LANGUAGE IN SURINAME.

An interesting NY Times story by Simon Romero describes the complicated linguistic situation in 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….
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.

Other languages spoken in the country include Surinamese Hindi, Javanese, the Maroon languages (Saramaka, Paramakan, Ndyuka, Aukan, Kwinti, Matawai), Amerindian languages (Carib, Arawak), Chinese (Hakka, Cantonese, and Mandarin), and the geographically inevitable English, Spanish and Portuguese (according to Wikipedia; Ethnologue has a somewhat outdated list).
Incidentally, my problem with the recent switch from the traditional English spelling Surinam to the Dutch Suriname is that it introduces an unnecessary split between spelling and pronunciation (of which English already has more than a sufficiency): to be consistent, the pronunciation should be changed to soo-ri-NAH-muh, but I’m pretty sure nobody says that. What was wrong with Surinam, anyway? I know, I know, I’m a hopeless reactionary when it comes to place names. If it was good enough for granddad, it’s good enough for me.

Comments

  1. Now I’m a bit confused about whether I’ve been pronouncing the country correct at all.
    On a related note, any chance we could see a post about those oft-mispronounced place names? A few spring to mind immediately (Lesotho, Gauteng, Ouagadougou, Kiribati, Belo Horizonte), but surely the list is quite long. The ones I listed above tend to be rendered so terribly that they’re outright unrecognizable.

  2. Who exactly changed the English spelling? The Queen of England?

  3. This brings us back to Beijing/Peking – yet again!
    Other names that have been changed in English for no apparent reason include Moldova for Moldavia, and Belarus for Byelorussia.

  4. In Dutch the final “e” is sounded (soo-ri-NAH-muh, as you say, except the “u” is a French u, however you write that phonetically).
    The name apparently derives from the original native Americans there, called Surinen, who were driven out centuries ago, so there’s no telling how they may have pronounced it.

  5. Who exactly changed the English spelling?
    That’s what I always wonder. I well remember starting to see “Suriname” around twenty years ago and thinking “When did they do that, and why? And who is ‘they’?” I mean, it’s not like there was a groundswell of popular demand for a spelling change in the English-speaking world.
    Moldova for Moldavia, and Belarus for Byelorussia
    Well, those I can understand, because they’re newly independent countries, and “Moldavia” was used for the northern part of Romania for centuries, so it makes sense to have a clearly distinct name for what used to be called Bessarabia (a great name, like the Duchy of Courland, another polity I miss). And Belarus is easier to say than Byelorussia.

  6. Christophe Strobbe says:

    … to be consistent, the pronunciation should be changed to soo-ri-NAH-muh, but I’m pretty sure nobody says that.

    Is this intended to represent the English or the Dutch pronunciation? The Dutch pronunciation doesn’t start with ‘soo…’; a correct IPA transcription would be /syri’namɘ/, not /sʊri’namɘ/. (Note that the /i/ is supposed to be short.)

  7. John Emerson says:

    The problem with “Peking” is that it never represented the actual pronunciation of the name. (Well, it may have represented a Cantonese or other South Chinese pronunciation of the North Chinese Mandarin name, or it may have been an artifact of the system which uses “k” to represent the “j” sound).
    On top of that, Chinese are always changing the names of cities, and Beijing was Peiping (Beiping, Peip’ing) up until 1920, and has also been called Yenching (Yenjing, Yanching) in the not too distant past.
    Learning to read Chinese historical texts requires learning multiple names for many cities — you can date texts according to the names used. Sometimes a city would change names twice in a few decades.

  8. Is there even a clear principle, as opposed to a fluid consensus?
    Do we pronounce Ouagadougou like it was French or Mossi? Belo Horizonte like a Carioca or a Mineiro?
    No one expects Midwestern Americans to pronounce Atlanta or Liverpool like natives, since there is an automatic unconscious conversion between dialects with which one is familiar. But, on the other hand, many seem to think that it is important to do New Orleans right.

