Sarnámi – A History

What is the Sarnámi language?

In short – Sarnámi Hindustani is a language spoken in Suriname, South America and the Netherlands, by the ‘Hindoestanen’. Which are 21st-century descendants of South Asian indentured laborers that were brought to Suriname in a 43-year period, spanning 1873 – 1916. The Hindoestanen make up a sizeable part of the 560.000 strong population in South America’s smallest independent country and form up to 1% of the population of the Netherlands.

Lingustically the language is a mixture of the different dialects that these indentured laborers spoke. Over time it has been influenced by local languages in its living space (Sranan Tongo, Dutch, Hindi).

To understand what Sarnámi Hindustani is, we will first have to look at where it is spoken.

Suriname is small country in South America, north of Brazil and wedged between Guyana and French Guyana. It is unique due to its high levels of bio-diversity and due to its ethnic and linguistic diversity. Suriname is one the most densely forested countries in the world and in spite of small population of around 560.000 inhabitants, there are about 16 languages spoken by as many different ethnic groups. One of the largest sub-groups in Suriname are the Hindoestanen, who are predominantly of Indian origin and form anywhere between 27 – 32% of the present day population.

The abolition of slavery by the Dutch in the mid-19th century, caused a shortage of labor in the plantation-rich Dutch colony. In order to address these shortages, people from different parts of the world were brought to Suriname under a so called ‘indentured labor’ construction to work on the plantations.

The ancestors of the Hindoestanen arrived in a period spanning 43 years, between 1873 – 1916 and numbered 35000. Of these roughly 1/3 third departed back to the sub-continent, whilst 2/3 thirds opted to stay in Suriname and build a life for themselves.

43 years is not a blink-of-an-eye event and on the plantations, amongst these laborers that had arrived from a different world, a sense of community began to form. Rites and rituals that were remembered from the old world were continued or adapted to local circumstances. Dishes were localized and made with whatever was available in the country and the language they spoke amongst themselves began to evolve distinctly.

Sarnámi Hindustani is a what can be called a koiné language. A koine language is defined by Wikipedia as:

Koiné (“common [language]”) is a standard or common language or dialect that has arisen to prestige or dominance as a result of the contact, mixing, and often levelling (simplifying) of two or more mutually intelligible varieties (dialects) of the same language.

As speakers already understood one another from before the advent of the koiné, the koineization process is not as drastic as pidginization and creolization. Unlike pidginization and creolization, there is no “target” within Koine formation. It involves continuity in that speakers do not need to abandon their own linguistic varieties.

The way that this is reflected in Sarnámi is that the different dialects and languages that the indentured laborers spoke, depending on the region they came from in the sub-continent, started to blend together. Understanding each other was the main goal and there was no particular dominant or high prestige language these speakers tried to emulate. The result was language or speech they called ‘Sarnámi Hindustani’ (Surinamese Hindustani), which was particularly influenced by the Awadhi and Bhojpuri languages, but ultimately became what is was called: A Surinamese variant of Hindustani.

This blending together or koinéization, is also reflected in the idiosyncracies that people had/have when speaking Sarnámi Hindustani, they might have might employee different tenses or endings, but due to the lack of (informal) standardization all is understood and goes incorrected.

Like indentured labor, koinézation was not a unique process to Suriname. Indentured laborers from South Asia arrived in at least 19 different countries, territories or dependencies across the Caribbean and mainland South-America, Africa and the pacific and to toil away and ensure that the world’s supply of coffee, rice and sugar remained large and affordable.

The level of integration or assimilation differed per area and depended heavily situational factors, as well as the size of the communities of the labors. These ranged from extremely small (St. Thomas, Costa Rica) to visible (Belize, Grenada, Jamaica) to sizeable (Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji, Natal in South Africa and Suriname).

Language-wise, in some places just certain words remained in collective memory (i.e. Belize and Jamaica) and in other places koinés developed with localized or specific names: Trinidad Hindustani, Aili Gaili (“Came and went”) in Guyana, Naitali in South Africa, Bhojpuri in Mauritius, Fiji Hindi and Sarnmámi Hindustani.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the only places where these languages are not fully moribund are in the Hindustani communities of Fiji and Suriname.*

The Netherlands

The emphasis is on community, as in the 1970’s and 1980’s nearly half of the population (precise figures are unknown) moved from Suriname to the Netherlands as decolonization and independence caused uncertainty regarding the future of the small nation. Precise figures are unknown but estimates are that the Hindoestanen currently make up between 0.8 and 1% of the population of the Netherlands. Sarnámi is still actively spoken in many Surinamese households in the Netherlands, though the language faces an uphill battle against higher prestige languages as Dutch and Hindi.