tone in Papiamentu

Papiamentu has distinctive patterns of intonation, especially in certain two-syllable words.

For a moment let’s use boldface letters to indicate the stressed syllables and underlining to indicate syllables that have a falling tone as opposed to a rising tone. For two-syllable words such as mata, three combinations can occur in Papiamentu:

mata: “a plant” (noun): rising tone and stress on the first syllable
mata: “killed” (participle): rising tone and stress on the second syllable
mata: “to kill” (verb): stress on the first, rising tone on the second

These tones are not randomly assigned. There are patterns. Most of the common two-syllable verbs have falling tone on the first syllable. The past participles have stress and rising tone on the final syllable.

The tone contours of a word can change when used in a question or when negation of the verb is being emphasized. The whole issue of tone would seem very complex if anyone tried to write down all the details but that’s not an effective way to learn a spoken language. What’s needed is lots of practice listening to and imitating good examples of speech.


I removed the accent mark from matá=killed in the examples above to avoid confusion. Past participles are normally written with an acute accent mark on the final vowel: matá “killed,” no pagá “unpaid,” brasa kibrá “broken arm,” etc.

You might want to review our article about stress in Papiamentu.

Most textbooks of Papiamentu say very little about tone. Basiscursus Papiaments by Florimon van Putte and Igma van Putte de Windt is an exception; it uses underscores to mark the tones of words in which they are especially important.


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