Suriname, land of many tongues

Anonby stan-sandy_anonby at
Mon Mar 21 12:10:20 UTC 2005

I've never been to Suriname, but I've flown Suriname Airways. The Surinamese
stewardesses insisted that they never speak Sranan.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Harold F. Schiffman" <haroldfs at>
To: "Language Policy-List" <lgpolicy-list at>
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2005 11:29 AM
Subject: Suriname, land of many tongues

> 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.
> "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
> Caribbean market.
> 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.
> "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
> Eerser.

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