A Jewish language born of a Caribbean creole

In my last post, I wrote a bit about the development of Papiamentu on the island of Curaçao. It’s an interesting language, given the array of sources that contributed to it: Portuguese, Spanish, West-African languages, Arawak, Dutch. Creoles are often a mix of totally unrelated languages, though, so this kind of blending is not particularly unusual. What is unique about Papiamentu, however, is that it was spoken across class boundaries, by all sectors of the population, from very early on in its history. This is in stark contrast to other Caribbean creoles, which have tended to be mistaken for corrupted or unsophisticated versions of the parent language spoken by the upper class.

For example, Haitian Creole, a French-based creole language, was for most of its history considered to be merely “bad French”. The French-speaking elite ignored the fact that Haitian Creole had its own grammar and vocabulary and was a language in its own right. Perhaps because Dutch, the language of the government and education, had no direct relation to Papiamentu (aside from a limited amount of loanwords), Papiamentu could be seen as its own language from the beginning and not merely a corrupted version of the prestige language. At any rate, Papiamentu took hold at all levels of society, and on Curaçao this included a community of Sephardic Jews.

Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

Sephardic Jews started coming to Curaçao in the 1650’s. These families had their roots in Portugal and Spain, but after being driven out by the Inquisition,  many sought refuge in Amsterdam. When the Netherlands took control of Curaçao, many Jewish families continued on to this newly acquired trading post. Some Jews had gone first to Brazil, setting up plantations and businesses there, but when the Netherlands ceded Dutch Brazil to Portugal, the Jews were forced to leave and many ended up on nearby Curaçao. By the end of the 17th century, at least ten Sephardic families had moved to the island. They dealt in agriculture, banking, the importation of goods from the Netherlands, and some were involved in the Atlantic slave trade. Since they were mostly (Judeo-)Portuguese and (Judeo-)Spanish speaking, the transition as a community to the use of Papiamentu would not have been a huge shift, and this may in fact have helped contribute to the widespread use of the language over Dutch throughout the island.

The synagogue of this early community still stands today in the center of Willemstad.  Mikvé Israel-Emanuel is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas. The current building dates from 1732 and continues to serve a congregation of about 350 members. The floor is covered in smooth white sand, and this is definitely its characteristic feature.  A number of explanations for this are given, beginning with a passage from Genesis (13:16), in which God says to Abraham: “I will multiply your seed as the sands of the seashore and the stars in the heaves.” Another account indicates that the sand is in memory of Conversos, or “secret Jews” in Spain in Portugal who had to practice Judaism covertly until they were able to safely emigrate to the Netherlands. These Conversos would put sand on the floor of the rooms where they worshipped in in order to muffle the sounds of their prayers. A third explanation states that the synagogue was designed to emulate an encampment in the Sinai desert during the time when the Jews were fleeing from slavery in Egypt, a rather ironic sentiment for a community with members that participated in the buying and selling of other humans as slaves, but I digress. This impressive building once housed a flourishing congregation, the descendants of which to this day still carry out some very old and particular customs and traditions. During Shabbat services, there are a few prayers that are still said in Portuguese, the language of the original Jewish colonists, including a prayer for the Dutch royal family.

Within a generation or two of their initial arrival, the Sephardic population of the island had become solidly Papiamentu-speaking. It is unclear how much Portuguese or Judeo-Spanish was still known or used by the community, but many sources attest that Papiamentu quickly became the daily language for most Jews on Curaçao. While at the synagogue gift shop, I came across a book that caught my attention, as it was one of only a few books in Papiamentu. Ta asina? O ta asana? Abla uzu i kustumber sefardí (Is it like this or like that? Sephardic language, lifestyle and customs) was written by May Henriquez as an expression of her love for her language and culture, and it became her life’s work. She began by asking friends and family for any expressions or vocabulary that they felt were particular to the Papiamentu of Sephardic Jews, and over many years she gathered enough information to compile this wonderful book.

May notes that the Papiamentu of the Jews contained many loanwords from Hebrew, Judeo-Spanish, and French. This is in addition to the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and West African elements already present in the Papiamentu of the general population. There also seems to be a greater prevalence of Portuguese vocabulary in the speech of the Jews, probably due to the language of the original Jewish islanders. Below is a sampling of vocabulary items, with example sentences taken from May Henriquez’ book.

interior of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel
interior of the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel

Fica – from the Portuguese ficar, to stay. This word is sometimes used instead of the more standard Papiamentu keda (from Spanish quedar), though with different nuances.

Koïtado – from the Portuguese coitado, pitiful or wretched. Ai, bo no ta mira ku e pober ta un koïtado malu, lagué na pas! (Oy, don’t you see the poor guy is a miserable wretch, leave him in peace!)

