Two languages were spoken in Haiti: Creole and French. The social relationship between these languages was complex. Nine of every ten Haitians spoke only Creole, which was the everyday language for the entire population. About one in ten also spoke French. And only about one in twenty was fluent in both French and Creole. Thus, Haiti was neither a francophone country nor a bilingual one. Rather, two separate speech communities existed: the monolingual majority and the bilingual elite.
All classes valued verbal facility. Public speaking played an important role in political life; the style of the speech was often more important than the content. Repartee enlivened the daily parlance of both the monolingual peasant and the sophisticated bilingual urbanite. Small groups gathered regularly in Port-au-Prince to listen to storytellers. Attitudes toward French and Creole helped to define the Haitians' cultural dilemma.
Language usually complicated interactions between members of the elite and the masses. Haitians of all classes took pride in Creole as a means of expression and as the national tongue. Nevertheless, many monolingual and bilingual Haitians regarded Creole as a nonlanguage, claiming that "it has no rules." Thus, the majority of the population did not value their native language and built a mystique around French. At the same time, almost every bilingual Haitian had ambivalent feelings about using French and did so uncomfortably. In Creole the phrase "to speak French" means "to be a hypocrite."
Fluency in French served as an even more important criterion than skin color for membership in the Haitian elite. The use of French in public life excluded the Creole-speaking majority from politics, government, and intellectual life. Bilingual families used French primarily for formal occasions. Because Creole was the language of informal gatherings, it was filled with slang and was used for telling jokes. Haitian French lacked these informal qualities. Monolingual Creole speakers avoided formal situations where their inability to communicate in French would be a disadvantage or an embarrassment. In an attempt to be accepted in formal or governmental circles, some monolingual Creole speakers used French-sounding phrases in their Creole speech, but these imitations were ultimately of little or no use. Middle-class bilinguals in Port-au-Prince suffered the greatest disadvantage because they frequently encountered situations in which the use of French would be appropriate, but their imperfect mastery of the language tended to betray their lower-class origins. It was in the middle class that the language issue was most pressing. The use of French as a class marker made middle-class Haitians more rigid in their use of French on formal occasions than Haitians who were solidly upper class.
The origins of Creole are still debated. Some scholars believe that it arose from a pidgin that developed between French colonists and African slaves in the colonies. Others believe that Creole came to the colony of Saint-Domingue as a full-fledged language, having arisen from the French maritime-trade dialect. Whatever its origins, Creole is linguistically a separate language and not just a corrupted French dialect. Although the majority of Creole words have French origins, Creole's grammar is not similar to that of French, and the two languages are not mutually comprehensible.
There are regional and class variations in Creole. Regional variations include lexical items and sound shifts, but the grammatical structure is consistent throughout the country. Bilingual speakers tend to use French phonemes in their Creole speech. The tendency to use French sounds became common in the Port-au-Prince variant of Creole. By the 1980s, the Port-au- Prince variant was becoming perceived as the standard form of the language.
The use of French and Creole during the colonial and the independence periods set speech patterns for the next century. During the colonial period, it was mostly whites and educated mulatto freedmen who spoke French. When the slaves gained their freedom and the plantation system disintegrated, the greatest barriers among the various classes of people of color collapsed. French language became a vital distinction between these who had been emancipated before the revolution (the anciens libres) and those who achieved freedom through the revolution, and it ensured the superior status of the anciens libres. French became the language not only of government and commerce, but also of culture and refinement. Even the most nationalist Haitians of the nineteenth century placed little value on Creole.
Attitudes toward Creole began to change during the twentieth century, however, especially during the United States occupation. The occupation forced Haitian intellectuals to confront their non-European heritage. A growing black consciousness and intensifying nationalism led many Haitians to consider Creole as the "authentic" language of the country. The first attempt at a Creole text appeared in 1925, and the first Creole newspaper was published in 1943.
Beginning in the 1950s, a movement to give Creole official status evolved slowly. The constitution of 1957 reaffirmed French as the official language, but it permitted the use of Creole in certain public functions. In 1969 a law was passed giving Creole limited legal status; the language could be used in the legislature, the courts, and clubs, but not in accredited educational institutions. In 1979, however, a decree permitted Creole as the language of instruction in the classroom. The constitution of 1983 declared that both Creole and French were the national languages but specified that French would be the official language. The suppressed 1987 Constitution (which was partially reinstated in 1989) gave official status to Creole.
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