Linguistic time capsule in South America sheds light on human migration

Tiny Suriname, the smallest country in South America, punches far above its weight in linguistic diversity. Many people speak Dutch, but if you visit, you’re also likely to hear Hindi, Javanese, a variety of indigenous languages, Portuguese, Cantonese, and possibly others. This real-world Babel, in a country of fewer than 600,000 people, is a relic of Suriname’s colonial history.

The language that enables everyone to communicate is Sranan. It’s a creole that serves as a linguistic time capsule, capturing Suriname’s brief tenure as a British colony before the territory was ceded to the Dutch in 1667. This time capsule status has allowed a group of researchers to use Sranan to reconstruct details about migration to the colony from England in the 1600s. Their results show how cultural artifacts could be used to trace human migration—and might one day help researchers trace the origins of enslaved people.

A living linguistic fossil

Creole languages arise in relatively extreme situations, when different groups of people find themselves in prolonged contact without a shared language—like in a young colony. People use bits of different languages to try to communicate, and over generations, these halting “pidgin” languages become fully fledged natural human languages: creoles.

Like many famous creoles, including its close relative Gullah, Sranan is English-based, meaning that the bulk of its vocabulary comes from English. It also has words that can be traced to Dutch and Portuguese and a tiny percentage that can be traced to African languages.

Both English and Sranan have changed markedly since the 17th century. But in one important way, Sranan is a “linguistic fossil,” said Nicole Creanza, one of the researchers involved in the Sranan study. In a phone call with Ars, she explained there was a “pulse of English influence” before the Dutch took over and most of the English speakers left. As a result, the English that influenced Sranan captures a very brief point in linguistic time.

Read more: Ars Technica

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