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Creole: An Imprecise Language

The Haitian " Creole" is language reduced to its very simplest and fundamental elements. At first it is no more intelligible to the Frenchman than to the American. It is not particularly difficult but varies a great deal in different sections. The story is told in Haiti that the Lord was not satisfied that the French had been adequately punished when driven out of Haiti, so He left their beautiful tongue in the mouths of the Haitians to be crucified anew each day.

The Creole language is one of abbreviation. Little attention Is paid to distinctions of gender, number, and case; plurality is Indicated by a particle only when it is absolutely necessary, and the feminine adjective seems to be preferred. The article cuts very little figure. The verb is never changed in form, five monosyllabic particles serving to distinguish the moods and tenses. There is only one form each for the personal pronouns. Conjunctions, prepositions, and similar parts of speech, though in use, are sacrificed at conveniance.

Creole is mainly a spoken language and is not codified and standardized as languages like English and French are. When Creole speakers learn to read and write, they learn standard French, with all its formalized grammatical rules. It can seem, therefore, that Creole speakers speak their piece any way they see fit, leaving it to the listener to understand correctly. One feature of Creole makes accurate understanding particularly difficult: Creole has modal particles, rather than auxiliary forms -- may / must / might / should / can -- but these particles can also serve nonmodal functions. And of course intonation plays a big role inmeaning as well. As with any language, to be certain one is understanding accurately, one must have a context, and the linguistic context alone will often not suffice. Often one also needs the situational and cultural context in order to understand fully.

The language of a vital, highly creative people, Creole evolves rapidly, like other largely unwritten languages. And although linguistics researchers have compiled dictionaries and grammatical rules for Haitian Creole, there is no body of explicit, formalized grammar rules and dictionaries consulted by native speakers. Therefore, Creole can seem to mean essentially what the speaker intends and what the listener understands. Of course, if there were no implicit grammar rules internalized bynative speakers and if there were no system at all, no one could ever understand anything anyone else said. There is a system, it's just not something explicit, studied in language classes. This can make life in Haiti interesting, if wearing, for a language buff. Creole tries one's communicative skills, the way living in the political ana economic instability of Haiti can try one's resolve. Sometimes it seems as if because reality has often been unkind to Haiti, Haiti rebels and makes its own.

One occasion in particular remains vivid. It involved an ambassador, a general, a proverb, and a dream. In the time of Prosper Avril, the Americans sent Haiti a new ambassador who, upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, made the customary brief remarks at the airport. In the course of his remarks, the ambassador employed a Haitian proverb: "Bourik chajepa kanpe" he said. No one seems to remember what else he may have said, but all remember the event, because an uproar ensued. "What did he mean?" Haitians asked one another. People all over Haiti analyzed the event. Interpretations of the message varied. Among those received were:

  • A loaded donkey doesn't stop (meaning "the die is cast").
  • A loaded donkey is unable to stop, regardless of whether or not it might wish todoso.
  • A loaded donkey may not (does not have a right to / will not be allowed to) stop until its final destination has been reached.
  • A loaded donkey cannot rise up in protest.
  • A loaded donkey is unable to revolt.
  • This loaded donkey is not stopping.

Haitians quickly reached a consensus as to where the donkey was heading(elections); but just who was the donkey, Haitians were eager to know. Was it the ambassador or General Avril? And was this, then, a threat, or a promise of help? Haitians attributed particular significance to the fact that the ambassador had spoken Creole, a language the masses could actually understand. Despite all U.S. statements to the contrary, a majority of Haitians were convinced that the election-day massacre that put an end to the 1987 elections had been, at the very least, sanctioned by the United States. Could the United States now be advocating real participation of the Haitian masses in the political life of the nation? The very possibility threw the entire society into turmoil. No one knew for sure what the ambassador had meant to say, but he had in effect said: A loaded donkey does not / must not / may not / cannot / should not / is not going to stop. Did the ambassador knew "kreyolpale kreyol konprann"? ("If / when Creole is the language employed, those whose language is Creole will get the message.") Had the situation been less pathetic, one might have found the reactions of the different sectors amusing: the Macoutes became enraged; the elite disconcerted; the masses hopeful. Everyone did sit up and take notice. The general caught "la grippe"and had to postpone the ceremony for presentation of the ambassador's credentials. Had the ambassador planned it all, or had Haiti once again chosen to create its own reality?

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