Haiti’s Creole: Language of Revolution

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Theories vary about the genesis of Kreyòl, or Haitian Creole, the most plausible one being that Taino Indians and West Africans, who had evaded slavery together on Haiti’s mountains, probably intermarried and developed a new language. The country’s name itself, Ayiti, is an Arawak word that means mountainous land. The word Vodou, which is essentially synonymous with Haitian culture and religion, originates from Benin and means God — not the God of Christianity, Islam and Judaism created in man’s image, but a polytheistic religion’s most supreme God, wholly indifferent to human affairs, indescribable, and inaccessible except by some manifestations of its aspects in other deities.

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Much of Kreyòl’s grammar comes from the African Fon language family, whereas the lexicon represents a mixed bag of African (Fon, Wolof, Kongo, Arabic), Native American (Arawak), and European (Spanish, English, Portuguese).

Haitian proverb: Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann. | Creole spoken, Creole understood. (This is straight talk.)

In the cases of the words borrowed from Europe, historical and cultural changes have altered many of their meanings from the original. For example, the word “Creole” is derived from the Portuguese “crioulo”; its older, more formal meaning, as the category for a person of Portuguese origin who resides in the colonies, has long been lost. Likewise, Kreyòl’s lexicon is replete with French words that have undergone differences in pronunciation, structure, and meaning. For example, the French “ce nègre” (this black man), has changed to “nèg sa” and simply come to mean “this man,” because, you see, in Haiti where we are black, and we have actually fought and won a war against racism, a black person is the definition and reference for human.

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How long has Haitian Creole existed? The oldest known text in Kreyòl is a passage from a book by Justin Girod de Chantrans, titled Voyage d’un Suisse dans différentes colonies d’Amérique. It is pure fluff and typical of the soft pornography of colonial times. In a brief two-paragraph section, a slave woman writes about her rape by a man to her lover and swears to him her undying fidelity. The passage is probably a Swiss man’s quite poor rendition of the kind of Creole that was spoken by Haiti’s slaves when the book appeared in 1785.

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Creole was certainly the tongue spoken at the 1791 Bois Caiman Vodou ceremony that launched the Haitian Revolution. Nevertheless, it was French that served as the text of Haiti’s Independence declaration in 1804 and the only official language of the world’s first black republic for nearly two centuries.

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At least two issues prevented Haitian Creole from becoming the country’s official language alongside French. First, Creole was regarded as a bastardization of French and put down as being a patois until 1961, when the work of Félix Morisseau-Leroy and others led to its formal recognition as one of 11 romance languages. Second, the Institut Pédagogique National d’Haiti did not standardize written Kreyòl until 1979.

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Proverb: Pale franse pa di lespri pou sa. | French talk does not mean smart.

Consequently, for nearly two centuries, a selective use of language excluded the majority of Haitians from all popular debate, in a largely agrarian country where no more than 10 percent had received a formal education or ever spoken French. Only those Haitians who could afford an education spoke French fluently, because all schooling was done in French, and students were forbidden from speaking a word of Creole on their school grounds. Many of these practices continue today. Indeed, for educated Haitians, fluency in French is typically commensurate with the level of schooling, and informal tests of the mastery of conversational French are routinely applied in Haitian society to gauge a person’s wealth and education.

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Around 12 million Haitians at home and abroad speak Creole. By contrast, only about one million Haitians speak French. The notion that it is right and proper to address large Haitian audiences in Creole is gradually catching on. This idea started around the 1980s when Haiti’s writers, educators, and journalists began to publish, teach, and inform the population in its native tongue. A milestone in this regard was the 1975 publication of Dezafi, a novel by Haitian writer and playwright Franketienne that is acknowledged as being a masterpiece of literature and is written entirely in Creole. Today Creole is a routine language of Haitian television and radio news broadcasts.

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As a language born of revolution, it is fitting that Creole’s official acceptance should have come from the February 1986 rebellion that ousted Jean-Claude Duvalier. Subsequent broad popular discussions produced, alongside a French version, the first major national document in Creole: the 1987 Constitution. In 1991, Kreyòl formally became Haiti’s official language through legislation that had been introduced by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

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Haitian proverb: Li pale franse! | He is speaking French! (He is obfuscating in French.)

