By David S. Willig
The author of “Kreyol, The Orphan That Wouldn’t Go Away,” Dr. Reynard Altema, raises some excellent points about the status of French and the local vernacular in Haiti.
Looking at the issue from the outside can give an added perspective to the thesis that a language policy is something that can favor the well-being and development of a country.
Indeed, it is hard to argue that education does not play a significant role in such development. Education depends on language as the medium of transmission for knowledge.
Likewise, the rule of law supports development, and the law, whether communicated orally by elders or written down in law books, also depends on language as the vehicle of transmission, but also the vessel for preservation to know what the law is, whether written or oral.
It is wrong to consider disdain toward Kreyol as an “inferior” means of communication if a prominent university instructor is writing a mathematics textbook in that language.
At the same time, it probably does no good to denigrate the use of the French language as “wallowing in the muck of a vile patois, spoken by ruffians and slaves.” After all, English, now the most widely-used language around the world is also the product of a subjugated people, formed from Norman French, a common root for Kreyol, according to the theory developed by the brilliant Haitian diplomat and linguist, Jules Faine, in his seminal work, Philologie Créole.
Perhaps there is some merit to the belief that being fluent in French is a worthy distinction. Such a belief, of course, ought not to be founded on the basis that only a superior intellect can accomplish such a feat. Rather, it should be founded on the idea that French can open up possibilities for Haiti, and for Haitians, that Kreyol alone will not do.
French and Kreyol go hand in hand, whether that Kreyol arose in Haiti, Mauritius, Louisiana or the French West Indies. Haiti is not the only country where more than one language is spoken. Consider the challenges faced by the denizens of the Netherlands Antilles.
The vernacular of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire is Papiamento, a creole language based largely on Portuguese and Spanish. Their formal language of instruction, Dutch, does not have with Papiamento the relationship that French has to Kreyol. Yet, the Dutch Antilleans take great pride in using their vernacular as a jumping-off point to learn Spanish and Portuguese, two languages with wider application.
The realpolitik, pragmatic solution of teaching French, and teaching in French, even from, indeed especially from, a Kreyolophone viewpoint should be encouraged. French still has a place in the world, and some argue that place is actually growing.
For example, young people in Africa are increasingly opting for fluency and education in “official languages” of the continent, which include French, English, Portuguese and even Spanish in the case of Equatorial Guinea. Many tribal and ethnic languages are in danger of disappearing, some without a trace in the case of unwritten languages.
Haitians will not have to make that cultural sacrifice to get along in the world of the 21st century. A friend of this author once joyfully announced, “Kreyol is cool.” And it is; it is comfortable, and redolent of family and friends. Unlike the “Bamileke” languages of Cameroon, Kreyol provides a direct link to French, as well as a connection to worldwide Créolophonie.
David S. Willig is a Miami-based attorney qualified in Florida and in France (Bar of Paris).