Friday, September 16, 2011

What is Haitian Creole?

If you would like to read the Creole version (Ki sa kreyòl ayisyen ye?) feel free to contact us at to have it emailed to you.

Creole languages.

Throughout the world, but mostly in some parts of West Africa, in the Indian
Ocean, in the Caribbean in general and in the South Pacific, a number of
languages referred to as pidgins and creoles are spoken by several million
people. These languages are essentially contact languages. According to the
classic definitions offered by linguists[i] who have studied them, pidgins
are said to have developed in trade or other contact situations where
different groups of speakers do not share any common language and have to
create a new means of communication. Creoles are believed to be pidgins that
have expanded both their linguistic structures and their communicative
functions and have become the native language of an entire speech
community.[ii] Caribbean Creoles emerged mainly in the context of European
colonization around the seventeenth century when millions of Africans were
captured in Africa and transported to the Americas to work as slaves on
Caribbean plantations. France, Spain, Britain, Portugal and the Netherlands
are the most important European nations that were involved in the colonial
expansion and in the slave trade.

The languages of these nations became ideologically dominant on the
Caribbean islands (English in Jamaica, French in Haiti, Martinique or
Guadeloupe.) but the overwhelming majority of these populations continue to
speak a creole variety based lexically on the language of the former colony.
There are several groups of creole languages. These creoles are not mutually
intelligible although their speakers may somewhat understand each other .
They are identified by their lexicon, i.e. vocabulary, words, which is
heavily of European origin: Haitian Creole (HC) is based lexically on
French, Jamaican Creole is based lexically on English. But the syntax , the
system of rules of creole languages is very much different from the lexifier
languages , i.e. the language that furnished to the creole the majority of
its words[iii]. Linguistically speaking, creole languages are in no way
inferior to their lexifier languages or to other languages spoken in the
world. Like all languages, they reflect the universal grammatical
properties and the mental processes common to all natural, (i.e. human)
languages: English, French, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Quechua, etc.
Ideologically speaking, creole languages have been battling powerful social
forces more interested in keeping the low status traditionally given to them
than using that language spoken by all native Haitians to develop literacy
and formal education throughout the country. Despite remarkable advances in
the last three decades, the ideological dimension is by far the one that
causes the most concerns.

B. Haitian Creole as a Creole Language

Haitian Creole is a member of the group of French-based creoles
because an important part of its lexicon derives or comes directly from
French. However, its syntax, its semantic system and its morphology differ
considerably from French[iv] . HC is certainly the creole language spoken by
the most creole speakers in the world. As the native language of all
Haitians born and raised in Haiti, it is referred to as Kreyòl.[v] In the
diaspora, HC is a living language spoken by more than one million people,
living in North America (United States and Canada), in South America (mainly
Venezuela and French Guyana), in the Caribbean (Dominican Republic,
Martinique, Guadeloupe, Bahamas), in Europe (France) and in some countries
of Africa. In the strong speech communities of New York, Miami, Montreal, or
Dominican Republic, HC has been growing in contact to the host languages and
to the original mother variety[vi] . HC has also been the French-based
creole that has been the subject of the most academic research[vii] . It is
along with French the official language of the Republic of Haiti (since
1987) , although only a small minority of Haitians can speak French
fluently. Since 1980, HC has been equipped with an official
orthography[viii] and Haitian writers have produced very interesting works
relative to diverse aspects of Haitian experience. We will return to this
later. For now, we will present a summary of Haitian Creole history.

Historically, it is difficult to say precisely when HC appeared. We know
that in 1697, the French , whose presence on the island has been established
since 1629, officially occupied the western part __known as St.Domingue__ of
the island of Hispaniola that used to be a Spanish possession. From that
date, the conditions are well in place for the emergence of a French-based
Creole: the French take charge of the operations of the slave trade and the
needs to communicate between slaves and masters will give rise to a new
language. According to some historians, there was , around 1728 , a
population of approximately 50.000 slaves and a little less of French
colonists, but between 1740 and 1791 the number of Africans who were working
as slaves on the plantations of St.Domingue was estimated at nearly
half-million. Those who were born in Africa were known as "bosal" (brute,
not refined, unsophisticated) , and those who were born in St. Domingue
were called "kreyòl" (creoles). Haitian Creole emerged in the context of
St.Domingue's plantation societies, when the enslaved Africans , mostly
speakers of Niger-Congo languages[ix] , were exposed to the non-standard and
non-homogeneous French varieties spoken by the colonists and attempted to
acquire these varieties[x] . Today, HC is, like any other language spoken by
human beings, a rule-governed full linguistic system used daily by seven and
a half million people in Haiti and more than a million in the diaspora. It
is not French, although lexically it is strongly related to French.
Structurally, HC is an autonomous system that has a life of its own and does
not rely on the French language for its normal processes of creation.

