Berbice Creole Dutch

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Berbice Dutch Creole
Extinct2005 with the death of Bertha Bell[1]
Dutch Creole
  • Berbice Dutch Creole
Language codes
ISO 639-3brc
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Berbice Dutch Creole is a now extinct Dutch creole language. It had a lexicon partly based on a dialect of the West African language, perhaps the ancestor of the modern Kalabari language.[3] In contrast to the widely known Negerhollands Dutch creole spoken in the Virgin Islands, Berbice Creole Dutch and its relative Skepi Creole Dutch, were more or less unknown to the outside world until Ian Robertson first reported on the two languages in 1975. Dutch linguist Silvia Kouwenberg subsequently investigated the creole language, publishing its grammar in 1994.[3]


Berbice was settled in 1627 by the Dutchman Abraham van Peere. A few years later, Suriname was settled by Englishmen Lord Willoughby and Lawrence Hyde under a grant from the English King, Charles II. In the beginning, therefore, Suriname was a British and Berbice a Dutch possession.

On 22 April 1796, the British occupied the territory. On 27 March 1802, Berbice was restored to the Batavian Republic (the then-current name of the Netherlands). In September 1803, the British occupied the territory again. On 13 August 1814, Berbice became a British colony. The colony was formally ceded to Britain by the Netherlands on 20 November 1815.

The Berbice slaves kept speaking a Dutch-based creole among themselves until the language came into decay in the 20th century. By 1993, there were some 4 or 5 elderly speakers of the language, although other sources report tens of speakers.

The lexicon of Berbice Creole Dutch was, as are the also extinct Negerhollands and Skepi Creole Dutch (with a similar preservation status as Berbice Dutch), not based on Hollandic dialect of Dutch (the dialect that is closest to the modern standard of the Dutch Language Union) but on Zeelandic.

The last speakers of this language were found in the 1970s by Professor Ian Robertson of the University of the West Indies. These speakers were living on the upper reaches of the Berbice River in and around the area of the Wiruni Creek. Dutch linguist Silvia Kouwenberg also did further investigations on the language and published a grammar in 1994.[3] The last known Berbice Dutch Creole speaker is Bertha Bell, who was 103 years old when last interviewed by Ian Robertson and a UWI linguistics research team in March 2004.

What is remarkable about this language is that it survived on the upper reaches of the Berbice River, the areas around which the old Dutch colony of Berbice was concentrated prior to a shift to the coast in the late 18th century. One-third of the basic words in Berbice Dutch Creole, including words for 'eat', 'know', 'speak' are of Niger–Congo origin in West Africa, from a single language-cluster, the Eastern Ijaw languages.


In February 2010, the language was declared officially extinct, according to an article in the upcoming March issue of the Dutch edition of National Geographic magazine. In the '80s there was still a small number of Berbice speakers in Guyana but since it was discovered that the last speaker died in 2005, the international language database Ethnologue had declared it extinct.[4]



Front Back
High i u
Mid e o
Low a

There is a large degree of free variation in the vowels, with the range of realizations of the phonemes overlapping.

/e/ and /ɛ/ are almost in complementary distribution, and were probably allophones at an earlier stage of the language.


Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Palato-alveolar Velar Glottal
Plosive Voiceless p t k
Voiced b d ɡ
Nasal m n
Fricative Voiceless f s (ʃ) h
Voiced (v) (z)
Approximant Central ɹ
Lateral l

[ʃ] is usually in complementary distribution with [s], occurring only before /i/, but there are a handful of exceptions.

/v/ and /z/ occur only in loanwords from Guyanese Creole.


  1. ^ "Berbice Dutch officially extinct". Radio Netherlands Worldwide. February 25, 2010. Retrieved February 22, 2015
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Berbice Creole Dutch". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ a b c Kouwenberg 1994. sfn error: multiple targets (2×): CITEREFKouwenberg1994 (help)
  4. ^ "Berbice Dutch officially extinct"


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