1. Introduction
Palenquero is the Spanish-based creole language spoken in the Colombian village of Palenque de San Basilio, located in Bolívar province. The palenque or stockade at San Basilio was originally one of a number of strongholds founded by negros cimarrones (escaped slaves) in the 16th and 17th centuries. From about 1600Capture of a maroon slave there appear to have been sporadic armed conflicts between cimarrones and Spaniards but the particular community at San Basilio reached a truce with the colonial government in 1691 whereby it was granted its freedom.

Nevertheless, Palenque de San Basilio was isolated from mainstream Colombian society until the 1980s, a circumstance that may explain why its creole language has managed to survive. The current population numbers between 3,000 and 4,000, about half of whom speak the creole (in addition to Spanish).

The creole language of Palenque was ‘discovered’ relatively recently, Bikerton and Escalante’s 1971 paper in Lingua being the first systematic description of it, with a monograph by Friedemann and Patiño following in 1983. The latter work probably remains the descriptive locus classicus for Palenquero and the majority of the examples given below are drawn from it.

Palenquero has no official spelling system. Therefore, to represent Palenquero words, I use phonetic notation in section 2 below, and then in section 3, on grammar, I use a modified version of Friedemann and Patiño’s quasi-phonemic orthographic notation.

2. Phonology
The one notable feature of Palenquero vocalism – but one it shares with rural speech in Bolívar province in general – is the tendency for the mid-high vowels /o, e/ to be raised to [u, i]. This is partly a variable synchronic phenomenon, but it is above all a historical process, whereby a large number of Spanish words containing /o/ or /e/, generally in an unstressed initial or final syllable, have come in Palenquero to have /u/ or /i/ in their place: [kuno
ˈse] < conocer ‘to know’, [kuˈmina] < comida ‘food’, [ŋganˈdisimu] < grandísimo ‘very big’, [iˈtʃa] < echar ‘to throw’, [biˈtilo] < vestido ‘dress’.

It appears that this phenomenon is of some sociolinguistic importance, as use of the higher vowel is strongly identified with creole phonology both by members of the Palenquero community and by monolingual Spanish-speakers from the surrounding area (Friedemann and Patiño 1983:90–92).

As regards consonants, several phenomena are worthy of mention. First of all, Palenquero exhibits rhotacism and lambdacism of initial and intervocalic Spanish /d/, i.e. the latter's replacement by /ɾ/ or /l/ respectively. Examples are given below:

[ˈɾjende] < diente ‘tooth’
[kwiˈɾao] < cuidado ‘care’
ɾi] < de ‘of, from’
ˈle] < doler ‘to hurt’

A similar process has affected /r/ and /ɾ/ but the output in this case seems to be limited to /l/: [kolaˈso] < corazón ‘heart’, [seˈla] < cerrar ‘to close’, [luˈɾia] < rodilla ‘knee’, [ˈkala] < cara ‘face’, [ˈblaso] < brazo ‘arm’.

Equally striking is the prenasalization of initial voiced stops, as in [ˈndosi] < doce ‘twelve’ and [mboˈsa] < bozal ‘halter’. The process is partly phonologically conditioned, as it occurs only in initial position. But it is also partly lexically conditioned, as it occurs regularly in some words (e.g. [nda] < dar ‘to give’, [ŋgaˈna] < ganar ‘to earn/win’, [ˈŋgande] < grande ‘big’, [ˈŋgombe] ‘cattle’), variably in others (e.g. [ndeˈha] ~ [deˈha] < dejar ‘to leave’), and is prohibited in a third group (e.g. *[ndeˈsi] < decir ‘to say’). Moreover, it is limited to the following word classes: nouns, adjectives, verbs and numerals.

Today, prenasalization occurs frequently with /d/ and /g/ and infrequently with /b/. On the other hand, ritualistic funereal songs dating from earlier periods give tantalising glimpses of a previous wider distribution, approximating perhaps to the situation that is apparent in certain sub-Saharan languages.

The assimilatory processes undergone by syllable-final liquids that are so characteristic of Caribbean Spanish are taken to an extreme in Palenquero. Thus geminate or ‘long’ consonants, as in the examples below, are abundant:

[gwetteˈsita] < huertecita ‘orchard’
ˈbesa] < cerveza ‘beer’
ˈbe] < volver
ˈguno] algunos ‘some’
ˈpamma] < palma ‘palm’

According to Schwegler (1998:266) the development of this pattern has created a series of phonemic oppositions that doesn’t exist in standard Spanish (although he in fact analyses it in terms of a tense versus lax distinction). This series of oppositions can be illustrated with minimal pairs such as those in the table below, which imply consonantal length contrasts at the bilabial, dental and velar places of articulation.

