It has happened to the Basques in Spain under Francisco Franco (1939-75); the Kurds in modern Turkey, the Crimean Tatars of the former Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin (1922-53) and the Tibetans under Chinese rule (1959-?): forceful attempts at assimilating these minorities into the larger entities through eradication of their mother tongues, the most potent symbol of their ethnicity. To that end, the use of their language was discouraged, forbidden and, in extreme cases, criminalized. As such, this policy is the most repugnant form of subjugation. Conversely in Haiti, a nation of 12 million souls, including its Diaspora, that speaks a native language, it is the majority that is compelled to adopt that of the dominant minority, namely French.
Moreover, “Haitian”, the etiologically correct appellation for the language, is wrongly, albeit intentionally, called Kréyol, patois or broken French, which means that it derives from the more accepted French language. It is akin to declaring that Portuguese is broken Spanish, and also patently absurd to assume that a Frenchman can understand “Kréyol.” This widely accepted theory of the origins of “Haitian” contradicts the reality, as “Kréyol, patois or broken French” is grammatically, orthographically and phonetically distinct from the French language. Those insisting on the intertwinement of the two languages may be on to something more sinister: a willful intent to debase and confuse a proud little nation that intended, at its inception, to discard all vestiges of colonialism. Contextually, it is by choice that Haiti is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that develops its own language despite centuries of colonialism.
Like the demonizing of Vodou by malevolent foreigners with nefarious intents, this way of thinking is a deliberate attempt at disavowing the notion of a Haitian identity. Aptly, it wasn’t until 1987, the 183rd year of Haiti’s formal independence from France, that the inappropriately-named “Kréyol” was finally recognized as an official language to be used conjointly with French. However, encrypting “Haitian” as an official language into the Constitution is only one step, promoting its acceptance by the population may require many more steps that will involve changing the mentality of a nation that has consistently been steered away from the concept of forging a national identity.
Human interactions through commerce and conquests have fundamentally altered native tongues all over the planet and in many instances created new ones. For example, it is not unusual to find Japanese words in Chinese and vice versa and German words in the English language. And, it was in the context of promoting interaction that Esperanto, an alternative language that would allow people who speak different native languages to communicate while retaining their own languages and cultural identities, was introduced by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof in 1887. Though the idea was well-intentioned, it never caught on and remained Eurocentric and elitist in nature as, according to the latest estimate, only 2 million practitioners speak Esperanto. Moreover, its restricted usage demonstrates that the development of languages runs parallel to that of insular groups or societies and cannot be created artificially regardless of good intents.
As a rule, a common language represents the soul of a nation, something which the pathological French people can attest to. In the 1990’s a debate raged in France over the infiltration of English, the dominant international idiom since the end of WWII, into the French sacred language. The result was the Toubon law (1994) enacted by the French National Assembly forbidding the use of English words in broadcasting. The law may seem preposterous to outsiders but to the French it was about protecting their identity. More to the point, I remember watching a French program titled “Bouillon de culture” (Cultural stew) in which Jean D’Omersson, a famous French writer and member of L’Academie Française was invited. Asked by the host why he loves France? D’Omersson responded with unabashed pride “Parce qu’elle nous a donné la langue”, literally “Because it (France) gave us (the French) the language.” This was a testament of the emotional attachment to the French language which D’Omersson as, do all French men and women, consider central to their identity.
Fittingly, languages form the essence of ethnic identity more so than geography or race and are revered by their native speakers, which is why ethnicity is recognized by the language a person speaks rather than the geographical area in which he lives or the color of his skin. In Africa wherein, as a result of European colonialism, ethnic groups straddle national borders, it is precisely the language that identifies a person as being a member of a particular ethnic group. It is also for that reason that the ethnic Germans who lived for centuries in the Volga region of the former Soviet Union were deemed Germans by Stalin because of the language they spoke.
As languages define ethnicity more so than geography and race, should Haitians be identified as French or Kréyol speakers? In contrast with the other countries of the Western Hemisphere that adopted the idioms of their former colonizers, Haitians speak a distinctive dialect, which should appropriately be called Haitian, in conformity with our ethnicity, not Kréyol, which is a reminder of a past we would rather forget. Our existence as a people is contingent on affirming our identity, which is inextricably linked to our language, and unless we (Haitians) come to terms with that reality, others will always feel empower to decide what is best for us.
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