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#1190: Is Creole a handicap? DeGraff comments. (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

Another post-scriptum.  But this may be the most important piece of my
extended reply to Corbett, since it addresses an issue that has plagued
Haitian Creole since its inception: its dismissal as an alleged handicap to
the development of Haiti.  This is a `classic' (non-)argument, which has
gained popularity among a number of Haiti-related scholars, in the course
of the past three centuries.

However, the argument is circular since it assumes that the very `youth' of
Haitian Creole is a handicap to its `aging' into a culturally-mature
language.  The latest implementation of this argument is by our own Bob
Corbett.  Corbett compares the "high culture" languages German (in Austria)
and French to (LOW culture?) Haitian Creole.  Then, Corbett concludes:

> Haiti is a very different situation.  Haiti has one of the world's
> highest rates of illiteracy and an economy that does not provide even
> survival for masses of the people.  As it exists at this point Creole is
> not a very reasonalbe avenue into such an economy.  The point I'm making
> has nothing to do with do I LIKE that world situation or not, but it is
> the one the Haiti poor face.  What will allow them to live in some more
> secure economic future and how does language fit into that goal that so
> many of the Haitian poor whom I've met would want?

> Futher, I don't think there is anything in principle which would keep
> Creole from producing high art.  Some contemporary writers who have begun
> to write in Creole have demonstrated this.  But the written work in Haiti
> is beginning with a very slim base in history.  The French of the past,
> whether it happens to have been the colonial language or not, has a
> massive basis for building, libraries full.  Access to these models and
> that history seems an invaluable tool for the growth of both history and
> culture.

But what Corbett does NOT ask is a number of key questions related to his
arguments on what HISTORICALLY makes a "high culture" language: For
example, how did German and French START acquiring their "large world of
literature, theater" and "a massive basis for building libraries full"?
What role did EARLY German and French speakers play in such historical

Instead, Corbett writes of German literature and theater as being "based in
that language for centuries and it allows the growth and development of a
high culture".  Thus, it's the being steeped in German for CENTURIES that
allows the  "growth and development of high culture".  (Take note of the

Corbett adds that 

  "The French of the past [...] has a massive basis for building libraries
  full.  Access to these models and that history seems an invaluable tool
  for the growth of both history and culture".

Did "the French of the past" ALWAYS have such "massive basis for building
libraries full"?  How did French get to be the way it now is.

Contrasting Haitian Creole (and its LOW culture?) to both German and French
(and their "high culture"), Corbett bemoans that Haitian Creole "is
BEGINNING with a very slim base in history" (my emphasis).  (Question: What
language ever STARTS with a MASSIVE base in history?!?) Haitians thus must
have recourse to languages like French or English for our escape from our
(current) cultural and economic deprivation.

Here Corbett commits what seems to be an ideologically-based logical
flaw. He treats German and French like if their respective cultural
`treasures' were INHERENT properties of these languages, whereas speakers
of Haitian Creole must (for now) rely on languages like French or English
to enjoy such `treasures' of "high culture"; this is because Haitian Creole
only has "a very slim base in history".

Here's the flaw: History clearly teaches that both German and French
started out very much like Haitian Creole, i.e. "with a very slim base in
history".  And this is not surprising: NO language starts already endowed
with literary `treasures'.  French, at its beginning, was itself viewed as
nothing else but barbarian, as compared to Latin (and Greek)!  Thus, it is
simply not the case that "the French of the past [had] a massive basis for
building, libraries full" --- at least not if we're talking about French
during its earliest past (roughly comparable to where Haitian Creole is
today).  To the contrary, "the French of the past" was, very much like
Haitian Creole today, shunned by the French intellectual elites of the 17th
century, who then preferred Latin or Greek for their scientific writings
and the like. In fact, many French scholars have compared Haitian Creole to
French at its early stages.  

In this vein, one scholar who deserves much praise for promoting French
against the "invaluable [linguistic] tools" of the 17th century (i.e. Greek
and Latin) was Descartes.  Descartes was among the first to write
scientific works in French. which then was dismissively called the
"vernaculaire".  His book _Meditations..._ (in the "vernaculaire") was
among the linguistic feats of the time that help liberate French of its
`barbarian' shackles.

Actually, if Descartes in the 17th-century had listened to --- and, lo and
behold!, become convinced by --- the Corbetts of his time, he would have
relied exclusively on Latin (or Greek) for his scientific writing (like
e.g. Francis Bacon).  Descartes writing in French was a revolutionary act
which was among the momentous events through which French started its own
scientific tradition, independently from the "invaluable [linguistic]
tools" of the 17th century.  As it turns out, these "invaluable tools" have
now become .... DEAD languages.

Now, given the Descartes model and the history of French, my own opinion is
that the only way to follow Descartes's example and turn Haitian Creole
into an "invaluable tool" on a par with (today's) French and English is to
promote the use of Haitian Creole in ALL domains (be it literary,
political, administrative, scientific, etc.).  Relying on French or English
as "invaluable tool for the growth of both history and culture" is bound to
atrophy Haitian Creole into an eternal second-class language. Languages
only develop as they are put to more and more uses (as Descartes very well
knew, but as Corbett seems to ignore).  If Haitians follow Corbett's
advice, Haitian Creole will forever remain tributary to French or to
English --- and so will Creole speakers remain forever tributary to French
and English speakers.  This is certainly not be the `result' envisaged by
Corbett, but this is an inevitable consequence of his `analysis'.

To sum up, we must shun Corbett's dictates and rely instead on the bold and
revolutionary example of Descartes (and of Franketienne, Morrisseau-Leroy,
Dejean, Vedrine, etc).  Let's promote our own vernacular, and write our own
"meditasyon" or our "pe`len te`t" in Haitian Creole.

Otherwise: nou pran nan pe`len tout bon vre...

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