By Dr. Reynald Altema
Among the many fault lines in our culture, a conversation about Kreyol ranks at the top of the heap. As is customary, a shouting match—not a conversation—ensues between impassioned people who use the very vernacular to express their positions. The fact that we are still debating the status of Kreyol in 2018—a language spoken all throughout Haiti—is a testimony of the inherent split personalities we exhibit as a group. Invariably, we proudly claim ourselves as the first to break slavery’s fetters, yet at the same time, we suffer from the insecurity of adopting a lingua franca different from French, a language renowned as the medium used by illustrious writers. How can we turn our back on Kreyol and instead wallow in the muck of a vile patois, spoken by ruffians and slaves?
This type of insecurity can be found in Alexandre Pétion’s egregious—rather, treasonous—offer and Jean-Pierre Boyer’s signing on to pay an indemnity to the same colonists who imprisoned us for centuries. What about the damage done to the millions of humans whose sole fault was to have a dark complexion?
At the time when France was busy creating colonies to generate wealth, the French evolved over centuries from the vernacular initially spoken by ruffians, which were the Ostrogoths and Visigoths people. It had borrowed heavily from Latin and Greek. Now, it continues to evolve and is borrowing substantially from English. The Kreyol-speaking slaves were uneducated, but not of their own doing. It was the result of a systemic decision by colonists to forbid access to reading and writing from the slaves sous peine de mort! Back then, slaves were not considered full-fledged humans. Anything associated with them was considered inferior and toxic.
Classism replaced racism, which compounded the problem. Neither Pétion nor Boyer—especially not Boyer— supported the methodical and diligent creation of schools, thus a population of underclass citizens grew; a perpetual powder keg. No serious policy existed to extend the diffusion of the French language after January 1, 1804, leaving Kreyol as the de facto language of the populace’s idiom, otherwise known as the orphan treatment.
However, this notion of a bastard vernacular is upended when the group is different. In present-day South Africa, Afrikaans, a language with similar dynamics as Kreyol, is recognized as the official language of Boers descendants. No one disputes its pedigree. Different players, different rules.
Clearly, the reasoning behind using vernacular as language relies purely on political will. The same logic works for a flag: no one asks for permission for such a choice; one imposes one’s decision and the world will acquiesce.
The disdain towards Kreyol among us as Haitians is indeed deep rooted. We have been brainwashed into believing that it is an inferior means of communication, perhaps not capable of expressing abstract concepts and ideas. This reminds me of a French teacher I had in the late ‘60s at St. Martial. He later became one of Baby Doc’s speech writers. One day in class, he was boasting, “Parmi les quelques Haïtiens qui parlent le français, je ne parle pas trop mal.” This type of rubbish has been passed down from generation to generation, leaving us with the permanent belief that being fluent in French is a distinction worthy of an award because only a superior intellect can accomplish such a feat. The reality is totally different. Children of poor Haitian immigrants who grew up in Québec speak French with a local accent and have no difficulty.
We need to be reminded that language formation is random and not a fiat construct. For that matter, when was the last time we met someone speaking Esperanto or Laadan? Ever heard of Lingua Ignota?
There is a misguided mindset that language is a binary choice: either French or Kreyol. As a practical solution, realpolitik needs to come into play. It is a pragmatic policy to offer language parity. Fluency, then, becomes a non-event in all services and educational opportunities.
It is also pragmatic to consider the mastery of a foreign language as an asset. Hence, French can be taught in school from a Kreyolophone point of view. As an added benefit, students will learn to build proper vocabulary and syntax in each versus a mishmash of both languages. Nothing is more embarrassing than witnessing people who insist on being fluent in French, yet don’t understand instructions in French. They are ashamed of admitting that Kreyol is the language they are more familiar with. Haiti is not the only country where more than one language is spoken. It has the dubious idiosyncrasy of having had, for the longest time, chosen a national language spoken by the smallest minority.
Fortunately, public places with a sizeable Haitian population have signs and instructions in Kreyol, thanks to America’s pragmatism and democratic approach to languages. There has been quite a bit of literature in all genres published in Kreyol over the past decade. A prominent math teacher at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Professor Alfred Noël, is writing a math textbook in Kreyol.
What is often left unsaid is that those of the generations that never learned Kreyol in school are intimidated in trying to read it. I should know—I was once among them. Learning to read and write Kreyol is not a difficult proposition. There are many resources available. Educavision and Amazon have large offerings. Fequière Vilsaint, the publisher of Educavision, offers the selection below:
- Pou moun ki metrize yon lang deja, mwen sijere : Pawòl lakay.
Men lyen pou ou ka li deskripsyon liv la:
- Dis Pa nan lang Ayisyen an (se plis gramè)
- Diksyonè monoleng
Si yon moun vle li woman an Kreyòl, mwen sijere:
- Lafami Bonplezi
- Fòs Lawouze.
- Konpè Jeneral Solèy
Dr. Altema is Vice President of GRAHN-USA.