The first text written in HC contains about ten lines and appeared in the
book Voyage d'un Suisse dans différentes colonies d'Amérique published in
1786 by Justin Girod de Chantrans, a Swiss traveler who had lived in
St.Domingue between May 1782 and July 1783. Here is that brief text as it
appeared in de Chantrans's book. It is a letter written by a young female
Negro to her lover in order to apologize for the infidelity she was accused

Moi étais à la case à moi; moi étais après préparer cassave à moi; Zéphir
venir trouver moi, li dit que li aimer moi, et qu'il voulait que moi aimer
li tout. Moi répondre li que moi déjà aimer mon autre et que moi pas capable
d'aimer deux. Li dit moi, que li mériter mieux amour à moi que matelot à li.
Moi répondre li, que li capable de mériter li mieux, mais que li pas te
gagner li encore. Li dit moi que li va gagner li, et tout de suite li faire
moi violence. Ah, toi connais comment li fort! Juger si gagner faute à moi!
Le ciel témoin, cher dombo, de l'innocence et de fidélité à moi!".

I was in my hut, preparing some cassava; Zéphir came to see me , and told me
that he loved me , and would like me to love him too. I told him that I
already had a lover and that I was not able to have two . He told me that he
deserved my love better than his rival. I told him that he could but that he
did not have it yet. He told me that he would have it, and suddenly he
assaulted me. . You know how strong he is! It's up to you to decide if I am
to blame! God knows, my dear, that I am innocent and faithful to you!

Despite its historical importance, this text should be taken with a lot of
reservation and should not be considered as a good sample of the creole
spoken in St.Domingue at that time. Girod de Chantrans lived in St.Domingue
only one year and didn't possess a real competence in Haitian Creole.

2. So far, the effort to standardize Haitian Creole has been limited
mainly to orthography. We recall that since 1980, Haitian Creole has been
equipped with an official orthography . There are several decent bilingual
English and French-Haitian Creole dictionaries, but Haitian lexicography has
not produced yet a monolingual Haitian Creole dictionary, although from a
strictly pedagogical point of view, it seems that there is a need for it[xi]
. Several good introductory courses in Haitian Creole are available to
English speakers and at least 4 American Universities teach Haitian Creole
classes[xii] . Most linguists consider that Haitian Creole possesses three
main dialects: the Northern dialect, represented by the variety spoken in
Cap-Haitien, the second largest Haitian city; the Center dialect,
represented by the variety spoken in the metropolitan area of
Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti; and the Southern dialect represented
by the variety spoken in the area of Cayes, an important city in the South
of Haiti. The Northern variety seems to be the one that is perhaps the most
marked both at the lexical and syntactic level. The Center variety for
political, economic , and cultural reasons, appears to be the most
prestigious , but because of the remarkable internal migration toward
Port-au-Prince that has characterized recent Haitian demography, dialectal
borders tend to become relatively loose and more and more Haitian speakers
are becoming bi-dialectal.

3. At the academic level, creole studies have developed
considerably[xiii] . Several linguistics departments of the most important
European and North-American Universities have creole studies sections and HC
is one of the Atlantic creoles the most studied. HC syntax has been arguably
the object of the most academic studies , most of them conducted within the
framework of Chomskyan generative grammar[xiv] . Since the end of the 1970'
s, there has been each year at least one doctoral dissertation relative to
an aspect of a creole language (Haitian or other) presented in a
North-American or European University. We should mention here two excellent
journals of creolistics : in the area of lexically French-based creoles ,
the French journal Etudes Créoles, published twice a year, and in the area
of lexically English-based creoles, the English journal Journal of Pidgin
and Creole Languages, also published twice a year.

Literary speaking, HC acquired a new dimension by the middle of the 1970's
with the publication of the novel Dezafi[xv] , written by the Haitian writer
Frankétienne . This book has been acclaimed by the majority of
creole-speaking literary critics as a major literary creation.
Unfortunately, very few quality novels followed that masterpiece. There have
been some good poetry texts and some remarkable pieces for the stage, but no
creations of the caliber of Dezafi. Perhaps there are some problems in the
creation of a specific literary register for HC and in this respect, the
novel Dezafi may well have been a brilliant exception. For years, HC has
been a strictly oral language used in informal situations and for daily
communications. Bilingual Haitian speakers have very often shifted to French
or English, depending upon the level of formality of a topic or the extent
of familiarity with the interlocutor , but more and more these parameters
are exploding and HC has penetrated all aspects and dimensions of Haitian
expression. With the advent of the written word permanently installed in
Creole expression, the problem now is to elaborate a new rhetoric and a
structure that is not time and event based.