  9. komfo,amonan says:

    The problem with “Peking” is that it never represented the actual pronunciation of the name. (Well, it may have represented a Cantonese or other South Chinese pronunciation of the North Chinese Mandarin name, or it may have been an artifact of the system which uses “k” to represent the “j” sound).

    I have heard both that it approaches a southern Chinese pronunciation, and also the Wikipedia version that the second consonant represents a [kʲ] that later changed to [tɕ] (a change that strikes me as not too dissimilar to that of the ‘g’ in Latin-to-Italian ‘gentile’).
    As far as Belarus and Moldova, I always figured those names were in Belarussian and Moldovan/Romanian, while the earlier names were in Russian as they were S.S.R.’s.

  10. Presumably the country just sent out a press release stating its new name in English. Not a lot different from a company or person changing its name.
    The new English name can even be French. (Cote d’Ivoire)

  11. The slogan of his National Democratic Party, the biggest in Suriname, remains “Let a faya baka!” Sranan for “Turn the lights back on!”
    I think this slogan was probably a reference to the time of independence, when there was a huge emigration from Surinam to the Netherlands (something like a third of the entire population, if I remember rightly), leading people to say “Please will the last person to leave remember to switch the lights off”.
    Like you, I can’t easily persuade myself to spell Surinam with a superfluous e at the end.

  12. Is this intended to represent the English or the Dutch pronunciation?
    The English; nobody expects (or should reasonably expect) English speakers to use Dutch (or other foreign) pronunciations. We approximate as best we can within the phonotactic constraints of our language.
    Presumably the country just sent out a press release stating its new name in English. Not a lot different from a company or person changing its name.
    Actually, it is very different. A country is not like a company or a person; it is a historic entity (owned by no one) that in many cases has had a long-standing version of its name established in other languages, and to my mind it is absurd to think that the government that happens to be running the country at a given time can decide “OK, we want everybody to call ‘our’ country [some newfangled name] from now on.” In the first place, it is not their country, and the next government may have different ideas, so why should everybody hop to attention each time? And in the second place, why should they hop to attention anyway? It is not the business of, say, the Chinese to tell English-speakers how to refer to China or any other place in English.
    A particularly telling example of this (which I have ranted about before) is Burma, which the group of brutal thugs currently running the place decided should be called “Myanmar.” Even though hardly anybody likes said thugs, and even though pretty much everybody claims to respect Aung San Suu Kyi and hope she eventually gets to rule the place, everyone still jumped to attention and started writing “Myanmar” (which doesn’t even represent the intended pronunciation), even though Suu Kyi herself prefers “Burma.” I can only conclude that people love jumping to attention and obeying dictates, however stupid, that allow them to feel part of the cutting edge. “No, no, it’s Myanmar now, haven’t you heard?” Bah.

  13. Great rant LH. I agree. My personal pet peeve is “Kyiv” – it looks ugly in English and is guaranteed to confuse English speakers. And “Kiev” isn’t an accurate transcription of the Russian anyway. There’s absolutely no good reason for English speakers to change. And for some reason the Ukrainians still allow us to write “Ukraine” instead of “Ukrayina” (or maybe “Oukrayina”), so why all the fuss about the capital city? I’m always surprised that the proponents of these changes never seem to realize how insecure and petty these orthographic disputes make them look.

  14. John Emerson says:

    Prescriptivist Ukrainian swine! Burn them!

  15. John Emerson says:

    Prescriptivist Ukrainian swine! Burn them!

  16. John Emerson says:

    The world of amateur linguistics and philology has been revolutionized and I’m not sure that hat will be able to compete.

  17. caffeind says:

    If you’re dealing in current affairs, it’s Istanbul not Constantinople.
    Yes, the next government may change names again. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with using the current name for the current country, or historians using the appropriate name for a past state. “Zaïre” instantly tells you 1971-1997. In fact it can be rather confusing when the same name is used for too long as the country changes, even forcing historians to create distinguishing names like “Byzantine” after the fact.
    It seems a bit condescending for polyglots who are admirably equipped to handle new foreign names to tell the general populace not to attempt this stunt at home.

