Description by Neil G. Jacobs
Panel about the distinctive features of Jewish Papiamentu with linguists and heritage speakers
The following description and discussion of Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu is extensively extracted (mostly verbatim), with permission, from my article: Jacobs, Neil G. (2020). "Curaҫao Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu in the Context of Jewish Languages." In Sutcliffe, Patricia C., ed., The Polymath Intellectual: A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Robert D. King, 103-128. Dripping Springs, Texas: Agarita Press. The full version of that paper is available here.
Papiamentu is the Afro-Caribbean creole spoken by over 300,000 people on the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaҫao, as well as in emigré communities elsewhere. Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu [SJP] is the variety of Papiamentu spoken (and to a limited extent possibly written) by Sephardic Jews in Curaҫao over the past three-hundred-plus years. A Jewish variety of Papiamentu likely originated in the latter half of the 17th century, when Sephardim first settled in Curaҫao, or not long after that. (See Gomes Casseres 1991 on the history of Sephardim in Curaҫao.) On suggestions of possible Jewish linguistic influences in Papiamentu origins, see below. Historically, SJP has manifested itself as distinct from general Papiamentu in several ways – in some features of lexicon, morphology/phonology, syntax, as well as in differing external multilingualism. Over the most recent few generations, SJP has undergone significant and increasing attrition due to several factors, including Sephardic assimilation to a general, less-specifically Jewish way of life, accompanied by a shift to general Papiamentu speech by many Curaҫao Sephardim; intermarriage and emigration – these and other factors resulting in a shrinking Sephardic community in Curaҫao. However, residual awareness of the existence of an identifiably Jewish variety of Papiamentu speech remains, both among Jews and among many (typically older) members of the general population.
Names of language:
- Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu
- Jewish Papiamentu
Territories where it was/is spoken:
Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 800
- 2021: Very few
Iberian Romance-based Atlantic Creole
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, Curaçao
Brief Historical Background
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1499, the population of the ABC islands consisted of Caiquetio Indians, who had originally come to the islands from present-day northern coastal Venezuela (Fouse 2002). Fouse (2002: 37) writes that the Caiquetio migrated to the islands “thousands of years before the Europeans arrived,” and that the Caiquetio language is classified within the Arawak language family and is considered extinct.
As part of their colonial activity, the Spanish “discovered” and took over the ABC islands in 1499. With the arrival of the Dutch in Curaçao in 1634, the 32 Spaniards present, and all but 75 of the Indians, were expelled to Venezuela (Martinus 2004: 4, citing Hartog 1961: 132). When the Dutch West Indian Company controlled the islands, the importation of African slaves and creation of plantations began, at first tentatively, eventually reaching a massive scale. Martinus (2004: 5) writes: “The rapid development of plantations was also furthered by the enterprise of the Portuguese Jews, who started to arrive in Curaçao around 1660.”
The historical discussion of Papiamentu crucially involves the history of the Atlantic slave trade. An unfortunately durable, antisemitic trope focuses on Jews as the sole or main driving force responsible for the Atlantic slave trade. Thus, a certain amount of energy and space is often required to rebut these types of claims. In his chapter on “The Sephardic Jews of Curaçao” (109–24), Fouse devotes a subsection to the topic of slavery. He begins (2002: 117) by addressing matters directly: “To what extent did the Jews of South America and the Caribbean participate in the slave trade? Since they were prominent as land owners, merchants and traders, it would be pointless to argue that there was no Jewish involvement, though the traffic was controlled by the Dutch.” Based on other sources, Fouse (2002: 117–18) states: “Jews accounted for a lesser percentage of slave owners compared to Protestants.” This statement is followed by supporting numbers and statistics based on records for Curaçao for several periods starting in the 1740s up until emancipation in 1863, showing Jewish involvement at levels lower than that of the society at large (for discussion and bibliography, see, e.g., Emmanuel and Emmanuel 1970; Joubert and Perl 2007: 46; Martinus 2004; B. Jacobs 2016; Freitas 2016).
Henriquez, May. 1988. Ta asina? O ta asana? Abla, uzu i kustumber sefardí. Willemstad, Curaҫao: Drukkerij Scherpenheuvel N.V.
