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17438: Reid: CULTURE: Haiti's First Language Still Running Second (fwd)
From: Ralph Reid <firstname.lastname@example.org>
CULTURE: Haiti's First Language Still Running Second
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 26 (IPS) - ”All Haitians are united by a
common language: Creole.”
So proclaimed the banner flapping in the breeze near Haiti's
National Palace on Oct. 28, 2003, the 21st International Creole
Day. The line comes from Article 5 of the country's constitution,
and in the speeches delivered by government officials and the
seminars spoken by university professors that day, Creole was the
guest of honour.
But 16 years after making Creole one of two official languages
in Haiti (the other is French), and 200 years after the language
helped unite slaves for struggle against their French masters,
Creole is still fighting for its place.
''Creole'' comes from the Spanish ''criollo'', used to
designate second-generation African slaves and Europeans born in
Later applied to racial groups, cuisine and music, the word was
also picked up by linguists to signify the languages born of the
clash of cultures and tongues that resulted from 16th-century
European expansion and, in the Americas, the forced transplant of
at least 10 million Africans.
The most-oft heard Creole on the planet is Haitian Creole,
which derives about 90 percent of its words from French.
Creole is heard on street corners, at mass and football games,
in music videos, on posters warning against AIDS or selling
chicken bullion cubes and in the proverbs that pepper the speech
of everyone from peddler to president..
People in Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, Dominica,
Seychelles, New Caledonia and other former French colonies also
speak a similar Creole. But in contrast to those islanders, for
most Haitians -- 90 to 95 percent, according to linguist and
Creole authority Yves Déjean -- Creole is their only language.
Déjean is quick to add that if Article 5 has a promising start,
it then goes on to read: ''Creole and French are the official
languages of the public.''
That means if you go into a court house, a schoolroom or a
fancy store, look at the government newspaper, listen to at
least one-half of local TV shows or check out advertisements for
cars or credit cards, you would think that the only official
tongue in Haiti was French.
Déjean, a former priest who so far has spent 50 of his 76 years
fighting ''not for Creole, but for Creole-speakers'', is also
shocked and dismayed to still hear school children sing-songing
their lessons in broken French over and over until they are
memorised, and then putting the books away so they can converse
normally with friends and family in their mother tongue.
''A language can be a route to knowledge or a barrier to
knowledge,'' he said in an interview. In Haiti, where school is
taught in French, a language only 1 in 10,000 kids speak at home,
it is a barrier.
''The construction of the Creole language was an important step
in our battle for independence,'' said Sony Esteus, a former
radio journalist who cut his teeth with hard-edged reporting in
Creole during the three-year coup d'état (1991-1994).
''The slaves were from different tribes. They couldn't
communicate at first.. When they developed Creole, it gave the
struggle a big push,” he told IPS..
Creole also was important in more recent struggles. Creole
radio broadcasts helped bring about the fall of the Duvalier
dictatorship in 1986.
Not surprisingly, the new constitution, voted a year later,
recognised the language after 183 years of disparagement. But
today, on the eve of Haiti's 200th anniversary of independence
from France (Jan. 1, 2004), Creole is still second to the slave
''Before there was a colonial domination. Now it's a social
domination,” said Esteus.
Sound engineer Adeline Augustin runs the boards for the daily
newscast at ”Radyo Vwa Peyizan” (Radio Voice of the Peasant), a
community radio station in Papaye. Unlike many of her friends --
only about two-thirds of Haitian children go to school and they
only spend an average of four years there -- she speaks some
French. But not at the radio station.
''If we decide not to speak Creole on the radio, we would have
to change our name,'' she said in an interview. ”We are a
peasants' radio. Peasants speak Creole.”
So does everyone else. That's what Article 5 recognised. And
today there are more Creole broadcasts, hours of Creole talk
shows, more books and scores of Creole Internet sites.
All schools are now supposed to teach two hours of Creole
writing and reading per week (although many ignore the rule),
and a few university professors even lecture in Creole. And while
the elite have always used Creole at home and amongst friends, to
tell tales or talk politics, today more and more also use it in
public after a first few exchanges in French.
''There's been a big change,'' said Déjean, author of books on
Creole and education, and also children's books in Creole.
''Now, ministers and the president use Creole. And cabinet
meetings are conducted in Creole.''
But the minutes for those meetings are written up in French.
When a farmer goes to get a land title or pay his taxes, it's in
French. When a judge renders a decision, or a receptionist
answers a telephone, it's in French. The government newspaper is
And when a young Haitian shows up for first grade, Déjean is
horrified to report, he or she is bombarded with reading,
writing and arithmetic in a foreign language -- French.
Many of those who make it through four years of school will
leave without really knowing how to read or write anything,
The Creole question is not a language question. It is a
question of exclusion, said Esteus, whose parents are farmers.
''It has been one way a tiny group has excluded the majority from
economic, political and social power in Haiti.''
And the state has done little to change that.
''In the 16 years since the constitution was voted, not one law
has been published in Creole,'' Déjean noted.
The government's banners, posters and fliers promoting Creole
and its literacy campaign are ”hypocrisy”, he adds, and he
should know. Déjean worked at the State Literacy Secretariat from
1995 until 1997, while his brother Paul was secretary of state.
Literacy campaigns in Creole will only work if the language is
adopted in schools, at least for the first few years of
learning, he said.
''We are in the midst of hypocrisy,'' said Déjean. ''A lot of
big talk. Before they wanted to eliminate Creole. Now they use
it for demagogy. That is the tragedy of this country. The
government hasn't decided to really embrace Creole.” . (END/2003)
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