15 of The Most Popular Questions About Haitian Creole
- Wednesday, March 02, 2011 2:23 PM
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1- Creole: What is it?
Creole is a language spoken by the entire population of Haiti (estimated at nine million people). As any natural human language, it uses meaningful words (a vocabulary) with specific sounds.
These words are grouped together according to a specific syntax, that is, according to a system of mental rules that establish structural relationships among words.
2- Is Creole a language, a dialect a patois?
As for any human language, speakers of Haitian Creole manifest slight differences in word pronunciation, forms and meanings and in word order, according to geographical locations and differences in social status. These differences are called dialectal differences by scholars studying language. But asking if Creole (or Portuguese or Yoruba, etc.) is a dialect or a language is tantamount to asking if a tall person or a short one, an elderly male or a middle age female are human beings or not... As for "patois", the word is, for example, often used for regional forms of French that have been spoken for centuries and that are still spoken today in the French countryside, although less and less. The word "patois" (in various spellings) is also sometimes used to refer to certain creole languages --- for example, Jamaican Creole is sometimes called "patois" (or "patwa").
3- Where does Creole come from?
The Creole spoken in Haiti developed probably after 1680 and before 1730 when African slaves speaking many different languages of West Africa came into contact with French settlers in Saint-Domingue speaking several dialectal forms of French from different parts of France.
4- Where is creole spoken?
Creole is spoken all over Haiti, formerly called Saint-Domingue by the French colonists. It is also spoken by Haitians who migrated in large numbers in countries such as the Dominican Republic, the United States, Canada, etc...Varieties of Creole akin to Haitian Creole are found specially in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. Scholars borrowed the word Creole for a variety of languages which emerged in former European colonies in the Caribbean in Asia and Africa. There is some confusion created by this use of the word Creole. But the word Creole itself has been used for more than two hundred years by its native speakers in Haiti as the name of their sole or main language.
5- Isn't Haiti ISOLATED by Creole?
Among the Great Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico) Haiti is singled out by the fact that its seven million inhabitants speak Creole and a tiny minority of them also speak French. But Haiti is not isolated by this situation. Linguistic isolation would be possible if and only if in the large Creole-speaking Haitian community could learn, understand and speak any foreign language and if no speaker, say of Spanish, English, French could learn and speak Creole. People travel from and to Haiti. Commercial & diplomatic exchanges exist between Haiti and foreign countries. Telephone, radio and television connect Creole-speaking Haiti to the world, a fact that was readily observable during the June-July 1998 world cup soccer tournament as millions of Haitians in Haiti followed play by play broadcast of the matches in Creole.
6- Isn't Creole responsible for Haiti's underdevelopment?
Would blame the poverty of Bolivia on Spanish or the dire conditions of 19th century Ireland on English. It makes no sense to explain underdevelopment by the use of a particular language. More accurate explanations can come from a careful examination of historical and social factors like genocide of indigenous populations, slavery, colonization, greedy exploitation of natural resources, wars, political instabilities, internal troubles, dictatorship etc...
7- Does Creole have a scientific and a technical vocabulary?
No speech community ever came into existence with a God-given scientific and technological vocabulary. Native speakers of a particular language can borrow and adapt words from other languages to express new experiences and new knowledge. It's the expansion of formal education in the native language of a community that favors the use of this language in different domains of knowledge.
8- Can one conduct or carry scientific discussions in Creole?
For more than a century, educated Haitians who became physicians, architects, lawyers, agronomist, pharmacists, engineers etc. have been conducting debates and discussions in Creole. Although higher education is still too restricted in Haiti, it is obvious that the ten thousand or more students, at the university level in the country, constantly engage in lengthy Creole conversations in their various domains of study.
9- Are there Creole dictionaries?
There are several Creole/French, Creole/English and other dictionaries of unequal value. Each human language possesses a MENTAL vocabulary that exists in the mind of its speakers. These mental vocabularies contain thousands of words naming objects and expressing ideas, feelings, prejudices of community of speakers. Written (as opposed to mental) dictionaries are late comers in the history of a language. Hebrew has been spoken and written for two thousand years before scholars invented Hebrew dictionaries. The VALUE of a written dictionary depends on the knowledge of its author(s). Although written dictionaries are useful, the INTRINSIC (communicative) value of a language does not depend on the existence of a written dictionary.
10- Does Creole have grammar?
A language without a grammar would be like a human being without a brain, a skeleton, a nervous system or a respiratory system. A Haitian author of a very moving autobiography (1998) tells us that his first picture was taken when he was fourteen years old. This picture and the ones taken afterward did not modify his external appearance or his personality. Grammar books are like late and very poor pictures of a language. They are only partial and incomplete descriptions of a very complex linguistic system. They are accurate or inaccurate, good or bad depending on the knowledge and the talents of the grammarians. But all Creole speakers, as speakers of any other language, possess a MENTAL grammar for Creole; these mental grammars follow rigorous principles. It is these principles that are the object of study in linguistics.
11- Is Creole rule-governed?
All languages are rule-governed. That means that their speakers follow principles and systematic rules to relate sounds to meanings, to produce an unlimited number of sentences acceptable to both themselves and their interlocutors. How could even simple sentences like "The hunter killed the tiger" and "The tiger killed the hunter" be constructed without any underlying organization? In Creole, like in English, an unlimited number of similar sentences can be distinguished from one another because Creole is rule-governed.
12- Does Creole have an orthography (that is, a spelling system)?
Human languages have been spoken for some fifty thousand years before writing was invented. After the invention of writing some three to four thousand years ago, only a few of the five thousand languages (or more) of the world have been written. The modern expansion of writing, literacy and schooling was accompanied by the creation of hundreds of spelling systems. The official spelling of Haitian Creole was published in January 1980. It is a modern and very regular spelling system using 24 letters of the Latin alphabet and a few combinations of those letters to represent the basic vowels and consonants, (about thirty contrasting sounds) used by the bulk of speakers all over Haiti to make meaningful distinctions between words or between utterances.
13- Can people use Creole in Haiti to treat serious business in State services with due respect and attention from public servants?
Unfortunately article 5 of the 1987 constitution proclaiming that Creole is the sole language uniting all Haitians and one of the two official languages of the country, is not yet seriously implemented in government offices. But this is not due to the Creole language itself, but to a long tradition of violation of human and constitutional rights of farmers, workers, ordinary people, women, children, poor people etc...
14- Will Creole-speaking children be able to learn French and English well?
With proper exposure to foreign languages, favorable learning conditions, good teachers, and motivations, Creole-speaking children as well as, say, Danish speaking children can learn French, English or other foreign languages. But miracle-learning of a non native language is no more accessible to them than to any normal child of any country.
15- Why is it that people advocating the use of Creole in Haitian schools are individuals already fluent in French?
This comes as no surprise, since as a former slave colony; Haiti inherited a traditional school system made for French-speaking children. Remember that for centuries in Europe formal education was conducted in Latin and was a privilege reserved to a tiny "elite". People educated in Latin discovered the necessity to spread formal education to all children by using French, English, German, etc... as a medium of instruction. In Haiti too, only a restricted number (unfortunately) of educators, teachers, scholars educated in French have the will and the lucidity to advocate the use of Creole, the sole language of more than 95% of Haitians, as the normal medium of instruction for a formal education adapted to and useful for three million school-age children.