Jonathan Schwartz Languages of the World Paper #2 Suriname: Implications of Linguistic Diversity in a Small Nation

Regarding the capital and population center of Suriname, the sociolinguist Tjon Sie Fat declared “Paramaribo, with up to a dozen languages, is the sociolinguist’s paradise” in Eithne B. Carlin and Jacques Arends’s Atlas of the Languages of Suriname (Carlin & Arends 237). Indeed, few spots in the world boast a greater heterogeneous assortment of cultures, religions, and languages as does the Guiana Shield. Located on the northeastern corner of South America, this region’s diversity is due to a history of colonialism and labor of foreign indentured servants and contract workers. Regions of the Guiana Shield were initially colonized by British, Dutch, and French settlers, in separate colonies known as the Guianas. Sandwiched between French Guiana on the east and what was then British Guiana (now independent and known as Guyana) is the area presently called Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana. The Guianas have long been anomalies in the New World, distinct from the Spanish-dominated conquest of South and Central America, and the Portuguese-speaking Brazil runs along the entire southern border. Also contributing to the peculiarity and mystery of the region is the relatively sparse population and untouched nature, which incidentally means that many indigenous peoples’ lands have been more or less uncorrupted. How does this small, sparse population, isolated from the more populated nations of South America, adapt to the region’s linguistic diversity?

Although any of these three nations could serve as a fascinating model for deeper exploration, Suriname has the unique position of being surrounded by three nations all with separate, non-Spanish languages, and an insecure border with English-speaking Guyana on the west adds to the influence. Influence from former English settlements and from Spanish and indigenous languages is also significant. It is the only Dutch-speaking independent nation in the New World (or any Germanic language other than English, for that matter), and also the only independent South or Central American country not to even share a border with a Spanish-speaking nation (French Guiana also does not border any predominantly Spanish-speaking countries, but it is still a territory of France). Perhaps most interestingly, due to a harsh and long history of slavery and importation of Asian laborers, several languages are well-represented in present-day Suriname including a distinctive dialect of Hindustani1, Javanese, Hakka, and many Creole languages with roots in Africa that date back to the African slave trade of the 17th and early 18th century (Forte 10). Suriname, therefore, is a linguistic melting pot consisting of influence from the Germanic, Romance, and Indo-Iranian branches of the Indo-European language family, as well as some influence from the separate Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, and NigerCongo families. As with many nations around the Caribbean Sea, many of these influential languages have loaned some of their components to a nationwide Creole language. This language, known as Sranan Tongo (literally “Surinamese tongue”) or simply as Sranan, is important in serving as a lingua franca between the wide range of ethnicities and peoples of the country. Although the only official language of Suriname is
1

Hindustani is a name given to several mutually intelligible languages of northern India, including but not limited to Hindi and Urdu. The name given to the Surinamese dialect of these languages is Sarnami Hindustani.

Dutch, Sranan Tongo is classified as an English-based Creole. Historically, this is a consequence of English farmers and their West African slaves settling the coastal regions of Suriname in the middle part of the 17th century. The dominance of English in Suriname did not last for much longer than thirty years, as the Dutch came to rule the colony in 1667, rendering the prevalence of English as the superstratum language of the Creole as something of an oddity (Braun & Plag 4). Dutch influence on Sranan’s vocabulary is evident, but considered peripheral compared to that of English. By contrast, Jamaican Creole developed during a period of British rule and slave labor on sugar plantations ranging from 1655 to 1834, and long periods of dominance of Creole superstratum languages such as this are indeed more typical of Caribbean Creole languages (Lalla & D’Costa 1990). Unsurprisingly, Jamaican Creole morphology is consequentially generally more preserving of the English superstratum than is Sranan Tongo, which also has incorporated large amounts of Dutch and Portuguese in addition to English and the West African languages native to the slaves. The Portuguese influence on Sranan is not, as one might expect, from across the southern border with Brazil- in fact the southern part of Suriname is nearly uninhabited, leaving essentially no sphere of influence around the southern border. Since the Portuguese were the first Europeans to settle in the West African lands from where the British farmers acquired their slaves, Portuguese characteristics may have already been present in some of the languages of West Africa, so the Portuguese influence actually predates that of English (Lalla & D’Costa 1990). An alternative theory points to evidence of early settlement attempts in Suriname prior to the arrival of the first wave of British settlers in 1651. The nationality of these settlers is unknown, but Portugal has

