Haiti – The Language Question – French or Creole

The two official languages of Haiti today are Creole and French. It has not always been so. For over a century after independence, Creole which is the only language of communication among the vast majority of Haitians, was relegated to the background; and was not officially recognized in formal official transactions. French was the only recognized means of official communication which is spoken by about ten percent of Haitians who are mostly in the elite upper class of Haitian society; whereas Creole is spoken by all Haitians irrespective of their social class status. Also for a very long time in Haitian schools, French was the only medium of instruction. This bias for French language over Creole and the limited educational opportunities available to all Haitians have created a big chasm in inter-class communications.Historical BackgroundWhen African men and women were brought to Hispaniola as slaves from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, they came from different ethnic nationalities; and therefore could not communicate with each other in a single language. The slaves could also not speak the language of their masters. Over time, a medium of language communication had to be found. Creole, which is a synthesis of different African dialects and the European language of the slave masters, evolved to bridge the gap in communication between slaves on one hand, and their masters on the other. The situation in Hispaniola was similar to those in other Caribbean slave colonies. The Creole language is therefore found with slight modifications, in all other West Indian Islands and part of North and South America, where slaves were taken to work on the sugar plantations.During the colonial period, Creole served as the only language spoken by the slaves of Hispaniola, and to a great extent helped to unite them in their titanic struggle to free themselves from the shackles of inhuman bondage and cruel enslavement, to which they were subjected, first by the Spaniards and later by their French. During the same period, the children born to white slave masters, by their Black and Taino women slaves, or Mulattoes were weaned in Creole and educated in French. Being thus bilingual, the mulattoes could communicate in their fathers’ French language, and their mothers’ Creole. Their bilingualism along with their progeny as heirs of their white fathers set the mulattoes apart from the other Black and African men. Aided by their white fathers, the mulattoes created a sub-social group between the white elite upper social class and the Black lower class of the emerging Haitian society. When the ‘lily whites’ were driven out of Haiti, the mulattoes took over their preeminent position as the elite upper class. They thus developed a superiority complex toward the black Africans. This superior attitude has continued in the Haitian social mix up till today.The Language Question in Today’s HaitiThe debate as to which of the two: Creole or French, is the authentic language of Haiti is a non-issue. If the number of speakers of each of the two languages were the sole determinant, Creole language will carry the day over French. However, because of the historical antecedents of the two languages, elite upper class speakers of the French, who also speak Creole in the privacy of their homes, have always seen French as a medium of lording it over their less fortunate lower class countrymen and women, both in official transactions and in the political arena. Since all official transactions were carried out in French, the vast majority of Haitians who were monolingual speakers of Creole were for a long time disenfranchised, and kept out of their country’s administrative and political mainstream.The new found relevance of Creole language in the national life of Haiti started in the twentieth century; and can be attributed to two major incidents in the topsy-turvy history of Haiti as a nation. The invasion of Haiti by American Marines in 1915, followed by the country’s humiliating occupation for eight years as an American colony, forced members of Haitian elite upper class to face up to their Non-European heritage; and see themselves for what they truly are: black men and women in a black republic. The shock therapy applied by American occupation forces was responsible, in part, for this eye-opener. The white American soldiers and colonial administrators treated all Haitians alike, with the same racist condescension. American racist treatment of Haitians was without bias as to which social class these Haitians belonged to.The second and more positive tonic for Haitians of all classes to accept Creole as their national language was the Afro-centric philosophy of President Duvalier’s administration. ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier did his best to bring the Afro-Haitian underclass forcefully into the mainstream of Haitian political and economic life, and virtually forced Haitian mulattoes to accept Afro-Haitians as equal partners in the Haitian national enterprise. The Afro-cultural renaissance, otherwise hreferred to as the black consciousness movement, which gained momentum in the mid twentieth century in the United States, swept through the Caribbean Islands. Haiti was not left out of it. This growing black consciousness intensified Haitian nationalism and led many Haitians to reconsider their bias against Creole as the “authentic” language of the country.Today in Haiti, just as French, Creole is equally recognized as the official language of communication both in the office and at public functions, as well as a medium of instruction in schools, both at the elementary and the secondary school levels. Creole language as a medium of communication is now well accepted in both the electronic and print media. The present government of President René Préval and that of his immediate predecessor, Jean Bertrand Aristide, have continued where ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier left off. By increasing educational opportunities available to rural and urban Afro-Haitians especially, and mainstreaming spoken and written Creole, these two men have contributed in no small measure to increasing acceptance of Creole as the authentic national language of Haiti.

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