Martinus, Efraim Frank. 2004. The Kiss of a Slave: Papiamentu’s West-African Connections. [Third edition of his 1996 Amsterdam doctoral thesis.] Curaçao: “De Curaçaosche Courant” N.V.
Henriquez, May. 1991. Loke a keda pa simia. Willemstad, Curaҫao: Drukkerij Scherpenheuvel N.V.
Linguistic Background of Papiamentu and Suggested Roles of Jews
There exists substantial scholarly discussion about the possible role of Jews in the formation of Papiamentu (see, e.g., Wood 1972). B. Jacobs (2016:142) addresses this question directly, asking: “what role did the Sephardim play (if any) in the formation of Papiamentu? It has often been claimed that their role was pivotal...” As an example of this view, he quotes from Sanchez (2006: 157) that it is “likely that Papiamentu was formed during the latter half of the 17th century from the speech of Portuguese-speaking Jewish merchants and African slaves.” B. Jacobs’s (2016) approach flips this very common view on its head by stating that the “principal home language of the Curaçaoan Sephardim was not, as is traditionally and rather uncritically assumed, Portuguese, but Spanish.”
Henriquez (1988) discusses the linguistic division of labor—the diglossic situation—in the Curaçao Sephardic community as concerns the use of Portuguese. It was used for a long time—Henriquez says up to 1860—as the language of sermons in the synagogue, in most official communal correspondence, and minutes. That role changed over time, and by the latter part of the twentieth century, Portuguese was mostly used there in certain synagogue prayer functions, as well as in some formulaic expressions (such as on gravestones in the Beth Haim cemetery). Henriquez notes that (in her lifetime) congregants preferred speaking Spanish.
B. Jacobs addresses in his discussion the known fact that Curaçao Sephardim used Portuguese in certain synagogue-related functions such as sermons until the year 1860, minutes of meetings, and official correspondence (see Henriquez 1988:xii), the fact that these Jews were typically referred to as “Portuguese,” and more. He sees the designation of these Jews as “Portuguese-speaking” to be largely incorrect, based on circumstantial, socially and politically motivated use of the descriptor “Portuguese.” (For example, the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam were referred to as the “Portuguese Nation,” even as they were predominantly Spanish-speaking. See also Golan 2014.) Thus, B. Jacobs aligns himself with the view that Papiamentu originated as a Portuguese-based creole on or just off the west coast of Africa, and subsequently transported to Curaçao. B. Jacobs (2016: 144) writes: “I think Papiamentu did not inherit its Portuguese vocabulary from the language of the Curaçaoan Sephardim, but from Cape Verdean Creole.”
Additionally, by challenging the view that Curaçao Sephardim were mostly Portuguese speakers, B. Jacobs suggests a solution to a problematic issue, namely, the mechanism by which Spanish could have become part of a post-1634 Curaçaoan Papiamentu. The records indicate that the Spaniards and most of the Caiquetio population were expelled to Venezuela following the Dutch conquest in 1634. While we can assume that there was linguistic interaction between the new Dutch conquerors and the 75 remaining Caiquetios, we can question whether the latter would have been sufficiently linguistically powerful to have imposed or have served as the source for what subsequently became the language of the Dutch conquerors, the European in-migrants, and the African slaves arriving on Curaçao – the latter, by the way, already speaking Portuguese-based creoles. (Caiquetio influences in Papiamentu are mostly limited to lexical items, largely in names of flora and fauna [Joubert and Perl 2007: 43], as well some Curaҫao place names [Fouse 2002: 37].) Assuming Martinus’s model of Afro-Portuguese creole origins, with Papiamentu developing in post-1634 Curaçao, the significant post-1650s in-migration of Spanish-speaking Sephardim (per B. Jacobs’s 2016 model) would provide a very plausible route for a partial relexification of Papiamentu toward Spanish. As time went by, the regional importance of Spanish also served as a further source of continued enrichment in Papiamentu, both lexical and grammatical. Thus, while Sephardim may not have played a role in the origins of Papiamentu, it is reasonable to think that they may have played a significant role in affecting the trajectory of its subsequent development. In any event, Curaçao Sephardim as a group became early (possibly the first) non-African-origin adopters of Papiamentu as their in-group home language.
Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu: Background
The earliest known written documentation of Papiamentu has a connection to Jews. Martinus (2004: 9) writes: “The first appearance of written Papiamentu is a proverb that occurs as the name of a Jewish trading ship in 1767...” One of the earliest substantial documents in Papiamentu was correspondence between Jews (see Salomon 1982). In addition to the Sephardim, by the early nineteenth century the Protestant population of Dutch lineage on Curaçao shifted from Dutch to Papiamentu (Martinus 2004: 11). The addition of the Sephardim and ethnic Dutch to the Papiamentu speech community had its own impact on the language’s subsequent path of development. Martinus (2004: 9) writes: “The fact that the creole we nowadays identify as Papiamentu acquired (native) speakers under the Dutch and Jewish population helped create a dramatic gap in prestige and recognition between this Papiamentu, which became the accepted language of the community beside Dutch, and the collection of dialects called Guene [a separate Portuguese-based creole]. Papiamentu became the language of the city and the community in general and Guene the language(s) of only the countryside and the slaves.” (Martinus 2004: 193ff. devotes an entire section of his book—well over 100 pages—to discussion of the history, role, and relevance of Guene to Papiamentu, along with a presentation and grammatical analysis of Guene texts and data.)
Over time, Sephardim and ethnic Dutch underwent language shift to become native speakers of Papiamentu through contact with African-origin Papiamentu speakers. Much has been written about the history of social interactions of the black and white populations on the island. Not to be ignored here is the role played by the yayas—the black nannies in white households, who raised generations of white children in Papiamentu. However, the influences of linguistic contact were not unidirectional, as seen in Martinus’s point that the Papiamentu of this social setting diverged over time from the Guene of the countryside and of slaves.
May Henriquez’s Descriptions of SJP
Any linguistic discussion of a Sephardic Jewish ethnolect of Papiamentu [SJP] must necessarily begin with two works by May Henriquez. Part of a prominent Curaçao Sephardic family, Henriquez was active in the cultural life of the island (see Fouse 2002: 114, and passim). She was also active in promoting the place of Papiamentu in Curaçaoan society and the development of a standardized Papiamentu. Her two works on SJP make clear that she was acutely aware of it as a dynamic ethnolect rather than simply as a long list of lexical items. The first work is Ta asina? O ta asana? Abla uzu i kustumber Sefardí (1988) [“Like this? Or like that? Sephardic speech habits and customs”]. It was so enthusiastically received that it led to a follow-up book, Loke a keda pa simia (1991) [“That which has remained to be passed on”].
Henriquez (1988: xi) sets the framework for consideration of the ethnolect of her speech community, and writes:
…tabatin shèrtu diferensha entre Papiamentu ku nos tabata papia na kas i Papiamentu di otro hende. Aki ‘nos’ tin dos signifikashon:
1) E sírkulo di kas: famia, amigunan íntimo, Yaya Fina, Shon Polin, Vituél, es desir, e grupitu di kontakto diario.
2) Den un sentido mas amplio, tur desendiente di sefardínan ku a yega Kòrsou mas di 300 aña pasá.
There was a certain difference between Papiamentu which we were speaking at home and Papiamentu of other people. Here ‘we’ has two significations:
1) The circle of the home: family, intimate friends, Yaya Fina, Shon Polin, Vituél, that is to say, the small group of daily contact.
2) In a larger sense, all the descendants of the Sephardim who arrived on Curaçao more than 300 years ago.
Martinus (2004: 102–106) provides a valuable summary discussion of Henriquez’s books. On the social level, he notes (2004: 103) the fact that Henriquez “explicitly includes in her family circle the house personnel, including the yaya, who most certainly were not of Jewish, but of African origin.” Henriquez (1988: xii) sees Papiamentu as having already existed in Curaçao upon the arrival of the Sephardim (see also Martinus 2004: 103), and thus, Jews were not part of the creation of Papiamentu. However, Henriquez (1988: xii) does claim that SJP “mester a tin basta influensha riba formashon di papiamentu” ‘must have had quite a lot of influence on the development of Papiamentu.’
Our interest in SJP as an ethnolect may be broadly divided into the following three areas: (1) lexical items and idioms specific to SJP, either in their existence, or in their use or meaning as differs from general Papiamentu; (2) grammatical issues in the phonology, morphology, or syntax specific to SJP; (3) a general sociolinguistic mapping of SJP—in terms of diglossia, stylistics, and contact with other languages, along with contact and overlap with general Papiamentu, language play, indexicality, etc.