4. In the strong Haitian speech communities of New York, Miami, Boston,
HC has integrated to a certain extent the local school system. According to
some authors, there are at least 30,000 Haitian children enrolled in the New
York City public schools[xvi] . Haitian Creole is the fourth non-English
language spoken and taught in NYC public school system, right after Spanish,
Russian, and Chinese. At all levels, middle school, junior high school, and
high school, there are classes where HC is the subject of instruction and is
also used as classroom vehicle to teach subject matters like math, science
or social studies[xvii] . These classes have been attracting a lot of
enthusiastic Haitian students, most of them newly arrived from Haiti, but
the lack of large numbers of quality literary material to teach reading and
writing in Haitian Creole risks to delay the literary initiation of these
Haitian students. The educational authorities need to step in and promote
the development of quality literary material (translating some excellent
works taken from the large body of Haitian literature of French expression
could be an excellent start) in Haitian Creole.

Is there a future for Haitian Creole? It depends on where we're talking
about. Is it in Haiti or in the communities of the diaspora? In Haiti, there
is absolutely no doubt about it: HC , as long as Haiti exists, will remain
the native language of the whole Haitian population. But, in the communities
of the diaspora, it will depend on the size of the concerned population and
the vitality of the Haitian culture within that population. In this respect,
some communities are luckier than others. In a big city like New York,
arguably the second largest Haitian city after Port-au-Prince, it is quite
possible that HC will survive for a very long time. It is more questionable
for some other Haitian communities less voluminous where the new generations
deprived of the constant interaction with other Haitian groups, will be
rapidly absorbed by the culture of the host country z
Hugues St.Fort was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Completed both primary and
secondary education there. Higher education in France: B.A. in French
literature at the Université de Besançon, Master's in French Applied
Linguistics at the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, and a
Doctorate in Linguistics at the Université René Descartes in Paris, in 1982.
Taught French and Linguistics in Mauritius in the early 1980's. Also taught
Linguistics at Queens College, City College and Bank Street in New York
City. Presently teaching AP French and Native Language Arts (Haitian Creole)
for the Board of Education of NY City and an adjunct assistant professor of
French at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY.

I have published numerous reviews of fiction and non-fiction works by
Haitian writers based in the Diaspora, the most recent ones being on: Krik?
Krak! and The farming of bones by Edwige Danticat and Théories Caraïbes.
Poétique du déracinement by the Montréal-based Haitian poet Joël Des Rosiers
in the Haitian weekly Haïti en marche. My research interests include the
problems of code-switching in the Haitian bilingual speech community of NYC,
the elaboration of a basic monolingual Haitian creole dictionary and the
"problématique" of the new Haitian literature in the diaspora.

By Hugues St.Fort
© Copyright 2000 (Hugues St. Fort / The Créole Connection)

[i] Here, we refer specially to linguists such as Leonard Bloomfield (1933),
Otto Jespersen (1923), Robert Hall (1966). There have been lately some
excellent introductions to the academic study of pidgins and creoles : John
Holm (1988), Jacques Arends and alii (1994), Peter Muhlhausler (1986, 1998).
Michel DeGraff (1999), a Haitian-born linguistics professor at the
Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), offers a nuanced and very
intelligent discussion on the genesis of these languages (pidgins/creoles)
within the framework of generative grammar, the revolutionary and dominant
linguistic theory introduced by the American linguist , Noam Chomsky of MIT.

[ii] Pidgin speakers already have their own native language(s) and have
learned the pidgin as adult speakers.

[iii] . A lot of questions have been raised in the creolist circles. Among
the hottest ones are these: Can one justify empirically the traditional
distinction made between creole languages and non-creole languages? Are
there really particular features that characterize a creole language? Should
we consider the separation between "creole languages" and "regular
languages" a racist distinction?

[iv] . The question of the nature and origin of Haitian Creole has
fascinated scholars. In 1936, two Haitian scholars argued on that particular
issue. Suzanne Comhaire Sylvain in her doctoral dissertation at the
University of Sorbonne, France, defended the idea that Haitian Creole was an
ewe language (West Africa) with a French vocabulary, while Jules Faine, a
Haitian intellectual not trained in linguistics, maintained that Haitian
Creole was a direct descendent of old French dialects spoken by the first
French colonizers. In contemporary times, this debate has taken a new life ,
with the research and the recent book published by the Canadian linguist,
Claire Lefebvre (1998).

[v] . In the past twenty years, there has been a tendency on the part of
some Haitians living in the North-American diaspora to call their language
Haitian, instead of the long-established one, Kreyòl. We must note, however,
that this particular appellation applies only to communication in English. I
have not heard any Haitian-born speaker refer to his/her native language as
"Ayisyen" (Haitian), when speaking in Creole.

