LINGUIST List 24.3284

Fri Aug 16 2013

Review: Language Documentation; Saramaccan: McWhorter & Good (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 20-Jul-2013
From: Anne-Sophie Bally <>
Subject: A Grammar of Saramaccan Creole
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: John H McWhorterAUTHOR: Jeff GoodTITLE: A Grammar of Saramaccan CreoleSERIES TITLE: Mouton Grammar Library [MGL] 56PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Anne-Sophie Bally, Université du Québec à Montréal


This book belongs to the ‘Mouton Grammar Library’ series and presents adescription of Saramaccan Creole. This Creole language is mainly spoken inSuriname, where it was created during the seventeenth-century. Its genesis isthe result of contact between West African language speakers and English andPortuguese speakers. Dutch contributed to a lesser extent to the Saramaccanlexicon. The present work is a synchronic grammar, thus, questions aboutSaramaccan creation are left aside. It addresses a broad audience: alllinguists and not just creolists should find the data interesting, especiallythose interested in prosodic phonology, verb serialization, tense, mood andaspect (TMA) systems or adjectives. It assembles over a thousand examples,which is a large corpus reflecting substantial fieldwork, and as such, is atruly valuable linguistic tool. Among the examples, we find ungrammaticalsentences; this is noteworthy since ungrammatical sentences accompanyinggrammatical sentences allow linguists to know, for instance, if an item has aspecific syntactic position or not, or if certain items cannot appeartogether.

The book contains 17 chapters which cover mainly topics inphonetics/phonology, morphology and syntax. Half of these chapters containless than ten pages. The focus is on phonetics and phonology, verbcharacteristics and sentence structures.

Chapters 1 and 2 deal with phonology: the first chapter is about segmentalphonology, whereas the second one is about prosodic phonology. Chapter 1begins with an inventory of the consonants and vowels found in Saramaccan.Among these consonants, it is worth noting that Saramaccan has a series ofprenasalized stops. As for the vowels, Saramaccan makes a distinction betweenlong and short forms and has a large set of vowel combinations (i.e. thepossibility of having two vowels in a row). Interestingly enough, the authorsdo not label them as “diphthongs” since there is a lack of evidence for such astatement. Following this description of segmental inventory, we learn thatSaramaccan only permits vowel (V) and consonant + vowel (CV) syllablestructure (and maybe an exceptional shape, CVm, with a coda m).

Chapter 2 (about prosodic phonology) is divided in two main sections:word-level phonology and phrasal prosody. One of the main points the authorstalk about is a process they call “high-tone plateauing”, which consists ofhigh-tone spreading and occurs in specific environments like compounds orsubject-verb (when the verb is preceded by a verbal particle) syntacticenvironments. They also describe how complex this process is when the sentencestructure involves a serial verb construction (SVC).

The third chapter presents the extremely simple morphology of Saramaccan, inaddition to all the morphophonemic changes that occur in this language (mostlywith pronouns, when they appear after particular prepositions and a small setof verbs). The main derivational process in this language is reduplication,which can be total or partial. This process is productive and has differentfunctions, depending on the grammatical category of the reduplicated word. Forexample, a reduplicated dynamic transitive verb receives a resultativeinterpretation and is used as an adjective. Reduplication also occurs toconvey an intensified meaning (mainly with adjectives) or to express a highnumber of entities (for the most part, with nouns). A compounding mechanism(which is most of the time right-headed) is described briefly at the end ofthe chapter.

Chapter 4 is about the noun phrase (NP) and the items within it (i.e.determiners and items expressing demonstration and possession, relativeclauses and quantifiers). Section 4.4 presents relative clauses according toan accessibility hierarchy, underlining the fact that subjects, objects andindirect objects are relativized easily, but that a resumptive pronoun isrequired to form relative clauses from obliques. In addition, it isparticularly difficult and unnatural to formulate relative clauses frompossessors. Within this chapter, a brief section is dedicated to nouncoordination, which is indicated with markers that only appear inside the NPstructure.

