Growing up in Port-au-Prince, Sherley Louis, an educator, remembers hearing that it was necessary to be familiar with the version of Creole that compatriots speak in Cap-Haitien. Otherwise, there might be a mild language barrier.
For instance, Port-au-Prince natives use koke or kwoke to say hang. But in Cap-Haitien, it means to be intimate in a romantic sense. Similarly, some northern residents refer to a cup as a tenbal, and Port-au-Prince residents call it gode.
“There are five different dialects,” said Yvon Lamour, a Massassuchets-based educator who founded the Haitian Creole Development Center. “It goes by regions. The meaning assigned to words can be different. Even within the same regions you have a lot of assimilations.”
Lamour is among three Creole language experts taking part in the Little Haiti Book Festival. During the Haitian Heritage Month virtual event, the linguists will discuss differences between the dialects and why those variations in Creole exist throughout Haiti.
“Creole, Creolish: Regionalisms in Haitian Creole” will start Sunday, May 16, at 11:00 a.m. and can be viewed via the Miami Book Fair website. In addition to Lamour, linguist Jean-Robert Placide will speak during the program. Louis, executive director of Mouvman Kreyòl Institute, will moderate.
One country, five Creoles
Haiti’s five Creole dialects are mastèbrenn from the western department, kinan m from the northern department, kannistè from the northwestern department, gwanamanto in the central region, and mpe in the southern region, Lamour said, giving credit to linguist Serge Fuertes for naming the dialects.
One of the most striking contrasts between the different dialects is that people from the northern region often use contraction when they speak. For instance, in the kinan m dialect of the north, my food would be “manje an m” (pronounced together) when a Port-au-Prince native would say “manje mwen” using the mastèbrenn dialect.
Another example is that southerners say “lakay mwen” for my home when northerners say “lakay an m” (pronounced together) Lamour said.
People from the northern department also tend to speak slower than western department residents.
The different dialects have long been linked to the different social classes in Haiti and historical developments.
In 1811, Haiti was divided into two parts. President Alexandre Pétion ruled over the southern and western regions, where the education system was in French. Meanwhile, Emperor Henri Christophe led the northern and northwestern regions, where the education system was in English, Lamour and Louis said.
“Because there was more English on that side, the Creole is more of an English version of it,” Louis said. “In the South, that’s why you see many people speak French. When the people went there, they didn’t speak French so they tried to put Creole and French together.”
Making peace with history
Louis said knowing the history of the Creole language is important in moving Haitian culture forward.
“The people from the countryside were minimized for how they talk, how they say things,” Louis said. “That’s why the book fair is really important. When it becomes an awareness, you take something that was a shame before and bring it to light and educate people. When you educate people, they embrace it, make peace with it.”
The Little Haiti Book Festival is holding events every Sunday in the month of May. Visit miamibookfaironline.com to learn more.