by Vania Andre
Haitians struggle with perceptions of their native language. As a child, Mackens Rinchiere quickly learned he best not speak Creole in earshot of a school teacher. “If I asked a student [in Creole] for a pen in school and the teacher heard, I would have to write that sentence out 500 times in French so I would never forget it,” said Rinchere, a paramedic now living in the United States who said he was regularly punished in Haiti when caught speaking Creole.
Though Haitian Creole is the official language of Haiti, a large percentage of the country’s natives view the language with disdain, and many Haitian Americans reject Creole and choose only to speak French or English.
“It was really bad for Haitians in the late ‘80s,” said Harry Calice, a Haitian American raised in Brooklyn who was teased for speaking Creole during his high school years. “The students who would bully us were Haitian Americans who hung out with American children and pretended they weren’t Haitian and didn’t speak Creole.”
Many second generation children do not want other groups to know their background because of the stigma attached to Haitians as “impoverished boat people,” said Flore Zephir, a linguistics professor at the University of Missouri. “When you’re an adolescent you want to be a part of the ‘in’ group.” America’s early reception of Haitian immigrants has impacted young people’s perceptions of their native culture.
Haitians’ rejection of Creole also stems from a belief that it is the language of the lower class, which is often denied academic and social opportunities. “People treat the language like it’s Ebonics … like it’s a ghetto language,” said Calice.
Though Creole is the official language of Haiti, a trend emerged where families encouraged their children to only speak French – the language taught in the schools of the upper class Haitians. “French is perceived to be the language of social mobility,” Zephir explained. “There is a certain prestige attached to French. It’s a mark of distinction.”
There is a common notion that Haitian Creole is a form of patois, a term derived from the French patoier, essentially meaningan incomprehensible, nonstandard speech without a literary tradition. “This erroneous idea is the result of the centuries-long stigmatization of Haitians and other African-descent peoples and their cultures, stemming from their degradation in connection with chattel slavery,” said Arthur Spears, a linguistics professor at The City University of New York.
Some argue that Creole is a broken and primitive version of a more established language. Spears believes otherwise. “Creole is not simple or primitive compared to French and other languages, it is merely different.”
“Creole is not a corrupt form of French. It is a separate language governed by its own grammatical rules,” Spears explained. But because of strongly held negative perceptions, linguists struggle to establish credibility for Creole in terms of literacy and education. “Many people, educators included, mistakenly believe that Creole, as other stigmatized languages, cannot be used in education because it has no grammar, and that it cannot be studied because it consists of nothing more than mistakes and corruptions of the related colonial language.”
Rinchere, who has been in the United States for 11 years, said he struggles to shake the stigma of being a Creole-speaking Haitian. When Rinchere receives a phone call in public from someone who only speaks Creole, he purposely does not answer the call because he doesn’t want to be judged for speaking the language. However, if a French-speaking person calls, he doesn’t hesitate to answer the phone. “[The stigma] affects me in every way,” he said.
Marc Joseph, a senior airman for the U.S. Army, remembers hearing sarcastic comments when his mother spoke Creole in public. However, as a child, he was encouraged to speak Creole, which he intends to do with his child who is half Hispanic. “I do plan on teaching my daughter to speak Creole because I want her to know that she has a colorful background.”
Calice intends to do the same with his daughter. “Other ethnic groups don’t always pass down their language to their children who are born in America,” he said. Haitian Creole is an important part of our culture, it makes us who we are, he explained. “I don’t want to deprive her of that.”
Haitian Creole was formed as a language when slaves from West Africa attempted to learn the French they heard upon arrival in Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti). The slaves were brought from all over West Africa, with many of them speaking different African languages. Creole was a way to share a uniform language and communicate with each other. Haitian Creole is lexically based on French, however the two languages differ in syntax.