papiamento, although it involves now dominant Spanish elements, recent comparative studies have shown similarities with Cape Verdean and the continental Creoles that are so numerous and specific that there is no reasonable way of considering them to be coincidental.

Thus in all likelihood, these Creole do have a common origin, a Mother-language (West Africa Proto-Creole) which probably developed in the course of the 15th century in West Africa, with the first contacts between the Portuguese navigators and the African populations. The existence of this Mother-language is the only way of explaining the numerous points the UGC have in common, whether they be spoken in West Africa or in the Antilles.

Hence the word for dark/darkness is sukuru in Cape Verdean as well as in the continental Creoles, and sukú in Papiamento. These three forms are most likely to be explained by the existence of one and the same original form, SUKURU (at the West Africa Proto-Creole stage), deriving itself from Renaissance Portuguese escuro, dark.

What does the future hold for these Creoles?

Most of the UGC are fine nowadays:

- Cape Verdean and Papiamento are being massively handed down to the children of the areas they are spoken in. In both linguistic areas, Creole is the language of the street, bars, parties, it is the language which local music bands usually sing in – they do not seem endangered for the time being.

- Guinea Bissau Creole is expanding significantly, at the expense of the Atlantic and Mandaic African languages spoken over the country.

Casamance Creole faces a more alarming situation, however. It is still alive yet greatly rivalled by Wolof, Mandinka, and French.

Whatever their current situations are, all the UGC are under threat on the long term: outside Papiamento, widely used in the daily local press, these languages remain scarcely used in writing.

They’re also widely absent of education systems in the relevant areas, using other languages in education: Portuguese in Cape Verde, French in Senegal, and Dutch in the Netherlands Antilles.

In Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, where Portuguese is the official language, we’ve observed a growing incorporation of Portuguese elements into the local Creoles, which could eventually lead to a gradual takeover of these Creoles by the Portuguese language.

However, local authorities of the different countries tend to be ever-more openly taking the cultural reality of Creole into account: in Cape Verde, a formal spelling system was recently voted in Parliament, and the first master’s degree in Cape Verdean language was launched by the University of Cape Verde in the fall of 2010. On the Antillean side, in 2003, the government of Aruba granted Papiamento with an official status, on par with English and Dutch.

So many encouraging signs that herald a promising future for the Afro-Portuguese Creoles of West Africa…

Learn more about Portuguese-based Creole  languages on our website.

Read Bart Jacobs’ article “Papiamentu, healthy Creole”.

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Papiamentu, healthy Creole

Posted by Bart Jacobs on July 8, 2011

Bart Jacobs is a PhD student of the University of Munich (Germany) and the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a member of the Linguistisches Internationales Promotionsprogramm (LIPP) and the Centro de Estudos de Linguística Geral e Aplicada (CELGA).

Bart Jacobs

Papiamentu is the official language of the Leeward Dutch Antilles, which include Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, three islands situated some 60 kilometres off the coast of Venezuela and jointly referred to as the ABC-Islands. Papiamentu currently has an estimated number of 270,000 native speakers, of which approximately 120,000 reside on Curaçao, 60,000 on Aruba and some 10,000 on Bonaire, while the Netherlands harbor the remainder.

A bit of history…

The ABC-islands were discovered in 1499 by the Spanish, who never actively colonized the islands.
The Dutch West Indian Company took Curaçao in 1634, turning it into a naval base and, from the 1650s onwards, a thriving center for slave trade. Until ca. 1700, the Dutch dominated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, purchasing slaves in West Africa and reselling these to third parties in the Caribbean area. Curaçao’s economy profited and the island’s population expanded proportionally.

It is in this booming period, extending roughly from 1650 to 1700, that Papiamentu is believed to have emerged on Curaçao as a vehicle of interethnic communication. The historical and linguistic documentation at hand furthermore suggests that in the course of the 18th century, Papiamentu had become the language of the society at large, perhaps with the exception of the Dutch ruling class.

Curaçao - Photo : Jane Shattuck (cc)

Curaçao - Photo : Jane Shattuck (cc)

Spanish or Portuguese origins ?

While scholars agree that Papiamentu’s lexicon is predominantly Spanish-based − hence its typical designation as a Spanish-lexifier creole − the presence of a number of Portuguese-derived items in the fundamental part of its vocabulary is also widely recognized. Since Papiamentu is spoken in a Spanish-speaking area, the presence of these Portuguese words requires an explanation and lies at the heart of a century-long debate, which is far from being resolved. Finding out where the Portuguese elements come from, in turn, has important implications for the closely related question of whether Papiamentu is and never was anything but a Spanish-based creole or whether it was imported from elsewhere as an originally Portuguese-based variety, only to be subsequently relexified towards Spanish.

