Dr. Cynthia Hallen
January 27, 2000
The History of Sranan,
A Language of Suriname
Dutch may be the official language of Suriname,1 but most Surinamese speak Sranan, an English-based creole, which has been influenced by Dutch and Portuguese along with some West African languages. Sranan serves as a lingua franca for about 80% of a population nearing 500,000 individuals (Grimes, Brana-Shute). In fact, Sranan is only one of 16 languages spoken in Suriname. There are at least five different creoles used in Suriname,2 in addition to six indigenous languages of native peoples,3 two European languages, and two modified Asian languages.4
Originally a simplified pidgin language, Sranan has undergone a process of expansion and creolization is now the native language for at least 120,000 Surinamese, and a second language for hundreds of thousands more. Sranan is short for Sranan Tongo, which means “Suriname Language.”
The area that we know now as Suriname was once populated mostly by Carib and Arawak natives. Christopher Columbus sighted the land in 1498, and Spanish and Portuguese explorers frequented the region during the 1500’s. After several unsuccessful attempts at settling there (the French in 1626 and 1639 and the English in 1645), Francis, Lord Willoughby, governor of Barbados started a colony in 1651, in what was known as “Willoughby Land.” (Voorhoeve and Lichtveld 2). The first groups of Africans may have come as the slaves of the early Barbadian settlers, who started sugar, coffee, and cacao plantations. Subsequently, Africans may have been brought to Suriname from Brazil with the 200 Portuguese Jews who came to open tobacco plantations (Arends, “Demographic” 241). Africans came from different linguistic backgrounds, but it is assumed that they communicated with each other in an early Afro-Portuguese pidgin that was common along the West African coast (Voorhoeve and Lichtveld 3). The Africans picked up English, which forms the basis of contemporary Sranan. Contact with Portuguese speakers also affected the language.
But in 1667-68, a major change occurred. The Dutch gained control of Suriname, and consequently most of the English and their African slaves gradually left over a period of nine years (1671-80). The Dutch continued to bring new African slaves to Suriname, but the English-based language somehow lingered. Even though the Dutch ruled the country until 1975, surprisingly enough the first recorded information on any language spoken among the Africans is English, in 1693. But according to linguists Lilian Adamson and Norval Smith, “How precisely English functioned in the development of Sranan is highly controversial” (220). Lack of recorded data has left linguists perplexed about the early years of this interesting mixed language. Such a contact of diverse peoples, each with different linguistic backgrounds, explains where Sranan gets its vocabulary from. In a random sampling of 476 Sranan verbs, 44% were English-derived. About 40% of the words were from Dutch, 5% came from Portuguese, 2% had African origins, and 9% had unknown origins (Voorhoeve and Lichtveld 241). This creole language, which began as a simplified pidgin, came about as an effort to communicate with speakers of other languages and developed into modern-day Sranan.5
Over the years, several Africans gained their freedom. Many of them were “Creoles,” who were part European and part African, and were the children of Dutch plantation owners and their African concubines (Voorhoeve and Lichtveld 5). Some of them were Maroons,6 Africans who had escaped the plantations. With a free African population, and with several incidences of legal interracial marriage, the Sranan-speaking population began to gain its voice at the 1783 publication of Hendrik Schouten’s partly Creole poem, “Een huishoudelijke twist” (“A Domestic Tiff”), the first Sranan poem ever printed.7 But sources written in Sranan predate this poem. According to historical linguist Adrienne Bruyn, “the earliest Sranan text available to us is the [J. D.] Herlein fragment from 1718” (154). Later, from 1765 to 1798, several Sranan-Dutch dictionaries and language manuals were published (Plag 118). It is from these 18th-century publications that scholars obtain their knowledge of early Sranan.
Moravian8 missionaries, finally allowed to proselytize in Suriname, printed the first all-Sranan text, selections from the New Testament, in 1816. In 1832, they printed the first Creole primer; and from 1852 to 1932, missionaries published a Sranan-language periodical, Makzien vo Kristen soema zieli (Magazine for Christian souls). The year 1855 saw the landmark publication of H.C. Focke’s Neger-Engelsch woordenboek (Negro-English Dictionary). Sranan was finally beginning to be considered a legitimate language.
Unfortunately, many of the Dutch Surinamese were appalled that such headway was being made with what they viewed as a corrupt language. Jan Voorhoeve, a Dutch linguist, summarized the prevailing attitude of the times toward creole languages, “Almost everywhere a Creole language is regarded as a mongrel product unworthy of attention” (10).
On July 1, 1863 slavery was abolished in Suriname. The Dutch were the last Europeans to emancipate their people. However, the Surinamese slaves were not completely free; they had to work another ten years on the plantations, with minimal compensation. The liberated Africans left the plantations in 1873. Soon afterward, they were replaced by East Indians (mostly from around Calcutta) and Chinese, who were contracted to work on the plantations for a specified number of years. About 37,000 Hindustanis arrived in Suriname before a movement in India led by Mahatma Gandhi stopped this immigration in 1916. In addition to the influx of Indians and Chinese, thousands of Javanese contract workers, from the island of Java in Indonesia, poured into the country (from 1891 to 1939).
