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and the geographically inevitable English, Spanish and Portuguese (according to Wikipedia; Ethnologue has a somewhat outdated list).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.