Nested in the hills of northern Bolívar (Colombia), Palenque de San Basilio has long been known as the first free town of the Americas. However, a fascinating fact that might be overlooked next to such feat is that, even after hundreds of years surrounded by Spanish-speaking communities, this tiny 5,000-person village has managed to preserve their language: Palenquero or Lengua ri Palenge. Relatively unintelligible for Spanish speakers living minutes away, the Palenquero creole has been a subject of interest to historians, linguists and sociologists. This article, therefore, aims to give a description of how Palenquero came to exist, what it looks and sounds like and the status of the language today.
To understand why it is so interesting, we must go back to its inception. The Palenquero creole, lengua ri Palenque or what locals simply call lengua, has its origins between 1650 and 1750, when a group of cimarrones (slaves who escaped for freedom) fled Spanish rule in Cartagena and established a small settlement in the hills about 30 miles inland. Isolated and secured for their own integrity, Palenqueros developed their own way to communicate.
The contact between slaves who spoke several different languages and Spanish and Portuguese-speaking colonizers meant that a pidgin language—one that arises when no common language exists—was needed. When a pidgin is passed on to further generations and reaches a degree of natural stability, it becomes a creole. In our case, then, Palenquero is a Spanish-based creole, meaning it takes its vocabulary mostly from Spanish. However, the fact that its grammar greatly differs from Spanish has pointed linguists to a West African, and even Portuguese, origin. It is believed that Palenquero was mostly influenced by Kikongo, a language of West African roots. Since Palenque de San Basilio stayed in relative seclusion until the advent of motor roads in the region, they were naturally able to hold onto their language for many years. Today, though, only about half the population, especially those from the oldest generations, speaks Palenquero fluently, while the rest have partial proficiency.
Although neighboring villagers may not understand a single sentence in Palenquero, they would probably be able to pick up individual words. That is because it draws its vocabulary from Spanish, although the pronunciation might differ drastically. Notice the similarity in the following words: kribí in Palenquero means escribir in Spanish; they both mean to write. (Kribí happens to be the name of an online Palenquero dictionary, launched in 2019 thanks to the initiative of Cristina De La Hoz Márquez, who was raised in Palenque). Below are some more words that closely resemble Spanish vocabulary:
basayá (LP) = maltratar, avasallar (Spanish) = to subjugate, to abuse
oddená (LP) = ordenar (Spanish) = to mandate, to order
labo (LP) = rabo (Spanish) = tail (of an animal)
kabéo (LP) = cabello (Spanish) = hair
Others are not so similar:
pachotá (LP) = grosería (Spanish) = slur
guatiá (LP) = mirar (Spanish) = to look
abalenga (LP) = estrella (Spanish) = star
tielo (LP) = recipiente (Spanish) (compare with Portuguese tigelo) = bowl, container
Verbs in Palenquero seem to follow a similar intonation as in Spanish, with the stress falling in the last syllable and dropping the final consonant (kribí, basayá, oddená, guatiá). Another interesting phenomenon is what linguists describe as rhotacism, where different consonants (in this case, the first D in Spanish) adopt an R sound:
rejá (LP) = dejar (Spanish) = to leave
romíngo (LP) = domingo (Spanish) = Sunday
ría (LP) = día (Spanish) = day
Similarly, some sounds that would be an R in Spanish are L in Palenquero:
leso (LP) = rezo (Spanish) = prayer
lanká (LP) = arrancar (Spanish) = to pull out, to pluck
There are also consonant clusters (two or more consonants pronounced in the same syllable) which are not found in Spanish, like mb and ng at the beginning of a word.
mbola = pelota, bola = ball
mblasá = abrazar = to hug
ngaína = gallina = hen
nglasia = gracias = thank you
CAPTION: Children start learning palenquero in elementary school.
Where Palenquero does become distant from its neighboring Spanish speakers is in its grammar. A common trait among pidgins is that their grammar system is usually less complex than the languages they develop from. This does not make Palenquero more “primitive” than Spanish, but it is, in fact, the uniqueness of its grammar that makes this language so different and complex from a Spanish speaker’s point of view.
