Saramaccan language

Saramaccan language
Spoken in  Suriname
 French Guiana
Native speakers 26,000[1]  (date missing)
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 srm
Linguasphere 52-ABB-ax

Saramaccan (autonym: Saamáka) is a creole language spoken by about 24,000 people near the Saramacca and upper Suriname Rivers in Suriname (formerly also known as Dutch Guyana), and 2,000 in French Guiana. The speakers are mostly descendants of fugitive slaves; they form a group called Saramacca, also spelled Saramaka.

Saramaccan is remarkable to linguists because of its unusual divergence from its source languages.



The Saramaccan lexicon is largely drawn from Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Sub-Saharan African languages, especially Fongbe, Akan and Gbe. The African component accounts for about 5% of the total.

Saramaccan phonology has traits similar to languages of West Africa, and it even has developed tones, which are common in Africa.

Over half of Saramaccan's words are from English. It is generally agreed that Saramaccan's Portuguese influence is because the language's creators lived on plantations with Portuguese masters, and possibly slaves speaking a Portuguese creole that the masters had brought with them while migrating to Surinam from Brazil.[citation needed] Saramaccan's creators started with an early form of Sranan Tongo and transformed it into a new creole via this Portuguese influx, plus heavy influence from the grammars of Fongbe and Gbe.[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 subscribed to by working creolists. 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, while the Matawari tribe have their own dialect.[2]



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".[3]


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.[3]


The language has two surface tones, high and low. Stress in European words is replaced by high tone in Saramaccan.[3]


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.[4]

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.[4]


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 (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. ^ Ethnologue
  2. ^ Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 165
  3. ^ a b c Bakker, Smith and Veenstra (1994): p. 170
  4. ^ 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. 
  • Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.) (2005). "Saramaccan". Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Fifteenth edition ed.). Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. 

External links

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