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#3988: DeGraff replies to Higbie on the spelling of proper names (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

RE Janet Higbie's request:

> But what about Haitians who speak only Creole?  I'm think of those names
> that could be spelled either in French or Creole -- to pick a completely
> random example, Re'gine or Rejin.  Would the official name, the one that
> might be recorded on a birth certificate, parish record or election
> register, be spelled in French or Creole?

This is only a personal and subjective impression, but I suspect that
there'll much variation there, probably with an overwhelming tendency
toward French spelling, or, rather, toward some valiant, i.e. "vayan"
[sic], approximation of French spelling, mixed with some ad-hoc
pseudo-Creole spelling, of the sort we often see on this list.  As the
discussion on this list has shown, too few Haitians and too few people
interested in Haiti (even among the educated) know about the official
Creole orthography, although the situation is slowly changing with the
spread of literacy campaigns and the increased teaching of Creole
orthography in schools.  For now, we still face an embarrassing illiteracy
rate, with too many Haitians unable to competently read and write in any
language, but this is old news (sadly).  Worse yet, the formal prose on
birth certificates is still written EXCLUSIVELY in French (a language that
MOST Haitians do not speak fluently).  This sends the message that Haitian
Creole (our truly national language) is effectively a second-class
language, not worthy of official documents.  This would obviously have an
effect on whether one's name would be written in French or Creole on the
certificate.  There's been various attempts to promote Creole
birth-certificates, but they've all failed so far.

My own advice, for what it's worth, is to look up the needed names in the
relevant documentation if available --- if the people are running for
election or doing something else worth writing about, the likelihood is
pretty high that their names would have been written down at some earlier
occasion. Otherwise, ask the relevant people how they themselves would
write their names.  In any case, the spelling of proper names in any
(sub-)culture (unlike the spelling of other parts of speech) is ultimately
a personal case-by-case affair, with no uniform rules.  To illustrate with
an extreme and now familiar pair of examples, "Nonvayon" is as good a `non
vanyan' as "Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen", assuming that these names
are not taken to represent any `real' and `pure' variety of Creole spelling
(neither correspond to Haitian orthography).

The point here is simply that it may not be easy to guess what the `right'
spelling would be for monolingual Creole speakers.  The problem is made
more complex in illiterate Haiti, where the universal desire for
self-determination of one's identity meets with the twin (and sad) problems
of widespread illiteracy and the brutal ranking of French vs. Creole
linguistic traditions.

MIT Linguistics & Philosophy, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139-4307
degraff@MIT.EDU        http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/degraff.home.html