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#3709: DeGraff replies to Corbett (fwd)
From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>
A number of things about the rhetorics in this latest round of
Creole-related debates need to be clarifieds, specially after Corbett's
latest post. Take the following synopsis from Corbett's post:
> Some are speaking about what "ought" to be -- a set of rules for Haitian
> spelling and pronunciation -- (Michel DeGraff has led this position).
> Others are talking about how the language is actually used in various
> in Haiti at this time. (Poincy is the most recent to approach
> the langauge from this point.)
Corbett obviously didn't realize that his very description of the debate IS
a rather good example of what he calls "phenomenal miscommunication".
First of all, my position is mis-represented here. (Can't blame the man:
he has so many posts to check for appropriate content! Thanks Bob for
keeping us PG-rated!!!) But I do know what MY position is: I've talked
about what "ought" to be ONLY with respect to SPELLING. I discused the
spelling rules as they have ALREADY been decided since the 1979/1980 law.
These rules are meant to closely reflect the pronunciation. But the latter
is a matter of FACT, which cannot (and was not meant to) be prescribed by
the law. Again, Creole pronunciation exists PRIOR TO, and INDEPENDENTLY
of, the Creole orthography, and the latter was designed to represent the
former as closely as possible. Thus, as a linguist, I would not get into
prescribing "ought-to-be" rules about Creole pronunciation. So Corbett got
it wrong here.
In my view, Corbett's also mis-represents the Poincy/Grey line at least as
I have interpreted them: Take Poincy's post. Poincy's issue is NOT with
"how the language is actually used in various circles in Haiti at this
time". Poincy's major issue with respect to orthography is exactly about
how best to ORTHOGRAPHICALLY represent Haitian Creole --- Poincy even uses
the term "scientific" and talk about what he considers unwelcome deviations
from French spelling. (In fact, judging from the language-related
empirical claims in Poincy's messages over the years, it doesn't seem that
Poincy knows much about "how the language is actually used in various
circles in Haiti at this time".) So here too, Corbett got it wrong.
Be that as it may, I hope that my reply to Poincy would have made clear
what's at stake in deciding how best to represent Haitian Creole.
What else? In expressing his belief in the rule-less nature of actual
orthographic practice, Corbett appeals to U.S. vs. British writing
> The "standard" spelling in the U.S. even differs from the "standard"
> spelling in England in some few places (colour, labour vs. color and
But note that the British do AGREE as to the spelling of the given words
Corbett cited (check any respectable U.S. and British dictionaries). In
fact, one CAN talk about a U.S. "standard" vs. a British "standard". This
is quite different from the kind of linguistic free-for-all we recently saw
on this list with an UNSYSTEMATIC mix of (pseudo-)French and
(pseudo-)Creole spellings. As I wrote earlier, such orthographic anarchism
goes against the promotion of efficient literacy campaigns and, therefore,
would undermine all the advantages a successful literacy campaign would
bring to Haiti --- re: education, development, literature, etc.
Imagine, say, an efficient spell-checker for the kind of anarchist
orthography advocated by many in this forum. In the face of such
orthographic nihilism, I must say "chapo ba!" for Marilyn Mason's and Fedo
Boyer's (aptly named) CreoleConvert! Conversion, anyone?
> Whatever the situation is with that issue of the status of the
> orthography, I do think that the linguistically sophisticated (Michel
> DeGraff and others) are speaking at one level: the ideal or the rule;
> and some of the others (Grey and Poincy) are speaking at the level of
> actual observed practice in different linguistic communities in Haiti (at
> least they claim such communities do these things -- that's a testable
> matter of face.
Again, this is a mis-interpretation of the debate. Grey and Poincy made it
very clear that they were talking about how Creole can and/or should be
WRITTEN and what/whose standards can and/or should be enforced.
Grey explicitly corrected Angela's "novanyon" to her (orthographically
inconsistent!) "nom vayan" --- one-third-French, one-third-Creole,
one-third-I-don't-know-what. Why "nom vayan" and not "non vanyan"? Is
Grey's `correction' any closer to "actual observed practice" in Haiti?
Actually not, neither in spelling (it's "non", not "nom"), nor in
pronunciation (it's most typically "vanyan", not "vayan").
As of Poincy, he advocates a SPELLING system based on French (surprise!
surprise!) while ALL current literacy campaigns that I know of IN HAITI are
carried in, and aim toward, the 1980 orthography. Here too, Grey, Poincy
and (now) Corbett are far away from "actual observed practice" --- I guess
Poincy's glasses are not strong enough to "observe" Haiti from France.
"Actual observed practice" IS a matter of fact, and these facts can be, and
has been, measured to some extent --- if only one would care to consult the
Fortunately many list members do have intimate contact with the Haitian
linguistic situation, and they can judge which descriptions really describe
"actual observed practice in different linguistic communities in Haiti".
Maybe it's time for a Corbett-led field trip to Haiti for those readers
who'd like to check on their own.
> Even with pronunciation, I'm not convinced there is a difference between
> Michel DeGraff's position and Kathy Grey's position on the pronunciation
> of the general term for the female religious official of Haitian Voodoo.
> Rather, where they seem to differ is how that pronunciation is
> represented in print; how it is SPELLED.
Well, as I've stated and re-stated, re-re-stated an re-re-...-re-stated,
this was the issue all along, wasn't it? What I did was evaluate Grey's
(MIS-)SPELLINGS, not her pronunciation. And again this started with Grey's
own (mistaken) `corrections' of Mambo Angela and Grey's own unsystematic
version of Creole SPELLING.
> If the arguments were to clearly express what the fundamental assumptions
> behind their pronunciations and spelling are -- WHERE do they come from?
> What must one believe to speak or write this way as opposed to that way
> about the language? Then I suspect there would be much less disagreement.
I thought I've tried to do that all along. From the responses I've gotten
so far both onlist and offlist, it looks like I did manage to communicate
well with some list members and I am getting much interesting feedback.
And for this, I am eternally grateful to Corbett for putting this forum
Yet it also seems that throughout this debate certain readers are paying
selective attention according to various (sometimes unspoken) agendas.
Oh well, this comes with the territory. As Saul Bellow once wrote:
"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need
for illusion is deep."
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