A little-known language survives in Colombia
By Simon Romero
Published: October 17, 2007
SAN BASILIO DE PALENQUE, Colombia: The residents of this village, founded almost three centuries ago by runaway slaves in the jungle of northern Colombia, eke out their survival from plots of manioc. Pigs wander through dirt roads. The occasional soldier on patrol peaks into houses made of straw, mud and cow dung.
On the surface, it resembles any other impoverished Colombian village. But when adults here speak with one another, their language draws inspiration from as far away as the Congo River Basin in Africa. This peculiar speech has astonished linguists since they began studying it several decades ago.
The language is known up and down Colombia's Caribbean coast as Palenquero and here simply as "lengua" - tongue. Theories about its origins vary, but one thing is certain: It survived for centuries in this small community, which is now struggling to keep it from perishing.
Today, fewer than half of the community's 3,000 residents actively speak Palenquero, although many children and young adults can understand it and pronounce some phrases.
"Palenge a senda tielan ngombe ri nduse i betuaya," Sebastián Salgado, 37, a teacher at the public school here, said before a classroom of teenage students on a recent Tuesday morning. (The sentence roughly translates into English as, "Palenque is the land of cattle, sweets and basic staples.")
Palenquero is thought to be the only Spanish-based Creole language in Latin America. But its grammar is so different that Spanish speakers can understand almost nothing of it. Its closest relative may be Papiamento, spoken on the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, which draws largely from Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch, linguists say.
The survival of Palenquero points to the extraordinary resilience of San Basilio de Palenque, part of whose very name - Palenque - is the Spanish word for a fortified village of runaway slaves. Different from dozens of other palenques that were vanquished, this community has successfully fended off threats to its existence to this day.
Colonial references to its origins are scarce, but historians say that San Basilio de Palenque was probably settled sometime after revolts led by Benkos Biohó, a 17th-century African resistance leader who organized guerrilla attacks on the nearby port of Cartagena with fighters armed with stolen blunderbusses.
And while English-, French- and Dutch-based Creole languages are found in the Caribbean, the survival of one in the interior of Colombia has led some scholars to theorize that Palenquero may be the last remnant of a Spanish-based Creole once used widely by slaves throughout Latin America.
Palenquero was strongly influenced by the Kikongo language of Congo and Angola, and by Portuguese, the language of traders who brought African slaves to Cartagena in the 17th century. Kikongo-derived words like ngombe (cattle) and ngubá (peanut) remain in use here today.
"There is nothing else like this language in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas," said Armin Schwegler, a linguist at the University of California, Irvine, who has researched Palenquero since the 1980s. "But it is in danger of disappearing."
Advocates for keeping Palenquero alive face an uphill struggle. The isolation that once shielded the language from the outside world has come to an end. Once three days by mule to the coast, the route to Cartagena now takes two hours by bus on a bumpy dirt road.
Electricity arrived in the 1970s as a government gift in recognition of Antonio Cervantes, better known as Kid Pambelé, a Colombian world boxing titleholder who was born here. With electricity came radio and television. The schoolhouse, named in honor of Biohó, has an Internet connection now.
But Palenqueros, as the community's residents call themselves, say the biggest threat to their language's survival comes from direct contact with outsiders. Many here have had to venture to nearby banana plantations or cities for work, and then found themselves ostracized because of the way they spoke.
"We were subject to scorn because of our tongue," said Concepción Hernández Navarro, 72, who survives by farming yams, peanuts and corn.
Only two of Hernández's eight children live here; five are in Cartagena and one moved as far away as Caracas, drawn by Venezuela's oil boom.
"We have always been poor here," she said in an interview in front of her modest house, "but our poverty has grown worse."
If there is one blessing to this impoverishment, it may be that Colombia's long internal war has largely been fought over spoils in other places, allowing teachers here to toil uninterrupted at reviving Palenquero since classes were introduced in the late 1980s.
Undaunted by the prospect of Palenquero disappearing after centuries of use, Rutsely Simarra Obeso, a linguist who was born here and lives in Cartagena, is compiling a lexicon. Others here are assembling a dictionary of Palenquero to be used in the school.
Bernardino Pérez, 38, a teacher trying to revive Palenquero, said these efforts were undertaken with little government assistance.
"The Spanish empire imposed its language on us, but we resisted," Pérez said. "We'll keep on resisting a while longer."
The fight to keep the language alive is taking place as other parts of Colombia, which by some measures has the largest black population in the Spanish-speaking world, finally takes interest in the community as it emerges as a mecca for anthropologists, historians, musicologists and linguists.
Ana Mercedes Hoyos, one of Colombia's most prominent painters, has made images of Palenque a central feature of her work. Newspapers from Bogotá have begun sending sports reporters here to inquire about a boxing renaissance in the stifling-hot gym where children dream of following in Kid Pambelé's footsteps.
The defenders of Palenquero view their struggle as a continuation of other battles.
"Our ancestors survived capture in Africa, the passage by ship to Cartagena and were strong enough to escape and live on their own for centuries," said Salgado, the schoolteacher.
"We are the strongest of the strongest," he continued. "No matter what happens, our language will live on within us."