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Proposal for a unified spelling of Papiamento (1)

by Fred de Haas

Once upon a time all languages began as spoken languages. Written language (codification and standardisation) came much later like the notion of ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ languages.

Official recognition would become ‘problematic’ for languages derived from a ‘standard’ language, such as minority and Creole languages. Sometimes it lasted quite some time before a minority language achieved the status of ‘genuine’ language.


It took centuries before ‘romance’ languages like French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, mainly derived from the Latin spoken in the Roman Empire, came to full fruition. It lasted until 813 when, at the Concile of Tours, catholic priests were advised to preach in the ‘lingua romana rustica’, the common language of the people, instead of in Latin.

The Latin language faded into the background but did not disappear entirely. The father of the French philosopher Montaigne (16th century) gave his son a thorough Latin education and we had to wait until the 17th century before the French language became the prestigious language of Molière, Hugo, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Sartre and Camus.

Creole languages like Caboverdiano, Papiamento and the Kréyol from Haiti and the French Windward islands can, because of their origins (French/Spanish/Portuguese) also be labelled as ‘romance’ languages.
The Kréyol from Martinique and Guadeloupe was not considered a ‘genuine’ language, but referred to as a ‘jargon’ (an incomprehensible speak), a ‘français corrompu’ (a corrupted French) or a ‘baragouin’ (barbaric language).

Let’s have a look at the spelling systems and the problems languages have to overcome before they reach the final stages of an officially recognised orthography. Here are a few examples.

Spanish orthography
Contemporary written Spanish has a long history.
When we have a chance to read the original version of the story of Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1627) we would come to the conclusion that the Spanish of the 17th century is quite different from the Spanish of today. Cervantes’ writing bears the stamp of the Golden Age, the Siglo de Oro:

‘Todo lo que vuestra merced hasta aqui me ha dicho, dixo Sancho, lo he entendido muy bien, pero con todo esso querria que vuestra merced me sorbiesse vna duda, que agora en este punto me ha venido a la memoria. Assoluiesse, quieres dezir, Sancho, dixo don Quixote […]’

In modern Spanish: Todo lo que Usted hasta aqui me ha dicho, dijo Sancho, lo he entendido muy bien, pero con todo eso querría que Usted me solviese una duda, que ahora en este punto me ha venido a la memoria. ‘Absolviese’, quieres decir, Sancho, dijo don Quijote.

At a certain moment in time there was such a gap between the old way of spelling and the contemporary, 18th century pronunciation that the Spanish Academy decided in 1726 to fall back on the old Latin (!) way of writing. This meant a return to the old etymological spelling.
It was advised not to write any longer ‘vueno’ and ‘provar’, but, instead, ‘bueno’ and ‘probar’ (Latin: ‘bonum’ and ‘probare’). ‘Ombre’ and ‘oy’ were replaced by ‘hombre’ (Latin: ‘hominem’) and ‘hoy’ (Latin: ‘hodie’). Fifteenth century ‘ç’ was replaced by ‘c’ and ‘z’: ‘hacer’, ‘ciudad’, ‘zapato’ and ‘esfuerzo’. Not until 1815 the Spanish ‘x’ was replaced by the ‘j’ (jota). Don Quixote became Don Quijote. It is remarkable that the French have maintained the old pronunciation of the Spanish ‘x’ in their writing of the hero’s name: Don Quichotte. In fact, the English pronunciation and notation is ‘wrong’ [ks] .
It also happened that mistakes were made in the Latin spelling. The Latin ‘mirabilia’ became in Spanish ‘maravilla’. As a matter of fact this should have been ‘marabilla’, etymologically speaking.

Nothing changes like spelling and alphabet
Spelling and alphabet are intertwined as far as the West- European languages are concerned.
In the course of time many languages have had differing alphabets. The Spanish language of the Middle Ages used to be written either in Latin (most common), Hebrew and even Arabic characters. The German language knew, besides the Latin, also the Gothic script. Turkish could be written in Cyrillic, Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and – after 1924 – in Latin characters. Yiddish knew a Latin and a Hebrew notation.

Technically speaking it should not be too difficult to develop for Papiamento a unified spelling for the ± 270.000 inhabitants of the three Papiamento speaking islands Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire. Haiti has also been capable of designing one single – official – orthography for a population of 10 million people.