The latest research on the history of Papiamentu supports the latter point of view: according to Jacobs (Forthcoming. The Origins of Papiamentu: Linguistic and Historical Ties with Upper Guinea), Papiamentu is genetically related to the Portuguese-based creole varieties of Upper Guinea, spoken on the Cape Verde Islands and in Guinea-Bissau and Casamance. The linguistic transfer from Upper Guinea to Curaçao must have been carried out in the period between ca. 1650 and 1680, which is when the slave trade between the two regions was at its peak. Subsequently, Papiamentu has developed, and continues to develop, in the direction of the socially dominant European languages Spanish and, to a lesser extent, Dutch, thereby loosing much of its original Portuguese flavor.

As a consequence, mutual intelligibility between Papiamentu and the Portuguese-based creole varieties of Upper Guinea is not self-evident; however, the linguistic kinship is still clearly visible in the domains of phonology, morphology and syntax.

A thriving language

Papiamentu’s remarkable popularity and vitality at present (especially when compared to the endangered status of many other creole languages) is visible not only in the high number of native speakers but also, for instance, in the fact that newspapers and television programs are written and broadcasted in Papiamentu.

Furthermore, although inhabitants of the ABC Islands typically speak at least four languages (Papiamentu, Dutch, Spanish and English), Papiamentu is dominant in all socio-cultural domains. The current strength of Papiamentu seems to correlate with the socio-historical fact that the language served as a marker of group identity of the original slave population (with predominantly African but also Amerindian roots) vis-à-vis the Dutch colonial masters.

Learn more about Papiamentu on our website.

Read Nicolas Quint’s article ” From West Africa to the Antilles, dynamic Portuguese Creoles”.

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Questions on the genesis of Creole languages

Posted by Marie-Christine Hazaël-Massieux on June 23, 2011

By Marie-Christine Hazaël-Massieux, professor of linguistics at the university of Provence, author of Textes Anciens en Créole Français de la Caraïbe : Histoire et Analyse (« Ancient Texts in Caribbean French Creole: History and Analysis »), Publibook, 2008.

Menton Creole Festival - Photo : Ian Britton (cc)

What does the term creole mean?

The ambiguity of the term creole must be pointed out. It is often understood as a synonym of « mixed language » – a difficult concept to define, incidentally – and one forgets that the adjective first qualifies any « product » that was generated in the islands from foreign parents: that explains why one might refer to « creole cattle », « creole pigs », or by the same token, to « Creole children » (White creoles, Black creoles).

So at first, the term creole does not mean « mixed » at all, but only underlines that the parents/ancestors weren’t originally from the colony.

Masters & slaves

In many European colonies, the 16th century through to the 18th century saw the rise of Creole languages (languages of the Creole populations), which, according to where the colonists came from, ended up being called Portuguese Creoles, English Creoles, French Creoles, etc.

French-based Creoles were all born in situations of intense linguistic contact involving languages that were spoken by the masters and their slaves. Arriving from various regions of Africa, the slaves spoke a very large number of languages that prevented them from understanding each other.

Besides, the slaves fulfilled new and diverse duties as the decades went by: farm hand to begin with, but also semi-skilled workers in the different areas considered useful to the life of the colony, housework servants in the grand’case [« big hut »] and sometimes even gradually emancipated, merchants and dealers to handle the town owner’s business – which explains the increasing complexity and richness of the local language of communication, although in some spheres it never entirely took over French.

The newly arrived non-Creole were also forced to learn the « island speech », which consequently underwent rapid changes. It became a means of communication for the whole of society (missionaries, masters, merchants…) as society kept developing. And it was first referred to as « Creole » at the end of the 18th century.

If the French origins of Creole languages often appear easier to prove than the influence, although undisputable, of the languages of the slaves, it is because:

-           in seeking a common language of daily communication between master and slaves, the social domination of the master made their language become the language of communication, in the form of a broken French also used for exchanges among the slaves in cases where they did not share a common African language;

-           social advancement then appeared to imply the use of French (i.e. the role of women, simultaneously servants, nannies and concubines) and the slaves sought command of the French language in hope for emancipation.

-           the main scriptwriters of the local idiom spoke French, thus their interpretations of forms they heard from the slaves were French-oriented.

Ancient texts

Written documents show the existence of Creole languages as soon as the beginning of the 18th century in the Caribbean, and a little later in the Indian Ocean, although not yet clearly distinct from one island to another within a given geographic area.

What’s more, these languages, and especially the African languages, differ between the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, which then partly explains the existence of different Creoles.

The written accounts of this period of genesis are precious as they help follow the evolutions of these languages along the years and the centuries: originally very basic exchange gradually became an elaborate form of enunciation including all necessary functions; the language took shape over the centuries with the gradual adjustments required to fulfill the need for communication.

The long maturing of Creole languages

Each Creole’s defining features began to settle in the course of the 19th century. Vocabulary, essentially French-based, opened to new words that often bore various African origins, but also Malagasy and even languages of India, for the Creoles of the Indian Ocean. And as always, whether at semantic or formal level, the new words continued their evolution over the centuries.