[vi] . According to several estimations (Joseph 1997, Laguerre 1984), the
number of Haitians living in New York City alone varies between 500,000 and

[vii] . Linguists have divided the French-based Creoles into 2 groups: the
Atlantic Creoles and the Indian Ocean Creoles. The Atlantic Creoles are
comprised of the Creoles spoken in Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica,
Ste Lucia, French Guyana, Louisiana. The Indian Ocean Creoles are comprised
of the Creoles spoken in Mauritius, Seychelles, and Réunion.

[viii] The Haitian linguist Yves Déjean has written extensively on all
aspects of Haitian Creole orthography. His doctoral dissertation "Comment
écrire le créole d'Haiti" , Indiana University, 1979, is required reading
for anybody interested in questions of orthography about HC.

[ix] . According to Suzy Platiel (1998), who cites Greenberg (1963) and K.
Williamson (1989), Niger-Congo languages cover several hundred languages
spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa, from Atlantic to the Sudan.

[x] . At the time of the European colonial expansion (17th -18th century),
the standardization of the French language was far from being achieved. The
French colonists who settled in St Domingue spoke varieties called "Français
régionaux" (regional French), i.e. forms of French marked by specific
syntactic , morphological and lexical differences with respect to
contemporary standard French. HC has kept to a certain extent several of
these forms.

[xi] The most recent bilingual Haitian Creole-English dictionary is
Laguerre-Freeman's (1997) and contains more 40,000 entries. But for those
who are looking for spoken material used by native speakers as examples in
a dictionary , the two best bilingual dictionaries in my opinion, are
Valdman (1981) and Valdman and alii (1996).

[xii] They are : Indiana University at Bloomington, City College of NY,
Kansas University and Florida International University.

[xiii] The first international conference on creole studies took place
thirty years ago in Mona, Jamaica. Since then, each year, there are
important conferences on creole languages held either in Europe, in North
America or in the Caribbean. The most recent one was held this past summer
(June 24-June 29) at the University of Aix-en-Provence, in the South of

[xiv] The Haitian-born MIT linguist Michel DeGraff has been at the forefront
of the majority of syntactic research on HC, but the Canadian linguist
Claire Lefebvre and some of her collaborators have published some important
studies on particular aspects of HC morpho-syntax, in a series of
publications entitled Travaux de recherche sur le créole haitien , in the
late 1980's-early 1990's at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQUAM).

[xv] In the early 1980's, the same Frankétienne wrote a play Pèlen tèt ,
that has been acclaimed on stages both in Haiti and in the North-America

[xvi] See "Haitian Creole in New York" by Carole Berotte Joseph, in: Fishman
and Garcia (1997).

[xvii] . These classes are referred to as bilingual classes, where limited
English proficient Haitian students receive content instruction in their
native language (HC) and English, native language arts (HC) instruction, and
instruction in English -as-a-second language. There are dozens of these
classes in New York City.

References cited

Arends, J. and alii . 1995. Pidgins and creoles, an introduction.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Henry Holt.

DeGraff, Michel.(ed.) 1999. Language creation and language change.
Creolization, Diachrony, and Development. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Greenberg, J.H. 1963. The languages of Africa. The Hague, Mouton.

Hall, Robert. 1966. Pidgin and creole languages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.

Holm, John. 1988. Pidgins and creoles. Volumes 1 and 2. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Jespersen, Otto. 1923. Language: its nature, development and origin. New
York: WW. Norton.

Joseph, Carole B. 1997. Haitian Creole in New York, in: The Multilingual
Apple: Languages in New York City. Edited by Ofelia Garcia and Joshua
Fishman. Berlin, New York : Mouton de Gruyter.

Laguerre, Michel S. 1984. An American odyssey: Haitians in New York City.
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Laguerre , J. and Freeman, B. 1997: Haitian-Creole-English Dictionary.

Lefebvre, Claire. 1998. Creole genesis and the acquisition of grammar: The
case of Haitian Creole. Cambridge University Press.

Muhlhausler, Peter. 1986. Pidgin and creole linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Platiel, Suzy. 1998. Comparatisme historique et classifications. In Faits de
langues, revue de linguistique, # 11-12: Les langues d'Afrique
subsaharienne. Paris, OPHRYS.

Valdman, Albert. 1981. Haitian-Creole-English-French Dictionary.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University, Creole Institute.

Valdman, Albert ; Jean-Baptiste, Rozevel; Pooser, Charles. 1996. A Learner's
dictionary of Haitian Creole. Indiana University, Creole Institute.

Williamson, K. 1989. Niger-Congo Overview. In : J. Bendor-Samuel (ed.): The
Niger-Congo languages, United Press of America and SIL.

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