Saramaccan Creole is a language spoken by about 24 000 – 26 000 people near Saramacca in Upper Surinam and French Guiana. The language is used mostly in the communities once formed by fugitive black slaves. It is unique between so-called pidgin languages in two characteristics. Firstly it has two lexifier languages (English and Portuguese) and secondly, it existed in relative isolation until about 1960 and thusly presents an example of “pure” Creole language that has not suffered significant “decreolization” .
The latter fact makes Saramaccan especially interesting for research of the Creole languages history and development as it provides scholars with an idea of “initial” stage of any Creole language. It is generally accepted that the basis of the language was Sranan Tongo which has been modified as a result of Portuguese influence. Most likely that the first speakers of Saramaccan were the slaves who worked for the Portuguese masters in Surinam and probably the slaves brought by those masters from Brazil.
In addition the language has been heavily influenced by the grammar of west-African tongues . Most probably, the language has started to develop in the early XVIII century, although the ground for it have been laid by the British colonists during British rule of Surinam between 1651 and 1667. Thereafter the colony passed to the Dutch. At that time about 200 Portuguese-speaking Jews migrated from Brazil bringing their slaves with them. Those settlers and their slaves started speaking a local English dialect that has been influenced by their Portuguese vernacular.
Throughout the XVIII century their language developed in the mainstream of Atlantic Creoles development being influenced by Portuguese and African languages of the Bantu family. Continuous slave trade established conditions for further impact of African dialects on the language. Since slaves led their lives and developed their language in their own community that was different from the community of the planters, the language experienced enormous influence of African dialects in grammar and phonetics . It is now considered to be one of the most radical Creole language in which English or Portuguese basis can hardly be recognized by nonexpert.
Saramaccan is divided into three dialects: the Upper Surinam river dialect, the Lower Surinam river dialect and the dialect spoken by Matawari tribe. For a long period the language was seen as an offshoot of the Portuguese pidgin, yet currently it is viewed a a pidgin with English basis. Over a half of the vocabulary of the Saramaccan derives from English, 35% of words come from Portuguese, less from Dutch and about 5% are from African languages like Congo and Abe . Most of the words suffered notable changes in the language.
The examples of modified English words are: “soni” (“thing”), “puu” (“pay”), “waka” (“walk”), “dee” (“that”), “dusu” (“thousand”). The examples of modified Portuguese words are: “lio” (“rio” – “river”), “womi” (“homem” – “man”), “mujee” (“mulher” – “woman”), “kama” (“como” – “as”). The examples of modified Dutch words are: “suku” (“zoeken” – “search”), “kolu” (“gulden”) . As it has already been said, phonetically Saramaccan retains many features attributable to African languages. This includes an African system of pitches or tones, in which the high pitch is distinguished from low pitch and marked by an acute accent.
Emphasis in the European words is usually replaced by a high tone. For example, in the sentence “Mi ta tya deesi da di omi” (I am taking medicine to the man) the morphemes ta for [progressive], da ‘give’ (reanalyzed as ‘to’), and omi ‘man’ are Portuguese, while the pattern tya-[noun]-da for ‘give to,’ known as serial verb construction, is West African . The grammar of the Saramaccan language is considered to be young and not yet firmly established . McWhorter calls the Saramaccan grammar “overspecialized” in the sphere of obligatory evidential markers , making it similar to Portuguese, Spanish and Latin.
It also has a more complex syntax in comparison to other Creole languages and tonal system can be sometimes applied in grammar constructions. Among distinctive features of the Saramaccan grammar are broad use of causatives and fewer use of relative clauses than in English, as well as verb reduplication that has been inherited from African dialects like Fongbe, although reduplication in the Saramaccan is greatly simplified. The standard causative construction in the Saramaccan involves the verb “mbei” which is translated both as “do” and “make”.
Another verb which is frequently used to form causatives is “buta” – “put”. Surprisingly the verb “puu” (“yield”) can also sometimes be used to form causatives in the Saramaccan, which perhaps reveals the slave roots of the language. For example sentences “Mi mbei de a wooko”, “Mi buta de a wooko” and “Mi puu dee a wooko” are all translated as “I made him work” . The relative pronoun di use usually used in Saramaccan to form relative clauses. For example the sentence “Di womi di mi sabi sindo” is word-for-word translated as “the man I know there sit”.
Here a strong Portuguese influence can be observed since such construction is normal for Iberian languages. Currently Saramaccan language is codified and there are several considerable pieces of literature written in it including a variant of Surinam national anthem. The language attracts attention of the researchers due to its unique qualities that have been previously described, so there is hardly a jeopardy of complete elimination of Saramaccan. Yet currently the language is likely to gradually evolve towards conjunction with Sranan Tongo – the most widespread language of Surinam.