Papiamentu vowels (a basic summary)

• the five “main” vowels

The vowels without accent marks have the sounds that you would probably expect to hear in a “Romance” language like Spanish or Italian. a as in Spanish padre, e as in Spanish mesa, i as in English ski or police, o as in note, u as in truth.  

When it appears right before another vowel, u often sounds like the English letter w, for example kuadra and kuenta.

And when the letter i appears right before another vowel, it is sometimes like the y in English yes and yoyo, for example: piesa and sabio are both two-syllable words, not three syllables.

the five vowels with acute accent marks

Sometimes the five main vowels are marked with acute (rising) accent marks: á é í ó ú. This indicates that the word in question is stressed in a particular way. Examples include pagá “paid” which is stressed on the final syllable, and iróniko “ironic” stressed on the second syllable.

the three vowels with grave accent marks

The grave (downward) accent marks in the Curaçao spelling system (è, ò, ù) do not represent tone or stress. Instead, they represent completely different vowel sounds compared to the unmarked letter.

è is sometimes described as being like the e in the English words ten and stem. Native speaker Geraldine Dammers says English speakers pronounce it better if they aim for the “short i as in fit” sound.

ò (the letter o with a grave accent) represents the vowel that occurs in the Dutch word kok. This is not a distinctly different vowel in all regional varieties of English, but if you think of the way dog is pronounced in New England (northeastern US), you may get the idea.

ù sounds vaguely similar to the u in the English word gut.

In the phrasebook Getting Around the Islands in Papiamentu (2007), the English words get, got, gut are offered as comparisons for the values of è, ò, ù.

Try saying these examples: bèk back, mènedjer manager, pèn pen, kòfi coffee, dòler dollar, hòtdòg hotdog, bùs bus, trùk truck.

the u with two dots above it

ü is pronounced like the ü in German. This vowel only occurs in a few words of Dutch origin such as hür “to rent (something from somebody)” and minüt “a minute.”

that’s not everything

You really have to listen to native speakers to get a handle on the vowels. Also, there are diphthongs in Papiamentu— vowel blends like the i in “kite” and the ow in “how.” Fortunately online videos and streaming radio stations are available so you can hear and imitate normal pronunciation.

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