State Reform and Multilingualism: the Use of Papiamentu on Bonaire


The 21st of February is the Unesco International Mother Language Day, a day to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In many countries the mother language is the same one as the official language used in schools, by the State, in court and in the mass media. But when your language differs from the official language, and the State does not provide sufficient rights to safeguard this language, human rights issues can be at stake. The protection of the home-language – certainly when it is spoken by a small group of people- is important to safeguard the intangible heritage of mankind, because a lot of knowledge on flora, fauna and local history is only accessible in that language. It is also important to educate children in their home-language to have an effective learning process. Access to the democratic process in local government is only possible when all the languages spoken in the region are taken into account.

Guest blog by Bastiaan van der Velden

In 2010, an important State reform took place in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, introducing new language issues. This kingdom, a federal State made out of 3 countries at that time, was restructured. From 2010 on, it is formed out of the Netherlands in Europe, and Aruba, Curacao and St. Martin in the Caribbean. Three little islands, Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba, too small to become a state in this federal Kingdom, are from 10/10/10 governed by the Dutch Parliament in The Hague (known under the name BES-islands). For the new state structure, hundreds of new laws had to be introduced, parts of the existing legislation were adapted to the new situation, and other laws had to be abrogated, like the death penalty.

The so-called BES-islands have their own languages, on Bonaire most of the inhabitants speak Papiamentu, on the other islands English is the common language. In November 2012, I was invited by the Akademia Papiamentu from Bonaire, a local NGO involved in language issues, to share my knowledge on law and language and the State reform in the Kingdom, fields of law I have knowledge in since I wrote a PhD on minority languages in the Netherlands, furthermore, I have been teaching at the University of the Netherlands Antilles Law and Language and used to be a policy advisor for a Dutch MP in the parliamentary process of the state reform.

On Bonaire in November 2012, I gave a public lecture, talked with the governor, members of the island council and civil servants, to raise awareness on language issues. The legislation introduced on 10/10/10 for the BES-islands contained some paragraphs on language. Some of these rules on the use of the Papiamentu language were only applicable when a local bylaw was made. The Dutch Administrative Act (AWB) sets rules about the use of Frisian by the local authorities, and in a similar way there are rules for Papiamentu on Bonaire. To use the opportunities of the BES-legislation, a language regulation by the island council of Bonaire had to be made, to codify rules on the use of written Papiamentu in government documents. In my lecture and meetings with officials, I stressed on the importance of these rules.

In preparing my lecture, I discovered that after the State reform on 10/10/10 the (Netherlands Antilles) law on spelling and grammar was set aside by the Dutch government. The official spelling and grammar of Papiamentu on Bonaire had therefore to be formalised again. In the past week, the island council of Bonaire voted on two new bylaws with rules on the use of Papiamentu in government documents and on the spelling and grammar. The MP I used to work for asked me last week in how far my goals were reached by now. It may look so: there are now two bylaws on Bonaire regulating the use of Papiamentu. But from now onwards the local government has to start using their language, and in the field of the language in court a lot of work has to be done, because in that field the existing protection of Papiamentu speakers is insufficient and not adapted to the local situation. The goal of the Akademia Papiamentu is the recognition of Papiamentu under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This is an interesting case, since it raises questions on the duties of the Netherlands with regard to the possibility of territorial reservations (not allowed according to the Charter) and the way The Netherlands has limited the scope of the Charter.