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Short Stories From An American in Cape Verde: At Last, I Will Learn Kriolu With the New ‘Capeverdean Creole-English Dictionary’

imageI have met the man who is finally going to teach me Capeverdean Creole–Manuel Da Luz Gonçalves. Well, not just me but every English speaker. Of course, I could take a Kriolu class as they have now popped up here in Praia, Cabo Verde, but Gonçalves’s new groundbreaking The Capeverdean Creole-English Dictionary, published by Mili-Mila, will help me more than imaginable.  I do have to admit I am a lazy language learner on my own, plus I am just not an immersive learner. I need to be instructed. I need to be told the rules and shown how things are spelled and told how they are pronounced. But this the problem with Kriolu for me–there are no rules, everyone spells words differently, and with the various dialects they even pronounce words differently and even use them differently. So, Gonçalves’s dictionary will help clear up these problems for me.


Gonçalves, a man with a quick, warm smile and laugh, is the kind of person most would love as a teacher. He’s patient in his explanations, and is a wealth of knowledge, especially about languages, particularly Kriolu. We recently talked about Kriolu and more at a cafe in Praia.

The Capeverdean Creole-English Dictionary is the first of its kind with more than 40,000 words. The book is highlighted by gorgeous photography of  Cape Verdean people, authentic artifacts, and scenery.

Gonçalves, who has lectured on Cabo Verdean culture and language worldwide, is a professor who has taught Kriolu at Boston University, Rhode Island College, Bridgewater State University, and UMass Boston, as well as at the Dorchester Center for Adult Education. Additionally, he worked as an interpreter, consultant, presenter, and organizer for the Cape Verdean Celebration at the Smithsonian Institute’s 29th Annual Festival of American Folklife in 1995.  His love of the language of Capeverdean Creole led Goncalves to co-author and publish Pa Nu Papia Kriolu, a learning language manual. Because of his efforts, Gonçalves was awarded the Medal of Volcano by former President of Cape Verde Pedro Verona Rodrigues Pires and Medal of Merit as the President of the Capeverdean Creole Institute by the Ministry of Culture of Cape Verde.

Gonçalves’s dictionary was another labor of love–one that took 10 years to give birth to. It was a project done with his daughter, Liza Gonçalves. “People ask me why I kept at it after 10 years, but it was very worthwhile. I got to work with my daughter and great photographers. And, it is to me as a Capeverdean immigrant my contribution to honor the language and culture,” says Gonçalves, who adds with a smile, “I also wanted to prove all the people who said it couldn’t be done wrong.”

Why all the interest in Kriolu? Well, it is the unofficial official language of Cabo Verde. While the official language is Portuguese, most people speak Kriolu in their homes and on the street. The language dates back to the 15th century, and at first it was a pidgin language based on Portuguese in which business was conducted.  Africans, who were brought to Cabo Verde from within the continent by Portuguese slavers, used the early pidgin, which eventually became a fully formed language, a Creole. Following the end of the slave trade, Portuguese, however, remained the official language of then colony. Although Kriolu is designated as the national language, even after independence Portuguese remained the official language in Cape Verde, used in classrooms, the government, and in the media. This has created a problem. “Children when they go to school they don’t want to really speak much in class because everything is in Portuguese, but the first language they hear at home is Kriolu,” explains Gonçalves. “Instead, Portuguese needs to be taught as a second language and more recognition given to Kriolu. It is my experience that when you allow kids to speak in Kriolu they even talk more and more and that’s a good thing.”

Ironically, Kriolu is used in Massachusetts classrooms. According to the University of Mass Dartmouth, “In Massachusetts, the state in the United States to which Cape Verdeans first came, institutions have had a fairly open policy toward cultural and linguistic difference. On December 8, 1975, a little more than five months after Cape Verdean independence, a group of concerned Cape Verdean parents proposed legislation before the Massachusetts State House of Representatives that addressed Cape Verdean language and culture and their relationship to the educational system. Although the measures were not acted on by the House, their presentation before that body resulted in the inclusion of Cape Verdean Kriolu in the list of ‘living foreign languages.’ This attainment of institutional status had important and salutary effects. Because Kriolu now was recognized under the Transitional Bilingual Education Act of 1971, any school district with 20 or more children whose native language was Kriolu had to provide the children the opportunity to begin learning in their mother tongue while they studied English as a second language, until they reached such a level of proficiency that they could be mainstreamed.”

Even though Kriolu remains strong today, it is due to the persistence of the people. “During slavery you had people speaking Kriolu and it started to grow, and when the Portuguese realized that the language was growing so fast and (the language) was becoming so powerful the Portuguese said well let’s reverse this and teach Portuguese,” explains Gonçalves. “Then Portuguese became an elite language, the language of the educated, so you had people who didn’t speak it, especially people in the fora–the countryside. And because of that if you speak Kriolu you are put down. Even today I have seen people go into an office and if they spoke Portuguese they were looked well upon but not if they spoke in Kriolu it is the opposite. In fact, they call Kriolu the kitchen language and Portuguese is the living room language. But what’s interesting is that the political campaign is all done in Kriolu, even the church when they ask for money, the ask in Kriolu.” He adds with a laugh, “What’s amazing is that when you need direct communication with the people, it is done in Kriolu.”

Still, there is a great Kriolu debate going on in Cabo Verde. Should it become the official language? If so, which Kriolu? There are two branches of Kriolu: the Southern islands (Brava, Fogo, Santiago, and Maio) are the Sotavento Creoles and the Northern islands (Boa Vista, Sal, São Nicolau, São Vicente, and Santo Antão) are the Barlavento Creoles. On top of this, each of the inhabited islands of Cabo Verde use a different dialect (variants).

Making one of the versions of Kriolu the official language could cause an uproar. “It’s a question of pride,” notes  Gonçalves. “Each island holds its Kriolu very dear, so it could be challenging.” But Gonçalves says he sees the dialects merging, as there is more movement between the islands, especially with many people resettling on Santiago for work.

As the language evolves, the interest in Caboverdean Creole is growing, thus the need for a dictionary. Gonçalves knew there was a market for the dictionary based on the results of his first book, Papia Kriolu, for which he did a limited print run and sold out. “People are still looking for Papia Kriolu,” says the professor. His dictionary will reach a larger number of people, from tourists to Cabo Verdean Americans to linguists to people who are just interested in Cabo Verde–and me!

Obviously, Kriolu will never die. “We were under Portuguese rule for more than 400 years and it didn’t die,” says Gonçalves. “And now people are paying attention to it. There are more studies, more writings, more poetry, more music, more translations. Kriolu is not under one of those so-called engaged languages lists…I don’t think Kriolu will die out, on the other hand it will continue to progress, to be promoted by people, by linguists, singers, songwriters, poets.”

About the Author

Ann is a freelance writer who started her professional career at the NY Trend more than two decades ago. Ann has since gone on to write for a number of major outlets including: Black Enterprise, Essence, MadameNoire, Pathfinders, Frequent Flier, Playboy, The Source, Girl, Upscale, For Harriet, The Network Journal, AFKInsider, Africa Strictly Business, AFKTravel, among others.