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#1207: Valdman and the alleged Creole "handicap": DeGraff comments (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

A bibliographical postscript to my previous message regarding Valdman's
comparison of Haiti vs Switzerland.  

Given the current debate on the linguistic status of Haitian Creole, it
must be noted that Valdman is among those who have repeatedly stated in
print that Haitian Creole does NOT count as a "normal" language: Haitian is
not "normal", given its sociolinguistics and its structural (morphological)
limitations. Valdman's idea is that the make-up of Haitian Creole words are
among the "greatest obstacles to the blossoming of Creoles"; i.e. HC's
structure (along with its socio-linguistics) prevents the language from
"blossoming" the way `normal' languages do (sounds familiar?).  Therefore,
Valdman take the very grammar of Haitian Creole to block its "lexical
enrichment".  That is, the very grammar of Haitian Creole constitutes a
"handicap" for the viability of the language!

Valdman has also claimed (in print) that the `modernization' of Haitian
Creole necessarily entails the death (!) of the language.  The argument is
that, as Haitian Creole becomes adapted to `modern' usage, it will
`decreolize' and dissolve into French.  This is a claim that Valdman has
made over the years in a series of publications spanning the past 20 years,
going back to its 1978 book _Le Cre'ole: Structure, Statut et Origine_ (see
e.g. pages 345ff).  For more recent illustration of Valdman's fantastic and
fatalistic view on Haitian Creole structure, see his "Le cycle vital
cre'ole et la standardisation du cre'ole haitien" in _E'tudes Cre'oles
10:2, pages 107--125, 1987.

As it turns out, the `evidence' enlisted by Valdman to show the structural
`limitations' of Haitian Creole is not valid. In fact, this `evidence'
flies in the face of BASIC linguistic properties of the language (thanks
God!).  My own linguistic study of Haitian Creole morphology has now shown
that Valdman's and others' claims regarding Haitian Creole's alleged
structural "handicap" are empirically untenable, theoretically unfounded
and methodologically bizarre.  Haitian Creole is (after all!) a "normal"
language, pace Valdman...

I now have a manuscript in progress that documents how such false claims
and their congeners (which are quite widespread, like urban legends)
originate from the earliest studies of Creole languages at the very
beginning of colonization. All these earliest studies partake of the racist
and imperialist perspective as dictated by Europe's `Mission
Civilisatrice'.  I also show that various specific Haiti-related myths in
academia and elsewhere are rooted in the (neo-)colonial history of Haiti.
I hope to make the manuscript available soon, in time to celebrate the
beginning of the new millennium which really starts in 2001 (not 2000)!

Of late, Valdman seems to be changing his mind on the Haitian Creole
lexical "handicap" based on a paper I presented at a recent conference in
Aix-en-Provence, but he still has some way to go.  I am saving the full
linguistic arguments for more appropriate venues.  But I also hope to
engage in more "plain talk" where such issues can be discussed.

"Truth will set us free..."

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