Organically grown spelling systems
Contrary to the genesis of the different spelling systems of Creole languages like Papiamento, the orthography of, for example, French and English, have not been established by a committee at a meeting table. The orthography of the latter was more or less ‘organically’ developed from a Latin model. Authors of an orthography could not care less about the ‘readability’ of their writing system. Only the elite counted and the millions of uneducated, unschooled people were simply disregarded.
Until today this attitude has had its consequences. For most people the highly abstract character of the French and English way of spelling has turned out to be very difficult to learn and people, unless schooled, tend to make many ‘mistakes’ in their writing of the language.

So the old languages took centuries to develop their spelling systems. One can easily understand that the users of Creole languages could not afford to wait hundreds of years before an organically grown orthography would be fully developed. Something had to happen sooner. The question arose which of the already existing spelling systems would be most suitable for a language like Papiamento.

In the 19th century people were only acquainted with the etymological and phonetic (one sound = one sign) spelling systems. Certainly, there had been people who had come up with hybrid systems, but only in the 20th century there was a breakthrough with the so-called phonological spelling.

The etymological and the phonological models
A purely ‘etymological’ spelling e.g. for Papiamento is supposed to maintain most vocals and consonants of the original word they are derived from.
Since this is too hard a challenge, choices have to be made and compromise be reached. This is exactly why a spelling system cannot be purely etymological. ‘Etymologizing’ would, all things considered, perhaps be a better designation for such a system.
Those who know Spanish are, as a matter of fact, well served with the ‘etymologizing’ spelling system of Aruba, but for those who don’t speak or read Spanish such a system has less significance. And, by the way, knowledge of Spanish is certainly not a ‘must’. An autonomous Creole spelling does not require the knowledge of another language.

A phonological spelling which implicates a visible unity between sound and sign, can be the cause that much extra information simply disappears. As a matter of fact, a reader recognises a word or (part of a) sentence before (s) he has analysed them. And a strict phonological spelling almost forces the reader into analyzing the words almost syllable after syllable.
Except in the application of a phonetic alphabet there is no compelling reason to maintain the principle of ‘one sound = one sign’.

People often assume that a phonological spelling conceals the origin of a word. This is not the case, however. A phonological spelling is neutral. Besides, the possibility to recognise the origin of a word is relative. Many people are able to trace the origin of the Papiamento word ‘drechi’ back to the Spanish ‘derecho’, but who is still aware of the fact that the Spanish ‘derecho’ has its origin in the Latin ‘directum’?

All alphabetical spelling systems are partly phonological. A spelling is only entirely phonological when each sign represents a sound and when each sound has a special symbol. One can easily imagine that this is an impossible exercise. Hence the term ‘phonologizing’ would seem more appropriate.

Since the actual learning of a ‘phonologizing’ spelling takes less time than the learning of an etymologizing spelling, a government may see this as a reason to choose a phonologizing approach. This has been the case in Haiti where the government was confronted with a very high percentage of illiterates. This has also been the choice of Curaçao, although the percentage of illiterates there is significantly smaller.




Hybrid forms
So, within an alphabetical spelling system one never finds a purely etymological or a purely phonological spelling.
A spelling system will, for that reason, always have a ‘hybrid’ (= mixed) character which also takes its reason from the fact that people, consciously or unconsciously, want to link up with a previous language situation.
A future unified spelling system for Papiamento can adopt all sorts of hybrid forms that may possibly be experienced by the existing culture as a welcome phenomenon.
Let us not forget that a spelling system is merely a tool, an instrument whose importance one should not exaggerate but which is indispensible in the educational field en in social communication.

What is the purpose of a spelling system?
Who is a spelling system meant for in the first place? What useful purpose does it serve?
Let’s formulate three obvious answers to these questions:

1. Orthography enables people to communicate from a distance.
In order to establish a satisfactory way of communicating a spelling must provide the reader with supplementary information. As a matter of fact this is all the more necessary since the reader lacks the information that is constantly supplied when speaking to one another (gestures, the position of the lips, intonation, stress and rhythm of the sentence).
It stands to reason that this piece of extra information can have an etymological basis. A word like ‘hèrment’ (= tool) gives more to go on than ‘èrmènt’, because ‘hèrment’ evokes the Spanish ‘herramienta’.

2. A spelling system must in the first place be designed and read by native speakers.

3. Orthography must be capable of generating real literature. This means that it can be used to make associations and create poetic images.

Whichever choice one makes for a certain way of writing, it will inevitably have anthropological and political implications.


