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#4548: DeGraff replies to Valdman re the pros and cons of Cre'olite' (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

I thank Albert Valdman for some of his clarifications on the Cre'olite'
movement.  He makes the important point that Chamoiseau's success was
arrived at not by the use of Creole per se, but via (what Valdman calls)
"putative creolized French" as promoted by the Cre'olite' movement.

But please note that the article I forwarded to the list centered
explicitly on the Martinican cre'olistes' efforts toward elevating the
status of Martinican Creole.  The article concludes by mentioning the
recent success attained by the RE-issue of Confiant's first book "Jik de`ye
do Bondye"---which is written in pre-Cre'olite' Creole and which had
commercially failed on its first issue in 1979.   

My goal in forwarding the Chronicle of Higher of Education to the list was
to ask: What can we Haitians learn about the (mis)uses of Creole from the
Martinican model of "elevating Creole"?  This is not strictly a discussion
about "Creole languages". Issues about Haitian Creole goes at the heart of
Haiti's culture and development, which I assume is of major concern to
readers of this list. Witness, say, the recent endless and still unresolved
strings of postings on vote-counting, etc.

Be that as it may, Valdman is right in pointing out the linguistic problems
faced by the new brand of "creolized French" promoted by the Cre'olite'

One thing though that I object to is Valdman's extension of Confiant's
car-vs-bike metaphor as applied to French-vs-Creole.  This is one of these
seemingly-innocent metaphors with much damage potential in terms of
attitudes toward Haitian Creole. And (negative) attitudes about Creole is
of the core factors that have blocked Haiti's development (e.g. universal
literacy and education) for centuries.

> As Confiant put it, left to choose between a bike (MC) and a car
> (French), if you want to travel far and fast, you opt for the car.


> To continue spinning Confiant's metaphor, roads are so bad in Haiti that
> one travels best with a bike!

Confiant, like many before him and with him, also espouses the old cliche
that Creole languages are expressively-handicapped---one must always
remember that up to the 16th-17th century French and English were `bikes'
and Latin was the prototypical super-revved `car' (whatever happened to
Latin's engine?).  The article I forwarded mentions Confiant's abundant use
of sexual metaphors because of alleged inherent limitations in expression
of abstract thought (!) by Creole speakers.  Here's the quote from

> >   "The problem is not the orthography," he says, "it's dealing with a
> >  language in which you don't think abstractly."

Such a sentence flatly rules out of existence Franketienne's "Dezafi", all
of Yves Dejean's Creole writings on Creole linguistics and much else that's
written and said in Creole on a regular basis.  Confiant's statement is
just false: Creole does have the structural means to express
abstractions---this is one of the things I've addressed in some of my
recent work.

The (metaphorical) notion that languages (like transportation systems) can
be compared along some efficiency scale, e.g. vis-a-vis expressive power is
an old notion.  There is also the assumption that languages are made to
adapt to the quality of their environments: poor roads ->
creole-qua-bicycle; good roads -> French-qua-car; information
super-highways -> ???

Such notions are basically (neo)Darwinian offsprings with ancient
ancestors, going back to 19th-century linguists like the Von Schlegel
brothers, August Schleicher and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  These linguists
viewed languages as if they were creatures evolving from primitive
(bike-like) to evolved (car-like)---some of these linguists also used terms
like "primitive languages" vs. "civilized languages".  As it turns out,
their quintessential primitive language was .... Chinese---a language
backed by a very ancient culture.  And their quintessential civilized
languages were ... (guess?)  ... Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.

Since then, these views have been (largely, but not entirely) abandoned.
In the early 20th-century, the anthropologist Franz Boas and his student,
linguist Edward Sapir, demonstrated that all levels of linguistic
structural complexity can be indiscriminately found at all levels of
`advancement' and in all kinds of cultures.

As Sapir eloquently wrote:

  "Language is an essentially perfect means of expression and communication
  among every known people"

  "All attempts to connect particular types of linguistic morphology with
  certain correlated stages of cultural development are vain.  Rightly
  understood, such correlations are rubbish. Both simple and complex types
  of language of an indefinite number of varieties may be found spoken at
  any desired level of cultural advance.  When it comes to linguistic form,
  Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the
  head-hunting savage of Assam"

This said, I enthusiastically agree with Valdman on the following:

> There is a genuine need there for the use of kreyo`l as a written
> language and the potential for a real literature addressed to the
> monolingual speakers.

And I'd even add that such a `literature' already exists---in the heads of
millions of Creole speakers.  Some of it has already been written down, but
there's much left to do.  This points to one other crucial difference
between Martinique/Guadeloupe and Haiti.  Haiti does not have a Creole
Studies center per se, on a par with the one in Martinique where Creole
writing and literature is studied, supported, and promoted.

As Confiant correctly points out: "you cannot promote Creo'lite' without
political help." 

But Creole speakers are not helped by metaphors (attitudes, really) that
reduce Creole languages to some good old "bike", not yet ready for the
super-highways of the 21st century.  I don't think that Haiti can be fully
developed without a change in attitudes about Haitian Creole.  Like any
other language (and Sapir knew very well), Haitian Creole is, and has
always been, ready for the super-highways of the 21st century.

Much work awaits.  It's going to be a very long, but beautiful, 'konbit'.


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