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#3586: DeGraff on "linguistic surrealism" (fwd)

From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>

Grey's last posting obfuscates the issue at stake in my argument.  As I
have repeatedly and explicitly stressed, my goal in this debate is to
demystify Grey's LINGUISTIC arguments.  These arguments revolve around
factually-incorrect claims and mistaken assumptions about Haitian Creole
pronunciation and spelling.  Indeed, one thing (among others) that worry me
in this debate is the non-stop spreading of mis-information about Haitian

Take the orthography issue for example.  What I am trying to show is that
Grey's LINGUISTIC criticism of Mambo Angela's `authenticity' stands on
pretty shaky grounds given that Grey's own knowledge of Creole seems no
better than Angela's.  Worse yet, Grey's `corrections' of Angela's Creole
are themselves in need of corrections.  The evidence is there for all to
see, through Grey's own postings and in her own signature line.  

Here's a now-familiar sample of what we can call "linguistic surrealism"
(as measured against the available evidence):

  "[DeGraff's claim that Haitian Creole, "mambo" should be written "manbo"
  according to Haitian  Creole orthography is] Incorrect.  The word Mambo
  is not pronounced with an "n" and is not written so in Creole."

  "[Mambo Angela Novanyon's] choice of name illustrates her ignorance.
  "Novanyon" is Angela's misspelling of the Haitian Creole words "nom
  vayan", which means literally "valiant name", the sacred name new
  Houngans, Mambos, and hounsis are given upon initiation.  When Angela
  went to the Houngan who hoodwinked her, not only were her ceremonies not
  done correctly, but she speaks so little Creole that when they were
  telling her what her "nom vayan" is, she misunderstood that her name was
  "nom vayan", which she writes "Novanyon"."

The issue is clearly this: Once Grey publically declared herself as
arbitrator of Creole usage and spelling, the question then became: Whose
orthography standards are we to apply when reading/writing Creole?

Of course, not!  Haiti does have a law prescribing the orthography of
Haitian Creole.  This law was passed on 18 September 1979 and amended on 22
and 31 January 1980.  And there are many books for learning how use it,
plus many dictionaries that illustrate the correct writings of words.

As many of you know, much energy has been spent on spreading literacy in
the official orthography at all levels of society, both in and outside of
Haiti.  For a recent example, check out the May 3-9 issue of the Haitian
Times for an article on Fedo Boyer and Marilyn Mason's efforts toward
providing computer tools for helping write in the standard Creole
orthography.  There's a few things to learn in that article as to why it is
this orthography is still neglected by so many (including some
self-declared `promoters' of Haitian culture).  

(Perhaps Fedo or Marilyn will be so kind as to post this article to the

Of course, there is a LOT left to be done to reduce Haiti's illiteracy
rate.  In this vein, the sort of free-for-all orthography advocated by many
just does not help.  More generally, the problem with the current
free-for-all mentality toward Haitian Creole and its spelling is mostly one
of mis-education.  Just ask yourself: Why isn't such orthographic
free-for-all practiced in French or in English?  If Haitian culture is so
precious to so many, then why is there so little effort in spreading
literacy in the official orthography of our national language?

In one of the web pages mentioned by Grey in her latest posting, she
advertises with much pride that one of her Haitian religious affiliates now
goes by the name of "Bon Houngan [sic] Sent Zetwal Anba Lame` Racine [sic]
Sans [sic] Bout Yabofe Daginen [sic]".  This is yet another name that
reveals ignorance of Creole orthography.  But, of course, given the current
Creole literacy rate in Haiti and elsewhere, this is as a good name for a
Houngan as "Novanyon [sic]" or "Mambo [sic] Racine [sic] Sans [sic] Bout Sa
Te La Daginen [sic]".  As I wrote in one of my previous message:

  "Here I must stress that I am NOT arguing that knowledge of Creole spelling
  is a pre-requisite for culturally-authentic Vodou initiations."

I even suspect that a great number of native Haitian (and non-Haitian)
houngans and mambos (even those with college degrees) don't even know how
to read and write Creole.  So, again, "Bon Houngan [sic] Sent Zetwal ..."
may seem as good a name as "Bon Mambo [sid] Racine [sic] Sans [sic]
Bout...".  And then again so does the name "Mambo Angela Novanyon [sic]".
ALL these names violate Haitian Creole orthographic standards.  And, as
already mentioned, Grey's own `correction' of Mambo Angela's name is itself

> I, and other legitimate, authentic, correctly initiated and ordained
> Houngans and Mambos will continue to speak out against those who defame
> and deform the Haitian Vodou tradition, ...
How about those who persistently deform the (representation of) the Haitian
language?  Shouldn't we also try and help them (and others) improve their
literacy skills?  

One may ask: What good is literacy in a common set of standards? Any set of
users of a common language benefit tremendously (educationally,
intellectually, economically, etc.) in sharing the same standards in
writing this common language.  Similar issues arise with any communication
system be it the Internet and other communication media.  It is a truism
that communication improves when common standards are shared across the
board.  Thus the need for orthographic standards, as in the case of Hait's
1980 orthography law.  Indeed, how one would one go about teaching someone
to read and write in a language that has no uniform spelling system?  Can
you think of any language in the developed word WITHOUT a shared set of
orthographic practices?

My own take is that Haitians are in much greater need of literacy campaigns
than linguistically-bogus anti-Mambo-Angela campaigns?  I take it that
"faking ridiculous possessions" in Philadelphia or New Orleans is much less
harmful to the Haitian people than spreading a free-for-all attitude about
Creole literacy.

The roots of Haiti's under-development runs without ends and without sense.

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