Geminate versus simple obstruents in Palenquero
Geminate Simple
[kabbo] calvo ‘bald’ [kaβo] cabo ‘end’
[toddo] toldo ‘awning’ [toðo] todo ‘everything’
[aggo] algo ‘something’ [aɣo] hago ‘I make’

In rapid speech, geminates resulting from assimilation are frequently simplified, as in cerquita ‘near’ > [sekˈkita] [seˈkita] and carne ‘meat’ > [ˈkanne] [ˈkane]. The evolution of words like [peˈle] < perder ‘to lose’  and [beˈla] < verdad ‘truth’ appears to reflect both of these processes, plus lambdacism as described earlier.

Finally, voiceless stops may be voiced after a nasal, as in the examples below:

[ˈtjembo] < tiempo ‘time’
ˈɾjende] < diente ‘tooth’
ˈleŋge] < Palenque

This appears to be a variable synchronic phenomenon: ‘representa una opción socio-lingüística del hablante: el empleo de tiembo frente a tiempo señala inequívocamente la elección del canal criollo’ (Friedemann and Patiño 1983:107).












you [sing.]









you [plu.]

enú, ané

of Bantu origin


3. Grammar
As is typical of creoles, Palenquero has virtually no inflectional morphology, in that nouns, adjectives, verbs and determiners are almost always invariant.

In the first place, gender is non-existent as a grammatical category, with adjectives being descended from the Spanish masculine form:

lengua africano
‘African language’

Ese nata é susio.
‘This cream is dirty.’

Secondly, plurality in the NP (noun phrase) is expressed through the particle ma (possibly of Bantu origin):

un ría un ma ría
‘a day’ ‘some days’

This particle is not normally used when a numeral is present that has a greater cardinality than two: ma ndo baka ‘two cows’ but tresi año ‘thirteen years’. Also, as there is no definite article and bare nouns normally carry definite import, ma X means ‘the Xs’, as is illustrated in the following example:

Deha ma ombre komponé bo pekao.
‘Let the men prepare the fish for you.'

The absence of person and number marking in the verb is off-set by the mandatory insertion of personal pronouns (listed in the table to the right above) into subject position in declarative and interrogative sentences if there is no lexical subject. Similarly, the tenselessness of verb forms is compensated by the routine use of pre-verbal particles. The most important of these are given in the table immediately below:








Í ta ablá kateyano nu.
‘I’m not speaking Spanish’




¿Bo asé kumé kane?
‘Do you eat meat?’




¿Ké í tan ablá?
‘What am I going to say?’




Ané á enfemá po aora nu.
‘They haven’t got ill for the moment.’




Ma aguelo ele taba bibí a monte.
‘His/her grandparents were living in the bush.’

As regards grammatical functions, these are obviously not in general marked by inflections. However, with the notable exception of locatives and ku- (< con ‘with’) phrases, prepositions tend not to be used either. Possession, for example, is expressed by simple juxtaposition of the possessed noun and the possessor NP or pronoun, as in kala Lole ‘Lole’s face’ and ngaína suto ‘our hens’, while the indirect object is distinguished from the direct object by word order alone, the latter always following the former:

Nu obbirá poné bulo mbosá.
‘Don’t forget to put the halter on the donkey.’

In the same vein, the rich system of verb + preposition regimes that is observable in Spanish, the lexifier language, has largely been obliterated. For example, arí and akoddá take direct objects, whereas their Spanish etyma, reír(se) ‘to laugh’ and acordar(se) ‘to remember’, take de-phrases as complements:

Ma jende lo ke ta arí ané é má bruto que ané.
‘The people who laugh at them are stupider than them.’

Í akoddá nombre d’ese mujé aora nu.
‘I don’t remember the name of that woman now.’

Finally, and in line with the general tendency towards simplification outlined so far, Palenquero has no grammatical expression of voice. Instead, an NP that is thematically the patient can almost always be promoted to subject position, thereby forcing a passive interpretation of the (transitive) verb:

Platika utere á ngatá toíto.
‘Your money has all been spent.’

Pokke lengua á rehá pelé?
‘Why has the language been allowed to be lost?’



Bickerton, Derek and Aquiles Escalante. 1971. ‘Palenquero: a Spanish-based creole of northern Colombia.’ Lingua 24:254-267.

Friedemann, Nina S. and Carlos Patiño Rosselli. 1983. Lengua y sociedad en el Palenque de San Basilio. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

Schwegler, Armin. 1998. ‘Palenquero.’ In Matthias Perl and Armin Schwegler (eds), América negra: panorámica actual de los estudios lingüísticos sobre variedades hispanas, portuguesas y criollas (Frankfurt: Vervuert), pp. 220–91.