been speculated upon as a possible origin. Although the “Portuguese-based lexical element… has been calculated at some 4% for Sranan” (Forte 6), it is much greater in some other Creoles of Suriname that have since mostly died out in favor of Sranan, such as Saramaccan, for which the Portuguese-based lexical element is “some 35%” of the vocabulary (Forte 6). The original use of English as a lingua franca among Maroon populations is a common phenomenon around the Caribbean, since their native languages were widely varied and often not mutually intelligible. The history behind English’s rise as a Creole superstratum language is debated. Though different English-based Creoles exist throughout the Caribbean region, with differing levels of divergence from English and levels of influence from other languages, independent origins for each of these Creole languages have usually been assumed. Due to geographical barriers, this explanation seems intuitive. A bold and unique hypothesis, however, has been proposed by Norval Smith, who points to some striking similarities between Sranan and other Caribbean English-based Creoles, specifically Guyanese Creole, Jamaican Creole, and even the Krio language of Sierra Leone, which was largely formed by repatriated slaves from the Caribbean. Smith argues for the existence of a “pan-Caribbean English-derived pidgin” (Forte 7), suggesting that the similarities between Sranan Tongo and other pidgins and creoles around the Caribbean were not simply the results of having the same or similar superstratum and substrate languages, but in fact had direct influence on one another. In Smith’s own words: “Virtually all the creoles spoken in the Caribbean area, together with Guyanese, and the various creoles of Suriname, share such a number of striking features of grammar, phonology, and lexicon, that these parallels cannot be explained as

accidental” (Smith 137). It should be pointed out, however, that the African substrate languages vary widely between these English-based creoles. The African components of Sranan Tongo, for instance, are mostly rooted from the Gbe language of Ghana, Togo, and Benin; and from Kikongo, which is predominantly spoken around the Congo (Braun & Plag 4) (Gordon 2005). Krio, on the other hand, shares a significant amount of morphology with Yoruba, from which its Niger-Congo component is believed to be derived. This is precisely the variation that might lead to the necessity of a lingua franca among Maroons, even with English as the superstratum language of all groups. Smith does not (and cannot) explain in exact detail how such a pan-Caribbean English-based Creole language came to be assembled (and subsequently diverged). He points to an example in which the Garifuna language of the American Arawakan family spread across the Caribbean to Central America from its origins on the island of St. Vincent in the southeastern Caribbean Sea as its speakers dispersed. This isolated incident of population dispersal proves, at the very least, that cross-Caribbean creoles can significantly influence one another, although Smith’s theory for a single pan-Caribbean Creole is still not generally accepted by linguists (Forte 7). Although Sranan Tongo is spoken either as a native or second language by over 60% of the Surinamese population and functions effectively as a lingua franca among Suriname’s population, it has yet to become universal. It still has not obtained a status as an official language, Dutch remaining the only one. Dutch has traditionally been used exclusively by Suriname’s government and most national media, although recently shifts have been made to include Sranan Tongo among such dialogue (part of Suriname’s

national anthem, for instance, is written in Sranan). Traditionally, however, Dutch has been the more formal, elite language of the nation. Additionally, Dutch is taught compulsorily in schools (Forte 10) (de Kleine 216). Despite the appearance of classicism inherent to the compulsory teaching of a European language to students regardless of their heritage, the usage of a distinct Surinamese dialect of Dutch is unabashed, and any evidence of efforts to preserve traditional Dutch is scarce to be found. In fact, the compulsory primary teaching of Dutch is the primary reason for its preservation, as Sranan has been revealed as the primary medium of social interaction, even among the white population, during the 17th and 18th centuries (Forte 11). Compulsory primary Dutch education was mandated in 1876, which, apart from ensuring the preservation of Dutch in Suriname, contributed to the fusion of “structural influences from the other languages, particularly Sranan, on Dutch” (Forte 11). De Kleine goes so far as to declare Surinamese Dutch “a language variety in its own right,” and argues that the lack of widespread recognition of Surinamese Dutch as a unique language variety is due to “grammatical camouflage,” a phenomenon she describes as the preservation of “forms that are also found in European Dutch but which have assumed new functions in Surinamese Dutch” (de Kleine 2007). Tjon Sie Fat said, of the linguistic distribution of Paramaribo, that “Dutch [is] used in formal and Sranan in informal situations.” This in itself is typical of creolized Caribbean nations; the European language dominating the government and upper class, while the creole prevails in informal contexts. Fat follows this statement up with

another usage of Sranan that, in contrast to his previous statement, is not applicable to all Caribbean creoles, stating “Stylistically simplified Sranan is also the main inter-ethnic

