Haitian Creole struggles for recognition and respect
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Most Haitians cannot understand the
language used in the country's newspapers, law books, official documents,
almost all billboards and most literature.
That's because French, the language of long-ago colonial rulers, is held
almost mystical regard by Haiti's elite -- and they insist on using it, even
though nine of every 10 Haitians speak only Creole.
In a nation where barely a fifth of Creole speakers can read or write,
upper crust uses French to maintain its privilege and power and, in the
process, quietly suppress Creole, critics say.
To its partisans, like former culture minister Jean-Claude Bajeux, Creole's
suppression by past Haitian governments and intellectuals is a badge of
shame, a willful subservience to old colonial masters.
"It's lunacy," Bajeux says, banging his fist on a table. "The same mentality
slavery is still imposing itself. Don't think independence has changed this."
To Francophiles of the upper class, like bookstore owner Vania Auguste,
Creole is a mere local vernacular, a sort of broken French she dismisses as
"Creole isn't a language. It's a dialect," Auguste insists. "There are
dictionaries, no formal grammar."
Creole proponents dispute that. They argue its origins are unique and
defining: a language that developed on slave ships and in plantations as a
means for Africans from different tribes to communicate with each other and
with their masters.
The fact that Creole developed similarly in such faraway places as St.
a small island 800 hundred miles away, suggests not a broken French but a
logically evolving language, its champions say.
Much of Haitian Creole is comprised of words whose origins are clearly
French, filtered through a different phonetic system. That system relieves
words of their weak-ending syllables, such as barely discernible "r's." It's
also written phonetically to approximate more difficult French vowel sounds
like "eu" or "u."
Thus, the French "culture" becomes "kilti" (keel-TEE), and "ciel" (sky)
To Auguste, this makes Creole a pidgin French. While her bookstore is
stocked with works by Haitian authors like Gary Victor, the overwhelming
majority of the books are in French.
"The people who buy books do not buy Creole," she says in beautifully
Such sentiments are fighting words to Bajeux, who recently compiled an
anthology of 800 Creole titles, including an adaptation of the ancient Greek
play "Antigone" by Morriseau Leroy, a revered local poet.
Bajeux agrees that perhaps 80 percent of the Haitian Creole vocabulary
comes from French. Yet, he notes, non-Creole speakers cannot understand
One reason: In Creole, the article follows the subject. Another is that
verbs don't change with context -- as opposed to the complex and
frequently irregular conjugations of French, Spanish and other Romance
Bajeux compares Creole today to European languages during the
Renaissance, trying to break free of Latin's control over letters.
Creole has made some strides. Haitian groups in the United States are
developing dictionaries and supporting Creole studies.
A 1969 law in Haiti gave Creole limited legal status, and in 1979 a decree
permitted Creole's use in schools. But Haiti is so poor that only half its
children attend elementary school, and few of them get past fifth grade.
A 1983 constitution declared that both Creole and French national
languages -- but specified French would be the official language. Another
constitution, in 1987, gave Creole official status.
While Creole is prevalent on Haitian radio, and parliamentary debates have
been conducted in Creole, most government documents, including a recent
electoral law, are published in French.
Bajeux dreams about setting up schools that would give Haitian children
literacy in their language.
"If we want to develop this country, we have to put our finger on the root
problem: the linguistic problem. We have to resolve our identity," he says.
For now, French signs and advertisements are everywhere on teeming
streets, beyond the comprehension of most. A huge banner, for example,
announces the "Grande Ouverture" (grand opening) of a haberdashery
named "Les Ciseaux D'Or" (Golden Scissors).
Politicians, on the other hand, take no chances. The only Creole sign on
Port-au-Prince's main avenue urges people to participate in the
parliamentary election coming up March 19.
"Viktwa pou demokrasi!" it reads. "Victory for democracy!"