In Babel of Tongues,
Suriname Seeks Itself
Suriname Seeks Itself
March 23, 2008
By SIMON ROMERO
PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Walk into a government office here and you will be greeted in Dutch, the official language. But in a reflection of the astonishing diversity of this South American nation, Surinamese speak more than 10 other languages, including variants of Chinese, Hindi, Javanese and half a dozen original Creoles.
Making matters more complex, English is also beamed into homes on television and Portuguese is the fastest-growing language since an influx of immigrants from Brazil in recent years. And one language stands above all others as the lingua franca: Sranan Tongo (literally Suriname tongue), a resilient Creole developed by African slaves in the 17th century.
So which language should Suriname's 470,000 people speak? Therein lies a quandary for this country, which is still fiercely debating its national identity after just three decades of independence from the Netherlands.
'We shook off the chains of Dutch colonialism in the 1970s, but our consciousness remains colonized by the Dutch language,' said Paul Middellijn, 58, a writer who composes poetry in Sranan Tongo.
Nevertheless, Mr. Middellijn said English should be declared Suriname's national language, a position shared by many Surinamese who want stronger links to the Caribbean and North America. 'Sranan will survive because nothing can replace it as the language of the street,' he said.
'It is a form of communication perfect not just for poets but for the Chinese groceryman or Brazilian miner who arrived a few months ago,' he continued. 'Are they going to go through the trouble of learning Dutch? No way.'
The flexibility of Sranan, as it is commonly known, enabled it to evolve into the country's most widely spoken language. Based largely on English, it crystallized here before the Dutch traded New York with the British for Suriname in the 17th century; the colonial powers switched places but the slave populations did not.
Sranan developed an overlay of words from Dutch, Portuguese and West African languages. Today Surinamese speak it interchangeably with Dutch, depending on the formality of the setting.
For instance, lawyers use Dutch in court proceedings, while shoppers use Sranan to bargain for fish in the market. Jokes and rap music are often made in Sranan, dismissively called Taki-Taki (derived from the English 'talky talky') in the past, but at cocktail parties diplomats struggle with Dutch and get by in English.
'I do not speak Sranan,' said Suprijanto Muhadi, the ambassador from Indonesia, the former Dutch colony that sent Javanese laborers here until the eve of World War II. 'But a manservant I brought from Indonesia a year ago picked it up much easier than Dutch.'
The use of Sranan became associated with nationalist politics after Desi Bouterse, a former dictator, began using Sranan in his speeches in the 1980s. The slogan of his National Democratic Party, the biggest in Suriname, remains 'Let a faya baka!' Sranan for 'Turn the lights back on!' or, figuratively, get things working again.
But even though relations with the Netherlands are tepid, Dutch is taught in schools rather than Sranan. In 2004, Suriname became an associate member of Taalunie, a Dutch language association including the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders.
Meanwhile, amid periodic bursts of debate in Parliament to change the national language to English or even Spanish in a nod to geography, other languages here are thriving because of their use by descendants of escaped slaves and indentured laborers brought here by the Dutch from the far corners of the world.
To get a sense of the Babel of languages here, just stroll through this capital, which resembles a small New England town except the stately white clapboard houses are interspersed with palm trees, colorful Chinese casinos and minaret-topped mosques.
Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small.
Venture into the jungly interior, where indigenous languages like Arawak and Carib are still heard with languages like Saramaccan, a Portuguese and English-inspired Creole spoken by descendants of runaway slaves who worked on plantations once owned by Sephardic Jews.
The linguistic diversity that makes Suriname exceptional also isolates it from its own hemisphere. Paramaribo, unlike many other regional capitals, has no direct flights to large cities like Miami or São Paulo. Instead, airlines fly to Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles or to Amsterdam, places with communities of Surinamese immigrants.
Dutch had a stronger presence in rural communities before a civil war from 1986 to 1991 destroyed many schools. As a result Sranan became even more critical for interethnic communication once peace was restored.
For a glimpse into Suriname's linguistic future, visit Belenzinho, a neighborhood here with several thousand Brazilian immigrants, many of them gold miners. The storefront signs are lettered in Portuguese instead of Dutch or Chinese. Suriname has some 50,000 Brazilians, more than 10 percent of the population.
'All I need is Portuguese since my world is Brazilian,' said Ivanildo Vieira Cardoso, 38, a miner from northeast Brazil who was sipping not a Parbo, the Surinamese beer brewed by Heineken, but a can of Nova Schin imported from Brazil.
Whether Portuguese blends into Sranan or vice versa, scholars contend that linguistic choices here reflect a tension beneath the surface of a nationalist ethos that shuns ethnic identity for unity. Resentment has emerged against Chinese and Brazilians, recent immigrant groups that are economically successful. And because Sranan is the native language for Creoles in and near Paramaribo, groups like the Maroons, descended from runaway slaves, might chafe at making it the national language.
'Is it a language that unifies us or separates us because it is associated with Creoles?' asked Paul Tjon Sien Fat, a Surinamese linguist at the University of Amsterdam. 'In our mind set, Sranan is black and Dutch is white. Suriname could not function without Sranan, but this is still an obstacle in formalizing its acceptance for many Surinamese.'
Faced with such quandaries, inertia may rule. If so, while Dutch would remain official, English is likely to gain ground. That seems to be the outcome reflected in bookstores here, with titles in Dutch and English far outnumbering books in Sranan, mainly bibles and poetry, which have gained a toehold among readers.
But even bookstore owners profess their love of Sranan. 'Sranan is very smooth, with so many influences from everywhere, something that is purely and emotionally Surinamese,' said Debora van Etten, 46, a bookseller in Paramaribo's old city. 'Taking Sranan to the next level would be bold,' she said, 'but for so many of us it would be a very big jump.'
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company