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Coding and decoding in Sranan; the writing-speaking controversity. A critical review of the Eddy van der Hilst spelling (II)

by Kwasi Koorndijk

As language trainer and activist of the Surinamese lingua franca, Sranan or Sranantongo, I will draw upon Skrifi Sranantongo, leysi en bun tu (Van der Hilst, 1988) referring at the same time where appropriate to the follow up De spelling van het Sranan. Hoe en waarom zo (Van der Hilst, 2008). First there is a break down per chapter as even most Sranan speakers lack reading skills. Then I give my Commentary. For practical reasons the words ‘spelling’ and ‘orthography’ are treated interchangeable in this exposition. Finally: there are phonological aspects to be commented on which for practical reasons will be left out in this frame work.

Hilst Skrifi Sranantongo
In his 16 chapters encompassing book (Van der Hilst, 1988) the writer proofs to be a grass root linguist as the phonetic script ( as in sèm same; ɔ as in sòf soft drink; ŋ as in man can) is thoroughly embedded in his account, while the exposure of speech is explained in great detail. Van der Hilst also vents his good teachership by convincing the reader of the laws guiding Sranan, backing his statements up with clear examples, although (sub)sections would help a lot to wrestle through the mass information given in the various chapters. Another aspect is of methodological concern: there are neihter inline citations nor is there a reference list involved. However in the follow-up, i.e. Van der Hilst (2008) major developments were made on this front. But all in all as Sranan activist I consider Van der Hilst (1988) worth reading as the writer chose to report in the lingua franca of Suriname, contributing to the lexicon of Sranan in a technical sense, although the complaints of his readers were massive because of their analphabetism in Sranan (Van der Hilst (2008, pp. 5, 22).
Van der Hilst (2008) characterizes his spelling doctrine as: one sound per sign and one sign per sound (p. 22). Thus everywhere of a word where there is a letter of the Sranan alphabet involved there will be only one particular sound produced as in reverse only one particular sound is attached to a particular symbol of the alphabet.
Much to the credit of the author can be said that he highlighted the debate concerning spelling in general and especially with regard to the writing of falling diphthongs, i.e. should we write for instance: ai or ay, ui or uy? Van der Hilst brought the debate to an academic level and gave a person-in-environment perspective into the Sranan language.


The spelling history of Sranan is comparable to the history of the country Sranan (Suriname), the ‘host’ of the language, Sranan. As Sranan is regarded as conquered land so is Sranan to be seen as conquered language, as of the orthography of Sranan. “Thus one of the earliest orthographies, that of the Moravian missionary Schumann (1783), was based on the spelling system of German” (Sebba, 2000, p. 929). The year 1824 marks the starting point of Dutch spelling conventions, together with a concern for etymology [“Zo schreef men bijvoorbeeld: ‘boutoe’ (Ne. Bout) en ‘fowloe’ (Eng. Fowl). ‘Blyti’ (Ned. Blij,  ‘zeili’ (Ned.  Zeil) en  ‘felicitere’ (Ned. feliciteren)” (Van Der Hilst, 2008, p. 26)] and homonym [“… bijvoorbeeld: ‘fasi (manier) en ‘fassi’ (vastmaken), ‘pisi’ (stuk) en ‘pissie’ (pissen), ‘hati’ (pijn doen) en  ‘hatti’ (hart), ‘pikîn’ (kind) en ‘pikin’ (klein, weinig, jong)” (Van Der Hilst, 2008, p. 26)]  avoidance (Sebba, idem, p. 930). “In practice, this orthography became fixed by its use in the Sranan version of the New Testament, Da Njoe Testament vo wi Masra en Helpiman Jezus Christus, published in 1829” (Sebba, idem, p. 930). This orthography was based on the Dutch writing system, while the pronounciation of each word is as it would be in German (p. 932).


Da Njoe Testament

Title page of Da Njoe Testament (1829), collection Michiel van Kempen

In the 1950’s the ideological debate had further polarized in that there could be found at the spectrum on the one hand spelling systems of ecclesiastical origin opposed to the one used in scientific literature – Voorhoeve and Peé are among the exponents of this movement – and that of J.G.A. Koenders, an orthography which was later adopted by the grasroot movement Wie Eegie Sanie (pp. 932-933).
In 1960 a government commission chaired by Lou Lichtveld produced an orthography (Gouvernementsblad van Suriname, 1960, no. 90) that was revised by an other government commission in 1986 under the chair of André Kramp (Stichting Volkslectuur Suriname, 1995, p. 10); Staatsblad van de Republiek Suriname (1986). no. 40.
Judging by Defares (1982, p. 49) there are two groups at the table: one that parts from the proposition that Dutch remains the official language of Suriname and therefore furthering a Dutch orthography sphere of influence – the use of ‘i’ – regarding the falling diphthongs, while in the other group there is the believe that the Sranan spelling should have an international profile – the use of in between sound writing the diphthongs, thus ‘y’ instead of ‘i’ regarding the falling diphthongs. These controverse became manifest in the commission. Van der Hilst who also was a member of the commission, writes that at the presentation of the spelling the proponents of, y, were left outside (Van der Hilst, 2008, p.51). In this way the opponents succeeded in making official the i. The minister of education then, promised to reconvene the commission in order to deliberate about the diphthongs, which until to day never happened.
As is the case for spelling Madinka in … Gambia – spelling in the presence of English – so too applies for Sranan “in a complex multilingual ecology in which the postcolonial … language assumes a powerful position” (Juffermans, 2011, p. 652).
I’ll move ahead now with a comprehensive approach to the Van der Hilst orthography.

