A Little Language

Cancer interfered with my opportunity to learn Sranan – taki – a language spoken in Suriname.  I had the opportunity to spend a Fullbright faculty gig in Paramaribo, but the surgery, radiation, and chemo pretty well removed the opportunity.  I think I repressed thinking about it – the topic just came back to mind last week.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that the structure of a language limits the way that we view and understand the world.  Suriname is the world’s smallest, most diverse nation – and I suspect the language affects their comfort with racial, cultural and religious diversity.  Sranan is a small language – spoken in one small country.  It’s an English-based creole – but based on English as it was spoken by English and Scots colonists between 1640 and 1657 (when the Dutch took Suriname and the English took Manhattan).  Then it had another 300 years of modification by Dutch speakers, and African influences (I think these really show up in the words for different types of snakes).

I do get messages in Taki on occasion – and the expansion of the internet has added greatly to the ability to hear it spoken again.  Suriname is a single nation, ostensibly Dutch speaking, but mixing people from Africa, Europe, Java, China and India. The many original languages of Suriname’s slave population made development of a local language necessary – and the economic structure (most of the Dutch were company employees, often on fixed term contracts) made keeping the English-based Creole a natural thing.  After all, the Scots and English didn’t leave every five or ten years.

This video offers spoken Sranan with English subtitles – and gives an idea how the language flows and the subtitles makes it easier to connect with the older English and Scots words.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the linguistic theory that the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world.  I probably should write more about it – but for now, I tend to believe that Sranan, in its semantic structure, helps build an accepting, tolerant, diverse society.  A society where Muslims and Christians join in celebrating holi fatwa, a Hindu holiday.  The structure presents words that while defined, include a certain ambiguity – if I look at our language, just examining the phrase “liberal” provides differing and antithetical definitions.  I think a different language for discussing religion and politics might help – at the least it would shut us up until we learned to use it.  An online definition is “In the areas of Democracy and Citizenship, Classical Liberalism has the following meaning: A political philosophy that places high value on individual freedom based on a belief in natural rights that exist independent of government. “  After Woodrow Wilson and crew managed to move the definition of progressive into something most Americans didn’t accept, Progressives seized the term liberal – and today Wiki describes it “According to the Encyclopædia Britannica: “In the United States, liberalism is associated with the welfare-state policies of the New Deal programme of the Democratic administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Now, if we change definitions, it gets hard to argue or discuss things.  I’m not certain that, as a nation, we might not get along better if it were mandated that we had to carry on all political discussions, arguments and advertisements in Sranan.  At least we’d get a few months peaceful discourse while the partisans learned a new language.

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