The following sentence can teach us a lot about how Palenquero works:
I tan ablá bo = yo te diré = I will tell you
- There is a much smaller number of pronouns, and they are similar to its Spanish counterparts:
i, yo, mi means yo, mí (I)
bo means tú, usted (you)
ele means él, ella (he, she)
enú, utere means ustedes (you in plural)
ané means ellos, ellas (they)
- Unlike Spanish (and English), verbs in Palenquero do not change depending on the tense. Instead, they use particles like ta to express actions in progress, tan to express future and a to express past actions. In other words, Palenquero does not conjugate the verb like Spanish does. In the example (i tan ablá bo), the verb ablá does not need a future conjugation because it already has the particle tan, whereas Spanish speakers would necessarily use diré, the future conjugation of the verb decir. Then, we have:
i ta ablá bo = I am telling you
i tan ablá bo = I will tell you
i a ablá bo = I told you
And since there are no other forms for the same pronoun (like we/us or she/her), the same sentence can have different recipient:
bo tan ablá mi = you will tell me
bo tan ablá suto = you will tell us
bo tan ablá ele = you will tell him/her
Finally, it is worth mentioning that, in Palenquero:
1) grammatical gender does not always have to be in agreement
muhé bieho (mujer vieja)
kusa ta bueno (la cosa es buena)
2) The particle ma is added before a word in order to indicate the plural, instead of adding s or es as in Spanish or English. For example:
un pelo (un perro) / ma pelo (unos perros)
un moná (un niño) / ma moná (unos niños)
3) possession is indicated by placing the pronoun after the word. For example:
pelo suto (nuestro perro) = our dog
ma moná Rafael (los niños de Rafael) = Rafael’s kids
CAPTION: A few words in Palenquero by Enrique Márquez, coordinator of Casa de Cultura. “We do not want the language to disappear because our children can speak it.”
The sad truth, however, is that Palenqueros have been the subjects of widespread discrimination and rejection from neighboring towns. Part of it is due to the fact that, since Palenque developed slowly over the years relative to nearby cities, its people never had the upper hand in industry or commerce. As transportation in and out of Palenque became easier, Palenqueros who left their hometown to work and study were seen as underdeveloped or lacking sophistication. “We have always been poor here”, said Concepción Hernández Navarro, whose children went away to Cartagena and Venezuela to find opportunities.
Part of the discrimination is also due to their language itself. Hernández, quoted above, is not alone in her assertion that “[Palenqueros] were subject to scorn because of [their] tongue”. It is common, for example, to hear people from neighboring towns impersonating the so-called Palenquero accent in a despective way. This feeling of rejection and being made fun of has led some Palenqueros to steer away from speaking their language on a daily basis. In other cases, they have even discouraged their children to learn it:
“Before, people from outside used to make fun of Palenqueros. My mother and my father did not want me to learn that language because, when people from Palenque went out of town, people used to say ‘Hey, kid, ¿where do you come from; where are you going?’ For that reason, our mothers did not want us to speak like that.” —Testimony from a participant in a study on the revitalization of the Palenquero language.
On top of losing ground to Spanish due to increased contact between cultures, discrimination has been another important factor in the decline of Palenquero. A study by the Colombian Ministerio de Cultura calls it an “endangered language” and explains that “Palenqueros were discriminated against due to their ethnic condition and their way of speaking; due to their language being considered as a ‘badly-spoken type of Spanish.’” In view of the situation, parents stopped transmitting the language to their children so that they did not have to go through the hardship that their parents lived every day, the study mentions.
That is why multiple efforts have been made to preserve Palenquero. The government, on one hand, has assigned proficient Palenquero speakers to teach the language in the school system. Additionally, efforts have been made to use the language in formal settings like the Catholic church of the town and the Casa de la Cultura and Casa del Saber. Informally, perhaps, seems to be the best way in which Palenquero has been kept alive. The little creek, the central square, the sports center, and even places like Rafael Cassiani’s house and the Kombilesa Mi house are hubs for Palenquero interchange. Cassiani, a well-trained musician and social representative, and Kombilesa Mi, a hip-hop band that writes songs in Palenquero, continue to strengthen the locals’ ties to their culture and language.
Younger-generation Palenqueros are using technology to keep the language alive as well. Aside from using it on Facebook and Instagram, they also have Whatsapp groups in which speaking Spanish is not allowed; only Palenquero. Since teenagers have been losing proficiency in the last few years, they feel proud when their friends from outside ask them to translate what is posted online. Besides, visits by linguistic researchers have created a sense of awareness, meaning that Palenqueros strive to produce the “best” Palenquero creole. Furthermore, online dictionaries like Kribí and Lengua Palenque are helping to facilitate learning the language for everybody.
In short, Palenquero was born out of the need for communication, but the need for contact, in recent times, has threatened a language with already very few speakers. One of the biggest attributes of its people, though, is their resilience: years of isolation, poverty and discrimination have not done away with the culture and traditions of such a small town. We can certainly be hopeful, then, that Palenquero will continue to be the language of one of the most interesting places in the Americas.
My name is Javier Cataño García and I am pursuing a M.A. in Spanish, with focus on linguistics and literature, at the University of South Florida, Tampa, where I also teach undergraduate Spanish courses. I was born and raised in Colombia, but I have lived in the United States since August 2021. I have always had a special interest in foreign languages and geography, and I am looking to channel that interest through Latina Republic. I also have some training and experience in English-Spanish translation and interpretation. Although my professional career has been centered in teaching, I enjoy delving into other areas such as music, cooking and journalism. I hope to find new directions in my career through Latina Republic.