Saramaccan language

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Native toSuriname, French Guiana
Native speakers
90,000 (2013)[1]
  • Matawari (Matawai)
Language codes
ISO 639-3srm
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Saramaccan (autonym: Saamáka) is a creole language spoken by about 58,000 ethnic African people near the Saramacca and upper Suriname River, as well as in the capital Paramaribo, in Suriname (formerly also known as Dutch Guiana), 25,000 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, and is derived from Niger–Congo languages of West Africa, especially Fon and other Gbe languages, Akan and Central African languages such as Kikongo.[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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

An earlier idea that Saramaccan was an offshoot of a Portuguese pidgin that had been spoken by slaves who had learned it on the West African coast is no longer[dubious ][citation needed] subscribed to by working creolists.[contradictory] See monogenetic theory of pidgins for more information.

Certain common words in Sranan Tongo, the most common creole spoken in Suriname, also derive from Portuguese words, but it remains a largely English-based creole.


Saramaccan is divided into three main dialects. The Upper Suriname River dialect and the Lower Suriname River dialect are both spoken by members of the Saramaccan tribe. The Matawari tribe has its own dialect.[7]



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."[8]


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.[8]


The language has two surface tones: high and low. Stress in European words is replaced by high tone in Saramaccan.[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,[10] the largest percentage of any creole in the Americas. Source languages for these words include Kikongo, Gbe languages, and Twi.[9]


To English-speakers not familiar with it, the English basis of this language is almost unrecognizable. Here are some examples of Saramaccan sentences, 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,[11] Johannes Riemer's 1779 Wörterbuch zur Erlernung der Saramakka-Neger-Sprache, a copied and edited version of Schumann,[12] Jan Voorhoeve and Antoon Donicie's 1963 wordlist, De Saramakaanse Woordenschat,[13] Antoon de Groot's, Woordregister Nederlands- Saramakaans met context en idioom (1977)[14] and his Woordregister Saramakaans-Nederlands (1981),[15] and Glock (ed) Holansi-Saamaka wöutubuku (Nederlands-Saramaccaans woordenboek)[16]

The Instituut voor Taalwetenschap has published tens of literacy books written by Saramaccans and a complete translation of the New Testament.[17] Two books written by Richard Price have now been published in Saamaka:[18] Fesiten and Boo go a Kontukonde.[19] There is no official orthography of the Saramaccan language at the moment.


  1. ^ a b Price, Richard (2013). "The Maroon Population Explosion: Suriname and Guyane". New West Indian Guide. 87 (3/4). Retrieved 4 September 2016 – via open source.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Saramaccan". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Price, Richard (2007). Travels with Tooy: History, Memory, and the African American Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 309–389. ISBN 978-0226680590.
  4. ^ Price, Richard (2007). Travels with Tooy: History, Memory, and the African American Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 309–389.
  5. ^ Pieter Muysken and Norval Smith (editors) (2015). Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa-Surinam Sprachbund. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-039499-3.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Pieter Musyken and Norval Smith (2015). Surviving the Middle Passage The West Africa-Surinam Sprachbund. Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter.
  7. ^ Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 165
  8. ^ a b c Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 170
  9. ^ a b Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): pp. 168–169.
  10. ^ Price, Richard (2007). Travels with Tooy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 309–389.
  11. ^ Schuchardt, Hugo (1914). Die Sprache der Saramakkaneger in Surinam. Johannes Muller. pp. 44–116.
  12. ^ Early Suriname Creole texts : a collection of 18th century Sranan and Saramaccan documents. Arends, Jacques., Perl, M. (Matthias). Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert. 1995. ISBN 3-89354-549-2. OCLC 33335142.CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ Donicie, Antoon; Voorhoeve, Jan (1963). De Saramakaanse Woordenschat. Bureau voor Taalonderzoek in Suriname van de Universiteit van Amsterdam.
  14. ^ De Groot, Antoon (1977). Woordregister Nederlands- Saramakaans met context en idioom. Paramaribo: Artix.
  15. ^ De Groot, Antoon (1981). Woordregister Saramakaans-Nederlands. Paramaribo: Artix.
  16. ^ Glock, Naomi, ed. (1996). Holansi-Saamaka wöutubuku (Nederlands-Saramaccaans woordenboek). Paramaribo: Evangelische Broedergemeente.
  17. ^ (PDF) Missing or empty |title= (help)
  18. ^ Price, Richard (2013). Fesiten. La Roque d'Anthéron (France): Vents d'ailleurs. ISBN 978-2364130388.
  19. ^ Price, Richard and Sally Price (2016). Boo go a Kontukonde. La Roque d'Anthéron (France): Vents d'ailleurs. ISBN 9782364131842.


  • Bakker, Peter; Smith, Norval; Veenstra, Tonjes (1994). "Saramaccan". In Jacque Arends; Pieter Muysken; Norval Smith (eds.). Pidgins and Creoles. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 165–178.
  • McWhorter, John and Jeff Good. 2012. A grammar of Saramaccan creole. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Muysken, Peter, Smith, Norval (editors) (2015) Surviving the Middle Passage: The West Africa-Suriname Sprachbund. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Price, Richard. 2007 Travels with Tooy: History, Memory, and the African American Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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