language” (Carlin & Arends 237). One interesting consequence of Suriname’s ethnic diversity is that Sranan Tongo serves essentially the same purpose for which it was originally constructed- as something of a lingua franca; although presently uniting Maroons, descendents of African slaves, descendents of Asian laborers, native Americans, and Europeans; rather than only uniting the various West African languages of the slaves. The portion of the population not using Sranan Tongo as a lingua franca largely consists of direct descendents of the Dutch settlers, or of one of three major waves of immigrants following the initial importation of African slaves. By 1863, when the first contract laborers were brought from various locations in Asia, Sranan and other creoles were already well-formed and widely used, so any influence exerted on Sranan morphology by these laborers’ languages is presently minimal (Forte 10). Aside from Surinamese Dutch, Carlin and Arends identify three major “Eurasian languages” spoken by these laborers’ descendents in present-day Suriname: Sarnami Hindi, Javanese, and Kejia (Hakka) (Forte 10). All three of these languages have maintained a sizeable population of speakers in Suriname even while facing Dutch’s prestige and Sranan’s pervasiveness within their homeland’s boundaries, for reasons that have as much to do with cultural pride and preservation as with complicated language barriers. In the case of Hakka, the Chinese language spoken by the majority of the immigrants from China in the 19th and 20th centuries, a mentality of a diaspora identity has preserved Chinese culture and unity in Suriname, along, not surprisingly, with the language. Paul Brendan claims that “Chinese are very often treated as foreigners with no particular bond to Suriname, other than economic,” and that as a people, they are “not interested in acquiring Dutch,

since they are focussed [sic] on the social order of Chinese culture rather than on social mobility within Surinamese society as a whole (Brendan 237). Only recently in Suriname has the Hakka language been compromised, as the 1990s saw an influx of immigrants from other parts of China, who associated naturally with the Hakka people, and as a result Mandarin has become a lingua franca among much of the Surinamese Chinese community (Brendan 236) (Forte 13). The Javanese population has preserved their native language as well, with little divergence. Probably due to its complete isolation from other Austronesian or related languages, it has stayed the most wellpreserved of the Eurasian languages in Suriname. Learning Sranan Tongo as a second language, however, is not uncommon among either group. In contrast, the Indian immigrants’ need for a lingua franca occurred almost immediately upon their arrival to Suriname in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, due to a variety of native languages being spoken among the population. Thus, the dialect (or language) of Sarnami Hindi was born. Since it consists of mixed elements from a group of closely related languages, it is not classified as a creole but rather as a koiné2. However, Sranan Tongo is commonly learned among the Indian population and any notion of a diasporic identity they may possess has not been discussed along the same wavelengths as that of the Chinese, perhaps due to the fact that a plurality of the Surinamese population is of Indian ethnicity. Suriname serves as an excellent model for many sociolinguistic and cultural phenomena. Its incredible linguistic and cultural diversity helps to paint clearer pictures towards answering important questions of sociolinguistics, such as what may cause
2

Defined by Jeff Siegel as “a stable linguistic variety which results from contact between varieties which are subsystems of the same linguistic system” (Forte 13) (Damsteegt 254).

languages to fuse and diverge versus the factors that allow languages to be conserved even among surroundings that are overrun with a remarkable range of other languages. The process of creolization (a favorite topic within the field of sociolinguistics) is stripped of any weaseling or oversimplified definition through the complex history of Sranan Tongo, and the rise of a lingua franca is shown to be natural and unpredictable within a small, concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity such as Suriname.

Reference: Brendan, Paul. “Chapter IX, Kejia: A Chinese Language in Suriname.” Atlas of the Languages of Suriname. Eds. Carlin, Eithne B. and Jacques Arends, 2002. Leiden: KITLV Press. Braun, Maria and Plag, Ingo. “How Transparent is Creole Morphology? A study of Early Sranan Word-Formation.” Yearbook of Morphology 2002. Eds. Geery Booij and Jaap van Marle. 15th ed. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003. Damsteegt, Theo. “Chapter X, Sarnami as an immigrant koiné.” Atlas of the Languages of Suriname. Eds. Carlin, Eithne B. and Jacques Arends, 2002. Leiden: KITLV Press. De Kleine, Christa. “Chapter VIII, Surinamese Dutch.” Atlas of the Languages of Suriname. Eds. Carlin, Eithne B. and Jacques Arends, 2002. Leiden: KITLV Press. De Kleine, Christa. A Morphosyntactic Analysis of Surinamese Dutch as Spoken by the Creole Population of Paramaribo, Suriname. Lincom GmbH, 2007. Forte, Janette Bulkan. “Review Essay: Atlas of the Languages of Suriname.” Kacike: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and Anthropology. 20 May 2003. “Guianese Shield Hub.” IIRSA. 2004. Icono Multimedia. 13 May 2007 http://www.iirsa.org/BancoConocimiento/E/egd_caracteristicas_del_eje/egd_caracteristic as_del_eje_ENG.asp?CodIdioma=ENG&CodSeccion=27 Lalla, B. and D’Costa, J. Voices in Exile. London: The University of Alabama Press, 1989. Smith, Norval. “Chapter V, The History of the Surinamese Creoles II: Origin and Differentiation.” Atlas of the Languages of Suriname. Eds. Carlin, Eithne B. and Jacques Arends, 2002. Leiden: KITLV Press.

“Suriname.” CIA – The World Factbook. 31 May 2007. Central Intelligence Agency. 13 May 2007 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ns.html

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.