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French and Creole

Two languages were spoken in Haiti: Creole and French. The social relationship between these languages was complex. Rather, two separate speech communities existed: the monolingual majority and the bilingual elite. Although the majority of Creole words have French origins, the two languages are not mutually comprehensible. Indeed, in the 20th Century it varied much in different districts of Haiti and a native of one section had great difficulty in understanding the inhabitants of another.

In 1910 it was estimated that out of the nearly 3,000,000 Haitians, only about 200,000 (a generous estimate) were able to talk and to understand the French language. The remainder, who are more especially of the peasant class, speak what is described as Creole. In 1920 it was estimated that the upper Haitian class, approximately 500,000, spoke and knew French, while the masses, probably more than 2,000,000 spoke only Creole. By 2000 nine of every ten Haitians spoke only Krey˛l Ayisien [Haitian Creole], which was the everyday language for the entire population. About one in ten also spoke French. And only about one in twenty was fluent in both French and Creole. Thus, Haiti was neither a francophone country nor a bilingual one. There is an adult illiteracy rate of at least 65 percent.

All classes valued verbal facility. Public speaking played an important role in political life; the style of the speech was often more important than the content. Repartee enlivened the daily parlance of both the monolingual peasant and the sophisticated bilingual urbanite. Small groups gathered regularly in Port-au-Prince to listen to storytellers. Attitudes toward French and Creole helped to define the Haitians' cultural dilemma.

Language usually complicated interactions between members of the elite and the masses. Haitians of all classes took pride in Creole as a means of expression and as the national tongue. Nevertheless, many monolingual and bilingual Haitians regarded Creole as a nonlanguage, claiming that "it has no rules." Thus, the majority of the population did not value their native language and built a mystique around French. At the same time, almost every bilingual Haitian had ambivalent feelings about using French and did so uncomfortably. In Creole the phrase "to speak French" means "to be a hypocrite."

Fluency in French served as an even more important criterion than skin color for membership in the Haitian elite. The use of French in public life excluded the Creole-speaking majority from politics, government, and intellectual life. Bilingual families used French primarily for formal occasions. Because Creole was the language of informal gatherings, it was filled with slang and was used for telling jokes. Haitian French lacked these informal qualities. Monolingual Creole speakers avoided formal situations where their inability to communicate in French would be a disadvantage or an embarrassment.

In an attempt to be accepted in formal or governmental circles, some monolingual Creole speakers used French-sounding phrases in their Creole speech, but these imitations were ultimately of little or no use. Middle-class bilinguals in Port-au-Prince suffered the greatest disadvantage because they frequently encountered situations in which the use of French would be appropriate, but their imperfect mastery of the language tended to betray their lower-class origins. It was in the middle class that the language issue was most pressing. The use of French as a class marker made middle-class Haitians more rigid in their use of French on formal occasions than Haitians who were solidly upper class.

The origins of Creole are still debated. Some scholars believe that it arose from a pidgin that developed between French colonists and African slaves in the colonies. Others believe that Creole came to the colony of Saint-Domingue as a full-fledged language, having arisen from the French maritime-trade dialect. Whatever its origins, Creole is linguistically a separate language and not just a corrupted French dialect. Although the majority of Creole words have French origins, Creole's grammar is not similar to that of French, and the two languages are not mutually comprehensible.

There are regional and class variations in Creole. Regional variations include lexical items and sound shifts, but the grammatical structure is consistent throughout the country. Bilingual speakers tend to use French phonemes in their Creole speech. The tendency to use French sounds became common in the Port-au-Prince variant of Creole. By the 1980s, the Port-au- Prince variant was becoming perceived as the standard form of the language.

The matter of language proves a handicap to Haiti in another manner. It isolates her from her sister republics. All of the Latin-American republics except Brazil speak Spanish and enjoy an intercourse with the outside world denied Haiti. Dramatic and musical companies from Spain, -^rom Mexico and from the Argentine annually tour all of the Spanish-speaking republics. Haiti is deprived of all such instruction and entertainment from the outside world.

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Page last modified: 02-08-2011 16:44:40 ZULU