Henriquez (1988: xiii) put together her list of words and expressions through interviews with members of the community. Importantly, she describes her method of inclusion, distinguishing between words or expressions that speakers currently use versus words or expressions that speakers remember hearing from grandparents and others but don’t themselves use. As described by Martinus (2004: 104), the ca. 1,500 words entered into her list “show five distinctive influences: Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Judeo-Spanish and Guene.” Martinus notes that the largest number of words are from Hebrew and relate to Jewish-specific religious practices and customs. This is followed by words of Spanish origin, as well as words of either Spanish or Portuguese origin, and then words of clear Portuguese origin. Martinus (ibid.) writes: “The number of French words is amazingly high, because it nearly equals the number of Portuguese words...” This is important for his focus on the possible role of Sephardim in the genesis of Papiamentu. On Henriquez’s collection of words and idioms, Martinus (2004: 104) further writes: “The reason why a profound analysis of this lexicon is not necessary in this context, is that so few words in it are generalized into common Papiamentu.” It is clear that SJP contains a significant number of words that are distinct from common Papiamentu.
Henriquez is less interested in which particular words are uniquely Sephardic Papiamentu and more interested in “nos moda di papia” ‘our way of speaking’ (1988: xiii). As to which words or expressions she chose to include, Henriquez writes that she asked several friends as well as Papiamentu experts whether or not to “include certain words which were difficult to decide” if they were older Papiamentu or Sephardic words. She notes that it is often not easy to classify these as to origin. In asking these informants about whether or not to include a word or expression, Henriquez received two types of answers: (1988: xiii): 1) “I came to hear this word, I myself don’t use it, put it in!; or 2) “I don’t know it, but it is very expressive, put it in!” For that reason, Henriquez writes, she put everything in but sees this as a trial run (“ensayo”), and makes explicit that she is open to and expects to receive reactions to her list, to correct her list, and to add that which is missing. (Henriquez did this in her 1991 follow-up book, Loke a keda pa simia.)
Henriquez (1988) distinguishes between papiamentu sefardí ‘Sephardic Papiamentu’ and papiamentu komun [PK] ‘general Papiamentu’ and provides (1988: 97–98) a table, algun variashon di papiamentu sefardí, which shows some lexical contrasts between SJP and PK, given here as follows, with English glosses added.
papiamentu sefardí papiamentu komun gloss
afora afó out, outside
arepita repa round cornmeal pancake
bañu baño bath
bisñetu bisañetu great-grandson
bizjitá bishitá visit (v)
bizjita bishita visit (n)
desparesé disparsé disappear
dignitario dignatario dignitary
di repente di ripiente all of a sudden
festehá selebrá celebrate
festeho selebrashon celebration
fopá vupá misdeed
fora (djesei) fuera (djesei) besides that
gora, gwera bora gore, puncture
goza gosa enjoy, amuse
granmèrsi gremesí live on others’ expense
kamina kaminda road, way, where
kusta (verbo) kosta (verbo) to cost
lanso laken, laker bedsheet
mata di roza mata di rosa rosebush
noba (notisha) nobo news
òrdi òrdu order
pafora pafó outside
para (di) stop (di) stop (from)
pasha pasa, lozjer spend (time)
piko (di para) pik (di para) bird’s beak
poko dia atras poko dia despues a few days later
remedu remedi remedy
Saba djasabra Saturday
sedu set, sedu thirst
sekia sekura dryness
sementerio santana, kèrkòf cemetery
shandilié shanguilié chandelier
slòins slòns untidy, careless
speshul spesial special
striki streki bow, ribbon
suku di lechi kos di lechi dulce de leche candy
tibio lou lukewarm
triste tristu sad
tur kiko tur loke everything that
uza usa, uza use
As the list shows, lexical items can differ between SJP and PK in several respects. The two varieties can employ entirely different words (e.g., festeho vs. selebrashon; Saba vs. djasabra; sementerio vs. santana or kèrkòf; tibio vs. lou; lanso vs. laken or laker). They may also be essentially the same item but with a slightly different pronunciation (e.g., afora vs. afó; dignitario vs. dignatario; bizjitá vs. bishitá). Some of these differences in pronunciation can possibly be described in terms of some phonological generalizations (SJP /z/ vs. PK /s/, in, e.g., goza vs. gosa, or mata di roza ̴ rosa). Other generalizations can arguably be seen as either phonological or morphological, e.g., the gerund form in items like SJP hasindu ‘doing,’ komendu ‘eating’ vs. PK hasiendo, komiendo. Similarly, Henriquez (1998: 98) describes a systematic contrast in participle forms where PK shows a stressed final é, while SJP shows stressed final í, e.g., SJP komí vs. PK komé ‘eaten’, poní vs. poné ‘put’. (Thus, in both the gerund and past participle SJP shows final high vowel, whereas PK shows a mid vowel.) Additionally, the same lexical item might have a different usage or connotation in SJP vs. PK; there are also instances where SJP uses one form only, whereas PK uses either the same form as found in SJP, or a synonym (Henriquez 1988, 98). Furthermore, Henriquez (1988: viii) notes that a number of typically Sephardic expressions and words, including some of Hebrew origin, have been introduced into general Curaҫaoan literature through the poems of the prominent (non-Jewish) poets Pierre Lauffer and Luis Daal (see also Martinus 2004: 104).
