February 20, 2000

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 in
                   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, the
                   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 of
                   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
                   "our thing."

                   "Creole isn't a language. It's a dialect," Auguste insists. "There are no
                   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. Lucia,
                   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)
                   becomes "syel."

                   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
                   enunciated French.

                   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 its
                   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!"