  18. I had no opinion on these language wars until an otherwise well-informed Indonesian friend asked me how far Bombay was from Mumbai.
    Not much, I wanted to say. Only 10 years or so.

  19. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with using the current name for the current country
    Exactly, and the “current” name is the one they’ve been using all along. There is no reason to switch to whatever some politician thinks would be a better one, and I’m not sure what you think would be a good reason for doing so.

  20. michael farris says:

    I have to say I was disappointed by the article. Is it really a rule that English language media can’t have an article about other languages without some stupid insinuation that they should switch to English?
    From what I can tell there are two lingua francas in Surinam, Sranan for daily business and Dutch for formal media, bureaucracy. What’s the problem?
    Two quick sites (both confusing called ‘the languages of Surinam’:
    some basic info on Sranan
    http://ifarm.nl/suriname/sranan.html#numbers
    from SIL with several different sections including a variety of Hindi written in Dutch influenced roman alphabet!
    http://www.sil.org/americas/suriname/Index.html

  21. Is it really a rule that English language media can’t have an article about other languages without some stupid insinuation that they should switch to English?
    Yes, that does get a little tiresome. Thanks for the links!

  22. Ooo… Vanya, why do I think you are Russian? Usually only Russians rant about Kyiv that way… only they usually also refuse LOUDLY AND ANGRILY to switch the preposition from “na” to “v”.
    I’m of the “call people what they ask me to call them” school. But that’s a different topic.

  23. rootlesscosmo says:

    it’s Istanbul not Constantinople.
    And, as that song goes on to say, “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’.” I’m with mab on this one: if Archie Leach wants to be called Cary Grant, or Malcolm Little Malik el-Hajj el-Shabazz, I’ll cooperate. Different with countries of course, where some ephemeral honcho with a thing about titles may on a whim decide he’s the ruler of the Central African Empire (not Republic), but the poker-faced UN policy of deferring to the incumbent regime, however thuggish, makes a kind of grim sense to me.

  24. the poker-faced UN policy of deferring to the incumbent regime, however thuggish, makes a kind of grim sense to me.
    Sure; they get their funding from member regimes, so they have to jump when said regimes say “Froggy.” The rest of us do not have that excuse.

  25. I think we need to separate out the issues here. There are some cases when a country changes its English-language rendering of a name to bring the pronunciation closer to the original (with some assertion of politics, no? Like tossing out colonial renderings). But in other cases it’s really a straight political assertion. And here the problem is that “Kyiv” and “the Moldovan language” and “Myanmar” are all on one continuum, only at different points on it. Ukrainians want English-speakers to transliterate the name of their capital from Ukraine and not Russian. They also want us to stop using “the Ukraine” and for Russians to stop using na Ukraine because both usages are for territories, not states. Russians say: You can’t make us change our grammar. Ukrainians say: But our status has changed and your grammar should change to reflect that. I would say that the difference between this and Myanmar is that the government in Kyiv is legitimate and recognized. But then some Russians would argue against that. So… it gets tricky. And most people resent being asked/requested/forced to change their speaking patterns. It’s hard to do, even when you try.

  26. “And most people resent being asked/requested/forced to change their speaking patterns.”
    Having friends and family who all insist, some with almost frightening ferocity, that they come from Bombay, Madras or Bangalore, I concur with this. Especially does it seem that Mumbai/Bombay remains divisive, even among people from there. Here in NZ we’ve renamed some geographical features with little fuss, reverting to pre-European Maaori names, or sometimes hyphenating them, as in Aoraki-Mt Cook. I’d like us to go further and use only the Maaori names for the country and the islands thereof. Cases like Mumbai seem more interesting because of the large number of locals who didn’t want the change.

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