Among the first words a foreigner is apt to hear on a visit to Haiti are: “ Blan, sa k’ pase? Ki sa ou ap fe an Ayiti? " Or a visitor in Jamaica might overhear this exchange: “ Me a gaa a tung.” “ Wa mek? " “ Mi a gaa one flim . “
In the first instance, the Haitian is asking: “Stranger, what’s happening? What are you doing in Haiti?”
In the Jamaican exchange, the first speaker says, “I am going to town.” He is asked “Why?” The answer: “I’m going to a movie.”
The languages being used are Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois, the two most extensive and organized of the several tongues of the Caribbean region.
Formally, those Caribbean countries, such as Jamaica, that were once ruled as British colonies use English as their official language; Martinique and Guadeloupe use the language of their former French masters. Haiti, also a onetime French colony, uses both French and Creole as official languages. In addition, Spanish is the language of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, while Dutch is spoken on a few islands.
But what marks all of these places--with the exception of the largely monolingual Dominican Republic and Cuba--is the presence of a second, local tongue that overwhelms the official language in everyday use, even among the elite of the different societies.
The disparity forms the basis of an increasingly important regional dispute involving political and economic power, race and class divisions and national esteem. There is a growing movement to give the local tongues official status and equality with European languages.
On the one side, some speakers of what are considered the more established, traditional languages think that what they hear in Creole or Patois are quaint variations, essentially corruptions of French and English.
These people share the view of Sir Harry Johnston, an English anthropologist who wrote in a 1910 study of black life in the Caribbean that Patois “is a barbarous and clumsy jargon.”
To others, particularly the residents of the Caribbean, Creole and Patois are independent languages with their own characters and values--systems of communication just as sophisticated as standard English or French and far more appropriate to the lives, experiences and images of the region.
In Haiti, for instance, close to 100% of the country’s 6 million people speak Creole, with at least 85% using it as their only language and only 2% monolingual in French.
And with its development over the centuries into a written language, Creole increasingly is the vehicle for literature and the broadcast media in spite of pressure by some of the nation’s elite to maintain social and economic control by restricting education, politics and high-level business to French.
In Jamaica, where 90% of the people speak Patois, and in the other so-called English-speaking Caribbean nations, Patois is heard more and more on the radio, in songs and even used in newspapers previously noted for their proper, even old-fashioned Standard English.
As a result, pressure is increasing to declare Patois an official language, to use it as the basis of education and give it equality in business and politics.
This doesn’t go down easily for some, particularly those who have power and control and still require job applicants to speak “fluent English.”
“If Patois continues to gain legitimacy it will destroy English,” claims Morris Cargill, a Jamaican columnist. “What is wrong with that is the increased isolation it will cause for these little island countries. Our only hope is for greater involvement in the international marketplace, and without English as our major language we won’t be able to compete.”
When linguist Ives Dejean hears that argument applied to Haitian Creole, he answers with scorn.
“It is a false question,” he said in his own elegant English. “Do the Danes suffer because Danish is their official language, or the Dutch? Of course not. What is at issue is not the national language but education in any language.”
But the experience of Haiti, which declared Creole an official language in its 1987 constitution, doesn’t hold much hope for those who think such action will reduce discrimination and open opportunities.
Even though only 15% of Haitians speak anything resembling proper French, nearly all schooling is in French. This means that the overwhelming majority of students don’t understand what is being taught, particularly since most of the teachers are incompetent in French.
“That, along with the government’s refusal to provide adequate facilities, trained teachers and proper subjects dooms this country’s population,” said William Smarth, a Haitian Catholic priest who has led the fight to make Creole the primary language of his church.
Further, in spite of Creole’s official status, only French is used in the Haitian courts, and few government leaders make their speeches in Creole. The major exception is former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown by the military in September, 1991.
In fact, his eloquence and near-magical use of Creole is considered a major factor in the hold Aristide had and still has on the population; it now influences the resistance by much of the Haitian elite to permitting the people’s language any ascendancy.
“There are many controls in Haiti,” Smarth said, “and there is a gap between the elite and the people. Many people won’t accept the language of the poor.”
The elite use language, he explained, “to distinguish themselves from the masses, to create an artificial distinction so they can claim superiority or limit access to power and riches.”
Haiti’s mostly light-skinned elite also identifies the use of French with racial superiority, Smarth said, and “a misguided belief that they are the sole protectors of a superior culture.”
He and other observers say an underlying reason for the defense of French is a desire to prove that the descendants of slaves, light-skinned or not, are intellectually and culturally capable of speaking classic French.
This mind-set is seen in newspapers and other print media. The major dailies are in French, as are journals and magazines. Even the pro-Aristide papers published in the United States are largely in French.
But things may be changing. Haitian radio, the major form of media communication in the country, is increasingly in Creole.
Even some of the newspapers are running columns in Creole, and in the luxurious restaurants, clubs and, reportedly, the bedrooms of the rich, Creole is heard more and more.
In Jamaica, where standard English is the official language, it is estimated that 90% of all conversation is the Patois that expresses the feeling of having eaten one’s full by saying, “ Mi belly bust .”
