Suriname, land of many tongues
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Mar 21 13:29:01 UTC 2005
Suriname, land of many tongues, faces 'Tongo' test
MONDAY , 21 MARCH 2005
PARAMARIBO: Even the most eloquent Spanish and Portuguese speakers become
tongue tied in Dutch-speaking Suriname, whose colonial linguistic heritage
sets it apart from the rest of Latin America. Dutch, the legacy of
Suriname's former colonial master, is the official language of its
government, business and schools.
But the day-to-day language of the streets is Sranan Tongo, which
translates as Suriname tongue. This is an exotic creole of English- and
Dutch-origin words that experts say derives its grammatical roots from
some of the languages of West Africa spoken by slaves who were brought to
work in Suriname's colonial plantations. As ties with the Netherlands
loosen, the question of what "tongo" (language) future generations should
speak is being debated by politicians and academics in this small,
mineral-exporting nation on South America's northeast shoulder.
Several years of military government and civil war isolated Suriname after
independence in 1975, but now it is moving toward closer integration with
the English-speaking Caribbean and also with neighboring
Portuguese-speaking giant Brazil. Posed in Sranan Tongo, the question is:
Osortu Tongo Sranam mu taki na ini den ten san en kon, Bakra tongo,
Ingrisi tongo, Brasyon tongo? (Which language should Suriname talk in the
future Dutch, English or Brazilian Portuguese?)
"Through language and culture, we are not a Latin American country. But we
are very much a South American country," said Suriname Central Bank
President Andre Telting. "This is a very difficult issue, how to change
the national language," he said. Most experts anticipate the Dutch
language will lose ground, just as it appears condemned to play a lesser
role in the ever-expanding European Union.
ENGLISH VS PORTUGUESE
"With Dutch you can only speak to the Dutch," said Telting. Retired
linguistics professor Hein Eerser sees a natural orientation toward
English as the future official language. He says this trend is already
under way as Suriname, which joined the English-speaking Caribbean
Community (Caricom) in 1995, is preparing to be part of the single
In addition, more and more young Surinamese speak English as well as
Dutch. "That is why I predict for the future that with or without an
official policy, the language will change and English will take the
prominent position," Eerser said. All this has a certain irony because
Britain once ruled Suriname but swapped it with the Dutch for New
Amsterdam, site of present-day New York, in the 17th century.
But Telting has a different view. He argues the growing gravitational
pull of Brazil as the regional power will inexorably draw Suriname into
its economic, political and linguistic orbit. "In the end we will have to
choose Portuguese," he said. But he believes English should still be
taught at schools as a compulsory second language.
The debate is complicated by the fact that apart from Dutch, Sranan Tongo
and widespread English, many of Suriname's ethnically diverse, 500,000
people speak other languages originating from West Africa, India, China
and Indonesia. These are distinct languages spoken by the descendants of
runaway slaves called Maroons or bush negroes and thousands of indentured
workers brought over by the Dutch from Asia. In the country's jungle
interior, Amerindian tribes also speak their own tongues.
'NOT A TOWER OF BABEL'
"We have a multi-lingual society," said Eerser. "You might get the
impression it's a bit of a Tower of Babel, but that's not so. All the
languages have their domain of use," he added. "If I go to the market, I
would use Sranan. If I go to an office on business, I would use Dutch, but
if I see a friend there, I would talk to him in Sranan," Eerser said.
Telting says use of Portuguese is already becoming a reality in the jungle
interior of thinly populated Suriname. An estimated 40,000 Brazilians have
crossed the border to seek their fortune, mostly as illegal small miners
known as "garimpeiros." Suriname's capital Paramaribo already has a
Brazilian neighborhood called Belen. Not far outside Paramaribo, Brazilian
"garimpeiros" can be seen stocking up on food supplies at Javanese
take-away restaurants called "warungs."
Sun-bronzed, their necks draped with gold chains, they complain of
problems obtaining work and residence permits. "Suriname is a good
country. 'Garimpeiros' have a bad reputation. But we're businessmen; we
just want to work," said Marcio Sousa Brito.
Whatever official language Suriname eventually adopts, both Telting and
Eerser agree that Sranan Tongo will remain the ubiquitous lingua franca of
the people. "Whether you stay in Paramaribo or talk to a Maroon, an
Amerindian or a 'garimpeiro' in the interior, everyone speaks it," said
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