A Brief History of Dutch and Surinamese

How did Surinamese develop as a language, and what similarities and differences does it share with Dutch?

Soon after the Dutch took control of what is now Paramaribo, they introduced the Dutch language to Suriname. Today, roughly 60% of Suriname’s citizens speak Dutch as their first language. There are also other native languages spoken in Suriname, mainly Tongo, Saramaccan, and Sranan.

From a British Colony to a Dutch

The Netherlands exchanged New Amsterdam, what we now know as New York, with the British for Suriname, and thus Britain left the South American colony to the Dutch. This is significant because, before this deal was made, the only land the Dutch had control over in Suriname was Paramaribo, the capital city, and the other parts of the country were under British rule. This plays into Surinamese’s history and the influence English had on the language.

Surinamese and Afrikaans

The similarities between Dutch and Surinamese are even greater than the similarities Dutch has with Afrikaans in South Africa, for example, because the government of Suriname joined the Dutch Language Union and thus Surinamese and Dutch are nearly interchangeable. This means that someone from Suriname is able to visit the Netherlands and have little difficulty communicating, while someone from South Africa might see it as more of a challenge.

Surinamese and Dutch

The differences between Dutch and Surinamese are few, however, there are some words that are notably distinct. For example, okseltruitje, which is the word in Surinamese for a singlet (a type of clothing) is called a mouwloos hemd in Dutch.

Interestingly, when Suriname joined the Dutch Language Union, many Surinamese words were added to the Dutch general dictionary known as Het groene boekje, or the green booklet. In this book, all the words that are spoken by the Dutch are written down.

Surinamese Migration and Slang

When the Dutch government required workers to help grow the economy, many Surinamese citizens came to the Netherlands to work. There was a large influx of Surinamese Dutch migrants from 1960 onwards, and this contributed to the development of a new language. Even though the Surinamese mainly speak Dutch nowadays, this was not the case in the Suriname of 1960. In the modern day, this means that many Surinamese youths speak a mix of Dutch and Sranan. For example, the following Surinamese sentence is considered slang in the Netherlands:

Surinamese: Hoezo gaat hij even naar de bakadyari?
Dutch: Hoezo gaat hij even naar de achtertuin?

The sentence above translates into: “Why is he going to his backyard?” The only difference between these sentences is the last word. However, bakadyari is still considered slang in the Netherlands.

The historical context behind the way people speak is a never-ending source of interest. Words and phrases that are considered slang by many native Dutch speakers are considered official Sranan words and phrases by the Surinamese. The effect of colonialism on European languages, especially in South America, is a truly fascinating subject.

About Tim Oldenhuis

I’m a native Dutch translator living in the Netherlands. I translate for Coursera to help make education accessible for everyone. My interests are SEO, Gamification and Marketing. I translate website content and blogs, primarily from English and German into Dutch.