A Guide to Papiamento: You’ll be Saying Bon Dia in No Time

While I’ve never been a fan of the tourist phrasebook — perhaps because I have yet to find myself at a stranger’s dinner party where inquisitive locals want to know how many siblings I have — I do believe that learning key phrases enhances your travel experience.

Before arriving at my destination, I try to memorize a few key phrases, in addition to the four essentials of hello, good-bye, please, and thank you. And preparing for my trip to Aruba was no different. I was pleased to see that English and Spanish were widely spoken (check and check), but the official languages of Aruba are Dutch (hallo!) and Papiamento (*crickets*), one I was not familiar with.

Pharmacy in Oranjestad

Bon Bini to Papiamento

Like every curious traveler, I scoured books and online resources for more about Papiamento, which, by the way, is also spoken in Bonaire, Curaçao and Saint Eustatius. There are several theories as to origins of Papiamento. The majority of scholars say it was born from the Cape Verdean language that arrived to the Caribbean as a result of the slave trade. The vernacular expanded to include Portuguese words, including the name Papiamento itself, which is derived from the Portuguese word “papear” (to chat). It later expanded to include words and phrases from other languages and cultures, including the Arawak Indians, to weave a beautiful identity of its own.

The language became widespread and adopted by the Portuguese and Spanish occupiers, until the arrival of the Dutch. In 1815, Papiamento, the language of the majority, became a forbidden language and Dutch became the only language of instruction that was permitted in the schools.

It took almost 200 years for Papiamento to gain the status of official language in the Islands. Aruba came first. In May 2003, the Aruban government declared Papiamento an official language. Curaçao was the second country, turning Papiamento into an official language in 2007.

Palm trees in Oranjestad

The Dushi Experience

To the ear, it sounds like Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and African Creole – and I could not get enough of listening to it on the island. This combination of languages conspired to create a word that admittedly at first made me giggle, but then continuously charmed me: Dushi.

Dushi is a Papiamento word that is sort of a catch-all, much like “aloha” is in Hawaiian. It literally means sweet. I was called Mi dushi, a few times as a term of endearment, similar to sweetheart or darling. And if there was ever a word to describe the sugary architecture and delightful locals of Oranjestad, it’s that word.

Watch the reaction of shop attendants when you say, “bon dia!” the daytime greeting in Papiamento, or when you thank the café staff by saying, “masha danki.” This seemingly small gesture goes a long way for an Aruban.

Ban Goza (Let’s Enjoy) Aruba

Papiamento has a rhythm of its own, so it’s important to put the emphasis on the right syllable. But, don’t worry, you’ll be able to pick it up quite quickly. Whether it’s Papiamento or any other language, the effort of speaking to locals in their language adds a new layer to your journey.

Photo of pronunciation guide
Photo by Nothing Ahead on Pexels.com

Papiamento Pocket Guide:

Welcome                            Bon bini

How are you?                    Con ta bai?

Fine, thank you                 Bon, danki

Thank you very much      Masha danki

You’re welcome                Na bo ordo

See you later                     Te aworo

Very good                          Hopi bon

Sweet                                  Dushi

My darling/sweetheart   Mi dushi

A Kiss                                   Un sunchi

Have a nice day                Pasa un bon dia

Goodbye                             Ayo

Good morning                   Bon dia

Good afternoon                Bon tardi

Good night                         Bon nochi