Chapter 5 briefly discusses personal pronouns. A table compiles the tonic,subject and oblique forms. The authors analyze two pronouns as having cliticstatus because of the morphophonemic changes that happen to them in specificenvironments. The ways of expressing reflexivity and reciprocity are describedat the end of the chapter.

Chapter 6 deals with adjectives (also called “property items”), which are usedeither predicatively or attributively in this language. There are manyarguments in favor of these items acting as predicates. When used aspredicates, adjectives can be preceded by TMA markers. They also are subjectto predicate cleft and can occur in serial verb constructions. Adjectivesdescribing a property can undergo reduplication, which generally yields acounterexpectational meaning. Then, a section of this chapter presents anotherkind of reduplicational phenomenon already mentioned in Chapter 3: dynamicverbs reduplicating to get resultative adjectives. Finally, Chapter 6 endswith a section about comparative constructions and a short paragraph aboutcolor terms.

Chapter 7 groups together all the grammatical items appearing before the verb,especially the negation marker and preverbal TMA particles (i.e. bi and ó,which are tense markers indicating, respectively, past and future, and tá andló, which are imperfective and habitual aspect markers, respectively). Otheritems or constructions used to express aspect, like durative, completive andcontinuative aspects, but which are not preverbal TMA particles, are presentedin Sections 7.3.5 to 7.3.8. Modality is mostly rendered through the verbs músu(‘must’) and sá (‘can’). Musú appears as a deontic marker, but also as anepistemic marker expressing probability. Sá is only an epistemic markerindicating ability and possibility. Chapter 7 concludes with a sectionpresenting the order of occurrence of these markers in sentences.

Chapter 8 describes verb serialization, a distinguishing feature of thelanguage. In the first section, syntactic tests confirming the existence ofverb serialization are presented. Then, a classification of serial semanticsis listed. This kind of constructions is frequently used to expressdirectional meanings, where the second verb in the series indicates thedirection (e.g. ‘back’, ‘around’, ‘out’, etc.) of one of the verb arguments.The following section enumerates serial verb constructions which are already,or on the edge of, being grammaticalized. Thus, the verb dá (‘give’) in a SVCis nowadays more like a dative and benefactive marker, and the verb táa(‘say’) is better analyzed as a complementizer following verbs of utterance orverbs of cognition. In the next section, it is shown that some verbs are notgrammaticalized, but rather undergo a change of meaning when they appear in aSVC. For example, the verb léi means ‘to show’, but when it occurs as thesecond verb in a SVC, it means ‘to show how to’.

Coordination and subordination are described in Chapter 9. Saramaccan does nothave a coordinating conjunction equivalent to ‘and’ in English. Instead,Saramaccan uses several strategies, like SVCs, to indicate a sequence ofevents or sequential markers comparable to English’s ‘then’ or ‘and now’.However, Saramaccan has two conjunctions indicating disjunction and exclusion. The second section deals with subordination and is divided between finiteand nonfinite complementation. Different strategies to form complex sentencesin Saramaccan are presented. The formation of adverbial complement clausesgenerally implies the use of a complementizer, but also the use of temporaland locational markers. Note that this chapter gathers types of complexclauses with different meanings; for example, we learn strategies to getfactive or conditional clauses, most of which occur within complements and arefurther described in other chapters on grammar. Suitably, the authors providethe reader with helpful references to other sections.

Passive and imperative sentences are introduced in Chapter 10.Strictlyspeaking, there is no passive voice in Saramaccan. However, it is possible toexpress passive meaning in restricted contexts with the help of the verbs dá(‘give’) or kó (‘come’) occurring in SVCs. The second section presents a listof four verbs that allow for double-object construction (i.e. that areditransitive), and a list of verbs expressing causativity. Chapter 10 closeswith imperative constructions, which simply require the use of a bare verb.

Chapter 11 explains question formation, i.e., open-ended and closed-endedquestions and indirect questions. Within the section about open-endedquestions, we find a number of examples illustrating the inventory ofSaramaccan wh-words. We also learn that preposition stranding does not existin Saramaccan, and thus, prepositions are fronted in question formation.

