Bondye beni, lengwist

April 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Haiti has had its share of negative headlines –political coups, poverty, crime, and of course the January earthquake. But its sociolinguistic fortunes have been looking up, brought into sharper focus – of all things – by the recent earthquake.

Information and communication are crucial for relief efforts, and following the Haitian earthquake there was a sudden need for interpretation & translation resources in and out of Haitian Creole, the language spoken by the majority of the population.

Enter Google, Microsoft and BBC –

Google’s contribution to the linguistic need was to add Haitian Creole to its translation tool (while still an alpha version) . In similar fashion, Microsoft fast-tracked its machine translation development for Haitian Creole to contribute to the relief effort. .

Haitian Creole has also made inroads in the international media, helped by the BBC which began broadcasting in Haitian Creole to improve the information flow in the aftermath of the earthquake. Gaining a functional space in the powerful domain of the media with global reach is good news for a language which, like many other pidgins and creoles, has been regarded as a non-language with no rules.

The support of influential organisations such as Google and the BBC has helped raise the profile of Haitian Creole on a global scale, but the language has also been gaining status within Haitian society. This reflects a gradual shift in the way HC is viewed, slowly shedding the stigma attached to creoles and becoming a national language that can not only cover all of society’s functions and domains but also expresses black identity and pride.

HC exists side by side with French in a post-creole continuum. But Haiti is neither a fully French-speaking nor a bilingual society. According to Ethnologue, 95% of the population speak the French-based HC Creole, or Kreyòl,as their only language.

Despite being the native language for the majority of the population, HC has been the Low variety in contrast to prestigious and ‘elegant’ High variety French. But French fluency may also connote allegiance with the elite. Not surprisingly then, a Creole phrase says that “to speak French” is “to be a hypocrite” .

Haitian Creole has gained legal and educational status following some key policy decisions:

· 1957 constitution: officially reaffirms French as the official language. But crucially it permits the use of Creole in certain public functions.

· 1969 Creole gains limited legal status permitting its use in the legal domain (legislature & courts)

· In 1979, Creole is permitted as the language of instruction in schools, although French essentially remains the language of instruction as textbooks are published in French. A debate over a suitable orthography for Creole delays the introduction of a written standard until the late 1980s.

· 1983 constitution: both Creole and French are declared national languages with French as the official language.

· 1989 Constitution gives official status to Haitian Creole.

These developments have impacted on language use patterns, as the following extract suggests:

The use of Creole, even in formal settings, increased throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. Conversations at elite dinner tables, once held rigidly in French, switched fluidly between French and Creole, even within the same sentence. Radio and television stations increased broadcasts in Creole as advertisers learned the utility of reaching the vast majority of their market. Radio provided widespread access to news, which helped to break down the isolation of the peasantry and to galvanize the population during the crisis that led to the fall of the Duvalier regime. In 1986 it became obvious that important changes had taken place in Haiti, as people who had been in exile for years began to return home to run for the presidency. Many arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport with French speeches in hand but found themselves confronted by journalists who insisted on speaking Creole. U.S. Library of Congress

as a marker of identity Haitian finds rich expression in popular culture and – increasingly – also in literary form. Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (Creole and English Edition) was published recently as the first bilingual (Creole-English) collection of modern Haitian Creole poetry.

The very existence of this collection demands respect for Haitian Creole and the people who speak, write, and live in this language. Haiti is more than a political and economic crisis … (Martin Espada in ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes)

However, literacy levels among the general population remain low at around 33% (Ethnologue). And it is a linguist who must be credited with an innovative approach to this problem: Scrabble: as a tool to help maintain and Haitian Creole literacy.

……Quantitative analysis of a Haitian Creole textual corpus provides an empirical basis for the distribution of letter tiles and their point values. Problems encountered in test-games played by Haitian-American university students and Haitian elementary and high school students inform the final proposal. The paper examines the work necessary for the successful introduction of Haitian Creole Scrabble and it provides independent evidence of the game’s cognitive benefits. Haitian Creole Scrabble is argued to be a creative and special method for expanding and strengthening literacy in Haitian Creole and other creole languages.

Hebblethwaite, B. (2009) Scrabble as a tool for Haitian Creole literacy: Sociolinguistic and orthographic foundations Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 24 (2), 2009: 275-305

Haitian language and culture also has its champions in popular culture – and beyond Haiti: from the rich and famous lining up to dance Haitian compas rhythm to Beyonce talking about her Creole roots – go to youtube for more:

Wyclef of Haiti Making Obama, Michelle, Bill Clinton, Hillary, Chelsea, Bush & McCain Dance

Beyonce on youtube

And if you want to find out what Beyone really said, check out Sak passé- nap boule on Google ‘translate’.

Adyeu, tout pi byen nan


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