Suriname, Part the Second: Language

Still there’s no getting away from the basic feeling of complete idiocy. You are aware of being spoken to as though you were a three-year old, even though you have all the pride of an adult. — Ta-Nehisi Coates

Taki-Taki is the language of Paramaribo and other parts of Dutch Guiana, called by its own speakers tàkitáki or neretjgo Negro language, in Dutch Neger-Engelsch, and in German Neger-Englisch. It and the closely related language of the Saramacca Bush-Negroes’ are creolized languages developed out of the jargonized English used by the slaves of English and Portuguese land-holders who settled Dutch Guiana in the middle of the seventeenth century. Taki-Taki is spoken in several dialects, of which the chief is the Town-Negro speech of Paramaribo. “The Linguistic Structure of Taki-Taki” by Robert A. Hall Jr.

At some point in graduate school, after consuming more theory than was good for me, I announced to my mother that she had a colonized tongue. She’s accustomed to my pronouncements about her nationality, identity, and race. Apparently, when we lived on Okinowa and I was in elementary school I would, from time to time, pull her away from whatever she was doing, drag her over to a group of kids and exclaim, “See I told you she was black!” When she completed the courses necessary to become an American citizen but wasn’t sure whether or not to give up her Dutch citizenship, I was pro-Holland. Then there was the time I came home and told my parents that I had learned in school that I was Caucasian. A teacher had explained to me that because my mother was Dutch, I was Caucasian. Among most Americans the instant image of a Dutch person is a blue-eyed blonde-haired tall person in wooden shoes living in or near a windmill. My mother is none of those things, though there is a picture of her and my father in full on Dutch garb, wooden shoes and all, hanging on the wall of the living room.

In graduate school a Dutch woman said snidely to me that my mother was not Dutch because she’s Black, and I was so shocked by the unvarnished racism that it left me speechless. It was at a time when The Netherlands still enjoyed a reputation for being progressive, so I was unprepared for this white woman’s cool dismissal of the country’s colonial legacy. My mother is a citizen of The Netherlands who was born in Paramaribo. So she is Dutch and Black at the same time. And she sounds Dutch. It’s her first language. When people meet her and hear her accent for the first time, the Blackness crowds out the Dutchness and so they automatically assume she is from “de Iiislands” and say this to her. It drives her batty and she wishes people would just ask where she’s from rather than foist some bad and wrong accent on her.

The story about me and language is that my first language is Dutch. About a month after I was born, my farther was sent to Vietnam, and my mother took me to live in Holland with her sister. We lived in the attic, and she worked at a post office, leaving me with her sister or her brother-in-law. My accent is such that if I greet Dutch and Surinamese people in Dutch they are surprised to find I’m actually American. I don’t mean to suggest that I am fluent in Dutch. I’m not. If someone walked up to me and started speaking Dutch, I wouldn’t understand what she was saying. If, however, you leave me alone long enough with Dutch speakers it comes back.

That doesn’t happen too much. All of my cousins on my mother’s side speak English and many of them speak other languages as well, and so when I’m with them I don’t even have to try to speak Dutch. This is why I have the language ability of a three-year old. I can say hello (dag), good morning (Goedemorgen), and how are you (hoe gaat het?). I can tell you I love you, and I can sing you a song about a dialogue between a mother and a child about visiting and eating cookies. It’s all anyone requires of me. My limited dialogue is met with coos and chuckles. It seems that in my American mid-40s I’m an adorable Dutch three-year old.

While I was in Suriname, most people tried to speak English around me, but Dutch is their language, and they were home, and there were with one another, and so the English wasn’t always there. It goes too far to say that my Dutch came back to me, but it was an odd out-of-body-linguistic experience to feel it return to the surface without my bidding. And when it reemerged it showed up with the creolized language of taki-taki—this playful, hyper expressive mix of Dutch, English, and the “language of the Saramaka bush Negroes.” My mother was forbidden to speak it as a child. My grandmother wanted her to be successful and believed that perfectly spoken Dutch was what she needed in order to do so. She was allowed to speak it to my mother and her siblings, but they were not allowed to speak it in return. I love it, and while I was in Suriname I spent a lot of time trying to pick it out of the Dutch that flew back and forth.

I think it’s hard to concentrate on learning a language. It’s not about being a diligent or good student. It has to just flow around you and make itself at home on your tongue. It has to come up unbidden. I don’t think it’s just about learning language as a child, though I know that helps quite a bit. In my case, my mother spoke English at home almost all the time. When I lived at home, I would only hear it when she spoke it to her sisters. When I was young this was a rare occurrence, but as calling plans made it easier to call Holland, the phone calls became a regular part of her weekly life. So it’s been seeping in for years, I guess.

My third evening in Suriname, when a man I didn’t know dropped by my cousin’s house to drop off some keys (we had managed to lock ourselves INSIDE the house), we all realized that the taki-taki was right next to the Dutch in my mouth. Instead of responding “hoe gaat het?” to his “goedenavond,” I said, “Fa Waka?”

“Hoe gaat het?” is the proper Dutch for how are you? You can hear it everywhere in Dutch-speaking countries around the world. “Fa Waka” is taki-taki for “How you walking?” Or, I suspect “how you walkin’?” More than words it’s a physical affect, and what shocked and tickled my family was not just that I said it without thinking but that I said it with the accompanying body language, throwing my shoulders back just a bit and putting my hands and arms out. It signaled a kind of belonging I have sometimes reached for in the United States among certain black folks, a code switching not from the marginalized (read “black”) to the mainstream (read “white”) but in the opposite direction to signal to folks who look like me that I really don’t mean to “sound white” or “siddity,” that I’m not an oreo or a wanna be.

In the way that grown folks do with three-year olds I was asked to show everyone my “Fa Waka” except I couldn’t. It came up in that moment in response to that man. He walked with a bit of a swagger, was stylish in all white Ralph Lauren, and was in a hurry. When I said, “Fa Waka?” I really wanted to know how he was walking. Like so many creolized languages that borrow from multiple traditions, takt-taki was better at getting to the heart of that moment than Dutch.

By the time I left, I could understand the Dutch I was hearing at moments when no one paid attention to me (otherwise I would get self-conscious and draw a blank). When a mother’s cousin asked me in Dutch to tell him how old I had been the last time I was in Suriname, I shocked everyone and myself by answering that I’d last been there when I was 12 years old. I stopped noticing whether or not my mother was speaking to me in English or Dutch, and I grew frustrated when I couldn’t speak Dutch to the women working the counter at the best bakery I’ve ever been to in my entire life. The words “one more, please” were very important at Fernandes Bakkerij.

One day I walked into a convenience store by myself and asked the man behind the counter if he carried the brand of bottled water I’ve been drinking since my arrival. It was the very hottest part of the day, when all you can do is sit and try not to get a headache. I was parched, but everyone else was ahead of me to get to the next shop, and I didn’t want to call anyone back to help me. A man who looked to be Javanese was behind the counter and without thinking I asked to buy a bottle of Para Springs water. I didn’t ask the question in English, and I didn’t point and gesture. I asked in the language of Paramaribo. The thing is I don’t know if I was speaking Dutch or Taki-Taki. Whatever I was speaking, he understood the question.

A few days later I learned a word I never expected to stumble upon in such a personal way: plantage.


One thought on “Suriname, Part the Second: Language”

  1. This piece really captured the experience of one whose “mother tongue” has been, let’s say, colonized. Though the text is academically informed, the emotion and confusion of communication in this contest is clearly conveyed. Very well done indeed; should touch the hearts and minds of many.

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