‘Een schip vol woorden’ exhibition on display in Utrecht University Library

Promobeeld tentoonstelling Een schip vol woorden

From September, the Taalmuseum’s exhibition ‘Een schip vol woorden’ (‘A Ship Full of Words’) will be on display at the Utrecht University Library. This travelling exhibition chronicles history through the lens of Sranantongo, Suriname’s most commonly spoken language.

Historical link with Africa revealed

The exhibition ‘Een schip vol woorden’ is one of the results of the collaboration between linguist Margot van den Berg, Taalmuseum director Fresco Sam-Sin, and researchers Jeroen van Ravenhorst and Hermine Haman. In their research project of the same name, they make the historical connection of Afro-Surinamese with Africa intelligible on the basis of individual word histories. For this project, they were awarded the LOT Popularisation Prize in February.

Languages contain a great deal of information about their speakers: for instance, what did they consider important and with whom did they come into contact? This information can be found in the language structure, but it is particularly visible in the vocabulary, as words are adopted and passed on. So words tell us a lot about the history of the places at which they land. 

Words have been travelling as long as people have been able to speak: from mouth to mouth, from a to b. Migrations due to disasters, conflict, and slavery have caused languages to collide and die, but also to mix and emerge. Follow the words and history unfolds, as does the colonial history of the Netherlands. This is reflected in the exhibition ‘Een schip vol woorden’, which the steering committee on slavery history and colonialism at Utrecht University is now bringing to the university library.

Video about 'Een schip vol woorden' [in Dutch]

“Een schip vol woorden: Traces of Africa in Sranantongo” has won the LOT Popularization Prize, with the aim to realize a science communication project in the field of linguistics.

Interconnectedness of language, culture, and history explored

The exhibition ‘Een schip vol woorden’ is also the result of an international collaboration, within and far beyond Utrecht University. The Virtual International Cooperation Project Languages of Suriname started in May 2023. Taking Sranantongo and Sarnámi as their guides, students and lecturers from Utrecht University and Anton de Kom University in Paramaribo, the KENK-I foundation, and the Taalmuseum together investigated the intertwining of language, culture, and history.

“This collaboration has taught us so much about Sranantongo and Sarnámi, their speakers, and their world,” Margot van den Berg comments. “Traces of how people interacted long ago can still be found in a language today, as we can see in Sranantongo. It tells the story of the colonial past but also of a common future – the story of uprooting and confrontation, but also of survival and connection.”

The exhibition ‘Een schip vol woorden’ can be visited in the University Library Utrecht Science Park until January 2024.