Several of the words in Henriquez’s books are of Hebrew origin, in line with the norms of Jewish language varieties. Examples include words in the religious domain, along with words connected with everyday life. Generally, these words are pronounced with Sephardic norms, such as: Kabalá ‘Kabbalah; school of thought in Jewish mysticism’; Ketubá ‘Jewish wedding contract’; Pésah ‘Passover’; Omer ‘the 49-day period between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot’; hames ‘Chametz; leavened bread’; hames na Pésah ‘something contrary to all the rules’; panim ‘face’; Sefer ~ Sefer Torá ‘the books of the Torah’; Nehilá ~ Neilá ‘concluding prayer at Yom Kippur’; Kidush ‘consecration, sanctification’; kidusim ~ kidusin ‘wedding ring’; kasher ~ kashé ‘kosher’; mishpahá ‘family; group’; goy ‘non-Jew’; ragmónes ~ dragmónes ‘compassion’ (stress and vocalism suggest Ashkenazic source); Havdalá ‘Havdalah ceremony at conclusion of Sabbath on Saturday evening’; Beshimantó! ‘an expression of good luck’ (< Hebrew בסימן טוב be-siman tov ‘in an auspicious/good sign/omen’ – also used when a glass object breaks, an extension of the traditional breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding; this expression with glass breaking was once used by some non-Jewish speakers of Papiamentu. Note that Henriquez also lists mazel tov, an equivalent expression of congratulations, probably from an Ashkenazic source; further, several Ashkenazic Jewish ethnolects use a form of mazel tov to remark (often humorously) on the accidental breaking of glass, e.g., American Jewish English, 20th c. Ashkenazic Dutch.
Henriquez purposely wrote the prose in her front material (acknowledgments; introductory discussion by the author), along with most of the words and expressions in her lists, in SJP—in spelling, in specific use of lexical items from SJP, as well as in grammar. On her intentional use of SJP in the introduction to her book, Henriquez (1988: iv) writes: “E introdukshon aki, meskos ku gran parti di e vokabulario ta skibí segun manera di ekspresa sefardí.” (Translation: ‘This introduction, like [a] great part of the vocabulary, is written following the Sephardic manner of expression.’) Fortunately, this included some significant points of grammar where SJP and PK differ.
The following discussion of SJP grammatical features is taken mostly from Martinus’s book (2004), where he provides discussion and examples gleaned from Henriquez. Martinus (2004: 104–105) writes (quoted here in extenso):
“The syntactic data in Henriquez’s study (1988), although limited, offers several interesting features:
A. The use of the perfective particle a with verbs that do not require ta in the durative, like the verbs ta and tin. The author’s own text, which on purpose is completely SEPH, furnishes two examples:
(3) e grupo sefardí aki mester a tin basta influensha
'this group Sephardic here must PFT have much influence'
'This Sephardic group must have had much influence.'
