Sunday, June 5, 2011

Would you like to learn to speak Kriolu?

Although the official national language of Cape Verde is Portuguese, locals universally speak a dialect called "kriolu" (creole) in their day to day lives. Kriolu is the lingua de casa (the language spoken in the home). Portuguese is reserved for official functions, legal contracts, and to conduct formal business events.

Portuguese is also used in the schools as the language that is used to teach all subjects, which seems an awfully strange and inefficient means of educating students when most kids learn to speak kriolu before they can speak Portuguese. It is also surprising that kriolu has not been made the other official language of Cape Verde since it is one of the things that is the basis of its unique culture. Most songs are sung in kriolu! But I digress, and will leave that matter for the politicians.

Here's a little historical background on kriolu:
The term Kriolu is derived from the Portuguese word Crioulo, which in turn is derived from "criar" meaning “to raise” and "olo" defined as “house - a typical African house in the Portuguese African colonies."

The slaves deliberately created Kriolu as a language they could use to communicate among themselves yet not be understood by their owners. The colonizers did not want to welcome Kriolu because it would have jeopardized their absolute power to control the situation. Therefore, they tried unsuccessfully to eradicate the Cape Verdean language and their cultural identity.

Professor Agnelo Montrond, Massasoit Community College, Boston, Massachusetts
It is not particularly necessary to learn kriolu or Portuguese if you are planning to visit the island for a brief period because many Cape Verdeans are multi-lingual and you will find that you will be able to communicate relatively easily in whatever language you're comfortable. Whether you're out shopping, going to a restaurant or just hanging out at your hotel, you'll find someone who can speak your language.

But there is always an interest on the part of many people to learn kriolu. You may be a foreigner looking to spend an extended period in the islands, or you may be of Cape Verdean descent living abroad and you've never learned or been taught kriolu. Or maybe you just want to explore and learn a new language.

The first thing people ask is whether there is a book they can buy to learn the language, including rules of grammar. The answer is that there is a book but you can't buy it on Amazon. It is called "Pa Nu Papia Kriolu" by Manuel Gonçalves and Lelia Lomba De Andrade. You can order it from here. It is also available in some libraries in the US. There is a separate and highly academic book available on Amazon. It is also considerably more expensive.

So you can theoretically learn kriolu from a book. I had purchased that book at a Cape Verdean cultural fair several years ago and it was helpful for a basic introduction to kriolu. I purchased the book after I first visited Cape Verde, and it was very helpful in the sense that I could recognize in the book, some of the words I was hearing on the street. But even that was not easy.

In my experience, there is no way you can really learn kriolu from a book. The reason is that when Cape Verdean people speak kriolu, they speak with a certain accent, the emphasis is placed on certain parts of words, and it is not easy to tell where one words ends and another begins. And the kriolu varies from one island to another in terms of words, emphasis, and accent. But the biggest challenge is that in some islands like Sao Vicente, they do not pronounce the entire word ... the syllables at the end of most words are silent!!! So it can be very confusing. But in Santiago and other islands, they pronounce every syllable of each word, so it is much easier to learn the kriolu of Santiago ... although it hardly helps that they speak kriolu at a rapid fire pace - LOL.

And take it from me, residents of one island often have extreme difficulty understanding the kriolu spoken by the residents of another island (depending on which islands we're talking about). For example, it would be comedy hour to observe a local of Santiago trying to converse with a local of Santo Antao. However this came about is such a small nation is not only hilarious, it is downright charming. And it made a novice like me more comfortable learning and practicing kriolu knowing that I would be in the company of expert speakers of kriolu (from a different island) if I ever was laughed at.

The result is that the book will serve as a good reference to look at when you are trying to figure out something you heard in kriolu! But there is no better way to learn kriolu - the language, slangs and colloquialisms - than by actually visiting Cape Verde and immersing yourself in kriolu. It took me FOUR years to learn kriolu. I spent time in Mindelo (Sao Vicente) and Praia (Santiago). In Mindelo, there are many people from Santo Antao and Sao Nicolau, so you will hear those variations in Mindelo. And in Praia, there are lots of people from Fogo and Brava. So you will hear all those variations in Praia. I've found that the most colorful speakers are those from Fogo and Brava! I love to hear them speak kriolu. They speak the language like they love to hear it themselves.