Anthropological aspects
Language is to do with the identity of a people. Orthography has nothing to do with identity.
Having said this, it would be unwise to force a spelling system upon a people which people would feel uncomfortable with or which defies certain cultural habits and realities. For that reason it would be undesirable to write proper names differently from how they were written previously for no other reason than that a ‘new orthography’ requires such a spelling. People could feel this as an outright attack on their ‘identity’, although identity has nothing to do with it.
Aruban geographical names like ‘Andicuri’ and ‘Kudawecha’ will thus be perfectly acceptable although it goes against the prevailing spelling rules.
Designers of spelling systems are supposed to explain the reasons why they have chosen a specific spelling system. These could be reasons which have to do with consistency, easy readability and other considerations. As a rule, people tend to prefer an orthography which is felt as ‘normal’.
However, ‘normality’ is an arguable question.

Political aspects
Orthography can cause a feeling of being closer to a country or a group. For example, when you write a ‘tilde’ (the diacritic sign on top of an N, like in ‘ñapa’) this might cause the feeling of being close to Spanish and Spanish speaking countries. In case you don’t use accents or only a small number of them, this may remind people of English spelling habits. Increase of accents brings French a bit closer, etc.
Formally speaking this phenomenon is irrelevant, but it can be very relevant from an emotional point of view.
When politics play a role in choosing an orthography this can have a most alienating effect. Proof of this is the actual spelling system of Aruba on the one hand, and the orthography of Curaçao/Bonaire on the other hand.

Designing a functional spelling system
People might mistakenly assume that an orthography should reflect as much as possible the spoken language. But only the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA, 1888) has the duty to render exactly the sounds of a language. Such an ‘alphabet’ has one sign for each sound.
Such a way of writing has proved to be a perfect godsend in case one wants to know the exact (standard) pronunciation of a word. This method is being applied in (standard) dictionaries.
However, such an elaborate alphabet is not much use in everyday life. In ordinary life we need an orthography that reflects polished speech in an orderly and readable way. It should certainly not render all sorts of variants that are not functional.

The strength of an orthography also lies in the fact that it is capable of reacting to the developments in language. For example, it should be capable of rendering adequately all sorts of loanwords from other languages, unless one decides that those loanwords be written as in the original language. In wordlists and dictionaries those loanwords could in the latter case be accompanied by phonetic script in square brackets.
In the future Papiamento will undoubtedly borrow many words from Spanish. Any orthography should take this fact into account.

Orthography: not to be used for differences in pronunciation
As we have already mentioned it would be undesirable for an orthography to cover differences in pronunciation.
Let us take an example from the French and the Portuguese that may clarify this statement.
The nasally pronounced French word ‘lundi’ (= Monday) is only written in one way. However it is pronounced in a variety of ways, depending on the region or country. A Parisian would pronounce [lendi], an inhabitant of Lyon will maintain the pronunciation [lundi] and a French speaking person from Québec (Canada) would say [lundji). But the orthography ‘lundi’ suffices. There is absolutely no need for rendering the above-mentioned variants. No one in the French speaking world would come up with the idea of entering ‘lendi’ in a standard dictionary.
However, in the standard Papiamento dictionaries of Joubert and Van Putte one encounters the word ‘Papiamentu’ on many pages, only because of the fact that in Curaçao the current pronunciation of the final O in Papiamento is pronounced U (as in the English ‘tooth’ or the French ‘tout’). There is absolutely no need to maintain this orthography. Because of linguistic uniformity it would stand to reason to write ‘Papiamento’ with a final O. Inhabitants of Curaçao know perfectly well that they are free to pronounce their usual U. No problem at all.
In Portuguese the final O in the word ‘obrigado’ is pronounced ‘obrigadu’, whereas a Brazilian would pronounce the same word with a final O (like the O in the Spanish ‘moda’).
But one shall never find in Portuguese dictionaries another spelling than the one with a final ‘O’.

Standardisation of spelling
Any standardisation should in one way or another take account of the degree to which the population (the ‘people’) can identify with the proposed model.
It can therefore be relevant to ask the opinion of selected groups in the population about a specific orthography. As a matter of fact, we may then find ourselves on slippery ground, because in such settings one cannot preclude influences / pressure from outside or a certain ‘being used to feeling’, thus clinging to a prevailing spelling, considered as ‘normal’.