Day to day, minute to minute in private conversations in the opulent restaurants of elite neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince and at the Kingston, Jamaica, cricket pitch, the people use a vibrant, lilting language far from the supposedly correct English and French used in formal settings.
“ Mwen pa we ou menm, kote ou te ye?” one wealthy Haitian recently asked a friend in Creole, not the formal French they both also speak. “ Mt’al vizite manman-m avek yon kouzen ki sot Nouyok, " was the answer.
Someone with a background in French might figure out that the questioner asked: “I haven’t seen you around. Where were you?” The answer: “I went to visit my mother with a cousin from New York.”
In Jamaica, the largest of the former British colonies in the region, someone most likely would not greet a long-absent friend by saying in proper English, “We haven’t seen each other for a long time,” but with the Patois expression, “ Long time we no mek four-yai. “
In both cases, the roots of some of the words are fairly evident: the negative pa and the use of avek for with and v izite for visit , all clearly of French origin although using phonetic spellings.
Patois may be easier to decipher for a fluent English speaker. The sentence cited above corresponds to: “For a long time, our four eyes haven’t met.”
Haitian Creole and Jamaican Patois are the best known and most extensively developed, but the languages of the rest of the region are part of a seemingly more confused bag. For instance, the alternative languages of such officially English-speaking countries as St. Lucia, Dominica and Grenada are a form of Creole generally related to the Creole of Haiti, even though the roots are not especially evident to the residents of those islands.
During a recent visit to St. Lucia, a reporter surprised one resident by asking, “ Eske nou genyen bie, souple? " (“Do you have beer, please?”)
When told that the reporter spent time in Haiti, the store owner seemed puzzled, especially when told that the word souple was based on the French s’il vous plait .
“I didn’t know that,” the store owner said in English. “So, I speak French too.”
Well, sort of. While St. Lucia and the other neighboring so-called Windward Islands were for centuries British colonies, they all were once French possessions.
Does that mean Caribbean Creole tongues are essentially French dialects? Not necessarily. In the minds of many linguists, they are no more so than English is a dialect of French or Anglo-Saxon or Latin or any of the myriad other languages that have influenced the tongues of Britain, the United States or Australia.
“It is true that in the (former) French colonies there is a historic link between French and Haiti,” said Dejean, Haiti’s leading linguist. “In that sense, in Haiti we have a French-based Creole.
“But what we call Creole in Haiti is profoundly different from French or even from Creole” spoken in other parts of the Caribbean, he added, contending that “it is as complete and independent and as sophisticated” as any language, with its own vocabulary, grammar and structure.
Perhaps so, but how Haitian Creole came to be--whatever it is--is enveloped in controversy, or what Dejean calls “the mystery of language.”
One theory holds that Creole is “a white man’s language” built on a French-derived dialect or slang of 17th- and 18th-Century French seafarers, which included words and expressions of Portuguese, African, Spanish and English sailors.
This so-called lingua franca was carried to what is now Haiti (which comes from ayiti , one of the few words left from the natives living there at the time of the Columbus voyages) by French seamen called boucaniers .
By this theory, the African slaves brought to work the plantations adopted this dialect without adding much of their own home languages. The advocates of this approach claim that 80% or more of Haitian Creole, particularly its vocabulary, is French-based.
They also point to words clearly derived from French nautical terms: lage , Creole “to let go,” comes from larguer , meaning “to cast off"; mare , Creole for “to tie,” descends from the French verb amarrer , which means “to moor a ship.”
Finally, the argument goes, Haitian Creole has a kinship with the Creole spoken on the islands of Mauritius, Reunion and Seychelles, located off East Africa with populations totally unrelated to the west of Africa, the home area of most of the slaves brought to Haiti.
On the other hand, some linguists maintain that Haitian Creole was the result of a transformation of French by the slaves themselves into a common language they could use to overcome the differences in their various tribal tongues.
With a vocabulary essentially French, the African contribution was a syntax common to several tribal languages such as Ewe and Wolof.
“Creole is an Ewe language with French vocabulary,” according to a 1936 study by French linguist Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain. But whatever the roots of the languages, and despite continuing pressure to define power, status and wealth by language, it seems that in one area, at least, the formal tongues of Europe have lost.
“When two people really love each other,” wrote Haitian author Max Bissainthe, “there’s nothing like Creole. It’s OK to say in French, ‘ Cheri, je suis folle de toi ' (‘Dear, I’m mad about you’), but when your girlfriend lowers her eyelids and whispers to you, ‘ Ti chat, mwen pedi lan kampay-ou ,’ (‘Darling, I’m lost in your essence’), it’s divine, it makes you dream, and you are happy.”
A Walk Through the Talk
English: Turks & Caicos; British Virgin Islands; Anguilla
English and Patois: Bahamas; Cayman Islands; Jamaica; St. Kitts & Nevis; Montserrat; Antigua & Barbuda; St. Vincent and the Grenadines
English and Bajan Patois: Barbados
English and Creole: Dominica; Grenada; Trinidad & Tobago
Dutch and English: Saba
Dutch & Papiamento: Aruba; Curacao; Bonaire; St. Eustatius
Spanish: Cuba; Dominican Republic
French and Creole: Haiti; St. Martin; Guadeloupe; Martinique
French and Norman dialect: St. Barthelemy