Saramaccan language

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Native toSuriname, French Guiana
Native speakers
90,000 (2013)[1]
  • Matawai (Matawari)
Language codes
ISO 639-3srm
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Saramaccan (Saamáka) is a creole language spoken by about 58,000 ethnic African people near the Saramacca and the upper Suriname River, as well as in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname (formerly also known as Dutch Guiana). The language also has 25,000 speakers in French Guiana and 8,000 in the Netherlands.[1] It has three main dialects. The speakers are mostly descendants of fugitive slaves who were native to West and Central Africa; they form a group called Saamacca, also spelled Saramaka.

Linguists consider Saramaccan notable because its vocabulary is based on two European source languages, English (30%) and Portuguese (20%), and various West and Central African languages (50%), but it diverges considerably from all of them. The African component accounts for about 50% once ritual use is taken into account, the highest percentage in the Americas. It is derived from Niger–Congo languages of West Africa, especially Fon and other Gbe languages, as well as Akan and Central African languages such as Kikongo.[2]


The language is derived from Plantation Creole which is nowadays known as Sranan Tongo, but the branches diverged around 1690 and evolved separately.[3] The Saramaccan lexicon is largely drawn from English, Portuguese, and, to a lesser extent, Dutch, among European languages, and Niger-Congo languages of West Africa, especially Fon and other Gbe languages, Akan, and Central African languages, such as KiKongo. The African component accounts for about 50% of the total.[2]

Saramaccan phonology has traits similar to languages of West Africa. It has developed the use of tones, which are common in Africa, rather than stress, which is typical of European languages.

Over a fourth of words are from English. It is generally agreed that the Portuguese influence originated from enslaved peoples who lived on plantations with Portuguese masters and possibly with other slaves who spoke a Portuguese creole. The masters might have brought the latter in migrating to Suriname from Brazil.[4] Saramaccan originators began with an early form of Sranan Tongo, an English-based creole, and transformed it into a new creole via the Portuguese influx, combined with influence from the grammars of Fongbe and other Gbe languages.[4]


Saramaccan is divided into two main dialects. The Upper Suriname River dialect and the Lower Suriname River dialect are both spoken by members of the Saramaccan tribe. And by the Surinamese people who are living in the 12 English-speaking Caribbean nations of which 7 have a foreign relationship with the Republic of Suriname: Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago. And the other five that don't have a foreign relationship with the Republic of Suriname as yet: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia.[citation needed]


The Matawai tribe has its own language which is related to the Saramaka language.[5] The language is derived from Plantation Creole which is nowadays known as Sranan Tongo, however the branches diverged around 1700, and evolved separately.[3] Matawai is spoken in the villages in Kwakoegron and Boven Saramacca, however code switching with Sranan Tongo, other Maroon languages, and Dutch is common. The language is considered endangered.[6]



Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a

Each oral vowel also has a corresponding nasal vowel. There are also three vowel lengths: /bɛ/ "red", /bɛ́ɛ/ "belly," /bɛɛ́ɛ/ "bread."[7]


Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar
plain Labial
Nasal m n ɲ
Plosive plain p b t d c ɟ k ɡ k͡p ɡ͡b
prenasalized ᵐb ⁿd ᶮɟ ᵑɡ
Implosive ɓ ɗ
Fricative f v s z ç
Approximant l j w

/c ɟ ɲ ɲɟ/ are more specifically dorso-postalveolar, but the palatal fricative /ç/ is dorso-palatal.[7]


The language has two surface tones: high and low. Stress in European words is replaced by high tone in Saramaccan.[7]



  • a - [a]
  • e - [e]
  • ë - [ɛ]
  • i - [i]
  • o - [o]
  • ö - [ɔ]
  • u - [u]

Long vowels are doubled or tripled.


  • b - [b]
  • d - [d]
  • dj - [ɟ]
  • g - [g]
  • gb - [ɡ͡b]
  • h - [h]
  • j - [j]
  • k - [k]
  • kp - [k͡p]
  • l - [l]
  • m - [m]
  • mb - [mb]
  • n - [n]
  • nd - [nd]
  • nj - [ɲ]
  • p - [p]
  • s - [s]
  • t - [t]
  • tj - [ç], [c]?
  • v - [v]
  • w - [w][8]


Saramaccan's vocabulary is 30% derived from English, 20% from Portuguese. It is one of the few known creoles to derive a large percentage of its lexicon from more than one source (most creoles have one main lexifier language). Also, it is said to be both an English-based creole and a Portuguese-based creole.[9]

About 50% of the vocabulary of Saramaccan is of African origin,[2] the largest percentage of any creole in the Americas. Source languages for these words include Kikongo, Gbe languages, and Twi.[9]


To English-speakers who are not familiar with it, Saramaccan's English basis is almost unrecognizable. Here are some examples of Saramaccan sentences that are taken from the SIL dictionary:

De waka te de aan sinkii möön.
"They walked until they were worn out."

