Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Curacao, Language, and Baseball

For the fourth straight year, the Pabao Little League of Willemstad, Cueracao, will play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Curacao won the championship in 2004 and took a 6-3 lead into the final inning of the championship game before Hawaii rallied to tie the game and win it in extra innings.

My book Little League, Big Dreams details how the baseball establishment in Curacao—an island belonging to the Netherlands—has worked to develop a Caribbean dynasty in baseball. But Curacao also provides a fascinating view into how language, culture, and sports interact.

Vernon Isabella, the manager of the Willemstad teams that went to the Little League World Series in 2004 and 2005, says he was able to steal signals from the other teams and tell his players openly what pitch to expect at the plate.

“I can just tell my players what’s coming rather than having to give signals,” he says with a smile. “I can tell them in Papiamentu because no one else understands it. Against a team like Venezuela, I’m afraid they’ll understand Papiamentu. They can pick it up from their understanding of Spanish. So I use Dutch instead. Against most teams, though, I use Papiamentu. Against the Asians, I can use whatever I want.”

Language offers a telling glimpse into the smarts of other teams. Even though the team from outside Tokyo had no knowledge of Papiamentu, Isabella said the coaches and players were attentive enough to pick up certain key phrases. American teams were oblivious to those same phrases. “The team from Japan is intelligent,” he says. “They hear the sounds and the remember and recognize what pitch is coming. You have to be careful what you say around them.”

The only college in the United States to teach Papiamentu is Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana. That class originated when Kathy Taylor, a professor of Spanish and linguistics, collaborated on a linguistic textbook six years ago. She became curious about the Creole language that brought together so many traditions.

“Creole languages in general develop out of a Pidgin, which come from the contact between two languages and two cultures—those of the colonizers and those of the indigenous people. At first, Creole is a simplified language that develops its own language. Creole is the first generation of the language that speaks on its own terms. Creole has flexibility about it. It tends to absorb other languages and adapt really quickly to the culture they’re part of.

What makes Papiamentu so fascinating is it has so many languages in it. And it’s charming. It makes you chuckle to see how they bring in different words. A good example is baidewei, which means ‘by the way.’ Then there is a practice called reduplication, which means repeating words, usually for emphasis. Slow is pocopoco.”

Since she first started learning Papiamentu from an outdated book she found on the Internet, Taylor has brought two classes to Willemstad for month-long classes. The students stay at the homes of locals and visit museums, schools, music halls, churches and synagogues.

Colleagues and friends ask her what value can be learned speaking Papiamentu, since so few people in the world speak it. She has two answers. First, simply getting inside the logic of an evolving language teaches important lessons about linguistics and culture. Since languages are living organisms, there is great value in seeing how a small language adapts and evolves in a turbulent age.

More important, she says, is that Curacao and Papiamentu teach the essential lessons of the global age.

“There is such diversity and toleration on Curacao, that you don’t even know what those words mean without seeing it there,” she says. “This island is a microcosm of what the world will have to be. In Curacao, you don’t have to act or think the way everybody else does. But you need to be comfortable with differences. Different languages and conditions can be familiar because they’re your neighbors, but you can still be who you are.”

“It’s such a small place and such a large world at the same time. There are areas that are integrated and areas that aren’t. I’ve met people and become friends with people on all different levels. Sometime you see amazing integration, wealthy people living near poor people and working-class people, but sometimes you don’t. It’s a matter of how you draw the line. Someone explained to me how people live in the community with the question ‘Yu di korsou?’—‘Are you a child of Curacao?’ Curacao is an identity, which accepts and brings together so many other identities.”

Taylor is not a baseball fan herself but has been impressed with the impact of the Little League championship on the local culture. When she goes to schools, the students want to know what team she roots for. “The Atlanta Braves, of course,” she says.

“There is this incredible mystique about baseball. You see billboards everywhere with big pictures of Andruw Jones, saying, ‘With hard work and determination, you too can be successful.’ All these boys, he’s they’re hero. When Curacao won the Little League World Series… it gives the island a kind of exposure it couldn’t get in any other way.”

Taylor frets about the island’s latest economic move toward tourism.

“This is not just a sleepy place with palm trees,” she says. “This is a culture of its own that has wonderful complexities. Everyone and his brother has a cellphone but it’s still very traditional. I love the fact that it’s a complex little world. It challenges students’ preconceptions and notion of what it is to be modern.

“I’m really torn about tourism. I’m contacted all the time by developers of some sort. It’s not my business, but I don’t want it for the island. I don’t want to turn the island into a bunch of Hiltons. On the other hand I get stuff from missionaries and they want to learn Papiamentu so they can do their work, and I don’t want to be part of that either. I want what’s best for the island and I don’t want it to be spoiled. But it’s not for me to say what people should do. It should be up to the people there.”

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