Saramaccan language

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Native to Suriname, French Guiana
Native speakers
26,000 (1995)[1]
Matawari (Matawai)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 srm
Glottolog sara1340[2]
Linguasphere 52-ABB-ax
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Saramaccan (autonym: Saamáka) is a creole language spoken by about 24,000 ethnic African people near the Saramacca and upper Suriname Rivers in Suriname (formerly also known as Dutch Guyana), and 2,000 in French Guiana. It has three main dialects. The speakers are mostly descendants of fugitive slaves who were native to West Africa; they form a group called Saramacca, also spelled Saramaka.

Linguists consider Saramaccan notable because it is based on two major source languages, English (50%) and Portuguese (35%), but diverges considerably from both. The African component accounts for about 5% of the total, one of the highest in the Americas. African portions are derived from Niger-Congo languages of West Africa, especially Fon and other Gbe languages as well as Akan.


The Saramaccan lexicon is largely drawn from English, Portuguese, and Dutch, among European languages, and Niger-Congo languages of West Africa, especially Fon and other Gbe languages, as well as Akan. The African component accounts for about 5% of the total.

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 half of Saramaccan's words are from English. It is generally agreed that Saramaccan's Portuguese influence originated from enslaved peoples who lived on plantations with Portuguese masters, and possibly with other slaves speaking a Portuguese creole. The masters might have brought the latter when migrating to Suriname from Brazil.[citation needed] Saramaccan originators began with an early form of Sranan Tongo and transformed it into a new creole via this Portuguese influx, plus influence from the grammars of Fongbe and other Gbe languages. English was incorporated later but contributed half of the lexicon.[citation needed]

An earlier idea that Saramaccan was an offshoot of a Portuguese pidgin 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.


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 have their own dialect.[3]



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: e.g. is /bɛ/ "red" vs. /bɛ́ɛ/ "belly" vs. /bɛɛ́ɛ/ "bread".[4]


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
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.[4]


The language has two surface tones, high and low. Stress in European words is replaced by high tone in Saramaccan.[4]


Fifty percent of the vocabulary of Saramaccan is derived from English, while 35% is derived 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), and it is said to be both an English-based creole and a Portuguese-based creole.[5]

About 5% of the vocabulary of Saramaccan is of African origin, the most of any creole in the Americas. Source languages for these words include Kikongo, Gbe languages, and Twi.[5]


To English speakers not familiar with it, the English basis of this language is almost unrecognizable. These 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) "as"; faka (faca) "knife"; aki (aqui) "here"; ma (mas) "but"; kendi (quente) "hot"; liba (riba) "above"; lio (rio) "river".


  1. ^ Saramaccan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Saramaccan". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 165
  4. ^ a b c Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 170
  5. ^ a b Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): pp. 168–169.


  • Bakker, Peter; Smith, Norval; Veenstra, Tonjes (1994). "Saramaccan". In Jacque Arends; Pieter Muysken; Norval Smith. Pidgins and Creoles. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 165–178. 
  • McWhorter, John and Jeff Good. 2012. A grammar of Saramaccan creole. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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