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#2458: Haitis Official Language Is Hardly Spoken (fwd)


Communication Breakdown                                                
Haiti’s Official Language Is Hardly Spoken
By Dan Perry The Associated Press

P O R T - A U - P R I N C E, Haiti, Feb. 21 — 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. 

The Badge of Shame

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

Language vs. Pidgin

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. 

Creole Renaissance

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 tongues. Bajeux compares Creole today to European languages
during the Renaissance, trying to break free  of Latin’s control over

 A Fresh Look

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 grade.
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. 

The Future of Creole

 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 says. 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!”