THE LANGUAGE QUESTION
French and Creole
Two languages were spoken in Haiti: Creole and French.
social relationship between these languages was complex.
every ten Haitians spoke only Creole, which was the
language for the entire population. About one in ten also
French. And only about one in twenty was fluent in both
and Creole. Thus, Haiti was neither a francophone country
bilingual one. Rather, two separate speech communities
the monolingual majority and the bilingual elite.
All classes valued verbal facility. Public speaking
important role in political life; the style of the speech
often more important than the content. Repartee enlivened
daily parlance of both the monolingual peasant and the
sophisticated bilingual urbanite. Small groups gathered
in Port-au-Prince to listen to storytellers. Attitudes
French and Creole helped to define the Haitians' cultural
Language usually complicated interactions between
the elite and the masses. Haitians of all classes took
Creole as a means of expression and as the national
Nevertheless, many monolingual and bilingual Haitians
Creole as a nonlanguage, claiming that "it has no rules."
the majority of the population did not value their native
language and built a mystique around French. At the same
almost every bilingual Haitian had ambivalent feelings
using French and did so uncomfortably. In Creole the
speak French" means "to be a hypocrite."
Fluency in French served as an even more important
than skin color for membership in the Haitian elite. The
French in public life excluded the Creole-speaking
politics, government, and intellectual life. Bilingual
used French primarily for formal occasions. Because Creole
the language of informal gatherings, it was filled with
was used for telling jokes. Haitian French lacked these
qualities. Monolingual Creole speakers avoided formal
where their inability to communicate in French would be a
disadvantage or an embarrassment. In an attempt to be
formal or governmental circles, some monolingual Creole
used French-sounding phrases in their Creole speech, but
imitations were ultimately of little or no use.
bilinguals in Port-au-Prince suffered the greatest
because they frequently encountered situations in which
of French would be appropriate, but their imperfect
the language tended to betray their lower-class origins.
in the middle class that the language issue was most
The use of French as a class marker made middle-class
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
colonists and African slaves in the colonies. Others
Creole came to the colony of Saint-Domingue as a
language, having arisen from the French maritime-trade
Whatever its origins, Creole is linguistically a separate
language and not just a corrupted French dialect. Although
majority of Creole words have French origins, Creole's
not similar to that of French, and the two languages are
There are regional and class variations in Creole.
variations include lexical items and sound shifts, but the
grammatical structure is consistent throughout the
Bilingual speakers tend to use French phonemes in their
speech. The tendency to use French sounds became common in
Port-au-Prince variant of Creole. By the 1980s, the
Prince variant was becoming perceived as the standard form
The use of French and Creole during the colonial and
independence periods set speech patterns for the next
During the colonial period, it was mostly whites and
mulatto freedmen who spoke French. When the slaves gained
freedom and the plantation system disintegrated, the
barriers among the various classes of people of color
French language became a vital distinction between these
been emancipated before the revolution (the anciens
libres) and those who achieved freedom through the
revolution, and it ensured the superior status of the
libres. French became the language not only of
commerce, but also of culture and refinement. Even the
nationalist Haitians of the nineteenth century placed
value on Creole.
Attitudes toward Creole began to change during the
century, however, especially during the United States
The occupation forced Haitian intellectuals to confront
non-European heritage. A growing black consciousness and
intensifying nationalism led many Haitians to consider
the "authentic" language of the country. The first attempt
Creole text appeared in 1925, and the first Creole
published in 1943.
Beginning in the 1950s, a movement to give Creole
status evolved slowly. The constitution of 1957 reaffirmed
as the official language, but it permitted the use of
certain public functions. In 1969 a law was passed giving
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
Creole as the language of instruction in the classroom.
constitution of 1983 declared that both Creole and French
the national languages but specified that French would be
official language. The suppressed 1987 Constitution (which
partially reinstated in 1989) gave official status to
(see The Constitutional Framework
, ch. 4).
Data as of December 1989