The most significant, however, and the most fascinating really is to witness the development of an original and functional form of grammar born precisely in these situations of linguistic contact, while everyone is trying to understand the language of the other. The grammatical units that we’re able to isolate and analyze, when trying to compare them with previously attested forms, somehow appear deeply changed. Often they can hardly even be associated to one language more than the other because of the higher-paced evolution of grammatical forms in contrast to lexical forms. Where exactly do grammatical morphemes such as « ap », « ka » (progressive), « ti » (past), « ké » (future, replacing the original « va »), « i » (modal or aspectual in Réunion Creole), etc. – come from? Solutions associating these forms to French forms currently in use are appealing, yet most probably insufficient.

The systematic analysis of ancient texts uncovers this evolution all the way to modern Creole languages – complete languages, the use of which can express just about anything for whoever speaks them in command of the lexical and grammatical forms they are made of.

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Haitian Creole: a slow gain in acceptance

Posted by Fritz Berg Jeannot on May 27, 2011

By Fritz Berg Jeannot, educator and specialist in French literature and linguistic, educational and cultural policies for the Imaginescence research and development group at Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Photo : Elicefeliz (cc)Mother tongue of all Haitians, Creole (over 8 millions speakers) demonstrated a serious deficiency in status right from the creation of the country in 1804: it was restricted to an informal usage while French, though only spoken by 5 to 10% of the population, became the formal language of the country.

Underrated language

For a long time, Creole was not considered a language. The terms used to refer to it were usually disparaging: « patois », « dialect », « talk »… Banned from public usage, at church, in the media and at school, it was neither written nor codified back then. Rare attempts towards writing were conducted through random and French-grammar-based forms.

Creole was thus judged unfit to serve significant social functions, and not one Haitian citizen seeking recognition saw the need of a higher status for this language. Under such conditions, Creole unilinguals themselves ended up wishing for their children to learn French.

Creole in education

The idea of using Creole as a tool for education reaches back nearly two centuries, when in 1816, a first project of integration arose, although no follow-up is recorded. Then the idea reemerged in the 1930s and was defended as necessary and feasible, before being resumed by UNESCO in the 1950s.

Meanwhile (1930-1960), several researchers devoted study to the language, aiming to provide it with an orthography and to explore its forms and structures. This research contributed to create a science of creole, and to develop text books permitting Creole to be served as a training language.

Long ignored by the state, proposals of education in Creole began to inspire the interest of private groups who launched related education programs. These pilot experiments eventually reached the Ministry of National Education, which implemented the « Bernard reform » at the beginning of the 1980s, named after one of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s ministers. However, this formal introduction of Creole was negatively perceived by a part of the popular class, who saw it as yet another attempt by Haitian authorities to confine their children to a disparaged place.

Be that as it may, over the years Creole managed to gain ever-more currency in education programs, classrooms, schoolyards and the media, particularly the radio beginning in1986.

Wavering and ambiguous legal recognition

Haitian lawmakers had ignored Creole for 160 years, but following decades of silence, the 1964 Constitution introduced article 35: the official language status of French was confirmed, but the use of Creole was finally permitted in the legal sphere, yet only in certain « cases » and under certain « conditions », remaining rather vague. Thus all sorts of interpretations were allowed, including forgetting, too.

However, this article does stand as the tipping point of the language’s evolution in status, followed by the 1983 Constitution which raised it to the rank of co-national language, and in 1987 as co-official language, along with French.

Yet Creole will have to wait for other legal texts for its official legal recognition to evolve any further, above all regarding concrete measures of application of the laws which concern it. While is no shortage of laws in Haiti, alas, only their enforcement often fails to come through…

The role of writers in the recognition of Creole

Beginning the 1830s writers were confronted by the need for a language able to express the Haitian imagination. From the 19th century into the first half of the 20th century, advocates of such an ideal began to « Haitianize » French in the wording of their work, integrating numerous terms, phrases and lines in Creole.

Then during the 1950s a veritable form of Creole literature, with regular publications emerged: collection of poems (Diacoute, 1953; Rosaire couronne sonnets, 1964; Konbèlann, 1976), plays, etc.

Translations of world literature narratives as well as philosophical and political works also emerged: Antigone in Creole, 1953; Œdipe the King, 1953; Pèlen tèt, 1979; Prens la, 2009; Ti Prens la, 2010.

Relegated to the second tier for over a century, Haitian Creole thus benefited from the interest of writers, researchers, religious figures and educators. While, initiatives and positions contributed to the evolution of popular perception of the language, they never got rid of the early negative preconceptions.

The sociopolitical upheaval of the 1980s also favored its expansion, yet while its existence is far from threatened, Haitian Creole now suffers from competition with multiple international languages such as French, and in particular, English and Spanish.

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