Language of the Month: Palenquero

     Many times, we have precious little evidence of the foundation or creation of a language. We can look from an anthropological perspective or etymological perspective to make reasonable guesses with evidence, but not often do we have definitive beginnings of the formation (and possible purpose thereof) of a language.

     However, this is not the case with Palenquero, a creole spoken in Colombia, in particular in San Basilio de Palenque, which has recently been in the news for its return in popularity as a language of resistance.

     The language, a mix of several European languages including French and Spanish, along with several African Bantu languages, has its origins in the town of San Basilio de Palenque (hence the name) during the African slave trade. San Basilio has its roots in being a refuge for runaway slaves, and the language itself began as a way to create a new identity apart from slavery. 

     Although structurally similar to Spanish, much of the vocabulary is borrowed from African languages, thought to be sourced from the vocabulary of the runaway slaves. Several of the grammatical structures also derive from these languages, in particular plural formation. While plurality in Spanish is indicated at the end of the word (masculine os, feminine as, and neutral es), Palenquero utilizes “ma” in front of a word. Other major derivations are words being gender neutral, and the aforementioned use of African language words.

     Unlike many languages featured in Language of the Month, there have been several ongoing efforts to preserve Palenquero since at least the early 2000s, where the language went from having around 8,000 speakers to around 35,000 today. Much of this revival derives from the young people of the town seeing the language as one of cultural identity and resistance; while Colombian is a nationality for them, Palenquero indicates an identity and a lifestyle that may be at odds with the government and Colombian identity as a whole. They see it as a way to connect to their ancestors, most of whom were runaway slaves, and as a point of pride in where they come from.


Sources and Further Reading:

Palenquero: The Identity Behind a Language in Colombia 

Reviving Colombia’s Language of Resistance: