Differences Between French And Creole

[This discussion moved at the request of Fabrice.]

The following question came up yesterday for a group of American attorneys set up to volunteer legal assistance to Hatians in the UnitedStates eligible for the Temporary Protected Status program.

Can the average Hatian understand French?

Thereare many more lawyers like me who studied French than Creole.  I haveoften met Hatian people here and they spoke French. Nevertheless, tocite just one example, I saw Wyclef Jean on the Grammy Awards Sunday night and could not understand a word he said during his "shout out" toHaiti in Creole.

This is a serious subject and I would appreciate serious replies only.

[Note:  If you are an attorney admitted to practice in the United States, please take a look at this page: http://www.probono.net/ny/haiti]

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  • Excellent explanation! The fact that French is still documented as Haiti's official language while 95% of the people do not even speak the language is what causes this misconception. I am of Haitian origin. I speak French, Creole, and Spanish. I can certainly tell you that Creole is a mixture of these three languages including English and AFrican dialects. It is not uncommon to find such a difference between the comprehension of the French vs. Creole especially when one has not studied neither formally. It is time for us to accept that Creole was declared an official language back in the early seventies. It does have its own grammar, syntax, diction, etc. Bien souvent, parler le creole fait reference au negatif et est percu ou attribue a la classe des non-privilegies alors que l'on retrouve pas mal de gens privilegies s'exprimer librement en creole ( francise ou pas ) et ne pas avoir de la honte a tel usage de la langue. C'est vraiment aberrant, cette conception de faire ou d'etablir des differences entre les classes sociales, mais c'est ainsi fait.. Le creole est tout simplement une langue differente de la langue francaise, ou anglaise, ou espagnole. Les haitiens lne font pas assez pour faire au reste du monde comprendre cette importante distinction et c'est peut etre la raison pour laquelle les etrangers eux aussi viennent a en faire partie du groupe si souvent confus. En passant, je vous invite a visiter le nouveau site "www.usafriendsofhaiti.us" qui vous donnera de plus amples informations concernant le role que doit jouer la diaspora haitienne dans leur pays, la participation de la diaspora dans la reconstruction du pays d'haiti, leur role au niveau socio-politico dans le pays maintenant et a jamais et egalement les aides humanitaires en place dans le pays.
  • That's extremely kind of you, Junior.

    Please connect to me here and we'll figure something out. My next session is Thursday from 4:00 to 8:00. I posted information in the Forum section of this website. (You might want to see if the Creole is correct.)
  • Mr. Roth

    I did not think this was a fee-for-service thing so I will not have a problem helping my fellow countrymen without remuneration. If you need help do not hesitate to contact me.

    Robert Roth said:

    This is a volunteer program. None of the attorneys (like me) are getting paid. Do you want to volunteer your interpreting services?
    Differences Between French And Creole
    [This discussion moved at the request of Fabrice.]The following question came up yesterday for a group of American attorneys set up to volunteer lega…
  • Thanks so much for your intelligent explanation!

    Many years ago my family & I were awaiting the arrival of the lovely young Haitian woman who had cared for my grandmother prior to her death;as we were giving her a ride to the funeral and she was already quite late, my mother asked me to telephone her home to learn whether or not she was coming.
    I had 3 years of high school French, audio lingual, and, despite some, perhaps, less than perfect grammar, was an A student with good vocabulary and pronunciation.
    My mother was, therefore, quite astounded when, after some 15 minutes of my rather confused conversation with the girl's mother, who spoke only Haitian Creole French, all I could explain to my own Mom was that I THOUGHT the girl's mother had said that: Yes, the girl WAS coming, but she was running late, and she would arrive soon.
    To have spoken so long for so little information made my mother skeptical of my comprehension and made me doubt myself!
    I was so relieved when the girl arrived 5 minutes later, just as predicted!

    I felt vindicated at that time, but thanks to your explanation, I now understand why we had so much difficulty conversing in "French";likewise my "conversations" with some of my Canadian acquaintances!

    Merci! :)

    Ernest Barthélemy said:
    Can the average Haitian understand French?

    If I had to answer this question in a single word, then the answer is "NO".

    But to get down to the nitty gritty, which average Haitian are you talking about?

    If you have a sense for Haiti's literacy statistics (slightly over 50%), and the challenges regarding access to education that have characterized Haiti's history, then you may get a pretty accurate picture for the number of Haitians who actually do speak and understand French fluenty; they are a minority, and come either from a privileged elite, or from a middle class that has expanded over the years, but still represents a small percentage of Haitians. French in Haiti is only learned in school and in church; the Haitians that speak French at home are few and far between.

    Regarding comparisons of French and Creole, here's the deal:

    The majority of the Haitian Creole lexicon comes directly from French, and mostly old French (which is why sometimes there more similarities between Creole and Quebecois French vs. European French). This French lexicon enables French speakers with a sharp ear to pick up many terms in Haitian expressions, and rarely, to garner meaning. But otherwise, these are two different languages.

    Haitian Creole has a completely different grammar and syntax; for example, definite articles follow nouns instead of preceding them, and they do not have any gender assignment.

    French: le chien
    Creole: chen la

    French: la boite
    Creole: bwat la

    Conjugation is totally different.

    French: J'ai, tu as, il/elle a, nous avons, vous avez, ils/elles ont
    Creole: Mwen genyen, Ou genyen, li/li genyen, nou genyen, nou genyen, yo/yo genyen
    (Note, there is no difference between "he" and "she" in Creole, nor any difference between "we" and "you - plural"; these details are determined by context)
    (Note, there is no difference in creole between the infinitive form of a verb, and the conjugated form)
    (Note, the Creole etymology of "genyen" as "to have" is unknown to me, but it may come from "gagner")

    Conjugations in the past and future are not performed by changing the root verb; they are formed by adding terms.

