Lang Kreyòl

Origin of Language and the Impacts on the People

By Oriana Ma


Abstract

The origins of language development in Haiti has always been a very complex process that stem from multiple sources. With the wave of colonization, the French language was enforced on the citizens and have impacted official documents, education, and the development of Haitian Creole. Haitian Creole, in contrast, has dominated all aspects of the Haitian citizens’ daily life. Haitian Creole is a language influenced by the heritage of the island, with West African roots and French/ European influences, and used by a majority of the population. The differences between the languages are vastly unalike because the population class that utilize each language vary and the environment in which they are spoken is also contrasting. The purpose of this paper explores the origins of language development in Haiti from the conflicting influences it stems from to the current product today, Haitian Creole. Furthermore, the paper also intends to focus on the impacts of Haitian Creole and French usage today and what is affected in the common Haitian citizen. These differences impact Haitians by dictating those who are able to be educated, those who are involved in the government, and what a Haitian identity is defined as. The significance of studying language is to help spread awareness of the disparity between different languages happening in Haiti and the effects it has on the people.

Keywords: Haiti, Creole, language, colonization, culture, origin, education, exceptionalism. stigma


Impact of Colonization on Language

Before colonization, the people that inhabited the island, of what is now known as Haiti, were called the Tainos. They spoke their own language, which is vastly different from the Haitian creole that is generally spoken in Haiti (Bonefant, 2011). During French colonization of the island, the Tainos that had enjoyed life on the island were wiped out and did not survive much more than twenty years after the invasion of the island (Arthur and Dash, 1999).  Due to this, the ties from the Tainos language to the language majorly spoken today is severed and instead draws from the period directly after the Tainos: colonization. Instead, the major components that influenced the development of the modern language of Haitian creole stems from African roots and European powers that arrived to the island during the period of colonization.

The European powers that were present in Haiti during the age of colonization included the Dutch, English, and French. Before France officially colonized Hispaniola, Dutch, English, and French pirates occupied the area preying on Spanish ships that sailed with the treasured gold and silver of the Incas and Aztecs. The island was the perfect spot for these pirates because of its proximity towards the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola. From there, African slaves were brought to the island by the pirates to be captured chattel (Valdman, 2005). Theorized by Haitian linguist Suzanne Comhaire- Sylvain, Creole was born when “an African slave tried to speak French with … his master and mutual accommodation ensured.” (Valdman, 2005). As romanticized as this statement is, it proves the point that Haitian Creole stems from a mixture of languages that merged from the necessity of communication.

However, from the different European powers that were in Haiti during the colonization era, the French were the dominating group that contributed towards the development of Haitian Creole the most. The French eventually were able to seize control of the western portion of the island and establish Saint- Domingue as a French colony in 1665. Colonization brought a greater population of French to the island and a greater influence in the language as well. With emergence of the colony, brought along the need to develop it and establish means of economic profit to send to France. To do this, slaves were forcefully brought from Africa to help with the plantations established.

Many of the Africans brought to the island from the Atlantic Slave trade originated from Niger- Congo areas of West Africa. The languages that were native to this area were mostly Kwa languages, such as Gbe, the Central Tano languages, and Bantu languages (Lebebvre, 2006). These African languages were the languages that greatly influences the development of Haitian Creole.

“Peoples with different backgrounds, different languages, different legends, and different traditions…Each of them brought something of his past and unwittingly poured it into the new amalgam that was to be Haitian.” (Arthur and Dash, 1999)

African map
African Slave Trade. Image by African Heritage in Latin America

 

Creole Exceptionalism

As mentioned before, Haitian Creole has a negative stigma attached to it and consequently suffers from being labelled as “lesser than the related European… languages” (Hebblethwaite, 2012). This and the belief that Creole languages “form an exceptional class on phylogenetic and/or typological grounds” defines Creole exceptionalism (DeGraff, 2005). The exceptionalist point of view arise from French colonial slave society and the rejection of African and Creole humanity. In the colonial era, the French viewed the African and Creole languages their slaves spoke as inferior and degenerate since those that spoke it were viewed as subhuman. This viewpoint of slavery and language has been carried on for generations and have continued to resonate today in class ideology and language as well. Those that reside as the “Francophillic elite” still carry on the degradation of Haitian Creole as deficient and possessing a unique quality that is below French (DeGraff, 2005).

