Why a language called Papiamentu might be the best solution to the world's language problem

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Here's where Papiamentu is spoken.

Many aren't aware of this, but the world has a language problem: the problem is that there is no universal second language through which everybody can communicate. It's true that basic English will do fine for most airports and a lot of major cities in the world, but this is communication at its most basic level ("one coffee...and big size please"), and not even communication at this level is guaranteed.

Using interpreters costs the police in Suffolk £20,000 a month, translation costs the EU around a billion euros per year, and English hegemony isn't even guaranteed considering the growing strength of languages like Chinese and Spanish, plus French (French? Really? Yes - the number of French speakers in Africa is expected to increase to 600 million in 2050. French isn't going anywhere). Even Turkish is strengthening its position in Europe and throughout Central Asia.

Add all this together and you can see that the world is heading for a bit of a linguistic deadlock. One of the problems with the current situation is simply that the most prominent languages in the world are often extremely hard to learn for others - English orthography is a mess, French is only slightly better but has grammatical gender and weird verb conjugation, Spanish has excellent orthography but requires a lot of work on memorizing verb conjugation, Chinese...well, Chinese is written in Chinese.

One solution proposed to this problem is a constructed language, created to be easy for anyone to learn, and thus we have languages like Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Lingua Franca Nova, Occidental, Novial, and so on. Though I and a lot of people like me do support this idea, the world on the whole doesn't seem to like constructed languages. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) they come across as being too artificial, and 2) they have very few speakers and thus almost no economic clout. It's hard to say whether any constructed languages will ever succeed.

Luckily, there may be another solution, and it's a language called Papiamentu. Papiamentu is spoken right here:

(plus a few other islands nearby)

This small corner of the world is part of the Netherlands Antilles, an overseas territory of the Netherlands where Papiamentu was born. Papiamentu is a creole, with vocabulary mostly from Portuguese and Spanish, with about another quarter of its vocabulary from Dutch and a few other words from various languages. And because it's a creole that means it has an extremely simplified grammar in addition to the large comprehensibility at first sight.

Let's compare the verb conjugation of Papiamentu with Spanish. First the Spanish verb comprar, to buy:

Presente
yo compro
compras
él compra
nosotros compramos
vosotros compráis
ellos compran

Pretérito perfecto compuesto
yo he comprado
has comprado
él ha comprado
nosotros hemos comprado
vosotros habéis comprado
ellos han comprado


Pretérito imperfecto

yo compraba
comprabas
él compraba
nosotros comprábamos
vosotros comprabais
ellos compraban


Pretérito pluscuamperfecto

yo había comprado
habías comprado
él había comprado
nosotros habíamos comprado
vosotros habíais comprado
ellos habían comprado


Pretérito perfecto simple

yo compré
compraste
él compró
nosotros compramos
vosotros comprasteis
ellos compraron


Pretérito anterior

yo hube comprado
hubiste comprado
él hubo comprado
nosotros hubimos comprado
vosotros hubisteis comprado
ellos hubieron comprado


Futuro

yo compraré
comprarás
él comprará
nosotros compraremos
vosotros compraréis
ellos comprarán


Futuro perfecto

yo habré comprado
habrás comprado
él habrá comprado
nosotros habremos comprado
vosotros habréis comprado
ellos habrán comprado



And now the same verb (kumpra) in Papiamentu:


Present Continuous
mi ta kumpra
bo ta kumpra
e ta kumpra
nos ta kumpra
boso ta kumpra
nan ta kumpra

Future
mi lo kumpra
bo lo kumpra
e lo kumpra
nos lo kumpra
boso lo kumpra
nan lo kumpra


Past

mi a kumpra
bo a kumpra
el a kumpra
nos a kumpra
boso a kumpra
nan a kumpra


Past Continuous
mi tabata kumpra
bo tabata kumpra
e tabata kumpra
nos tabata kumpra
boso tabata kumpra
nan tabata kumpra




(the area on conjugation in Papiamentu is less complete than the one for Spanish, but even this small portion shows you how easy it is - conjugation is carried out by simply using an auxiliary in front of the main verb)

In addition to that you now don't have to worry about grammatical gender anymore. In short, Papiamentu is the language you wish you had learned in school instead of Spanish or French. It's not only easy to learn but because its vocabulary comes from prominent European languages it provides a benefit to students who intend to go on to other languages afterwards.