Chapter 1

This chapter (pp. 9-12) is a brief account regarding the coincidence of the start of the regular Suriname history in 1650 and the development of Sranan involving the interplay of the West-African coast on the one hand and Portugal, England, and The Netherlands on the other hand under circumstances of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery – a pidgin developed into a creole which reflect the lexicon of all players involved.
Then from 1718 wherein the oldest written text is registered under Beschrijvinge van de volksplantinge Zuriname from J.D. Herlein through 1800-1900 where much was written in Sranan noting the time interval 1900-1940 where only one book was written up to 1946: Foe memre wi afo from J.G.A. Koenders [The father of nationalism (Marshall, 2003, pp.32-39; 64, 66, 87, 131)] to the current day, a period that can be described as the rivival of Sranan.




The origin of Sranan – and of other creole languages – can be framed in a series of different approaches. In this frame work we encounter: a) theories focusing on the European input (the role of Foreigner Talk/Baby Talk, Imperfect Second Language Learning, Monogenesis, regional European varieties of the lexifier language), b) Theories focusing on the non-European input (substrate and relexification), c) Gradualist and developmental hypothesis (Gradual creolization, Grammaticalization), and d) Universalist approaches (Bioprogram Theory, Generative Theory, Semantic Transparency, Common Social Context Theory) (Den Besten, Muysken, Smith, 1994, pp. 87-97; Arends, Kouwenberg & Smith, N. (pp. 111-116); Muysken & Veenstra, pp. 121-134; See for comments Arends, Muysken & Smith, 1994, pp. 319-323). These approaches in the terms of Chary, Koefoed & Muysken (1983): ‘the baby talk hypothese’, ‘interlanguage hypothese’, ‘relexifcatie hypothese’, and ‘universalistische hypothese’ are difficult to separate from one another (pp. 20-25).
To cut short: the explanation of how Sranan came into being by Van der Hilst is only one angle from which the origin of it can be examined – the European input. Thus in the day-to day- exchanges between European and Africans words like the English ‘go’ and ‘take’ were adapted to the speech habits of the Sranan speakers or diphtongs were exchanged for mono-thongs Van den Berg explains (2000, p. 7), while on the intra-contact level (the inner circles of the enslaved Africans) religious and magic phenomenons in words like konfo, fyofyo, kunba had their continuity in Sranan. This plays into the hand of the vision that Sranan can’t be a monolitic version of a language, i.e. “if African languages were maintained on the basis of certain tasks, a wide, yet rather simplistic, spectrum of creole (basilects to acrolects) and non-creole speech forms circulating throughout the plantation can be conjectured. Field slaves could be assumed to preserve more (elements of) African languages, speaking a type of basilect, known in 18th century Surinam as nengretongo (literally, “Black man’s tongue”) that was farthest removed from the English superstrate. The creole variety assumed to be spoken by house slaves would be the acrolect, (e.g., bakkratongo, or “White man’s tongue”) conforming more to the superstrate. Slaves of intermediate status would thus be predicted to speak a mesolect, or intermediate creole” (Satterfield, 2005, p. 2085). Accordingly Sranan can’t be understood without considering the underlying social structures underpinning the 18th century.
Over time adoption processes evolved which involved both Sranan and Dutch respectively a low prestige and a high prestige language (Charry, Koefoed & Muysken, 1983, pp. 13-14):
a) the adoption process is restricted to (re)lexifaction without changing the structure of
b) Sranan constructions and semantic distinctions are embedded in Surinamese-Dutch – ik ga gaan (I’ll go), hij gaat komen (he’ll come) are both future tense constructions derived from Sranan, while ik zal gaan (I’ll go) semantically means: ‘but don’t pin me on it’.
c) Code mixing and borrowing, whereby in a practicle sense Dutch sentences are embedded in Sranan and often adapted to the speech habits of the Sranan speaker. Mi e go hale boodschappe (I’m going to the store); een swiete groet komopo na a studio (I greet you from the studio) are among the examples that can be named.


Hilst Sranan tongo_Detailfoto

Eddy van der Hilst

In the case of b) adoption can be the case as a consequence of massive second language acquisition: “bij het leren van de tweede taal brengt een bevolkingsgroep een aantal constructies en onderscheidingen uit de eerste taal mee, die later gemeengoed worden en worden overgenomen door sprekers die de eerste taal niet eens kennen” (Charry, Koefoed & Muysken, 1983, p. 13).


[to be continued]

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