Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Suriname's Linguistic Khichri

The New York Times has an article on Sranan Tongo, the creole language that is spoken by a majority of people in Suriname, in South America.

Suriname, like Guyana and Trinidad, has a large Indian diaspora population from the 19th century, people who came across originally as indentured laborers. For a country of just 470,000 people, the linguistic and cultural diversity is truly astonishing:

To get a sense of the Babel of languages here, just stroll through this capital, which resembles a small New England town except the stately white clapboard houses are interspersed with palm trees, colorful Chinese casinos and minaret-topped mosques.

Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small. (link)

Is it just me, or is Suriname exactly like Queens? (The food options sound enticing.)

For the curious, there is a Sranan Tongo-to-English dictionary here (not many words derived from Indian languages, as far as I can tell), and a "Sarnami Hindustani"-to-Dutch dictionary here. (Of course, for the latter, you need to know Dutch!)

I would also recommend a reader comment on an earlier post by Vinod (where he mentioned the Surinamese Indians in Amsterdam).

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dolphins can generalize

In the middle of a review of a new book on the origins of human language in the San Francisco Chronicle, one finds the following, rather remarkable, paragraph:

Kanzi, the amazing bonobo, can use a keyboard to signal what she wants. And that's not all. Through her computer, Kanzi can "participate in four-way conversations," can "converse about objects, intentions and actions" and has even "acquired a theory of mind." Dolphins can't do all this, but they can "generalize," while elephants can "impart their wisdom" to the young. And then there is Hoover the seal, who can vocalize the following sequence of words: "Hey, hey, you, get outta there!" The scary thing is that Hoover and his like might be producing more meaningful, less admonitory sentences soon, at least according to Harvard biologist Tecumseh Fitch. "Maybe we just need to expose seals to human speech, and the right social context, and they'll be able to learn some speech." (link)

Everyone has little pieces of language. Humans, supposedly, have the whole thing.