Creole and French in Haiti
Haitian Creole is the true national language of the Republic of Haiti. In addition to seven million people in the homeland, it is spoken by about a million Haitians living abroad. All Haitians speak the language, but a small minority of about 10% of the population also speak French, which they have learned either at home or at school. However, even Haitians who master French consider Haitian Creole, which they use for most everyday communication, as the symbol of their national identity.
How was Creole formed?
In a way, Creole resulted from African slaves’ efforts to speak the French that they heard when they arrived in the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Slaves came from all over West Africa and spoke many different languages. On any one plantation, several African languages were spoken. Also at that time, most of the French people in Saint-Domingue spoke French dialects and everyday spoken French. That type of French, called Popular (common people’s) French, differed a lot from the French spoken by the ruling classes in France called Standard French. The slaves, seldom able to communicate with fellow slaves in a common African tongue, tried to learn Popular French. Slaves who arrived later, especially field slaves who had little contact with French speakers, tried to learn the approximative variety of Popular French the other slaves spoke rather than Popular French itself. Over time, this approximative form of French became more and more different from the French varieties and came to be recognized as a language in its own right–Creole. It is also interesting that it was picked up by the whites and became the language used by all those born in the colony.
More than 90% of the vocabulary of Creole is of French origin, yet French people can’t understand Creole. This is because the grammars of the two languages are very different. Also, Creole has kept the original meaning of Popular French words whereas in France these words were replaced by words from Standard French, and some Popular French words changed their meaning. A good example is the sentence Ki jan ou rele?“What is your name?” which corresponds to French Comment vous appelez-vous? Although a French person wouldn’t understand that phrase, every word is of French origin: qui “what,” genre “manner,” vous “you,” héler “to call” or “What manner call (yourself)?”. In France, the verb héler has been replaced by appeler.
The African element of Creole
Most present-day Creole speakers are descendants of African slaves, and some people think that it is a language that mixes French vocabulary with grammar from African languages. This seems reasonable since African traits have survived in other areas of cultures: religion, folklore, food. For example, in the case of food, okra, called by its African name gumbo, is used a lot in Haiti. There are indeed some grammatical elements that might be traced to Africa, for example the fact that the equivalent of the definite article (“the”) comes after the noun instead of before. In Table 1 we compare the forms for “the house” in Standard French, Popular French, Creole, and two African languages (Ewe and Yoruba).
Becoming an official language
The Constitution of 1987 upgraded Haitian Creole to a national language alongside French. It classified French as the langue d’instruction or “language of instruction”, and Creole was classified as an outil d’enseignement or a “tool of education”. The Constitution of 1987 names both Haitian Creole and French as the official languages, but recognizes Haitian Creole as the only language that all Haitians hold in common.