In 1984 a five days lasting workshop took place in Guadeloupe during which discussions were held with the population about, among other subjects, the transformation of spoken Creole language into written Creole language.
The participants appeared to be in favour of the spelling they had been taught earlier and which was felt as ‘most Creole’. However this spelling differed from the spelling they found ‘nice’ and ‘readable’.
It is therefore not imaginary that a ‘new’ orthography can create a psychological conflict in a group of people that has a tendency to make an absolute law of an older way of spelling.
Apart from that, many people could not, probably, care less about the way their language is spelled.

The formalisation of the ‘Curaçaoan’ orthography
The ‘phonologizing’ orthography of Curaçao and Bonaire has been officially laid down in the ‘Buki di Oro’ (= The Golden Book) under the title of ‘Ortografia i Lista di palabra Papiamentu’ (Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma, 2009).
I. and F. van Putte-de Windt have commented on the contents of the Buki di Oro in their Brochure ‘Ortografia fonológiko di papiamentu’ in which they have made a proposal for revision. Their criticism bears, among other things, on accentuation, stress and abbreviation. They also make a plea for the reintroduction of the YOD, a sign that was already proposed by the linguist Raúl Römer in 1969.
Both authors have resumed their commentary on the ‘Ortografia i Lista di palabra Papiamentu’ in ‘Buki di oro, reseña (2010).


Aruba. Foto © Michiel van Kempen

The formalisation of the ‘Aruban’ orthography
The ‘etymologizing’ orthography of Aruba has been laid down in what is popularly called the ‘Blue Book’ which carries the official title of ‘Vocabulario Ortografico di Papiamento’, 2009).

I would like to make a few comments on the contents of this official Aruban spelling book. These comments are to be taken into account when it comes to the designing of a unified ‘umbrella’ spelling which will transcend the spelling systems of the Blue Book and the Buki di Oro.

It immediately strikes the reader that the Aruban alphabet has 27 letters and the Curaçaoan one only 26 (see pages 12 and 14, respectively). The reason of this disparity lies in the fact that in the Aruban spelling the ‘ñ’ has been counted in.

As far as the accentuation is concerned, the Aruban spelling is in principle keen on avoiding accents. Curiously we find accents in French loanwords as paté (= liver paste), crèche (= day nursery), frère (= brother), crème (= cream), crêpepapier (= crepe paper). This phenomenon has been justified with the argument that for these words the Dutch spelling has been followed. As a matter of fact, a few question marks are in order here.

Because of the lack of accents in the Aruban spelling, searching for the right stress could become a little laborious. A word like ‘hipoteca’ can refer to the substantive (in which case it has the stress on the third syllable (hipoteca = mortgage) or it may refer to the verb. In the latter case the stress bears on the final syllable (hipoteca = to effect a mortgage).

The authors have not forgotten to give some clues as far as the stressing of words is concerned. For example, in their wordlist they write an ‘S’ or a ‘V’ after the word ‘hipoteca’ to indicate the grammatical category the word belongs to ( ‘S’ means ‘sustantivo’ = substantive and ‘V’ means ‘verbo’ = verb). Once we know that, we also know where the stress should fall. All this would seem a bit laborious.
By the way, the word ‘nabega’ gives rise to embarrassment. There is no S or V. Is the accent on the third or on the last syllable: [nabega] or [nabega] ?
In the Curaçaoan spelling the authors write an accent on the verb: nabegá. No problem.
On the other hand, the Curaçaoan spelling has an overkill of accents: (fèrfdó = painter), (èrmènt = tool). Why not just ‘ferfdó’ and ‘hermént’ or even ‘herment’ in case we follow the Spanish spelling rules?

A generous space has been reserved for Dutch loanwords. There are hundreds of Dutch loanwords in Papiamento. They are interspersed in the actual wordlist and their orthography is purely Dutch. In the first 40 pages of the ‘Blue Book’ we count already 90 words like: andijvie (= endive), boorwater (= boracic lotion), bruidsmeisje (= bridesmaid), appelmoes (= apple sauce), augurk (= gherkin), asperge (= asparagus), bauxite (= bauxite), etc.
Looking at the letter ‘K’ on page 206 we only see a few Papiamento words and an overwhelming amount of Dutch entries.

At times the spelling rules are a bit too artificial. In case you want to know where to write
– cion and where – sion in words like ‘posicion’ and ‘decision’ you will have to put up with the explanation that – sion (with an S) must be written in substantives that have not kept their form in the derivatives (???).