    J'ai eu = Mwen te genyen
    J'avais = Mwen te konn genyen
    J'aurai = Mwen pral genyen

    Another barrier to clean translation between Creole and French is the Vodou culture - it is intrinsically bound up in the Creole language such that even if French terms are used in some expressions, their provenance gives them a subtle, or sometimes grossly different meaning.

    Example: Someone walks into a home and Says "Hone" prounced 'O-NEH' (French = Honneur)
    Proper response "Respe" pronounced 'RAY-SPEH' (French = Respect)

    Probably not much meaning in French. RICH with meaning in Creole.

    I won't keep going unless you have specific questions or requests for more examples - but these are some examples to demonstrate that Haitian Creole is not at all "broken French" - it is an altogether different language with significant French influence.

    Other linguistic influences on creole include a number of African languages, Portuguese, Spanish and English.

    It is possible, however, for the MOST RUDIMENTARY interactions in both French and Creole to be mutually understandable - but some luck is involved. Many greetings, all numbers, and some basic elements of everyday life are basically the same in both languages - air, water, bathroom, food... these all share similar terms.
    Differences Between French And Creole
    [This discussion moved at the request of Fabrice.]The following question came up yesterday for a group of American attorneys set up to volunteer lega…
  • Junior,

    This is a volunteer program. None of the attorneys (like me) are getting paid. Do you want to volunteer your interpreting services?
  • Jeanie,

    I am quite sure that the organizers at the Bar Association are well familiar with the court interpreters.
  • Instead of asking "Depuis quand etes-vous aux Etats-Unis?", it would be better to ask "Depuis quand etes-vous ici" which is " Depi ki le ou icitt". The word "le" is pronounced like "lait" (milk)

    If you someone needs a French-Creole interpreter, i can be contacted at 516-448-8989 and we can arrange a meeting time and place.
  • If you do not speak Haitian Creole you will most likely need an interpreter. You can contact the NY Court System for a list of their Haitian Creole interpreters.
  • Robert Roth said:

    Thanks for your rather comprehensive reply. In the past, the Hatians I have met here were often nurses and/or other hospital employees and it was very easy to communicate in French.
    To be more specific, in the context of my inquiry, if someone presents him or herself for legal assistance to apply for the TPS program and has difficulty in English, would I be likely to be able to interview them in French with questions like, "Depuis quand êtes-vous aux etats-unis?"

    I think it's a crapshoot. I would guess that most Haitians might get this one even if they didn't speak French; the "quand êtes-vous" might require guess work depending on who you speak to. The Creole equivalent would be one of the following:

    "Depi ki le ou nan zetazini?" (Day-pi kee leh oo nuh zayta zeenee)
    "Ou nan zetazini depi ki le?" (Oo nuh zayta zeenee day-pee kee leh)

    I would say you increase your chances of being understood by non-French speakers by using "Est-ce que" instead of the inverted forms because we use this term... "Eske"

    Depuis quand est-ce que vous êtes aux Etats-Unis?
    = "Depi ki le eskew nan zetazini?" (Day-pee kee leh ehs-kuh-oo nuh zayta zeenee?)
  • Since you are inquiring from a legal perspective, I am going to add one more important thing to consider; for most of Haiti's history, the French language has been viewed by the poverty-stricken masses as one of the only means of advancing in socioeconomic terms - so there is great pride in the ability to speak French when one does, and oftentimes some embarrassment when one does not.

    One of many unfortunate consequences of this dynamic is that, not uncommonly, Haitians who do not actually speak French may claim to - and so one should tread lightly when a Haitian claims to speak French, and try to determine whether this is actually the case. If you are speaking to a Haitian professional - e.g. physician, lawyer, businessman, journalist, politician, scholar or educator, who was trained in Haiti, you can be 100% certain that this person fluently speaks, writes and reads the French language as any French and Francophone native would. In any other case, you may have to investigate a little.

    I know I am saying something sensitive here, but I will provide an anecdote to demonstrate (I have MANY of them... TRUST me)...

    When my aunt and I stopped at the supply base near Toussaint L'Ouverture airport in Port-au-Prince to pick up medical supplies for my first mission trip a couple of weeks ago, the people running the base where from WHO (OMS) - and there were two representatives: a Haitian one and a French one; both of them were operating in French. My aunt and I are both French-speaking Haitians, so our interaction and requests went fluidly, as did those of the subsequent two or three Haitians behind us, who were all also French speaking. Then another Haitian man walks up, and blurts out some French terms, while handing over his requisition for supplies. The WHO reps then launched into a rather lengthy explanation of some issue they perceived from the list that this guy handed over to them, and then asked him a question directly - I don't recall the exact question, but it translated roughly into "Did you stop by here yesterday to submit your request?" - and this guy said very assertively, "OUI". And then they asked him another question, and he managed to completely contradict himself. The third question was not a "Yes/No" question, and that's when they became suspect... and then they asked the guy, in French, whether Creole was the only language he spoke (perhaps not the smartest way to ask this question under the circumstances)... and he just didn't get the question. Finally, another Haitian guy walks up to this guy's rescue, and translates for him, speaking Creole to the guy making the request, and French to the WHO reps.

    My other anecdotes take place mostly in New York, but they all illustrate the point that some, but certainly not all (and not even most) Haitians speak French - yet figuring out whether they do can be elusive and is often not as easy as just asking them.
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