CREOLE: THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE OF HAITI

Footsteps, 2(4), 36-39

Albert Valdman

Creole and French in Haiti
 Haitian Creole is the true national language of the Republic of Haiti.  In addition to seven million people in the homeland, it is spoken by about a million Haitians living abroad. All Haitians speak the language, but a small minority of about 10% of the population also speak French, which they have learned either at home or at school.  However, even Haitians who master French consider Haitian Creole, which they use for most everyday communication, as the symbol of their national identity.

What is a creole?
 The people in Haiti call Haitian Creole kreyòl (Creole in English), so we will call it Creole.  The term creole comes from a Portuguese word meaning "raised in the home." It first referred to Europeans born and raised in the overseas colonies.  It was later used for languages that arose on the plantations that the Europeans established, where cash crops (indigo, coffee, cotton, sugar) were produced using slaves imported from Africa.  Creole is the most widely spoken and most developed of a large group of creole languages that are found today in all former French plantation colonies, including Louisiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and islands in the Indian Ocean.  Nothing about their structure differentiates them from other languages nor makes them inferior. The grammar of Creole is just as complex or simple as that of English or French, for example, and its vocabulary meets all the needs of its speakers.

How was Creole formed?
 In a way, Creole resulted from African slaves' efforts to speak the French that they heard when they arrived in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).  Slaves came from all over West Africa and spoke many different languages.  On any one plantation, several African languages were spoken.  Also at that time, most of the French people in Saint-Domingue spoke French dialects and everyday spoken French.  That type of French, called Popular (common people's) French, differed a lot from the French spoken by the ruling classes in France called Standard French.  The slaves, seldom able to communicate with fellow slaves in a common African tongue, tried to learn Popular French.  Slaves who arrived later, especially field slaves who had little contact with French speakers, tried to learn the approximative variety of Popular French the other slaves spoke rather than Popular French itself.  Over time, this approximative form of French became more and more different from the French varieties and came to be recognized as a language in its own right--Creole.  It is also interesting that it was picked up by the whites and became the language used by all those born in the colony.
 More than 90% of the vocabulary of Creole is of French origin, yet French people can't understand Creole.  This is because the grammars of the two languages are very different.  Also, Creole has kept the original meaning of Popular French words whereas in France these words were replaced by words from Standard French, and some Popular French words changed their meaning.  A good example is the sentence Ki jan ou rele? "What is your name?" which corresponds to French Comment vous appelez-vous?   Although a French person wouldn't understand that phrase, every word is of French origin: qui "what," genre "manner," vous "you," héler "to call" or "What manner  call  (yourself)?".  In France, the verb héler  has been replaced by appeler.
 

Creole

French

English

ki

qui

what

jan

genre

manner

ou

vous

you

appeler

héler

to call

The African element of Creole
 Most present-day Creole speakers are descendants of African slaves, and some people think that it is a language that mixes French vocabulary with grammar from African languages.  This seems reasonable since African traits have survived in other areas of cultures: religion, folklore, food.  For example, in the case of food, okra, called by its African name gumbo, is used a lot in Haiti.  There are indeed some grammatical elements that might be traced to Africa, for example the fact that the equivalent of the definite article ("the") comes after the noun instead of before.  In Table 1 we compare the forms for "the house" in Standard French, Popular French, Creole, and two African languages (Ewe and Yoruba).

Table 1
Placement of articles after the noun
 

English

the house

Standard French

la maison

Popular French

la maison là

Creole

kay-la

Ewe

afe a

Yoruba

ife yen

But note that in Popular French the form "there" is added after the noun for emphasis, somewhat like English "that there house."  African languages served as a sort of filter between forms slaves heard and those they reproduced: they would favor forms of Popular French that resembled or worked like those of their native language  The famous writer from Martinique, Aimé Césaire, whose ancestors were African slaves, probably best expressed the relationship between Creole and its sources: "Creole is a language whose body is French but whose soul is African."

The Future of Creole
 Today in Haiti, Creole has been recognized as a co-official language with French.  It now has an official spelling.  It is used more and more in education and the media.  Its recognition as a full language and its expanded use means that the majority of Haitians for whom it is the only language will be able to better participate in the political and economic life of their country.