The properties of the two BE-verbs dε and da are presented in Chapter 12,which shows how their distribution differs: dε is almost a true BE-verb,expressing locative, class equative and existential meanings, while da is apresentative and equative item that lacks genuine verbal behaviour. Finally,the authors include a section that sums up the few contexts where copula canbe omitted.

In Chapter 13, we learn how time and space are expressed with the help ofnouns, adverbs and verbs. Since Saramaccan has a set limited to threeprepositions, it uses spatial indicators that occur after located nouns toexpress spatial conceptualizations like ‘under’, ‘behind’ or ‘inside’. Thesespatial indicators seem to be nouns. In addition to these items, Saramaccanuses a three-level distinction to express proximity, with the help of deicticadverbials meaning ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘yonder’. A section then summarizes howverbs like púu (‘to pull’), túwε (‘to throw’) or kó (‘to come’) play a role inthe expression of direction, essentially in SVCs.

This leads the authors to talk about adverbial modification in Chapter 14. Itis worth noting that there are ideophones in Saramaccan; some of them arepresented in this chapter. This chapter is more like a corpus that bringstogether sentences containing intensifiers, time adverbials, adverbs ofquantity and adverbs of frequency. The authors note that the adverb positionis generally clause initial or clause final.

Chapter 15 deals with pragmatics, showing which markers or strategies are usedto highlight important or new information in discourse. The authors recallthat Saramaccan is primarily an oral language. Thus, topic-commentconstructions are more frequent than subject-predicate ones. The first sectionexplains how to put contrastive focus on a verb, on its arguments or onadjuncts. It is worth noting that Saramaccan shares the contrastive focusmarker wε with Fongbe, which was one of the most influential substratelanguages at the time of Saramaccan genesis. As for presenting newinformation, Saramaccan has two markers (nearly equivalent to the English‘then’) that characterize a non-past and a past sequence of events. At the endof the chapter, six pragmatic-marking adverbs are listed; they provide thehearer with information about what the speaker thinks of a proposition.

Chapter 16 deals with the lexicon; it identifies a small set of cardinalnumbers and describes all the basic vocabulary expressing time on the clockand the calendar (days and months).

Finally, Chapter 17 briefly explains that there is recognized dialectalvariation between two regions in Suriname. There is also a less documentedfree variation phenomenon awaiting further research.

The book closes with a 100-word list, a folktale transcription and aconversational passage, plus a three-and-a-half-page reference list (which Iwill discuss in my evaluation).


This book is a great starting point for anybody who would like to be familiarwith Saramaccan Creole. The fact that the grammar is theoretically neutral andsynchronic is welcome; because of its particularly fast and isolated genesis,scholars working on this language usually track the origin of functionalcategories or specific syntactic constructions. Here, the authors present thelanguage as it is now spoken, without comparing it with its contributinglanguages.

The first part of my evaluation will raise some general issues about editorialchoices made by the authors. More specific points I am familiar with will beevaluated in the second part.

My first editorial criticism of this book is that the authors too oftendescribe Saramaccan in parallel with English, which is one of the superstratelanguages. For example, they observe that “[t]he Saramaccan consonant l has acomparable realization to English l” (p. 12) or that “[t]he basic constituentorder of the Saramaccan noun phrase is that of English: determiner//quantifier – adjective – noun, with relative clauses occurring postnominally”(p. 76). It is not clear to me why the authors compare Saramaccan withEnglish. Is it because of the contribution of English to the formation ofSaramaccan? Or is there a pedagogical aim (because of the international statusof English) to provide the reader with a better level of comprehension of thelinguistic data? This should have been made clear at the beginning of thebook.

The second problem is related to the selected methodology for data collection.In the introduction, the authors recognize that “this grammar is founded upona deficiency: almost all of the corpus was collected from emigrants inAmsterdam, the Bay Area of California and New York City” (p. xvi). Thus, thecorpus constructed during the authors’ fieldwork does not reflect the grammarof Saramaccan people, but rather the grammar of a handful of informants whohave not lived in Suriname for many years. Although I know that the authorsworked with trustworthy informants -- I have myself worked with some of them-- a grammar of a given language should mainly contain data produced in theplace where it is spoken. This provides a reliable source not only forsynchronic, but also diachronic variation, especially for scholars who wouldwant to retrace the origin of specific items.