Okay then, what about neutrality? One of the common arguments given for a constructed language is that it provides a neutral playing field in that everyone is using the language as a second language, so those using it as a mother tongue will not be given an unfair advantage. This is true to a certain extent, however:

1) The definition of neutrality is always a pretty vague one. Does a language get to be considered neutral simply because nobody speaks it as a first language, or does the vocabulary itself have to be derived from languages around the world? If a language derives too much of its vocabulary from one source is it then not neutral? Neutrality is good to a certain extent, but focusing too much on the perfect neutral language is an impossible task. In reality, more neutral is about as good as we can hope to get.
2) Certainly Papiamentu would given an unfair advantage to the people that speak it as a mother tongue...but these people live on a few islands close to South America and number only about 300,000, hardly the same thing as giving an advantage to the hundreds of millions of people that speak other languages like English, French or Spanish.

Finally, how complete a language is Papiamentu? Can you do everything you can do with other languages using Papiamentu? The answer is yes. Here are some examples of Papiamentu being used in practice.

Here it is being used to give a code of ethics to journalists:



Here it is being used to give information on a drug bust:



Here it is being used to discuss languages in education:



And here it is sung:



So yes, Papiamentu is as complete and functional as any other language. You'll also notice that if you speak a fair amount of Spanish or Portuguese (and French/Italian/Latin etc. to a certain extent) that this language is already pretty easy to understand at first sight.

There are of course other creole languages in existence, and most of them are fairly easy to learn in comparison with other languages that are usually studied in school. None of these, however, have the advantages that Papiamentu has:

- Tok Pisin and Bislama (Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu) are spoken in a very isolated part of the world, and the countries in which they are spoken are still largely undeveloped
- Haiti speaks a creole as well, but once again the country is unstable and undeveloped
- Mauritius speaks a French-based creole, but isn't all that interested in promoting it as a written language
- Seychelles does a better job at promoting their French-based creole than Mauritius but it's once again quite isolated and the population there is quite low

Whereas Papiamentu is spoken in a stable and well-developed part of the world, is technically a part of the Netherlands which is an EU member, and it's also quite close to both North and South America. It also has a larger amount of non-Romance vocabulary and thus represents a more varied swath of population than other creoles do.


Okay, so Papiamentu is a pretty good candidate for a universal second language, but how could this be accomplished in practice? That's hard to say. At the moment since it's not even considered to be a candidate for a universal second language the best way to get the ball rolling would probably be to conduct studies on the use of the language as a bridge in between English and Spanish speakers in the United States. A few studies showing how easy it is for people with different linguistic backgrounds to learn the language to communicate would probably be the best way to get people thinking about this language's potential as an interlinguistic tool...or you could just write about it on your blog and see whether that gets people interested in the idea.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave!
I'd just like to correct two affirmations by you (as a former lawyer...). Of course, translations cost a lot to the EU. But, if it weren't translated at the central level (ex: if the EU had adopted an official language like Sambahsa or another one...), then the translations would be made by the Member States, with more costs and risks of divergent translations (ex: English for the UK, Ireland and Malta, French for France, Belgium and Luxembourg....). The only solution would be to adopt the same official language in all EU Member States, or to provide that only the version written in the EU official language would be authoritative.
Concerning translations made by judicial authority, they often concern the kind of people less likely to know an auxlang (supposing that an auxlang would have been adopted as the "international language") or to confess that they know it. Some of them pretend they don't understand the local language (and some of them even remember their home country...) just in order to make the Court rule that they weren't aware of their rights, and thus the proceedings are void....

Olivier
http://sambahsa.pbwiki.com/

Barcodex said...

Dave, I can see you found another favourite language for yourself ;) And I wondered where is all that content in Occidental you were about to create...

Mithridates said...

Barcodex: not exactly. Some of the posts here are for auxlang user consumption and some I create especially for those that have never heard of the idea of an IAL. Sometimes it's worth just throwing out a new idea into the public and see what happens.

As for the Occidental content: 1) I'm still waiting on a better dictionary, and 2) inspiration to create content comes and goes. You know how it works.

Anonymous said...

Thai also has a very simple grammar: Verbs never change (tense is indicated by pre or post tag words), and there are no plurals (an explicit count or indication of numbers is given if needed). Its very hard to write and speak though...

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment above - the Western predilection with verb conjugation seems rather misplaced. Why do you need to change a verb at all when a fixed tense particle accomplishes the same thing more efficiently? I learned to speak Mandarin rather quickly because, as with Thai, verbs are fixed and conjugation is nonexistent. It's only the pronunciation and writing system that are problematic.

Steve said...

Papiamentu is a good language, but it also has tones to some extent--and tones are notoriously hard for speakers of non-tonal languages to learn. Then there are the odd vowels (not the standard five of Spanish) largely imported from Dutch--they don't show up in a lot of words, but some of the words where they do appear are fairly common. But if you remove these problem features, the result isn't quite Papiamentu, though it would be a dialect any Papiamentu speaker could understand, and the divergence in written form would be even less.

