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Changes in Language Use

The use of French and Creole during the colonial and the independence periods set speech patterns for the next century. During the colonial period, it was mostly whites and educated mulatto freedmen who spoke French. When the slaves gained their freedom and the plantation system disintegrated, the greatest barriers among the various classes of people of color collapsed. French language became a vital distinction between these who had been emancipated before the revolution (the anciens libres) and those who achieved freedom through the revolution, and it ensured the superior status of the anciens libres. French became the language not only of government and commerce, but also of culture and refinement. Even the most nationalist Haitians of the nineteenth century placed little value on Creole.

Attitudes toward Creole began to change during the twentieth century, however, especially during the United States occupation. The occupation forced Haitian intellectuals to confront their non-European heritage. A growing black consciousness and intensifying nationalism led many Haitians to consider Creole as the "authentic" language of the country. The first attempt at a Creole text appeared in 1925, and the first Creole newspaper was published in 1943.

Beginning in the 1950s, a movement to give Creole official status evolved slowly. The constitution of 1957 reaffirmed French as the official language, but it permitted the use of Creole in certain public functions. In 1969 a law was passed giving Creole limited legal status; the language could be used in the legislature, the courts, and clubs, but not in accredited educational institutions. In 1979, however, a decree permitted Creole as the language of instruction in the classroom. The constitution of 1983 declared that both Creole and French were the national languages but specified that French would be the official language. The suppressed 1987 Constitution (which was partially reinstated in 1989) gave official status to Creole.

The use of Creole, even in formal settings, increased throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Conversations at elite dinner tables, once held rigidly in French, switched fluidly between French and Creole, even within the same sentence. Radio and television stations increased broadcasts in Creole as advertisers learned the utility of reaching the vast majority of their market. Radio provided widespread access to news, which helped to break down the isolation of the peasantry and to galvanize the population during the crisis that led to the fall of the Duvalier regime. In 1986 it became obvious that important changes had taken place in Haiti, as people who had been in exile for years began to return home to run for the presidency. Many arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport with French speeches in hand but found themselves confronted by journalists who insisted on speaking Creole.

The emergence of English as an important language of business affected attitudes toward French. Growing trade with the United States and the development of assembly industries funded by investors from the United States led to greater use of English in commercial settings. English also became more important as Haitians migrated to the United States and as many members of the elite sent their children to North American educational institutions.

English cut across class lines. Hundreds of French-speaking elite families spent years of exile in the United States during the Duvalier period, and they returned to Haiti fluent in English. Many Creole speakers who went to the United States also returned to Haiti as fluent English speakers. Haitian migration to the United States and trade with North America also resulted in the introduction of English words into the Creole lexicon. For many monolinguals, learning English appeared more practical than learning French, and English posed fewer psychological and social obstacles. The availability and the popularity of Englishlanguage television programs on Haiti's private cable service helped familiarize Haitians with the language. Spanish also had become fairly wide in Haiti, largely because of migration to the Dominican Republic.

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