Moreover, a large part of the corpus presented in the book duplicates datathat had been previously elicited by scholars in Suriname with differentinformants. This brings me to the bibliographical choices. A reallyquestionable aspect of this book is its bibliography and, more generally, theway it deals with references. Saramaccan is one of the most documented Creolelanguages, and there are far more references available than the ones presentedat the end of the book, in three and a half pages. But in his introduction,McWhorter acknowledges that “a number of academic scholars have specialized inSaramaccan to varying extent” (p. xv). He then cites 13 scholars who havecontributed to the study of this language. However, when we consult thebibliography, we realize that five of the cited authors do not appear in thebibliography, including McWhorter himself. Since the book is addressed tolinguists who want to know more about this language, it would have been goodto present an extensive bibliography, even if the contents of referencedarticles or books are not theoretically neutral. For example, we would haveexpected to find references to Lefebvre and Loranger (2006, 2008) and Aboh(2006) in the complementizer chapter, considering their extensive work on thismatter. As I said above, books of the Mouton Grammar Library collection are agreat starting point, but they should also let linguists extend theirknowledge about research that has been done on a specific matter. A sectioncontaining an exhaustive bibliography at the end of each chapter would havebeen really welcome.

My last comment about the book’s organization concerns the way chapters aregrouped together. A logical order would have been to introduce functionalitems and the way they combine to form phrases, followed by information aboutsentence structures. Instead, we find an eclectic organization of chapters.Adverbs are presented at the end of the book, seven chapters after the oneabout the verb, despite the fact that the verb chapter contains informationabout negatives and tense particles, which could arguably be analysed asadverbs.

I now turn to the evaluation of more specific points. First, I would like toaddress the quality of Chapters 1 and 2, depicting Saramaccan phonology. Thisawaited survey was a gap to fill in the Saramaccan literature. These chapterscontain not only a good description of phonological specificities, but also areliable analysis. Based on this analysis, morphosyntactic phenomena (Chapter3) and SVCs (Chapter 8) receive a more powerful explanation when seen from thestandpoint of plateauing effects. It is regrettable, however, that the authorschose to present prosodic phonology phenomena from the sole perspective oftonal plateauing. This clear-cut theoretical choice hardly appears “theoryneutral” and seems inconsistent with the objectivity claimed by the book.There is no mention of other explanations, such as the ones proposed in Kramer(2001), which qualify these prosodic phenomena as “tone sandhi”, and later, inKramer (2004), as “high-tone spreading”.

My second comment bears on the way items are classified. The grouping of itemscannot be atheoretical; putting a word in one category rather than anotherentails a theoretical choice. Sometimes the authors decide to put an item in acategory without justifying their choice, while in other cases they seem toput an item in two different categories. For example, there is a debate amongcreolists about the future marker ó. For some (e.g. Van de Vate, 2011), it isa mood marker, whereas here, it is presented as a tense marker, without anyexplanation or demonstration of why it clearly belongs to this category. Ahesitant portrait is drawn with the complementizer táa, which is presented asan item occurring “in serial conjunction with verbs of utterance and cognitionto serve as a complementizer” (p. 143). It is unclear to me, as a naïvelinguist, whether this item is a verb in a series or a complementizer; theauthors choose to put it in the verb serialization chapter, but classify it asa complementizer. Yet, the following chapter deals with complementation, andagain, they speak of “factive sentential complements formed with the serialverb and complementizer táa” (p. 152). In the absence of evidence for the itembelonging to one part of speech rather than another, the authors should havepresented more clearly the existing debate about categorization in Saramaccan.

Third, I would like to talk about the content of Chapter 7. The description oftense and aspect interaction with verbs, according to Aktionsart (or aspectualclasses of verbs), is incomplete; the authors consider only the distinctionbetween stative and dynamic verbs as having to be taken into account. However,the division of dynamic verbs in three categories proposed by Vendler (1967)is quite relevant, as has been shown in Bally (2004, 2011) and in Van de Vate(2011). The interaction between TMA markers and aspectual classes of verbs ismore complex than what the authors describe.

