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#1141: Haiti's Apartheid: DeGraff comments (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

I am amazed at the amount of irrationality that surfaces whenever Haiti's
language and culture gets discussed.  This irrationality is found all
over, even among the best Haitian minds --- isn't it on this list that we
read that English was Haiti's (new) national language?  What really puzzles
me is what makes the most intelligent minds go gaga in front of Haiti?
This may be a question for the anthropologists and sociologists among us.

In the meantime, I'll give it one more short and tackle a couple more
examples of illogic regarding the role of Haitian Creole in Haiti (and I
can't wait for a similar discussion on the role of French in France,
English in the U.S., Japanese in Japan, Finnish in Finland or ...).


> From: Mary Durran <mdurran@colba.net>
> I quite agree with Greg Chamberlain on this.  While in the long term
> Haitians might want to work to have Creole established as the sole official
> language of Haiti, we have to face that in the short term, practically all
> the opportunities are available only to those who speak French. 

And this is exactly the Apartheid situation that requires correctives.  We
must face this situation, but we need not accept it.  In fact, what Durran
describes is reminiscent of South Africa's apartheid years where key
opportunities were reserved for those who spoke Afrikaans.  Was Afrikaans
ever considered as the linguistic solution for a post-Apartheid South

And Haiti has one major linguistic advantage over South Africa: we already
have a language that unites us all...  And again, this is not an argument
against French, but one that takes into account the only language spoken by
all Haitians.  Any official policy that excludes this language (e.g. in
educational practice or in the writing of official documents) is nothing
but an instrument of apartheid that a priori excludes 90% of Haiti's

> What right do we, professionals, who have opportunities available to us
> way beyond the reach of a poor Haitian, have to tell Haitian peasants
> that in order to promote the long-term aim of the advancement of Creole,
> they must boycott French, which might in the short term bring them more
> opportunities?

Does anyone in their right mind really believe that, "IN THE SHORT TERM",
fluency in French is attainable to the 6 Million monolingual speakers of
Haitian Creole?  This is an absurd proposal unless there is an
overnight-language-learning pill that I am not aware of.  As far as I know,
no language can be learnt in a vacuum, in absence of adequate input.  Of
course, one solution is to import French speakers from Paris to provide the
necessary language input to the 6 Million monolingual Creolophones.

Now, let's assume (for the sake of the argument) that 6 Million monolingual
Haitians could overnight (i.e. "IN THE SHORT TERM") learn French.  This is
an unlikely proposition, but let's proceed with it.  Does anyone in their
right mind believe that (some, any, degree of) fluency in French will
change traditional attitudes toward the Haitian peasantry?  

Here's a (much too) facile comparison --- please bear with me.  Saying that
French will solve Haitian peasants' socio-economic problem is (somewhat)
like saying that speaking Standard English will solve the `taxi problem'
faced by Blacks in New York: "Please, taxi driver, stop for me: I am black
but I speak good English.  I even have a PhD...."  Or: "Please, taxi
driver, stop for me: Don't you see that I am Dany Glover and that I deserve
the short-term transportation opportunities afforded average whites who, by
the way, make much less money than me"... Etc...

> This is something that only monolingual Haitians living in poverty can
> decide for themselves - to sacrifice personal advancement to the goal of
> getting rid of a system that maintains the language of the colonizers as
> the dominant one, or to learn French and open up opportunities which may
> keep them and their families from destitution?

Ditto.  Does anyone really believe that the reasons why 90% of Haitians are
kept powerless and socially stigmatized is because they don't speak French?

> The decision about whether or not to boycott French and learn only Creole
> should be taken by those most affected by it - the poor majority of
> Haitian peasants and urban dwellers.

Dictionary definition:  "To boycott: to engage in a concerted refusal to
have anything to do with something" 

Does anyone really believe that the vast majority of Haitians --- the
monolingual Creolophones --- have any remote possibility to "boycott
French".  To "boycott French" presupposes that French is already available
to those doing the boycotting.  This would be like saying that Americans in
Mississipi have decided to boycott Sanskrit.  If one knew anything about
Haiti, one would also know that, for the majority of Haitians, French is
NOT available as a LIVING language.  "Boycott French" is simply NOT an
option (except in certain intellectuals' fantasies about Haiti).  Whether
this pleases you or not, Haitian Creole is the ONLY language available to
the majority of Haitians.  

As a linguist, I am well aware of the intellectual, practical and
socio-economic benefits of multilingualism, but I am also aware of the
conditions it takes for multi-lingualism to happen, and these conditions
are nowhere to be fulfilled in most of Haiti.

Again, learning Haitian Creole or French (as one's native language) is not
a matter of choice in Haiti.  Does the average American speaker have any
choice over what their native language is going to be?  And does that
average American speaker get hit in the (metaphorical) head for being
monolingual?  Does the Haitian kid growing up in Fort-Royal have any choice
as to what language he or she can speak?  I'll refer again to Louis August
Joint's book for some preliminary description of what "the poor majority of
Haitian peasants and urban dwellers" have decided for themselves.

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