Category Archives: Suriname

Tiki-Tiki Has 250 Words?

Repost from the old site.

Forget it.

Via Marilyn Vos Savant in Parade Magazine, we are told that Tiki-Tiki, otherwise known as Sranan Togo, a creole with 100,000 native speakers and many more second languages speakers on Suriname, has the smallest vocabulary of any known language – with only 250 words. This claim is credulously repeated elsewhere on the Net.

It is true that Internet dictionaries of Tiki-Tiki do show few words, possibly as few as several hundred. The SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) page says that Sranan Togo has maybe 3,000-4,000 words, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of words for major world languages (Vos Savant notes that English has the largest vocabulary at 250,000).

Many of those English words are neologisms, that is, new words that are being created on the fly, especially on places like the Internet. I actually think that English has more than 250,000 words, but I can’t prove it. As slang and whatnot proliferates in a widely spoken language, it gets pretty darn hard to count up all the words, much less write them all down.

There are other ways to create words, so it is not really so true to say that certain languages have low vocabularies. For instance, many languages spoken by small tribes have an almost endless productive variety of features for word production. In some (or perhaps many) such languages, roots can be manipulated almost endlessly to create new words to describe just about anything.

Nouns can turn into adjectives, adverbs and verbs and verbs can turn into nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Adding morphological particles onto existing roots creates a process whereby one root could possibly create up to 1000 or so new words if one is creative enough.

This potential is lost in much of the nonsense about “primitive” versus “advanced” languages, a distinction that hardly exists anyway. The truth is that the most insanely maddening languages on Earth, languages so crazy that brilliant linguists are still trying to figure them out, are spoken in general by the world’s most primitive and backwards peoples.

As a language gets bigger and used more by a civilization, it gets stupidified more and more as it loses its complexity. The reason is that people need to be on time and earn a paycheck. They need to say things quickly, make the sale or hang up the cellphone, and get to work on time.

In a more primitive situation, people are hunter-gatherers or they are laid-back agriculturalists who just take it easy and tend their fields all day. Despite blatherings of IQ theorists, even primitive humans are highly intelligent beings. We can prove this by looking at the insanely brilliant languages they have constructed all by their own selves.

We think that people get bored in these primitive settings, as their high intellect is not stimulated enough. One of the things these tribes do to stimulate their high intelligence is to play games with languages. This is why you such wildly complicated languages in such places. Much of this complexity is superfluous (noun markers, case endings, etc.) and can easily be jettisoned if one wishes to become a multitasking metrosexual.

Anyway, I did some quick research on Sranan Togo and found this paper. Creoles are intensively studied by linguists for a variety of reasons. As part of this paper, the authors used a German-language dictionary of Early Sranan Togo, Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch , completed in 1783 by Christian Ludwig Schumann. This dictionary contains 2,391 types and 17,731 tokens.

Types and tokens are often used in creole literature because it gets hard to figure out what exactly is a word in a creole language. Types and tokens is a semantic distinction derived from philosophy. Briefly, a type is a generic and a token is a specific instance of that generic. For instance, tree would be a type and maple tree would be a token. Waterfall would be a type and Vernal Falls would be a token. Man would be a type and Jesus would be a token.

So in 1783, an early version of this creole already had 20,122 words. It must only have increased its vocabulary since then. I’m calling bullshit on this 250 words line.

A creole is different from a pidgin. A pidgin is often created by immigrants to a new country where none of them understand each other.

Early immigrants to Hawaii created some pidgins. Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Koreans, etc. were all thrown together on sugar and pineapple plantations and no one could understand each other. English was the main language. The immigrants took English, I believe, and then layered onto it parts of their native languages and finally created a pidgin that they could all understand.

A pidgin is a mess, since it is a language made by adults, and due to brain constraints, adults cannot create a functional language out of thin air on the fly. The pidgin is then spoken to the adults’ kids, who pick it up as a first language. But kids are little language-creating genius machines, and they somehow take this messed-up pidgin and transform into a full-fledged language, a creole, by expanding it in a variety of important ways.

The creole is then transmitted to kids again, and soon the pidgin dies and everyone is speaking creole. It took some time for us to figure out what was really going on here, but we are pretty confident that kids are indeed expanding the pidgin and turning it into a creole. A guy named Derek Bickerton at the University of Hawaii has done some great work in this area.

I actually bought and tried to read Bickerton’s Language and Species, but I only got 40% of the way through it. Some of this stuff gets pretty intense. I don’t want to say ponderous, but pretty soon you have the book down on the desk and both of your hands are wrapped over your head Praying Mantis-like, bent down over the book, as you try to suck the concepts into your humiliated mind.

In Suriname, actually formerly Dutch Guyana, Sranan Togo is the mother tongue of some 100,000 descendants of former slaves brought to the country. It has also become a lingua franca for other ethnicities in the place, including speakers of Hindustani, Amerindian, Javanese, Dutch, and Chinese tongues.

Like all of the Guyanas, there is quite a fine mess of ethnicities in Suriname, and I think they have been breeding together for a while such that race is becoming a bit of an afterthought.

As another aside, although Vos Savant, in addition to being a hottie, is quite brilliant and is even smarter than I am, it is not true that she has the highest IQ on Earth, or that her IQ is 220 or whatever. She got that score at age 10 or so. There are others who have gotten sky high scores at that age.

At a young age, IQ is computed by looking at how the young person’s mind compares to older peoples minds. In adults, we do not compute it that way, and adult scores are never as high as the same kids’ score. In Vos Savant and other extremely high-IQ kids, their IQ’s have seen considerable regression in adulthood, but they are still sky-high.

Glad to see she’s getting a paycheck just by being smart. Wish I could.