I had only ever spoken English my whole life, so maybe that's longer than it will take others to learn kriolu if they have spoken other languages, such as Portuguese or Spanish. You will likely be able to learn kriolu much faster than I did.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in Cape Verde and kriolu! My Portuguese is pretty good so the language seems manageable. (I like learning languages for fun - I'm a nerd in that respect.) So thanks much for the book recommendations!

Also, you say you spent time in Mindelo and Praia. I've heard these are basically the most important cities to visit. How would you describe the differences between these cities? How they look? What the culture is like in each? Differences in the people? Etc. For one thing, I don't seem to find many pictures, and there is no Google Streetview of any part of Cape Verde (yet). Also, If I were to fly into one of the islands, what would be the most convenient way of getting to the other one - boat or plane?

Thanks! Great blog.

Angelo said...

Hi Thomas. Thanks for your comments and questions. If you are visiting CV, I would not necessarily say that Mindelo and Praia are the two most important cities to visit. They just happen to be the two most populated.

Praia (it's actually the capital city on the island of Santiago) holds about quarter the population of Cape Verde and is the seat of government. Santiago is the largest island in terms of population (50%) and land mass, and is where most of the non-tourism economic activity takes place. It has the greatest diversity of all the islands in all senses of the word. People from every island can be found in large numbers in Santiago so you get a taste of the entire country right here. So, from my perspective, Santiago is the most important island to visit bar none. You get the most real sense of Cape Verde here on Santiago.

But of course, it all depends on what you're looking for. If you want an all inclusive holiday locked up in a modern hotel and you don't plan to see the local area, then you want to go to Sal or Boa Vista. That's where 85% of tourists go. But if you want a vacation where you are immersed in the culture, then any of the other islands is a good choice. You actually cannot go wrong. My personal preferences are, Santiago, Fogo/Brava, Maio and São Vicente/Santo Antão. Your best course of action is to fly into Praia and take a local plane to Mindelo (or to Fogo or Maio). Currently, the local airline which has 3 small propeller planes, is down to a single working aircraft. So you need to book your inter-island travel very long in advance to assure you get a seat. Waiting to book the travel when you arrive is fraught with risks (not being able to get a seat, or not getting a return flight in time to connect with your foreign departure). The airline promises that one of the two planes that is out of service should be back in service in July, but this may not be fulfilled.

There is no real difference in the people by island, except that the dialect is different. But if you speak some Portuguese, you will get by perfectly, since they all speak Portuguese it seems with the same dialect.

If you want to see photos, there are two places I recommend. One is CVI's Facebook page:

The other is the tourism agency's website (this also happens to be the same CVI agency): .

Finally, you can find videos about CV and of each island by scrolling through the videos on the right hand side of this blog! The videos are under the caption, "Over 40 Cape Verde Videos!" If you watch it on YouTube, you will be able to better see the full list and select the videos you find most interesting.

Be well!


Thomas de France said...

Dear Angelo,

Thanks much for the very detailed info! I'm actually interested in local life and more populated places. So even though I'm sure there are plenty of places (including beaches) that are more beautiful than the ones near Mindelo or Praia, it's actually most likely that those cities would interest me most. (I'm definitely not a resort kind of person. I don't think I'd enjoy staying in a luxury hotel far away from the local people.)

I hope to buy the book that you mention, Pa nu papia kriolo, on this site. It's a shame there still isn't much material to choose from yet. Maybe someone will write a more complete book. By the way, I'm assuming that this book is about the Sotavento dialect? Is there much documentation about the Barlavento dialect(s)?


Ghor said...

I found this article very informative. I own a translation company and right now we are having a really hard time finding people to translate Kriolu into English. If you or anyone you know may be interested in doing this type of work feel free to send us an email at

Angelo said...

Hi Ghor. Thanks for your comment. Your email address is incorrectly listed. If you wish to receive responses from interested persons, you will need to correct it.

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