Why Sarnámi?

Why Sarnami?

For me, Sarnámi means home. It’s the language that pervaded my childhood.
Sarnámi is the language in which my parents talked to each other, in which my mom sung songs for me and in which my grandparents, aunts and uncles spoke.

Sarnámi is the sound and melody of the memories of my beloved relatives that are no longer with us. Many of them could only speak Sarnámi.
There is a pretty well known aphorism, “you don’t know what you have got until its gone”, and that is how I feel about Sarnámi.

“Speak Dutch to your kids”, everyone said. “It will increase their chances of having a good start in education.”

“We speak it amongst ourselves, but it’s not really a language; it doesn’t have grammar.”

“Go to Hindi lessons, to learn more about your culture.”

There was a dual tension with Sarnámi: It is not the medium of education, nor a marker of success.

In Suriname, if pupils speak Sarnámi at school, they would get admonished by their teachers.

In the Netherlands, somehow kids who spoke Dutch to their Sarnámi speaking parents were often made fun of for pronouncing Sarnámi words in a different way, further demovating kids to speak.

And that is how slow and gradual process of decline began.

Once, I had the opportunity to speak to a scholar on Caribbean Hindustani and my enthousiasm for the language was met with a sneer that the language had its time and place and that it deserved to
die, that people have moved on to newer (and better) things.

Next to my shock and disappointment when hearing this come from one of the most knowledgeable individuals about the language, I realized that I simply do not ascribe nor agree with this view.
I believe that language has a certain influence on thought and perception. For me, a language is a window through which you see the world. Often used examples are that certain Inuit languages have
12 different words for snow, or that Russian-speakers can better distinguish between shades of blue than a native English speaker just having more precise words for the color blue.

Well, Sarnámi speakers can make a quicker differentiation between the different states of rice versus a Dutch speaker and they have very specific words for different relatives (versus just ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’).

To me, Sarnámi is an ingredient: it colors my world and adds different flavors to it. And I think that is a beautiful thing.

To me, Sarnámi is a window into a world passed and memories gone by.

To me, Sarnámi is festive; the soundtrack of a party or a family gathering

To me, Sarnámi is evidence of stubborn perseverance and an ability to adapt to world that has
radically changed.

To me, Sarnámi is my companion. A champion that is always with me and reminds to appreciate all the emotions that life can throw at me.

A scholar that conducted one of the most extensive studies on Caribbean Hindustani, wrote in their dissertation that a language has L1 speakers: native speakers and L2 speakers, who could be
proficient in their language but merely imitate what they have learnt. There is no true innovation or dynamism in their spoken language. Which actually means that the language already started to die
out. A slow and gradual process of language attrition seeps in, until L4 speakers only have a faint recollection words, but are not able to string sentences together anymore.

Languages do not die with a big bang, they die with a whimper.

And all of these snippets of thoughts, bring me to the question: Why Sarnámi?

Because the process of language attrition has already started and will be quicker to replace the language than any of us might expect. Languages live and die, just like their speakers and the linguist
could be right; maybe it is time to stand aside and let time run its course.
Yet, I believe that there are plenty of people out there that appreciate the Sarnámi language. People that are proud to speak Sarnámi. They don’t make it a point to speak Sarnámi; they just do.

Because that’s what they are comfortable in. This is the paradoxically silent backbone of the language community that keeps the language alive. Sarnámi however, does not have much scale or status. Many of us appreciate the language as part of our heritage or history. But I do believe that there is still an opportunity to display dynamism and innovation in Sarnámi. This has happened in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where there was a literary awakening of some sorts and in this globalized world, with many tools and broader audiences at our disposal, there might be renewed initiative in the language.
There is no illusion that all of sudden, people would start to adopt Sarnámi en masse and a mono-lingual next generation will sprout. And that is not necessary. There many examples of minority languages co-existing with official languages, whilst the former are being ‘futureproofed’. The number of monolingual speakers might be low compared to the overall population size, but the
language endure and try to reinvent themselves. Predominant examples of these in mind are Frysian in the Netherlands and Germany, the Irish language in Ireland and Finnish-Swedish, which enjoys the status of second official language in Finland, in spite of being spoken natively by approximately 5% of the population.

In terms of numbers, there are arguably more daily speakers of Sarnámi in Europe than there are daily speakers of Irish and Scottish. Therefore, there still is hope. But…there is a level of innovation needed that has the potential to take language beyond that of relic or heritage. Unfortunately, this is a question that has kept me busy for years and I do not know the answer.

As a starting point, I looked at the most translated works in existence:

  • The Bible (translated to Sarnámi by SIL, link can be found: here)
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • The Little Prince

Universal Declaration of Human Rights – In 2013, my father and I worked together to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Sarnámi. As the first formal text in Sarnámi, it can be
found here:
The reason for wanting to translate such a text in Sarnámi is to demonstrate that the text can be used to express rights and higher-level concepts and that it is not necessary to default to Dutch or
Hindi to do this.

Imlie-Browser – In 2015, the Imlie browser was created. An Android search engine app, for which was in Sarnámi and could be used for browsing and searching. The app was an exercise in fun, to see if there were certain new expressions for functions could be formed with existing Sarnámi words. Words for ‘back’, ‘forward’ and ‘search’ could be used, but a word for ‘password’ had to be thought of. The terms used might be a bit distant from a spoken language but could be instantly recognizable
as Sarnámi. Added to that, the Imlie Browser is an open source project, which means that anyone could access the project and translate the text (‘strings’) to improve on the thought of translations
(Git hub: link).

Operation: Cyber Chiraai – In order to create some sort of online presence in Sarnámi, I also tried to keep a twitter feed running, called: Sarnámi Hai, but unfortunately due to time constraints, I have not been able to keep this up.

The Little Prince is a beautiful and classical story. It also is the story that has been translated in the
most number of languages. We have completed a translation of the Little Prince in Sarnámi and are
hoping to get it published soon. Please see the ‘Little Prince’ section for more details.