Anonymous said...

I'm learning Papiamentu in the univ right now and have found it very easy with my background in french and spanish. The grammar is very easy, vocabulary is easy too (even if you don't know dutch). I agree with Steve- there are many words in papiamentu that can be mispronounced by non-native speakers and mean something completely different. For example, tutu and tutu mean sweet and a bean cake; it all depends on where the stress is put.

Antonielly said...

The economical properties of languages have been changing due to the Internet.

I have read a very interesting article in which the author concludes that the Internet will make international commerce in the 21st century in many ways more similar to commerce in the 19th century than to commerce in the 20th century, and this has everything to do with the distribution of natural international languages (natIALs).

His reasoning is that Internet commerce will develop along language lines, making the USA neighbor of Singapore instead of Mexico, and making Brazil neighbor of Portugal instead of Argentina.

Read it at:
http://www.shirky.com/writings/language_networks.html

I think this economy phenomenon will have important impacts to the survival, divulgation and use of constructed international auxiliary languages (conIALs). Do you think the conIAL movement could benefit from it?

Yankee said...

As a non native but fluent dutch speaker, i don't hear much dutch at all. It sounds more like certain morphemes that are common to romance languages and dutch have been 'dutchified'.

Brian Greco said...

Hi,

I want to say how much I love this blog and love how its author writes so well and about languages and topics I thought no one else even heard about (Kalmykia, Papiamentu, Bislama, conlangs)!

Anyway, I want to inform all the Papiamentu fans out there that I've set up a blog for my journey in learning Papiamentu (of Curaçao) and it's at [iPapiamentu][dot][Blogspot][dot][com].

I'm not sure if links work in this comment section, but check it out, and feel free to email me! I'd love to hear from other learners or native speakers.

Thanks,
Brian

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

Hi, thanks for letting me know about the blog. I'll make a mention of it today both here and on auxlang. Since you're actually going to Curaçao I guarantee the auxlang community will be watching with interest to see what learning Papiamentu is like.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous 3/19/2009 03:26:00 AM:

tutu can also be/is mostly used for: cute/adorable. e.g.:

E baby ta tutu - The baby is cute/adorable.

Raphaël said...

Exactly! I had a talk about 3 years ago on this subject with fellow conlangers. I studied Esperanto and Ido and was part of the Ido community for some time (I find Esperanto too obfuscated), before I got married to a Bonairian woman and I was really shocked when I discovered Papiamento a few years back and thought: “Oh my, it looks like Ido/Esperanto, only natural and beautiful!”.

Way to go

The New-York Times had a very interesting article about Papiamento recently : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/05/world/americas/05curacao.html?_r=3

I’d also mention that my wife was surprised lately to find out that she could communicate very easily with people from Cape Verde using Papiamento, since Cape Verdian Creole and Papiamento are very similar languages.

Brian Greco said...

Hi,

I want to say how much I love this blog and love how its author writes so well and about languages and topics I thought no one else even heard about (Kalmykia, Papiamentu, Bislama, conlangs)!

Anyway, I want to inform all the Papiamentu fans out there that I've set up a blog for my journey in learning Papiamentu (of Curaçao) and it's at [iPapiamentu][dot][Blogspot][dot][com].

I'm not sure if links work in this comment section, but check it out, and feel free to email me! I'd love to hear from other learners or native speakers.

Thanks,
Brian

Raphaël said...

Exactly! I had a talk about 3 years ago on this subject with fellow conlangers. I studied Esperanto and Ido and was part of the Ido community for some time (I find Esperanto too obfuscated), before I got married to a Bonairian woman and I was really shocked when I discovered Papiamento a few years back and thought: “Oh my, it looks like Ido/Esperanto, only natural and beautiful!”.

Way to go

The New-York Times had a very interesting article about Papiamento recently : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/05/world/americas/05curacao.html?_r=3

I’d also mention that my wife was surprised lately to find out that she could communicate very easily with people from Cape Verde using Papiamento, since Cape Verdian Creole and Papiamento are very similar languages.

Anonymous said...

I'm learning Papiamentu in the univ right now and have found it very easy with my background in french and spanish. The grammar is very easy, vocabulary is easy too (even if you don't know dutch). I agree with Steve- there are many words in papiamentu that can be mispronounced by non-native speakers and mean something completely different. For example, tutu and tutu mean sweet and a bean cake; it all depends on where the stress is put.

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