Reynald Altema, MD
Kreyol, the orphan that wouldn’t go away.
Among the many fault lines in our culture, a conversation about Kreyol ranks at the top of the heap. As is customary, not a conversation but a shouting match ensues between impassioned people who use the very vernacular to express their positions. That in 2018 we are still debating the status of Kreyol, spoken universally in Haiti, is a testimony of the inherent split personality we are exhibiting as a group. Invariably we proudly claim we were the first to break slavery’s fetters, and 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 it and instead wallow in the muck of a vile patois, spoken by ruffians, slaves?
This type of insecurity could be found in Pétion’s egregious-make that treasonous-offer and Boyer’s signing-on to pay an indemnity to the same settlers who treated us as beast of sums for centuries. What about the damage done to millions of humans whose sole fault was to be members of a dark complexion?
At the time when France was busy creating colonies to generate wealth, French had evolved over centuries from the vernacular initially spoken by ruffians, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, the original settlers of then Gaul, and it had borrowed heavily from Latin, Greek. It continues to evolve nowadays and is borrowing substantially from English. That the Kreyol-speaking slaves were uneducated were not of their own doing but the result of a systematic decision by settlers to forbid them access to reading and writing, sous peine de mort! Because slaves were not considered as full-fledged humans, anything associated with them was considered inferior and toxic.
Compounding the problem, classism replaced racism. Neither Pétion nor Boyer (especially) espoused methodical creation of schools, ergo underclass population increased, a perpetual powder keg. No serious policy existed to extend diffusion of French, leaving Kreyol as de facto populace’s idiom, i.e. orphan treatment.
However, this notion of a bastard vernacular is upended when the group is different. In present-day South Africa, Afrikaans with similar dynamics as Kreyol, is recognized as the official language of descendants of Boers. No one is disputing its pedigree. Different players, different rules.
Clearly, calculus of a vernacular as language relies purely on political will. Same goes for a flag. No one asks for permission for such a choice; one imposes one’s decision and the world will acquiesce.
The disdain toward Kreyol among us is indeed deep rooted. We have been brainwashed into believing that it is an inferior means of communication, not capable of expressing abstract concepts and ideas. This reminds me of a French teacher I had in the late sixties at St Martial. He later became one of Baby Doc’s speech writers. One day in class, boasting, “Parmi les quelques Haïtiens qui parlent le français, je ne parle pas trop mal.” This type of rubbish has been passed on from generations, leaving us with the indelible belief that to be 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 growing up in Québec speak it with a local accent with 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 it is binary choice, 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 nonevent in all services and educational opportunities. It is also a pragmatic approach to consider mastery of foreign languages 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 to witness people who insist on being fluent in French but don’t understand instructions in French. They are ashamed of admitting that Kreyol is the language they are 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 tiniest minority.
Fortunately, public places with 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 past decade. A prominent math teacher at University of Massachusetts at Boston, professor Alfred Noël, is writing a math textbook in Kreyol.
What is unsaid often 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 any number of resources available. Educavision.com, Amazon.com, have large offerings. Fequière Vilsaint, the publisher of Educavision offers this selection:
1. Pou moun ki metrize yon lang deja, mwen sijere : Pawòl lakay.
Men lyen pou ou ka li deskripsyon liv la:
2. Dis Pa nan lang Ayisyen an (se plis gramè)
3. Diksyonè monoleng
Si yon moun vle li woman an Kreyòl, mwen sijere:
4. Lafami Bonplezi
5. Fòs Lawouze.
6. Konpè Jeneral Solèy