Combatting this stereotype and stigma may seem unattainable, but a start would be to stop viewing Haitian Creole for its similarities with French. (DeGraff, 2005) Many languages share roots of words and origins and yet none are only known as sub-languages of the other. An example of this are the romance languages, such as Spanish, French and Italian, that are similar because they share roots in a language spoken by the Romans and yet are known as their own individual languages. Haitian Creole, as well, should follow this course to be released from the stigma of creole exceptionalism.

Impact of “Creole”

A movement has been advocated to delete the term “creole” in the title of Haitian Creole to allow for a better expansion of the Haitian identity (Previllon, 1993). In all intents and purposes, the term “creole” is linked with a negative connotation that hurts the sociological functions of using Haitian Creole. In places like Spanish America and Surinam, studies have shown that the word “creole” projects an image of “oppressed and dissenting people” and “descendants of African slaves” (Previllon, 1993). The negative images and connotation helps to facilitate the undesirable definition of what Haitian culture is through the lenses of outsiders. Although other’s perspective is uncontrollable, this hurts the culture of the people and what it means to be Haitian. With the objective to delete the term “creole”, advances and leniencies towards having more academia written in Haitian creole is better advocated. Positive changes towards having Haitian Creole changes to just Haitian leads to psychological and logically arguments that like how Italians speak Italian, Haitians speak Haitian.

Along with this movement, there is a push for Haitian Creole to be more widely used in Haiti throughout all projects held by foreign powers in Haiti. Hindrances in the development for this push include NGOs that offer aid while using French, English, and Spanish.

Difference in Usage

In Haiti, almost one hundred percent of the population  speak Haitian creole, while the amount of people that are fluent in French only adds up to around five percent (DeGraff, 2017). Most people learn Haitian Creole growing up, and it is spoken in the household and on the street. Those that learn French as their first language are a very small percentage of the total population. Hence, the small percentage that choses to teach their children French before Creole consists of the Haitian elite. In contrast, French is introduced in schools to the majority and is rarely used in everyday language besides the classroom in which they learn it.

This vast difference in usage shows how the average Haitian citizen uses creole in their lives more than French is used. French fluency is reserved for the upper class of Haiti and the majority of the population will live their lives without being fluent in French. Some would even argue that, to live in Haiti, French fluency is not needed since so little of the population knows French fluently anyways. However, this disparity does not stop the government to have French as the official language of the country for most of the country’s history. It has only been since 1987, around 2 decades, that Haitian creole was added to the country’s constitution as an “official language.”

While, Haitian Creole has been spoken in Haiti since the 17th and 18th century, the detriments of its absence has created an impact on the country and its citizens is seen through many sectors such as governance, education, literature, and professions (DeGraff, 2007). All official documents are written in French, and yet not even half of the population can read these documents and therefore use them. Among the elite in their professions, while French dominates all written text, even the bilingual elite prefer to use Creole in speaking with their coworkers (Hebblethwaite, 2012). The use of French is only a tool to establish a hierarchical relationship and formality which proves that French is unneeded and serves only as a social construct. During elections, the ballots are in French, which deter a majority of the population to go and vote in elections. All education in Haiti is taught in French, not Haitian creole like it should be. Also, civil push towards education being taught in Creole has been unsuccessful.

Elite
Past President Dumarsaid Estimé and his wife Lucienne Hertelou surrounded by the Haitian elite. Photo by Corbis/ Bettman

Education in Creole

According to the 1979 Haitian constitution, while French is the “language of instruction”, Haitian Creole is just a “tool of education” (Hebblethwaite, 20012).This means that Haitian Creole is rarely used in Haitian classrooms and it is not the main language that teachers use to teach. Instead, French is utilized on students who do not understand or speak French on a regular basis. This stems from the majority of the population using Haitian Creole in their lives and the bilingual elite using Creole to speak to the majority of the population. This causes no exposure to French to the rest of the population aside from the elite who get a proper French education Hebblethwaite, 2012).