U ta mindi kanda fu dee soni dee ta pasa ku u.
"We make up songs about things that happen to us."

A suku di soni te wojo fëën ko bëë.
"He searched for it in vain."

Mi puu tu dusu kölu bai ën.
"I paid two thousand guilders to buy it."

Examples of words originally from Portuguese or a Portuguese creole are mujee (mulher) "woman", womi (o homem) "man", da (dar) "to give", bunu (bom) "good", kaba (acabar) "to end", ku (com) "with", kuma (como, cf. vernacular Brazilian cuma? for como é?, "come again?") "as, like", faka (faca) "knife", aki (aqui) "here", ma (mas) "but", kendi (quente) "hot", liba (riba) "above", and lio (rio) "river".


Saramaccan has a rich history of published works, including the following dictionaries: Christian Schumann's 1778, Saramaccanisch Deutsches Worter-Buch,[10] Johannes Riemer's 1779 Wörterbuch zur Erlernung der Saramakka-Neger-Sprache, a copied and edited version of Schumann,[11] Jan Voorhoeve and Antoon Donicie's 1963 wordlist, De Saramakaanse Woordenschat,[12] Antoon de Groot's, Woordregister Nederlands- Saramakaans met context en idioom (1977)[13] and his Woordregister Saramakaans-Nederlands (1981),[14] and Glock (ed) Holansi-Saamaka wöutubuku (Nederlands-Saramaccaans woordenboek)[15]

The Instituut voor Taalwetenschap has published tens of literacy books and collections of folktales written by Saramaccans and a complete translation of the New Testament.[16] Two books written by Richard Price have now been published in Saamakatongo:[17] Fesiten and Boo go a Kontukonde. Alison Hinds of Barbados based her up tempo soca song Faluma on the language. [18] The Saramaccan orthography created by the Summer Institute of Linguistics is not in universal use.[19] Linguist Vinije Haabo is developing a Saramaccan dictionary based on an improved orthography, which he intends to publish online.[20]


  1. ^ a b Price, Richard (2013). "The Maroon Population Explosion: Suriname and Guyane". New West Indian Guide. 87 (3/4): 323–327. doi:10.1163/22134360-12340110.
  2. ^ a b c Price 2007, pp. 309–389.
  3. ^ a b Borges 2014, p. 188.
  4. ^ a b Muysken & Smith 2015.
  5. ^ Borges 2014, p. 124.
  6. ^ Migee 2017, p. 7.
  7. ^ a b c Bakker, Smith & Veenstra 1994, p. 170.
  8. ^ "Saramaccan language and alphabet". Omniglot. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  9. ^ a b Bakker, Smith & Veenstra 1994, pp. 168–169.
  10. ^ Schuchardt, Hugo (1914). Die Sprache der Saramakkaneger in Surinam. Johannes Muller. pp. 44–116.
  11. ^ Arends, Jacques; Perl, M. (1995). Early Suriname Creole Texts: A Collection of 18th Century Sranan and Saramaccan Documents. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert. ISBN 3-89354-549-2. OCLC 33335142.
  12. ^ Donicie, Antoon; Voorhoeve, Jan (1963). De Saramakaanse Woordenschat. Bureau voor Taalonderzoek in Suriname van de Universiteit van Amsterdam.
  13. ^ De Groot, Antoon (1977). Woordregister Nederlands- Saramakaans met context en idioom. Paramaribo: Artix.
  14. ^ De Groot, Antoon (1981). Woordregister Saramakaans-Nederlands. Paramaribo: Artix.
  15. ^ Glock, Naomi, ed. (1996). Holansi-Saamaka wöutubuku (Nederlands-Saramaccaans woordenboek). Paramaribo: Evangelische Broedergemeente.
  16. ^ "Bibliography of the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Suriname" (PDF). SIL International. 2001.
  17. ^ Price, Richard (2013). Fesiten. La Roque d'Anthéron (France): Vents d'ailleurs. ISBN 978-2364130388.
  18. ^ Price, Richard and Sally Pryce (2016). Boo go a Kontukonde. La Roque d'Anthéron (France): Vents d'ailleurs. ISBN 9782364131842.
  19. ^ "Saramaccan - English Interactive Dictionary".
  20. ^ "Saramaka (Volk) in blog".


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