Finally, I will underline the fact that in many chapters, the information isvalid and reliable, but incomplete. For instance, in Section 4.4, aboutrelative clauses, the authors say that dí is the relativizer used when theantecedent is singular, and déé is the one used when the antecedent is plural.This is true, but insufficient, since dí can also serve as a relativizer witha plural antecedent (Bally, 2011). In Section 4.1, about determiners, thenumber description is not precise enough. According to the authors, bare nounsare possible in Saramaccan “when the noun is non-referential (refers to noreal-world entity)” (p. 76). This is incongruous with their example (6),reproduced here:

(6) I bi bisí hε̃́pi. 2S PAST wear shirt ‘You put on a shirt.’ (as advice or description of a generic event)

In this example, it is not descriptively adequate to say that there is noreal-world entity corresponding to the shirt. In fact, it is the identity ofthe shirt that is unknown, but its existence is real. It has been shown inBally (2009, 2011) that bare nouns in Saramaccan are used in many contexts;they appear with non-count and countable nouns. With countable nouns, theyexpress Generic, Kind or Existential readings. This is due to the fact thatSaramaccan has General Number (as presented in Corbetts, 2000, typology). Itallows NPs to not obligatorily contain a determiner. When a determiner occurs,this is because the referent is accessible to all participants. This isslightly different from the authors’ description of the NP structure.

Thus, my overall evaluation of this grammar is that it is a great startingpoint for linguists who want to know more about Saramaka, especially those whowould like to have a global portrait of the complex tonal system and the wayhigh-tone plateauing/spreading occurs in definite environments. The bookcontains a large and reliable corpus, however, one should be aware of the lackof references; this grammar does not acknowledge the abundant existingresearch on this language. The reader should not see this grammar as anaccurate reflection of the totality of existing research about Saramaccan, butrather as a good, yet non-exhaustive portrait of this language.


Aboh, E. O. (2006). Complementation in Saramaccan and Gungbe: The Case ofC-type Particles. “Natural Language and Linguistic Theory”, 24, 1-55.

Bally, A.-S. (2004). “L'interprétation aspectuo-temporelle des énoncés ensaramaccan.” (Unpublished master's thesis). Université du Québec à Montréal,Montréal, Québec, Canada.

Bally, A.-S. (2009, January). “Definiteness and Number in Saramaka.” Paperpresented at the scientific meeting of the 83rd Annual Meeting of theLinguistic Society of America, San Francisco, CA.

Bally, A.-S. (2011). “Structure nominale et expression du temps, du mode et del'aspect en saramaka : analyse synchronique et diachronique.” (Doctoraldissertation, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2011). Retrieved from

Corbett, G. (2000). “Number”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kramer, M. G. (2002). Substrate transfer in Saramaccan Creole. (Doctoraldissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2002).

Kramer, M. G. (2004).High tone spread in Saramaccan serial verb constructions.“Journal of Portuguese Linguistics.” 3(2), 31-53.

Lefebvre, C., & Loranger, V. (2006). On the properties of Saramaccan fu.“Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages,” 21(2), 275-335.

Lefebvre, C., & Loranger, V. (2008). A Diachronic and Synchronic Account ofthe Multifunctionality of Saramaccan táa. “Linguistics”, 46(6), 1167–1228.

Van de Vate, M. (2011). “Tense, Aspect and Modality in a Radical Creole: TheCase of Saamaka.” (Doctoral dissertation, University of Tromso, 2011).Retrieved from

Vendler, Z. (1967). “Linguistics in Philosophy”. Ithaca: N.Y. CornellUniversity Press .


Anne-Sophie Bally is a lecturer at Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal,and Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada. Shewrote her thesis about the nominal and the verbal structures in Saramaccan andtheir genesis, from a neo-saussurean perspective. Her interests lie insemantics and syntax, but also in sociolinguistics and languages in contactprocesses.

Page Updated: 16-Aug-2013