Of all the problems that the disparity between Haitian Creole and French causes, one of the largest obstacle it creates is with education. In Haitian schools, students resort to memorizing French instead of mastering the subject that is being taught. Students also fail to advance in education because they do not understand the French language, not because of the content of education (Hebblethwaite, 2012). This is the fundamental issue that Haitian schools have. Logically, the language in which the majority population speaks and understand should be the language utilized in instruction. However, due to negative stigma, foreign intervention, and elite influence, French has been the language schools teach in. This bares the students not part of the Haitian elite from personally gaining from the education they are receiving.

Using the first language of the majority population would be essential to Haiti’s development and stability. Change in how the current education system is run would allow for the majority of the population to have access to more knowledge and opportunity that will help lift the country progress tremendously. More children would be more likely to finish school and continue their education if their success and understanding in schools increased. If the language policy changes, it would also allow for children to understand the content that leads to dropouts diminishing and increase in economic growth (Hebblethwaite, 2012). Another advantage of language policy change would include the decrease of the large gap between the elite and the poor. This would be due to the decline of the linguistic advantage that the upper class has on the poor and would therefore increase mobility among the classes.

DeGraff
Michel DeGraff with student at the Creole- language school Lekol Kominote Matenwa in La Gonave, Haiti. Picture by Dieu Nalio Chery for The Boston Globe.

Conclusion

Haitian languages are essential to Haitian studies because it affects many studied sectors such as history, education, class structure, and foreign influence. In history, Haiti’s past of colonization has resulted in the product of Haitian Creole. With African and European roots, Haitian Creole’s origins shows the mix of cultures that the people and the island itself received when the Europeans invaded the island. Language also effects the education of the population and the imbalance it creates between the majority of the population and the elite class. Language plays a large role in who is considered the elite and who is considered the poor majority. The stigma that Haitian Creole is labeled as also serves to outline how the class structure in Haiti is laid and how it prevents mobility in the social ladder. Foreign influence, as well, is shown in the hindrances of converting language use in the country from French to Haitian Creole. Developmental actors, such as the government, NGOs, and the elite, deter the push for Haitian Creole in playing a larger part in the country. In studying Haitian languages, improvements towards how Haitian Creole is utilized and viewed could lead to major changes in overcoming the underlying obstacles Haiti suffers from to build educated citizens, universal literacy, and make socioeconomic progress.


Bibliography:

Arthur, Charles. Dash, Michael. 1999. Libete. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers.

Bonenfant, Jacques L. 2011. “History of Haitian- Creole: From Pidgin to Lingua Franca and English Influence on the Language.” Review of Higher Education and Self- Learning. 4 (11). 27-34

DeGraff, Michel. 2005. “Lingustists’ Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Creole Exceptionalism” Language in Society. 34(4). 533-591

DeGraff, Michel. 2007. “Kreyol Ayiseyn, or Haitian Creole” In Comparative Creole Syntax: Parallels Outlines of 18 Creole Grammars. Edited by J. Holm and P.L. Patrick 101-126 Portland, OR: Battlebridge Publications

DeGraff, Michel. 2017. “Mother- tongue books in Haiti: The power of Kreyol in learning to read and in reading to learn” Prospects. 46 (3/4) 435-464.

Hebblethwaite, Benjamin. 2012. “French and underdevelopment, Haitian Creole and development Educational language policy problems and solutions in Haiti.” Journal of Pidgin & Creole Languages. 27(2). 255-302

Previllon, Jean. 1993. “An Argument for Haitian as the Native Language of Haitians.” What’s In a Name: An Awakening of the Haitian Linguistic Consciousness 18. 1-18

Valdman, Albert. 2005. “Haitian Creole at the Dawn of Independence” Yale French Studies. 107(The Haiti Issue:1804 and Ninth Century France). 146-161

 

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