Haitian Creole Language

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Haitian Creole Language

Haitian Creole, also known as Kreyòl, is a member of the French-based creole language groups with a considerable part of its lexicon coming directly from seventeenth-century French. Its grammar differs from French, however, and reflects closely the West African languages, such as Ewe, Fon, Yoruba, and Ibo. Kreyòl is similar to the creoles spoken in the French overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe, as well as in Dominica, Saint Lucia, and parts of Trinidad. Kreyòl also has much in common with the creole spoken in Louisiana and with the popular languages of Mauritius and the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. Kreyòl is the native language of about 7.5 million Haitians and is spoken and understood by over one million people outside of Haiti.

Various theories have been advanced to explain the origin of French-based creole language groups. Early theorists claimed that they developed as the result of attempts by African slaves to imitate the language of their French masters. These early theorists also held that the white overseers and the crews of slave ships deliberately used simplified forms of European languages when speaking to a people they believed to be mentally inferior and incapable of learning the "civilized" variety. A second theory suggested that French-based creoles developed in three stages: The African slave attempted to copy the language of the master or foreman; the colonizer simplified his or her language in imitation of the slave; and finally the slave imitated the French speaker's own modification of French. A third theory rejects the idea that French-based creoles developed on the plantations, ascribing their origin to Afro-Portuguese pidgin, the lingua franca spoken by seamen and traders of the seventeenth century. The French sailors later replaced Portuguese words with French words, which were then acquired by the slaves, who further developed the language. Debate continues over the contention that all creole languages developed from an identical pidgin stage called the Afro-Portuguese pidgin, which originated along the western and southern coasts of Africa and became extremely useful from the early fifteenth century to traders from a multitude of nations in the Mediterranean basin.

Most modern linguists agree that Haitian Creole developed as a result of attempts by African slaves to communicate with their masters and with each other. Haitian Creole, or Kreyòl, is a language created in the French colony of Saint Domingue as a result of the unequal relations between the mass of slaves drawn from over forty different African ethnic groups and their French masters. Some of the early literary works in Haitian Creole include the well-known poem "Lisette quitté la plaine " (Lisette leaves the plain), by Duvivier de La Mahotière, and the Félicite Sonthonax Declaration of 1794, the communiqué of the French envoy sent to reestablish peace in revolutionary Saint Domingue and ordering "liberté " for the slaves. On January 1, 1804, Haiti became the only independent nation founded by African ex-slaves; it had a turbulent political history and experienced a long period of isolation from Western colonial powers. Thus the need to forge a national language was tantamount.

The Haitian Constitution of 1987 (Chapter I, Article 5) gave Kreyòl an official status, along with French, which had been the sole official language for more than 180 years, since Haiti's independence, although only about fifteen percent of the population can read and write French fluently. The true national language of all Haitians is Kreyòl, which is written and read by well over sixty percent of the population, including the minority of bilingual Kreyòl and French speakers.

Haitian Creole today exhibits three main dialectical variations: northern, southern, and central. In spite of the presence of these regional variations, however, Haitian Creole presents a high degree of standardization and normalization given that dialectical boundaries are not rigid and Haitians tend to be bidialectal. There is, however, a significant distinction between the Kreyòl rèk of the countryside and the somewhat more French sounding Kreyòl swa of Port-au-Prince. This variation has had an impact on arguments regarding how Haitian Creole should be spelled. Prior to 1980, two positions dominated the debate over orthography and the use of Kreyòl for adult literacy or as a means of instruction in primary schools. One position advocated a phonetic spelling system, which uses the International Phonetic Alphabet and diacritic signs. The other advocated a spelling system as near to French as possible. The proponents of the latter position view Kreyòl as a stepping stone to French (a "passage au Français "). Following the educational reform of the 1980s, a new spelling system was adopted and used widely. This spelling system corresponds to the speech patterns of Port-au-Prince and its surroundings. It is generally agreed that French and Kreyòl are mutually unintelligible. Haitian Creole is a distinct language with a unique morpho-phonological structure; it is not a French dialect.

"Sèl lang ki simante tout Ayisyen ansanm, se lang kreyòl. Kreyòl ak fransè se lang ofisyèl Repiblik Dayiti."

"Only one language unites all Haitiansit is the Kreyol language. Kreyol and French are the official languages of Haiti."

konstitisyon repiblik dayiti (haitian constitution), 1987, ch. i, art. 5.

See also Creole Languages of the Americas


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Dejean, Yves. Comment é écrire le Créole d'Haiti. Montreal, Canada: Collectifs Paroles, 1980.

Dejean, Yves. "Diglossia Revisited: French and Creole in Haiti." Word 34 (1983): 189213.

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Holm, John. Pidgins and Creoles, vols. 1 and 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988-1989.

Lefebvre, Claire. Creole Genesis and the Acquisition of Grammar: The Case of Haitian Creole. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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marc e. prou (2005)