Zjanta – from the Portuguese jantar,  to dine. Non-Jewish speakers of Papiamentu prefer sena, from the Spanish cenar. No bini lat, nos ta djanta banda di 8 or. (Don’t be late, we’re eating around 8 o’clock.)

Pataka – from the Portuguese pataca, an archaic monetary unit of great value. May mentions that in the synagogue, when members made contributions the amount was announced in patacas, and this tradition continued until the 1960’s. No ta importá mi niun pataka! (It’s not worth a pataka to me! / It doesn’t matter at all!). Incidentally, the pataca is still the currency used today in the former Portuguese colony of Macau.

Znoa – from the Portuguese esnoga and/or the Judeo-Spanish אסנוגה, synagogue. This is the world still used to refer to the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel.

Mansebo – from the archaic Spanish or Judeo-Spanish mancebo/מאנסיבו, youth or servant. In Papiamentu it means a young man or a bachelor. Keda mansebo (to stay single).

Donsea – from the archaic Spanish doncella, maid. Today it is used to refer to an attractive young woman.

Famia – from the Spanish familia, family. Among the Jews in Curaçao this word can take on the extra meaning of “Jewish”. Mi no konosé nan, ma ta visto ku ta famia. (I don’t know them, but they look like they’re Jewish.)

Expulshon – from the Spanish expulsión, expulsion. This is another word used by the general populace but in the Jewish community it takes on an additional shade of meaning. Here, expulshon refers specifically to 1492 and the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

Horban – from the Hebrew חורבן, destruction. In Papiamentu horban means suffering or calamity. Fulano a hinka me den un horban. (So-and-so put me in a bad situation.)

Ganap – from the Hebrew גנב, to steal, thief. El a ganap e buki. (He stole the book.)

Goy – from the Hebrew גוי, used as in English to mean a non-Jew. Famia Cohen ta masha konsterná, nan yu Sarah a namorá un goy. (The Cohen family is appalled, their daughter Sarah has fallen in love with a goy.)

Panim – from the Hebrew פנים, face. Mi n’ gusta su panim. (I don’t like his face, i.e. I don’t trust him.)

In addition to the many Hebrew words used colloquially, there is also a treasure of religiously themed Hebrew words for objects or concepts of spiritual significance.  Anyone familiar with Judaism will recognise mezuzá, menorá, kadish, hupá, kabala, kasher, kipá, talmud, sedaká, seder, sefer torá, shofar, to name a few.

Finally there are also a number of French loanwords found in this Jewish variety of Papiamentu, the traces left by a smaller number of Jews who came to the island from France.

Fasòn – from the French façon, way or manner. Ami ta hasié na mi fasòn, abo ta hasié na di bo. (I’ll do it in my way, you do it in yours.)

Pèl-mèl – from the French pêle-mêle, chaotically or at random. E festa a resultá un pèl-mèl, kompletamente desorganisá. (The party was chaos, totally disorganized.)


The extent of May Henriquez’ work brings up an important question:  could this be considered a Jewish language unto itself? I wrote a post recently that discusses the definition of a Jewish language, or rather the characteristics that all Jewish languages seem to share. Jewish languages are based on already existing non-Jewish languages, and they contain a significant amount of vocabulary originating from Hebrew. In addition, many (but not all) are written using the Hebrew alphabet, and due to the migration of their speakers they tend to preserve archaic characteristics or vocabulary of the parent language. I have found no evidence of Papiamentu ever having been written with the Hebrew alphabet, but all of the other characteristics definitely apply.

Searches for the term Judeo-Papiamentu (or the alternative spelling Judeo-Papiamento) reveal nothing, but I propose that such a language indeed exists, and that the work of May Henriquez has already documented a significant amount of its vocabulary and usage. After all, nothing could be more Jewish than to migrate across the world, adopt the local language, and turn it into something uniquely Jewish by modifying the lexicon to fit the needs and experiences of the community. Though it is true that Judeo-Papiamentu does not differ from non-Jewish Papiamentu to nearly the extent that Yiddish differs from German, I believe it could still be considered to be a Jewish language in the vein of Judeo-Marathi or some varities of Judeo-Arabic. That is, it is not unique in its structure, but rather in the Jewish vocabulary and usage of the language.

Another thing worth mentioning is that May states that many of the entries in her book are from different time periods and do not necessarily represent current or even recent parlance. The current state of Judeo-Papiamentu or the extent of the Jewishness of the Papiamentu in today’s Curaçaoan Sephardic community is unknown. More research will need to be done to find this information, but I hope that acknowledging the existence of Judeo-Papiamentu is a first step towards learning more.

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