From Wed Nov 26 20:00:06 2003
Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003 18:27:03 -0600 (CST)
From: Bob Corbett <>
To: Haiti mailing list <>
Subject: 17438: Reid: CULTURE: Haiti’s First Language Still Running Second (fwd)

From: Ralph Reid <>

Haiti’s First Language Still Running Second

By Jane Regan, IPS, 26 November 2003

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 26 (IPS)—All Haitians are united by a common language: Creole.

So proclaimed the banner flapping in the breeze near Haiti’s National Palace on Oct. 28, 2003, the 21st International Creole Day. The line comes from Article 5 of the country’s constitution, and in the speeches delivered by government officials and the seminars spoken by university professors that day, Creole was the guest of honour.

But 16 years after making Creole one of two official languages in Haiti (the other is French), and 200 years after the language helped unite slaves for struggle against their French masters, Creole is still fighting for its place.

Creole comes from the Spanish criollo, used to designate second-generation African slaves and Europeans born in the Americas.

Later applied to racial groups, cuisine and music, the word was also picked up by linguists to signify the languages born of the clash of cultures and tongues that resulted from 16th-century European expansion and, in the Americas, the forced transplant of at least 10 million Africans.

The most-oft heard Creole on the planet is Haitian Creole, which derives about 90 percent of its words from French.

Creole is heard on street corners, at mass and football games, in music videos, on posters warning against AIDS or selling chicken bullion cubes and in the proverbs that pepper the speech of everyone from peddler to president..

People in Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Dominica, Seychelles, New Caledonia and other former French colonies also speak a similar Creole. But in contrast to those islanders, for most Haitians—90 to 95 percent, according to linguist and Creole authority Yves Déjean—Creole is their only language.

Déjean is quick to add that if Article 5 has a promising start, it then goes on to read: Creole and French are the official languages of the public.

That means if you go into a court house, a schoolroom or a fancy store, look at the government newspaper, listen to at least one-half of local TV shows or check out advertisements for cars or credit cards, you would think that the only official tongue in Haiti was French.

Déjean, a former priest who so far has spent 50 of his 76 years fighting not for Creole, but for Creole-speakers, is also shocked and dismayed to still hear school children sing-songing their lessons in broken French over and over until they are memorised, and then putting the books away so they can converse normally with friends and family in their mother tongue.

A language can be a route to knowledge or a barrier to knowledge, he said in an interview. In Haiti, where school is taught in French, a language only 1 in 10,000 kids speak at home, it is a barrier.

The construction of the Creole language was an important step in our battle for independence, said Sony Esteus, a former radio journalist who cut his teeth with hard-edged reporting in Creole during the three-year coup d’état (1991-1994).

The slaves were from different tribes. They couldn’t communicate at first.. When they developed Creole, it gave the struggle a big push, he told IPS..

Creole also was important in more recent struggles. Creole radio broadcasts helped bring about the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986.

Not surprisingly, the new constitution, voted a year later, recognised the language after 183 years of disparagement. But today, on the eve of Haiti’s 200th anniversary of independence from France (Jan. 1, 2004), Creole is still second to the slave masters’ tongue.

Before there was a colonial domination. Now it’s a social domination, said Esteus.

Sound engineer Adeline Augustin runs the boards for the daily newscast at Radyo Vwa Peyizan (Radio Voice of the Peasant), a community radio station in Papaye. Unlike many of her friends -- only about two-thirds of Haitian children go to school and they only spend an average of four years there—she speaks some French. But not at the radio station.

If we decide not to speak Creole on the radio, we would have to change our name, she said in an interview. We are a peasants’ radio. Peasants speak Creole.

So does everyone else. That’s what Article 5 recognised. And today there are more Creole broadcasts, hours of Creole talk shows, more books and scores of Creole Internet sites.

All schools are now supposed to teach two hours of Creole writing and reading per week (although many ignore the rule), and a few university professors even lecture in Creole. And while the elite have always used Creole at home and amongst friends, to tell tales or talk politics, today more and more also use it in public after a first few exchanges in French.

There’s been a big change, said Déjean, author of books on Creole and education, and also children’s books in Creole. Now, ministers and the president use Creole. And cabinet meetings are conducted in Creole.

But the minutes for those meetings are written up in French. When a farmer goes to get a land title or pay his taxes, it’s in French. When a judge renders a decision, or a receptionist answers a telephone, it’s in French. The government newspaper is in French.

And when a young Haitian shows up for first grade, Déjean is horrified to report, he or she is bombarded with reading, writing and arithmetic in a foreign language—French.

Many of those who make it through four years of school will leave without really knowing how to read or write anything, Déjean said.

The Creole question is not a language question. It is a question of exclusion, said Esteus, whose parents are farmers. It has been one way a tiny group has excluded the majority from economic, political and social power in Haiti.

And the state has done little to change that.

In the 16 years since the constitution was voted, not one law has been published in Creole, Déjean noted.

The government’s banners, posters and fliers promoting Creole and its literacy campaign are hypocrisy, he adds, and he should know. Déjean worked at the State Literacy Secretariat from 1995 until 1997, while his brother Paul was secretary of state.

Literacy campaigns in Creole will only work if the language is adopted in schools, at least for the first few years of learning, he said.

We are in the midst of hypocrisy, said Déjean. A lot of big talk. Before they wanted to eliminate Creole. Now they use it for demagogy. That is the tragedy of this country. The government hasn’t decided to really embrace Creole. . (END/2003)