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A grammar of Saramaccan Creole by John C. McWhorter, Jeff Good (review)

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 973-976 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0066

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

De Gruyter Mouton must be praised for the series of excellent grammars, which was started almost thirty years ago. Almost sixty grammars have been published, and this grammar of Saramaccan Creole is the least voluminous. All other grammars cover twice to almost four times as many pages. Does that mean that the description of Saramaccan requires fewer pages? And is this a significant observation in the light of creole studies?

Saramaccan is an English-lexifier creole spoken by some 50,000 people, most of whom live in Suriname, but a significant number have also settled in neighboring French Guyana since the 1980s, and some families are in the Netherlands and the US. Saramaccan is spoken by descendants of maroons whose communities in interior Suriname were formed between the 1690s, when the first slaves escaped and settled in the rainforest, and 1762, when the maroons agreed not to accept any more refugees in a peace treaty with the Dutch. The language also shows quite a bit of impact from Portuguese in the lexicon, as some escaped slaves came from plantations run by Portuguese-speaking Sephardic Jews. Saramaccan is the creole language that developed with the least influence from the lexifier, and therefore it may shed light on language creation more than any other new language, as it developed in the absence of a model or target language. Fewer than a few thousand roots from English, Portuguese, and African languages were available to create a full-fledged grammar, and virtually all grammatical markers coexist with their lexical sources, providing a window on grammaticalization research.

Not surprisingly, this creole has received a lot of attention from linguists, and not only from specialized creolists. Saramaccan is the creole that differs most from its lexifier. Most of the lexicon is from English, but very little of English structure has been inherited, perhaps only the position of nominal modifiers relative to the noun. Saramaccan has been variously hailed as the ‘deepest’, the most ‘radical’, and the most ‘African’ of all creoles. In addition, Saramaccan also played a role in the discussion of whether creole grammars are less complex than noncreole grammars—a debate that was fueled by John McWhorter’s 2001 claim that ‘the world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars’, in a target article bearing that name in Linguistic Typology.

Some twenty-five years ago I introduced McWhorter to a Saramaccan speaker in Amsterdam—I think that was his first field experience with the language—and since then McWhorter has been working on Saramaccan and creole studies, combining his interest with a broad knowledge of the diversity of the languages of the world. The field of creolistics and knowledge of Saramaccan have increased dramatically in the past quarter of a century, not least because of the work of the two authors of the grammar and perhaps a dozen additional linguists who have worked on this language.

McWhorter is now one of the foremost thinkers about the typology and origin of creoles. Good has extensive field experience with West African languages, mostly Bantoid, and is also a respected phonologist and typologist. In addition, he has written extensively about language documentation. In short, they are an ideal team for a description of Saramaccan.

The book consists of a five-page introduction on methods and consultants, and it sketches the historical background of the language. There are seventeen chapters covering the description itself, and these are followed by a brief word list inspired by the Swadesh 100 list, two texts covering just over six pages, four pages of references, and a useful nine-page index of grammatical phenomena discussed in the grammar. The grammar is extremely rich in example sentences, over 1,000.

The three chapters on phonology and morpho(phono)logy are mostly the work of Good, and the chapters on syntax and lexicon mostly McWhorter’s. One striking feature of this grammar is that all of the information is gathered from exiled speakers, apparently residing in the Netherlands, the San Francisco Bay area (both authors have spent time at Berkeley), and New York State (where both authors reside now). Purist fieldworkers may frown upon this practice, desiring that fieldworkers must do their work in the community...

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