Braun, Maria and Plag, Ingo. (2002). How Transparent is Creole Morphology? A Study of Early Sranan Word-Formation. University of Siegen, Germany. Yearbook of Morphology 2002. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Schumann, Christian Ludwig. (1783). Neger-Englisches Wörterbuch. Editio Tertia. Paramaribo.


Filed under Americas, Descriptive, English language, Intelligence, Language Families, Latin America, Linguistics, Psychology, Reposts From The Old Site, Semantics, South America, Suriname, Tiki-Tiki

Linguistic Map of Latin America

Map of the major languages of Latin America

This is an interesting map, though on first thought it seems unnecessary.

First of all, it makes quite clear how Brazil stands out as the Portuguese speaking state in Latin America. One could argue that this makes them odd man out, but if we look in terms of population, Latin America has a population of 570 million. 192 million of those are Brazilians. So 34%, or fully 1/3, of Latin Americans speak Portuguese. So what at first looks like Brazil’s linguistic isolation may not be so isolating as it appears.

All the Spanish-speaking countries can communicate well with each other, and there is a “neutral Spanish” that any educated person can use when conversing with any other educated person from Hispanophone Latin America. As long as you are doing this, you will both be understood.

Getting down to regional dialects, things do get complicated. I understand that Chilean soap operas, spoken in the rich dialect of the Chilean street, are dubbed in the rest of South America because other South Americans can’t understand Chilean street Spanish. But they are  probably well understood in Argentina. There does seem to be a “Southern Cone Street Spanish” that is harder to pick up as the latitudes move northward.

Bolivian Spanish sounds strange, but it’s probably intelligible in South America. It heavily inflected with Indian languages.

There is a general Caribbean Spanish that can be hard to understand.

The language of the Colombian Caribbean coast can be hard for even other Colombians to understand.

Dominican Spanish is notorious for being hard to understand. First of all, it seems to be based on Canarian Spanish of the Canary Islands, which is a very strange form of Spanish. Into this base went a ton of African words, much more than in the rest of Latin America. Further, it is spoken very fast. Dominican Spanish is pretty baffling to other Spanish speakers, at least for a while. Nevertheless, there is a more neutral form of Dominican Spanish that is widely intelligible to other Hispanophones.

On the streets of Mexico City, a very hardcore slang has emerged, sort of a Mexico City Street Spanish, that is pretty hard to figure out outside of Mexico.

Latin America is interesting in that the rest of the world seems to be learning “English as the universal language,” while Latin America is lagging behind.

I know quite a few educated Latin Americans who barely speak a lick of English. Latin Americans live not so much  in the society of the Western Hemisphere, but more particularly in the society of Latin America. And Latin America is extremely Hispanophone. Everywhere you go, most everyone speaks Spanish. Spanish is a very highly developed modern language with words for everything. Why bother to learn English? What for? To talk to gringos?

However, at advanced university levels, such as Master’s Degree and particularly doctorate level, increasingly there are requirements to learn English.

One would think that Mexicans at least would be required to take some English in school, right? Forget it. First of all, Mexican schools are crap, and they are broke. The elite and upper middle class steal all the money in the country, and the Libertarian/Republican dream minimal state/free market economy hosts horribly defunded and decrepit schools. It’s not uncommon to meet 20 year old Mexicans who dropped out in the 2nd grade.

English is typically not offered in Mexican public schools. It’s only offered in private schools, which is of course where the moneyed class above sends their kids, which is why they won’t pay for public schools (They don’t use ’em), which is why the public schools are crap. I’m sure many more non-Hispanic Americans in the US are taking Spanish than Latin Americans are studying English.

Hispanophones also often do not bother to learn Portuguese. Some of the educated ones claim they can understand it without studying it, but I doubt it.

A lot of Brazilians say they can understand Spanish pretty well (I think they study Spanish more than Hispanophone Latins study Portuguese), but when you start talking to them in Spanish (which I do on a regular basis) it doesn’t seem to work very well. Want to talk to a Brazilian? Learn Portuguese!

As we can see on the map, both French Guyana and Haiti speak French.

I was talking about Haiti with my liberal Democrat Mom once. The general conversation was along the lines that Haiti was all screwed up. She said, “Well, they’re all Black, they’re dirt poor, and worst of all, they’re in the Western Hemisphere, but they all speak French!” Indeed. What do these funny Frencophones think they’re doing in our Anglophone, Hispanophone and Lusophone Hemisphere anyway?

Further, the language of Haiti is not really intelligible to French speakers. It makes about as much sense as hardcore Jamaican English does to us. However, the Haitian elite often speaks good French. They also say they understand Spanish, but I’ve tried to talk to them in Spanish, and it didn’t go anywhere. Often they don’t understand much English either. Want to talk a member of the Haitian upper class? Learn French!

So the Haitians are rather isolated in this Hemisphere, but I’m not sure if your average dirt poor Haitian cares. I suppose they could always talk to the Quebecois, but no one understands Quebecois either.

French Guyana is also a French speaking country. It’s still a colony, and it has a very nice standard of living. Nowadays, colonies don’t even want to go free anymore, as it means a standard of living crash.

As you can see, British Honduras speaks English. There are some other English speaking islands in the Caribbean and some French speaking islands too, but none are marked on the map.

Dutch has pretty much died out in the Western Hemisphere, but it used to be spoken widely in Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean.

The main language of Guyana is probably some English creole, but it’s not shown on the map.

Indian languages are still very widely spoken in Peru (Quechua), Bolivia (Aymara) and Paraguay (Guarani).


Filed under Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Caribbean, Central America, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, English language, French, Geography, Haiti, Indo-European, Latin America, Linguistics, Maps, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Portuguese, Quebec, Regional, Romance, South America, Spanish, Suriname