It is to be desired that the Authorities of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire will decide to charge an Aruban-Curaçaoan-Bonairean Committee with the duty to put together a unified spelling for the entire Papiamento speaking area.


Caribbean area
Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire are not the only regions where people are wrestling to find an adequate spelling system. A few examples from the Caribbean area may provide some relevant details.

Of all Creole speaking French regions Haiti is the only country where a phonological / phonetic orthography has been established by law in 1980. In 1987 Kreyòl became an official language, besides French, in Haiti.

The islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe – official French departments – have been working for 35 years on a spelling that would be ‘genuinely Creole’ and that would agree with the majority of people. The institute which studies the grammar, syntax, vocabulary and spelling of the Creole language is G.E.R.E.C. (Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherches en Espace Créolophone, 1975). Founder of GEREC and leading man in the area of French Creole is the novelist and linguist Jean Bernabé.
Bernabé believes that the further away the orthography is from the French spelling (N.B. the Kréyol derives from 17th century dialects of Western France) the more ‘real Creole’ it is. It can be concluded from this contention that the focus of G.E.R.E.C. is geared to the ‘phonological’ way of spelling.

The situation on the small French Antilles is, of course, very different from the situation on the Leeward Islands where the influence of Dutch on the indigenous language is rather limited. The French islands have to deal on a daily basis with the official and ‘prestigious’ French language which has great influence on the language of the people who tend to speak ever more ‘Antillean French’ instead of genuine Creole.

One of the main collaborators of G.E.R.E.C., the author Raphaël Confiant, let slip the remark (in an interview from 2003 at the UAG, Université des Antilles et de la Guyane, Fort-de-France, Martinique) that it is not unthinkable that the Creole language could disappear in the course of a few generations. Confiant gave the example of the former Jamaican Creole that was difficult to understand for an Englishman and that had changed into an easier to understand ‘Caribbean English’. He also gave the example of Trinidad where in the 19th century 70% of the population spoke Martinican (French) Creole. The Trinidadian John Jacob Thomas even wrote in 1869 the first Grammar of the French Creole on Trinidad (The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar). There are still some areas in Trinidad where people speak French Creole.

Taking all this into consideration, it is not inconceivable that Papiamento will undergo serious changes and could eventually even partly disappear. Just think of the increasing flow of Dutch immigrants on Bonaire, which will undoubtedly foster the ‘Dutchification’ of language and culture. Bear also in mind the numerous immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela in Aruba who will take care of the ‘Hispanisation’ of Papiamento, a language which, given its romance character, may easily dissolve into a dominant, ubiquitous Spanish.
It would seem wise for the Leeward Islands to combine forces and take proper care of their mother tongue. In this context the establishment of a unified spelling would certainly not be out of tune.

An ‘uphill job’
On September 11th 2015 the Foundation SPLIKA that fosters the Papiamento language and Antillean culture in all sorts of ways celebrated in The Hague Historic Museum its 25th anniversary.
For a better understanding: the Foundation tries to achieve her goals through the organisation of language courses for native Papiamento speakers and raw beginners, and through the organisation of lectures, symposia and cultural manifestations.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of SPLIKA, Mr. Ronald Severing, the long time Director of the Curaçaoan Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma and Mr. Ramon Todd Dandaré, former Director of the Language Institute of the Aruban Ministry of Education, had been invited to present their ideas on the possibilities of establishing a unified orthography for the three ABC islands. This new spelling would replace the existing spelling guides (Buki di Oro and the Blue Book).
Both gentlemen lectured on the turbulent history of the Papiamento spelling from the time of Monsignor Niewindt (‘Catecismo pa uso di catolicanan di Curacao’, 1837) until today. They described in broad outline the (too) many efforts to reach an adequate spelling and the just as many systematically and polically frustrated attempts that ended their short lives in a hospitable drawer.

The final blow dealt to a design for a unified spelling came about in 1975 when the then Prime Minister of the former Netherlands Antilles Juancho Evertsz and the Aruban politician Betico Croes decided to leave the responsibility for a (Papiamento) orthography to the different island territories. Because of this disastrous decision the orthography became the plaything of low political sentiments which finally resulted in two different spelling systems for a population of about 270.000 people.

Both Mr Severing and Mr. Todd Dandaré signalled the urgent need of a unified spelling system for the small population of the Leeward Islands, but failed to indicate even a beginning of the way how to realise this.

The way forward will be indicated in the following pages.

September 2015


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