In 1877, Dutch was enforced in the schools and continued to be the main language of government and of the prestigious classes. Any Sranan-speaking students who wanted to further their education had to learn Dutch to attend the university near the capital Paramariboor in the Netherlands. Yet, in the midst of all the language prejudice, J. N. Helstone wrote Wan spraakkunst vo taki en skrifi da tongo vo Sranan (A Grammar to Talk and Write the Language of Suriname) in 1903. Unfortunately, the government in the early 20th century mounted their efforts eradicate Sranan and schools would severely punish kids who spoke it. Parents concerned about social status discouraged it in the home.
Finally, in the post-World War II era, J. G. A. Koenders tried to gain respect for Sranan as a unique language. He worked to change the prejudiced government policies and racist attitudes that sought to obliterate the language and culture. He published his unpopular ideas in Foetoe-boi (Servant) and scandalized the Surinamese literati when he translated a beautiful sonnet by Willem Kloos into Sranan. Surinamese students studying abroad in Holland questioned the Dutch hegemony and sought their own cultural identity. Some students began a movement called Wie Eegie Sanie (Our Own Things). According to the students, Sranan was “was best suited to become the national language because it was the only language spoken in Surinam that had indigenous roots” (Voorhoeve and Lichtveld 11). Frisians, supporting their own language movement in the Netherlands, published some Sranan writing in their cultural magazine De Tsjerne (The Churning Tub). Several Sranan to Frisian translations appeared in an effort to bolster support for traditionally oppressed languages. In Suriname, Sranan was spoken less surreptitiously and gained wider acceptance. This was accompanied by a greater sense of pride in their vernacular culture and religion.
Since independence in 1975, Sranan has gained greater status (although Dutch is still the prestigious language). Many linguists are fascinated by this unique language. Soon after 1975, thousands of Surinamese moved to the Netherlands, where there is now a considerably large Sranan-speaking population. Creole expert Norval Smith writes that Sranan is “spoken by the population of the coastal area in Surinam, as well as the considerable emigré population in the Netherlands. The total number 1st and 2nd language speakers is around 500,000” (341). The Netherlands Antilles has some Sranan speakers, and the Netherlands is home to about 225,000 speakers (Grimes). Sranan has survived hundreds of years of prejudice and racism and, like all languages, continues to change.
5. I’ve chosen to call the language “Sranan” throughout the text, even though over the years, earlier forms of Sranan were called, ofttimes disparagingly, Suriname Creole, Creole, Takitaki, Surinaams, Nengretongo, etc.
6. Maroon, a West Indies slave who escaped, comes from “French maron, marron, a modification of American Spanish cimarrón, from cimarrón wild, savage.” We get the meaning of the verb maroon, “to put ashore on a desolate island or coast and leave to one's fate,” from the name given to these fugitives.
To introduce you to this language,
here is a familiar passage from The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony
A ten a faja ben do na mi tapoe, mi si toe glori soema san ben de so krin Pn san glori ben de so bigi dati mi no man taki fa. Den ben tenapoe na tapoe mi ini loktoe. Wan foe den taki nanga mi, kari mi na nen. En sori tapoe a trawan Pn taki: “Disi na mi lobi manpikin, Arki na En.” (Smith, Getoigi 5)
When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other–This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (Smith, JS-H 1:17)
Maps of the countries where Sranan is spoken. The online Ethnologue lists 120,000 speakers in Suriname, with another 280,000 who use Sranan as a second language–a total of 400,000 speakers. The Netherlands Antilles has some speakers, and the Netherlands is home to 225,000 speakers, who are mostly immigrants from Suriname (Grimes). See pages 8A-8C.
Adamson, Lilian, and Norval Smith. “Sranan.” Arends, Muysken, and Smith 219-32.
Arends, Jacques. “Demographic Factors in the Formation of Sranan.” Arends, Early 233-85.
—, ed. The Early Stages of Creolization. Creole Language Library 13. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 1995.
Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken, and Norval Smith, eds. Pidgins and Creoles: An Introduction. Creole Language Library 15. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 1994.
Brana-Shute, Gary. “Suriname.” 1999 World Book. CD-ROM. IBM. 1998.
Bruyn, Adrienne. “Relative Clauses in Early Sranan.” Arends, Early 149-202.
Grimes, Barbara F., ed. “Surinam.” Ethnologue. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1996. Online. Internet. Available: http://www.sil.org/ethnologue/countries/Suri.html.
“Maroon.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Electronic ed. Version 1.2. CD-ROM. Merriam-Webster, 1994-6.
Plag, Ingo. “The Emergence of taki as a Complementizer in Sranan: On Substrate Influence, Universals, and Gradual Creolization.” Arends, Early 113-48.
Smith, Joseph. “Joseph Smith–History [JS-H].” The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989.
Smith, Jozef [Joseph Smith]. A Getoigi foe a Profeti Jozef Smith [The Prophet Joseph Smith’s Testimony]. Salt Lake City, UT: A Kerki foe Jesus Kristus foe a Noja-dé Santa Den e Ori ala Leti [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], 1987.
Smith, Norval. “An Annotated List of Creoles, Pidgins, and Mixed Languages.” Arends, Muysken, and Smith 331-74.
Voorhoeve, Jan, and Ursy M. Lichtveld, eds. Creole Drum: An Anthology of Creole Literature in Suriname. Trans. Vernie A. February. Caribbean Series 15. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1975.
For an introduction to the Sranan language, which includes a mini-dictionary, see http://www.sr.net/srnet/InfoSurinam/sranan.html