(4) ku mester a ta relativamente fásil
'that must PFT be relatively easy'
'That must have been relatively easy'
Martinus (2004: 72, 105) also notes SJP use of taba as a copula for past ongoing action, versus PK tabata:
(5) Bo taba seka Ana awe?
'You were at Ana’s today?'
'Were you at Ana’s today'
(6) Sí, mi taba, mi taba na Rita, kaba m’a pasa seka dje.
'Yes, I was, I was at Rita’s, then I went by her.'
(7) M’a bai na Toni, ma e no taba na kas
'I went to Toni’s, but he not was at home'
'I went to Toni’s, but he was not at home.'
(8) Nan respektivo vokabulario individual taba basta diversifiká
'Their respective individual vocabulary was fairly diversified.'
Martinus (2004: 105) then discusses Henriquez’s use of the form mesteriba (cf. general Papiamentu modal verb mester ‘must’), noting that Henriquez describes this as a verb form denoting that “Something has to be done, that is not taking place.” Martinus sees this as a hypothetical form similar to Barvalento Cape Verdean creole, and gives example sentences from Henriquez, including:
(11) Bo no mesteriba laga e asuntu yega asina leu
'You should not have let the matter come this far'
Martinus (2004: 105–106) also notes from Henriquez a SJP past hypothetical construction which uses biya/viya following the PK-type subjunctive lo ‘future’ + a ‘perfective particle’, thus:
(12) lo mi a biya hasié p’abo, pero m’a tende muchu lat
'I would have done it for you, but I heard too late'
(14) Sin boso yudansa, ken sa ki dia e buki aki lo a biya sali
'Without your help, who knows when this book would have come out'
Another syntactic difference found in SJP concerns the modals por ‘can,’ mester ‘must,’ and kier (~ ke) ‘want to’. In denoting past action with these verbs, SJP permits the following types of constructions, with a perfective modal in sentence-final position, seen in the following:
Mi kier a papia ku Lucille, pero mi no por a
I want past speak with Lucille but I negation can past
'I wanted to speak with Lucille but I couldn’t'
Nan kier/ker (?) a bai ku fakansi pero nan no por a
They want past go with vacation but they negation can past
'They wanted to go on vacation but they couldn’t'
Nan kier/ker (?) a kumpra e kas pero nan tata no kier a
They want perfective buy the house but their father negation want perfective
'They wanted to buy the house but their father didn’t want to'
PK does not allow these bare constructions, and instead must resort to strategies such as using tabata (imperfective particle) and explicit use of the complement; thus:
Nan kier/ker (?) a kumpra e kas pero nan tata no tabata ke (kumpr’e)
They want perf buy the house but their father negation imperf want (buy it)
'They wanted to buy the house but their father didn’t want to (buy it)'
Nan kier/ker (?) a bai ku fakansi pero nan no tabata por (a bai)
They want perf go with vacation but they negation imperf can (perf go)
'They wanted to go on vacation but they couldn’t (go)'
SJP also demonstrates some areas of sociolinguistic distinction from general Papiamentu [PK] in the area of register or style. Thus, it was reported that in the production of affected or fancy speech, PK speakers will incorporate more elements from Spanish (and more recently, from English), whereas SJP speakers will incorporate more elements from French (Enrique Muller, p.c.). SJP speakers will often use a distinct (from PK) repertoire of remnant phrases, especially from Portuguese (Sidney Joubert, p.c.). Moreover, one can speak of an awareness among Curaçaoan Sephardim of a constellation of Jewish contexts—familial, cultural and linguistic—that contributes to an ongoing basis for the continuity of a Jewish ethnolect of Papiamentu. SJP can also be influenced by Jewish-Jewish communication networks spanning across the Caribbean, as well as the types of educational upbringing which Curaçao Jews typically received (Sidney Joubert, p.c.), language of instruction, etc. Furthermore, similar to many Jewish cultures, SJP has a coded “insider” way of asking if someone is a Jew. Henriquez (1988: 20) notes the specialized use of famia ‘family’ in SJP in this coded function, e ta famia? ‘Is s/he a Jew?’ Similarly, a longstanding coded way for Dutch Jews in the Netherlands to ask if someone is Jewish has been, bent u Mexicaan? ‘Are you a Mexican?’ A coded expression within Jewish speech in the United States has been “MOT” (Member of the Tribe); significantly, the English loan tribe has made it into Curaçao Jewish speech (Henriquez 1988: 89; and Debbie Joubert, p.c.).