With Aristide’s removal in 2004, much has slowed in the country’s political and cultural evolution. By 2012, the 1987 Constitution had become illegally amended in the French, but not the Creole, version to allow the elimination of popularly elected mayors, municipal judges, Supreme Court justices and their replacement with presidential appointees. These moves have concentrated power in the executive so that it might be better controlled by a coalition of foreign occupiers. In a country where metaphor and reality casually commingle, it is not lost on anyone that there are now two constitutions: one for the rich, another for the poor.

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Haitian proverb: Se grès kochon-an ki kwit kochon-an. | It is pig fat that fries the pig. (Greed will undo the rich.)

 

Editor’s Note: Photographs one, two, and four through ten by Alex Proimos.

 

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18 Responses to Haiti’s Creole: Language of Revolution

  1. +6 Vote -1 Vote +1Fr. Larry Canavera
    December 19, 2013 at 7:04 am

    Thanks for this article. It is a concise and helpful sketch of the evolution of a people who refused to be “used permanently as objects for commerce, ignored as the humans they are”. You capture history, and Ayiti not only survived but lives and grows and continues to manifest the journey of a people who stand up, stand for, stand with or against the winds of change as needed. This history manifests a people who are and will continue to be!

  2. Dady Chery
    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 19, 2013 at 8:05 am

    You are welcome, Larry. Thank you for your comment.

  3. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Anita Stewart
    December 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for this story.
    Wonderful!
    Please do more stories on Haiti so people know what is happening there.

  4. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Jack Lieberman
    December 20, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    I also want to thank you for this great article. I am going to pass it on to some of my Haitian friends here in Miami.

  5. Vote -1 Vote +1Oswald Durand
    December 21, 2013 at 5:26 am

    Haiti is not the only place on earth where kreyol is spoken, I heard this girl speak it with her brothers when I was a kid. I was shocked because I knew they came from Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Taino contributed a few words to the language just as it has to English (hammock, etc). I love the language, but I’m not crazy about the written version of it. Why is it reduced to mimicking the way people pronounce things? Here is an example: Champ de Mars (Field of Mars) is rendered as Chanmas, something is lost in the translation from French to creole because chanmas is just the name of a public square while field of mars connects that place to the martial traditions of Rome. “As a language born of revolution”, nonsense, creole was born of slavery, and Napoleon tried to fool the people by printing his lies in creole when he tried to re-enslave the people in 1802.

    • Dady Chery
      +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
      December 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

      By definition, Kreyòl is the language of Haitians. Yes, there are others places where various kinds of Creole are spoken, but these are not the same. By contrast to Kreyòl, which is spoken by over 13 million people, the other kinds of Creole are quickly disappearing and are spoken mainly by the elderly. I speak the Kreyòl of my great-grandmother, with proverbs to boot, and the correct name is “Chanmas,” not “Champs de Mars,” which would be an affectation. Napoleon tried to re-enslave us, but if “nèg” means man today, it is because we beat him.

      • Vote -1 Vote +1Oswald Durand
        December 21, 2013 at 9:15 am

        As Haitians we both honor the heroic deeds of our ancestors. Having run into people from Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Reunion Island, I found that I could understand their Creole as well as Haitian Creole. I feel that the differences are merely due to local variations. I dislike Chanmas as opposed to Champs de Mars because it seems to me that it would be harder to make the connection between mars the planet, mars the roman god and the parade ground called Chanmas. Our slight disagreement notwithstanding, I admire your writing.

  6. Dady Chery
    +4 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 21, 2013 at 11:06 am

    Okay. “Chann mas” is as far as I’ll go :-) Thank you for your kind words.

  7. +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Guy S. Antoine
    December 22, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Nice points, Dady and Oswald. However, Dady, please don’t go for “Chann mas”, as that would also induce confusion. The correctly written word is Channmas (with two n’s and no space). The average Haitian Creole speaker has absolutely no need to connect “Mars the planet, Mars the Roman god and the parade ground”, dear Oswald. And those with such needs, such as specialized intellectuals and etymologists, would have such a well-rounded world education that they would have no difficulty whatsoever taking the word Channmas apart, just as they do for tens of thousands other words in other languages (such as Spanish, Portuguese, etc) where the writing of words is not dictated strictly by their particular etymology. It would be up to teachers and educated men like you, Oswald, to tell Haitians who would benefit from that knowledge (?) what the connection is between the parade ground and the God of Mars. This is a serious point because the simple example that you chose could be easily extended to a significant portion of vocabulary in any language. If you were to submit strictly to historical, mythological and other cultural factors to decide on the correct spelling of words, then the body of spelling would become quite unworkable!!

