Your Suriname passport
The Languages of Suriname
On our journey through Suriname we got to experience a slice of Surinamese culture: the food, the history, but also the language. There are as many as 20 spoken languages in the country, a few main languages are: Arawakan, spoken by the Arawak, a group of indigenous people living near the coastal area of Suriname; Saramaccan, the language of the Saamaka, an ethnic African group of people living near the Saramacca and the upper Suriname River; Sranan Tongo, the informal lingua franca of Suriname; and of course Dutch, the country’s official language, used mainly in formal domains such as education, government and the media.
Pidgins and Creoles
Apart from these, there are many other languages in Suriname, including a lot of languages spoken by the different groups of Maroon people. The Maroon languages are Saramaccan, Matuwari, Aucan, Paramaccan, Boni and Kwinti. All of these are creoles, initially developed as pidgins. Pidgins are languages that arise when groups of people speaking different languages meet and try to communicate with each other. Pidgins generally have a simple grammatical structure, a limited vocabulary, and don’t have any native speakers. Once a pidgin is taught as a first language, one can speak of a creole language.
In Suriname, this process occurred in the 17th century, when the English, Dutch and Portugese brought slaves from Africa to South America. The vocabulary of Aucan, Paramaccan, Boni and Kwinti has many English characteristics, whereas Saramaccan and Matuwari have relatively more Portuguese elements. You can also recognize some Dutch and African features in the languages. The difference in these languages is largely related to the moment at which the flight from the plantations took place. The Saramaccans and Matuwari fled between 1690-1710, somewhat earlier than the other three, who fled between 1710-1863.
In this video we will be focussing on Sranan Tongo and Saramaccan, the two languages (apart from Dutch, of course) that we came in contact with during our travels.
Sranan Tongo, also called Surinamese or simply Sranan, is the informal lingua franca of Suriname. This means that the language is spoken by nearly everyone in the country, but is not used in all contexts. In formal situations the preferred language is Dutch. Sranan Tongo is a creole language with heavy influences from Dutch and English, and has also been influenced by Portuguese and by African languages.
Sranan Tongo developed in the 17th century, during the Dutch colonial age. It was created as a means of communication by the African slaves on the plantations in Suriname. Around 1651, the English settlers brought slaves from West-Africa to Suriname. In that time, Portuguese settlers had occupied parts of West-Africa. This explains the English, African and Portuguese influences on the language. The Dutch people then exchanged New Amsterdam for Suriname from the English people after the Anglo-Dutch war in 1667. This brought the Dutch influence to the language.
The subdued Africans weren’t allowed to speak Dutch with the settlers. They were all from different regions of Africa however, so in order to understand each other, they had to develop a common language. Thus, Sranan Tongo was born.
After the abolition of slavery in 1863 new contract workers were brought to Suriname. These people learned Sranan Tongo and this kept the language alive after the end of slavery.
Sarramacan: Language of Danpaati
Saamáka is the language spoken by the descendants of a group of escaped slaves. The language developed in the 17th century on the plantations, and was presumably also the language in which the slaves communicated with one another. While the language of the people who stayed behind on the plantations changed a lot, and eventually became Sranan Tongo, Saamáka remained relatively unchanged due to the isolation in the jungle of Suriname and French-Guyana. Just like Sranan Tongo, the language was highly influenced by Portuguese and different African languages. Because of the relatively early escape from the plantations, however, Saamáka has retained a much more African nature, as opposed to the more English nature of Sranan Tongo. Modern Saamáka, while still very African in structure, uses a lot of vocabulary that we also find in Sranan Tongo, and some vocabulary borrowed from the Dutch language.
Characteristics of the Languages
Sranan Tongo, like most creole languages, is an isolating language. The root of a word remains unchanged in different parts of speech, for example in nouns and verbs. The word “denki” means “to think” as well as “thought”, and “yuru” means “to hire”, “rent” or “time”. The language is known for its ambiguity – one word can have many different meanings. The word “baka”, for example, can mean “to bake”, “rear”, “back” or “again”. A limited vocabulary is a common characteristic in creole languages.
There are three different articles in Sranan Tongo: “a”, “wan” and “den”. “A” is the definite article: “a oso” = the house.. “Wan” (from English ‘one’) is the indefinite article: “wan oso” = a house, and for plural nouns, “den” (say: ‘ding’) is used: “den oso” = houses.
The language also lacks verb conjugations. “I think”, “he thinks” etc. is all “denki”. The personal pronoun indicates who is performing the action. The different tenses (present, past, future etc.) are indicated with the use of auxiliary verbs:
Future sa/ o
Imperative: mu/ musu
In the present tense people put “e” in front of the main verb. Example: “Yu e wroko” = you work. In the past tense, “ben” is used: “Yu ben wroko” = you worked. And in the future tense, “sa/o”: “Yu sa wroko” = you will work. For the imperative, the auxiliary verb is “mu/musu”. “Yu musu wroko” = You must work.
Just like Sranan Tongo, Saamáka is an isolating language. The root of the word never changes. The only way to differentiate between singular or plural nouns, for example, is with the use of articles. The indefinite article = wan. The definite article = dí, and the plural article = Dée.
Wan otó = a car.
Dí otó = the car.
Dée otó = the cars.
There is also no verb conjugation in Saamáka. The different tenses are indicated with the use of auxiliary verbs. The following examples show that, despite the language being a creole, it is in no way straightforward or simple:
Mi wáka. – I walked.
Mi tá wáka. – I walk (I am walking)
Mi ɓì wáka. – I have walked
Dí mujée hánse. – The woman is beautiful.
Dí mujée tá hánse. – The woman is becoming beautiful.
Di mujée ɓì hánse. – The woman was beautiful.
In English, the sentence ‘Mi wáka”, so without auxiliary verbs, would most often be translated in the past tense, while the sentence “Dí mujée hánse”, also without auxiliary verbs, is translated in the present tense, unless the context demands otherwise. This shows that the English sense of time does not correspond with the grammar of Saamáka.
We have now learned where the Surinam languages Saramaccan en Sranan Tongo come from. Now, we will have a look at what it looks like in real life. Saramaccan and Sranan Tongo are both creaole languages, meaning that they originate from other languages. You might even recognise some word parts from English, Porteguese, African or Dutch language! Now, we will translate a few words into Sarramacan and Sranan Tongo. Let’s start with the basics!
Goodmorning is Gu Morgu in Sranan Tongo. In Saramaccan, it is: U weki-ooo.
How are you is in Sranan Tongo: fa yu tan? Or more informal: fa-waka? In Saramaccan, how are you is U dë nö?
Goodnight is in Sranan Tongo sribi switi. You might recognise the word sweet here! In Sarammacan, goodnight is so-I Seepi-ooo! Did you notice the word sleep? You can clearly recognise English influence on the Surinam languages in these translations.