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#2456: Defending Creole: AP article (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>


   PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 20 (AP) -- Most Haitians cannot understand the
language used in the country's newspapers, law books, official documents,
almost all billboards and most literature.
   That's because French, the language of long-ago colonial rulers, is held
in almost mystical regard by Haiti's elite -- and they insist on using it,
even though nine of every 10 Haitians speak only Creole.
   In a nation where barely a fifth of Creole speakers can read or write,
the upper crust uses French to maintain its privilege and power and, in the
process, quietly suppress Creole, critics say.
   To its partisans, like former culture minister Jean-Claude Bajeux,
Creole's suppression by past Haitian governments and intellectuals is a
badge of shame, a willful subservience to old colonial masters.
   "It's lunacy," Bajeux says, banging his fist on a table. "The same
mentality of slavery is still imposing itself. Don't think independence has
changed this."
   To Francophiles of the upper class, like bookstore owner Vania Auguste,
Creole is a mere local vernacular, a sort of broken French she dismisses as
"our thing."
   "Creole isn't a language. It's a dialect," Auguste insists. "There are
no dictionaries, no formal grammar."
   Creole proponents dispute that. They argue its origins are unique and
defining: a language that developed on slave ships and in plantations as a
means for Africans from different tribes to communicate with each other and
with their masters.
   The fact that Creole developed similarly in such faraway places as St.
Lucia, a small island 800 hundred miles away, suggests not a broken French
but a logically evolving language, its champions say.
   Much of Haitian Creole is comprised of words whose origins are clearly
French, filtered through a different phonetic system. That system relieves
words of their weak-ending syllables, such as barely discernible "r's."
It's also written phonetically to approximate more difficult French vowel
sounds like "eu" or "u."
   Thus, the French "culture" becomes "kilti" (keel-TEE), and "ciel" (sky)
becomes "syel."
   To Auguste, this makes Creole a pidgin French. While her bookstore is
stocked with works by Haitian authors like Gary Victor, the overwhelming
majority of the books are in French.
   "The people who buy books do not buy Creole," she says in beautifully
enunciated French.
   Such sentiments are fighting words to Bajeux, who recently compiled an
anthology of 800 Creole titles, including an adaptation of the ancient
Greek play "Antigone" by Morriseau Leroy, a revered local poet.
   Bajeux agrees that perhaps 80 percent of the Haitian Creole vocabulary
comes from French. Yet, he notes, non-Creole speakers cannot understand it.
   One reason: In Creole, the article follows the subject. Another is that
its verbs don't change with context -- as opposed to the complex and
frequently irregular conjugations of French, Spanish and other Romance
   Bajeux compares Creole today to European languages during the
Renaissance, trying to break free of Latin's control over letters.
   Creole has made some strides. Haitian groups in the United States are
developing dictionaries and supporting Creole studies.
   A 1969 law in Haiti gave Creole limited legal status, and in 1979 a
decree permitted Creole's use in schools. But Haiti is so poor that only
half its children attend elementary school, and few of them get past fifth
   A 1983 constitution declared that both Creole and French national
languages -- but specified French would be the official language. Another
constitution, in 1987, gave Creole official status.
   While Creole is prevalent on Haitian radio, and parliamentary debates
have been conducted in Creole, most government documents, including a
recent electoral law, are published in French.
   Bajeux dreams about setting up schools that would give Haitian children
literacy in their language.
   "If we want to develop this country, we have to put our finger on the
root problem: the linguistic problem. We have to resolve our identity," he
   For now, French signs and advertisements are everywhere on teeming
streets, beyond the comprehension of most. A huge banner, for example,
announces the "Grande Ouverture" (grand opening) of a haberdashery named
"Les Ciseaux D'Or" (Golden Scissors).
   Politicians, on the other hand, take no chances. The only Creole sign on
Port-au-Prince's main avenue urges people to participate in the
parliamentary election coming up March 19.
   "Viktwa pou demokrasi!" it reads. "Victory for democracy!"