  8. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 22, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Thank you for the correction and explanation, Guy. “Channmas” it is!

  9. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Hans
    December 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Dear Dady Chery,

    I am looking for a good beginner’s course and intermediate course on Haitian Kreyol for quite some time now. I am of an eager learner of creole languages and their respective historical social context. Thus far I have masterd Papiamentu and Sranan Tongo, two creole languages, the former originating in the leeward Dutch Antilles [Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao] and the latter in Surinam.

    Could you recommend to me a good course that is freely available online, since having strolled many a library and bookstore here in Amsterdam hasn’t paid off in finding any course on Kreyol Aysian at all.

  10. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 24, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    Try the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Kansas University, in Lawrence, Kansas (USA). They should have free resources for learning Kreyòl.

  11. -3 Vote -1 Vote +1mandy
    December 25, 2013 at 4:16 am

    I am from the Seychelles in the Indian ocean and we also speak creole. a simple explanation for creole is that it was borne out of the slaves attempts to communicate with each other.They came from different tribes and were separated to avoid rebellion to some degree and thus they tried to speak the french language. the pronunciation was dropped and the accent was made stronger. Creole is an official language is Seychelles. It is also spoken in Mauritius. Creole is a beautiful language and unique. Just keep in mind that creole has different roots. Similar to the creole spoken in Haiti, the Creole in the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion and even New Orleans are French based. In some other places they speak creole that has Portuguese background.

  12. Dady Chery
    +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 25, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Kreyòl is a language with its own vocabulary and well-developed rules of grammar and orthography. This is why it is formally accepted as a romance language.

    It is unfortunate that so many languages are called “creole.” This is why I distinguish Haiti’s language from the others by calling it by its proper name: Kreyòl. Other languages developed by slaves might well be beautiful or officially accepted, as you say. One or more might even pass the same test of being a romance language, but to my knowledge, so far none of them has.

  13. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Carlos
    December 28, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    Kreyol, which is a particular language specific to Haiti, should also be distinguished from the term “creole” in linguistics, which means any stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin. Within a specialty, words often take on meanings different from their general meaning or their meaning in a different context. For example, to a crop duster, “dusting” means adding dust, whereas for a housekeeper it means the opposite. Although there is only one Haitian Kreyol, to a linguist, there are many, many creoles. And to those who grew up speaking them, creoles such as that of the Seychelles are doubtless full of stories and songs.

  14. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    December 29, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Yes. All the more reason why Kreyòl should have been called “Haitian,” but Kreyòl it is.

  15. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Louis Germain
    February 5, 2014 at 8:12 am

    I was deeply moved reading the article, which I found intellectually stimulating. I was equally impressed with the intellectual level of the comments which followed. It gave me hope that this incredible cumulative pool of talent may one day contribute to turning our country in a more positive direction. Sadly, I found it difficult to agree with one statement in the article, namely that “we have actually fought and won a war against racism “. I am too often reminded of the deep seated racism which prevails in our country to nod in agreement with you. Whenever I visit our homeland, I get downright angry when I see the sub-human living conditions of most of our brothers and sisters, and the class distinction of the Haitian society which is predominantly divided along the color of one’s skin. It is shameful to me and unless we are prepared to acknowledge it, I fear that not much will change…..

  16. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    February 7, 2014 at 4:13 am

    The current state of affairs, especially the complexion of Haiti’s government officials (Laurent Lamothe, Michel Martelly, Stephanie Villedrouin, etc.) compared to the poor who support them, is related to the fact that these officials were handpicked by a coalition of racist countries that occupy Haiti. During the Francois Duvalier regime, for example, the class distinctions were there, but they were no so black and beige. We are back to the era of Sudre Dartiguenave and Elie Lescot. Revolutions are continuous, of course, but yes, our ancestors, a group of transplanted slaves, did fight and win the most audacious war in history: one against colonialism, imperialism, and racism. That victory is etched in our language.