Languages spoken in Bonaire

One of the most widely spoken vernacular languages on the island of Bonaire is Papiamentu, an Spanish-based Caribbean Creole.



Papiamentu is one of the many Caribbean Creoles, which is spoken in the Leeward Islands in the Netherlands Antilles and is also occasionally used on the islands of Sint Maarten, Saba and Statia. A Creole is a mixed language and in the case of Papiamentu, the lexicon (vocabulary) has mainly come from Spanish and other Iberian languages (such as Portuguese) while the other features such as grammar and structure are from a number of different languages, including Arawak (a Native American language) and African languages. Papiamentu also shows influences from Dutch, English and French. The name of the language is a derivation of the old Spanish verb papear, which means to speak or converse.

Creoles often come to being in situations of social upheaval such as the development of the Caribbean slave trade, where people of various ethnic backgrounds were suddenly brought together to work and had to find a common medium for communication. In these kinds of situations a new common language develops where the languages of European colonial administration provide much of the vocabulary while indigenous languages provide the structure of the language. This language is fully established when it becomes the native language of the newly created community.

In Bonaire, as in the rest on the Netherlands Antilles, Papiamentu is spoken by approximately a third of the population. The official language is Dutch and Papiamentu is mainly a spoken informal community language, although there exist some newspapers and other publications in Papiamentu. Education on Bonaire is also in Dutch, thus there is no formal schooling in Papiamentu although the prospect of introducing Papiamentu in schools has been discussed.

From island to island, small variations in Papiamentu mainly in spelling and vocabulary can be observed. Some efforts have been made to standardize Papiamentu and its orthography, but Aruba decided for a spelling that is closer to Spanish, whereas the other islands chose a more phonetic spelling of the Creole. As a result, some words may still have more than one way of spelling it, e.g. Papiamentu - Papiamento, Korsou - Korsow, kwater - cuater, sinku - cincu, etc. In general, Papiamentu, as many other Creoles, mainly follows the International Phonetic Alphabet in spelling which means that the representation of words in writing is very close to their actual phonetic realization.

Historical origins of Papiamentu

There are several theories on the origins of Papiamentu, as also for the other Atlantic Creoles. One of the options is that it is originally a Portuguese-lexicon Creole, traceable to the first contact between the Portuguese and West Africans in the 15 th century. The Portuguese colonization of the West African coast prompted the evolution of a new language, one containing elements of African language structures and Portuguese vocabulary that allowed the two peoples to communicate with each other.

Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese commenced the slave trade, shipping people from the West African coast to America. Gathered from all over West Africa which is a linguistically diverse region, the slaves did not share a common language. To communicate with one another, as well as with the Portuguese, they slowly started to acquire the coastal Creole during the many months they were held in West African ports awaiting passage across the Atlantic. This lingua franca (a common language), which became the mother tongue of a new generation of descendabts of slaves, evolved further as it was adapted to the particular linguistic environments in which the slaves found themselves. In many instances, the resulting Creole served as a secret language shared among the slaves, incomprehensible to the owners who spoke Portuguese.

Evidence for this theory is found in the guene language, which was brought to Curaçao by the first slaves to arrive on the island. It was found to bear a structural similarity to Crioulo, the Portuguese Creoles that are still spoken on the West African coast (in parts of Guinea-Bissau, the Cape Verde Islands, Senegal and Gambia). This resemblance suggests that guene is actually a remnant of the language from the ports of West Africa, brought to Curaçao around the 16th century. Other Portuguese based Creoles, all linked to early regions of Portuguese colonization, include Cafundo (in Brazil), Korlai (around Bombay, India), Macanese (in Hong Kong), Kristang (in Melaka, Malaysia), Ternateno (in Maluku, Indonesia), and Indo-Portuguese (in Sri Lanka), although only Cafundo shares Papiamentu's West African origins. In Curaçao, Papiamentu underwent Dutch influence, mainly contributing to the vocabulary. Through Dutch, also English and French elements entered Papiamentu. Later on, the influence of the Spanish speaking environment caused a hispanization of Papiamentu.

The other explanation for the origin of Papiamentu is the Spanish hypothesis, according to which Papiamentu is a direct descendant of the Spanish that was used in the area during the Spanish rule, and the small Portuguese, English, and Dutch influence came later.

The grammatical features of Papiamentu

Creoles have been said to have a simplified grammar because originally, they had to be easy to learn in order to facilitate inter-ethnic communication. The simplicity of the grammar is, of course, relative, because the Creole also bears characteristics unique to its structure. The grammar is not that of the lexifier language as we must bear in mind that it has been structurally influenced by African and American indigenous languages.

Generally, the following features characterise the structure of Papiamentu:

  • nouns do not have grammatical gender and gender is created by adding homber (man), machu (male) or muhe (woman) to the word intended to be modified.
  • nouns do not have a plural when accompanied by numerical modifiers.
  • verbs also have no number.
  • verbs have independent particles to express tense and aspect.
  • there are serial verb constructions.
  • reduplication is frequent for different functions.
  • the plural morpheme is the 3 rd person plural pronoun.
  • there is a preference to use Active rather than Passive voice.

A small glossary of Papiamentu



Bon Bini


bon dia

good day (before noon)

bon tardi

good afternoon

bon nochi

good evening; good night


thank you

por fabor


di nada

you are welcome

mi number di telefon ta ...

my phone number is ...

bél mi

call me

kon ta bai ku bo

how are you?

kon ta ku bida

how is life?

hopi bon

very good


very good


calm, everything ok



den gran forma

in great shape (said among young/cool people)

hopi kalor/caliente

very hot/warm

ata aki / ataki

here is the (the second "a" is not pronounced)

mi tin hamber

I am hungry

mi ke kome

I want to eat

lihe, pura, rapido

fast, quick






very old lady (used instead of Miss)


Sir, Mr.

flet tair

flat tire




why? (as in "what for?")


why? (as in "what is wrong with you?")

di cón










na cas

at home



paña nobo

new cloths

casá, esposa, señora

spouse, wife

casá, esposo

spouse, husband






cu mi

with me

pa mi

for me

tur cos


tur hende


tur caminda








ningun hende











one un
two dos
three tres
four kuater
five sinku
six sies
seven shete
eight ocho
nine nuebe
ten dies


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