Sephardic Jewish Papiamentu as Ethnolect
While the Papiamentu spoken or written by Sephardim certainly received attention in earlier works by others, Henriquez’s two books (1988, 1991) constitute milestones in scholarly interest in SJP as a dynamic ethnolect. Since then, there seems to have been a growing academic interest in SJP. The use of the term “Sephardic Papiamentu” occurs rather regularly in the literature. Two conference papers and one published paper by N. Jacobs (2008, 2016; 2020) attempted to move discussion, based on Henriquez and Martinus, further into the context of ethnolect scholarship. One can even find popular social media discussion of SJP as its own ethnolect, relating it to the broader domain of Jewish languages. For example, McKeon (2016) discusses the relevant work by May Henriquez (1988), from which he derives his discussion of the Papiamentu of the Sephardim, asking, “The extent of May Henriquez’ work brings up an important question: could this be considered a Jewish language unto itself?” McKeon continues, “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.”
It is clear that the SJP ethnolect has undergone attrition. This was already noted in Henriquez’s (1988) differentiation between (1) words or expressions that are still actively used by Curaçao Sephardim and (2) words or expressions that the current generation heard from the previous generation and still recognize but do not actively use. This goes further in that there are words that were historically used in SJP, but which the current generation claims not to have heard and no longer understands. This issue was investigated in research conducted by Neil Jacobs in Curaçao in 2005. Discussions with Papiamentu scholars confirmed the general sense that the ethnolect was more distinct and viable several generations ago than it is today. During interviews with Curaçao Sephardic informants, these informants frequently did not recognize several of the words from Henriquez’s list. There was some variation as to which words were or were not recognized; some words were almost universally recognized, while recognition of other words seemed less predictable. However, significantly, informants seemed to show a high degree of recognition of the grammatical features described above as indexical to SJP. Several of the younger generation of informants reacted to hearing these structures (e.g., ending a sentence with a past perfect modal form and no complement) by saying that that was the speech of their parents or grandparents, but not their own speech; yet they frequently reacted to hearing these structures with an immediate smile and a readiness to talk about how their forebears used to speak.
What can be said about the current (as of 2005) situation of SJP? Even if the ethnolect has undergone attrition and shows fewer distinct features and less viability than it did a century ago, there is still reason to view SJP as a distinct ethnolect. It demonstrates indexicality in that specific words and grammatical features are used by members of the community to demarcate their ethnic boundaries linguistically. Spelling can also be used as a tool of indexicality. May Henriquez’s use of spellings for SJP often distinct from PK is a definite way of staking out ethnolinguistic turf, for example, her SJP spellings such as shertu ‘certain,’ Znoa ‘synagogue,’ vs. standardized PK siertu, snoa (from Portuguese/Judeo-Spanish esnoga). At the same time, Henriquez was fully involved in the general Papiamentu standardization movement.
Thus, to explain the vitality statistics above, in 1900, the total Jewish population of Curaҫao was 839 (Hartog 1961), mostly Sephardim. It is likely that close to all of the Sephardim had full, or nearly full, passive command of the features of the ethnolect, and that most were able to use it in their speech. Today the total Jewish population is approximately 300, including Ashkenazim. The number of Sephardim who can actively use the ethnolect on a daily basis is probably not more than a handful, and likely limited to very close social circles. The number of Sephardim who can recognize a good amount of the ethnolect features is likely under 200, with significant attrition in number of speakers over the past few generations; many of these speakers are likely limited to passive and/or partial knowledge of the ethnolect.
While SJP is not a thriving ethnolect today, it maintains enough viability to warrant further investigation. There remains enough distinctness in features available in the ethnolinguistic repertoire, and there remains enough of a sense of indexicality of features and elements. For future research on SJP it may prove interesting to investigate more closely issues of generational differences in codeswitching, language play, and performativity.
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* Jacobs, Neil G. 2016. “Ethnolect Death, Life-Support, and Non-Death: The Case of Curaҫao Sephardic Papiamentu.” Paper presented at Sociolinguistics Symposium 21, Murcia, Spain, 15–18 June 2016. Session C01–19: Contemporary Jewish Linguistic Repertoires.
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