A Linguistic and Cultural Comparison of Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole

Kirstin Squint, Louisiana State University

It has been claimed that refugees of the Haitian Revolution imported the creole language spoken in Louisiana to the colony during the first decade of the 19th century. These more than seven thousand speakers of Saint Domingue Creole probably did impact Louisiana Creole, but there is evidence to show that a creole language existed in Louisiana prior to this flood of immigration (Klingler 25). Louisiana Creole has existed as a stable, autonomous language since the late 18th century, but whether it is indigenous to Louisiana or developed out of a pre-existing pidgin or creole brought from Africa or the Caribbean has been a subject of debate (91). In If I Could Turn My Tongue Like That: The Creole Language of Pointe Coupee Parish Louisiana, Thomas A. Klingler asserts that neither the demographic nor linguisticrecord suggests that the language was imported. It seems more likelythat it arose along the plantations of the Mississippi River, spreadingoutward to areas such as Bayou Teche (92). Thus, the French-lexifiercreoles of Haiti and Louisianawere born of similar roots in different New World soils, yet theirlinguistic development varied due to the social factors surroundingtheir growth. These social factors have led the two creoles to anhistorical space in which one enjoys popularity unknown to any other creole language in the world and the other faces extinction.

Haitian Creole (HC), or Kreyol, has over eight and a half million speakers; more people speak it than any other creole language. It is the native language of all Haitians born and raised in Haiti, but because centuries of social unrest have forced Haitians from theirisland home, there are many speakers of HC beyond the country's borders.HC boasts speakers in the United States, Canada, Venezuela, FrenchGuyana, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Bahamas,France, and in some African countries. Since 1961, HC has been one official language of Haiti ("Haitian"). A holdover from the colonial era, French is also an official language of Haiti, despite the fact that less than ten percent of the population is able to speak it fluently (Jacobson).

Unlike HC, Louisiana Creole (LC) has not expanded beyond its original area of growth; the region inwhich the language is spoken has, in fact, shrunk. Originally, LC wasspoken across a wide area as far north as Natchitoches, LA, andas far east as Mobile, AL, possibly even extending to Pensacola, FL.Today, the language is limited to three geographic locations: sectionsof the Mississippi Valley known as the German Coast and the Acadian Coast between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the area around False River in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, andin an extensive area west of the Atchafalaya River Basin along thebanks of the Bayou Teche. There are also pockets of speakers along thenorth shore of Lake Pontchartrain and in Lafourche Parish. According to the 1990 Census, there were 6,310 speakers of Creole French in Louisiana.Though this number is questionable because some of the surveyrespondents may have chosen the "French speaking" category rather thanthe "Creole French" category, this limited number of speakers pales in comparison with the enormous volume of HC speakers (Klingler xxv).

Both Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole are products of French colonial expansion and the practice of plantation slavery. The French were present on the island of Hispaniola (the island currently the location of Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east) since 1629. In 1697, theyofficially occupied the western half of the island, then known as St.Domingue, and took charge of the slave trade. Between 1740 and1791, there were approximately a half million slaves working onplantations in St. Domingue. HC emerged as the enslaved Africans triedto communicate with their French masters. Most of the St. Domingueslaves were speakers of Niger-Congo languages, which are several hundredlanguages spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic to Sudan, and they were exposed to non-standard andnon-homogenous French varieties spoken by the colonists.Standardization of the French language had not been achieved during thetime of colonial expansion; thus, the French colonists spoke varietiesknown as Franais Rgionaux which contained significant lexical,syntactic, and morphological differencescompared to contemporary French (St. Fort). HC developed as the Africansattempted to learn Franais Rgionaux; hence, the creole contains considerable morphological andsyntactic influences from their indigenous West African languages("Haitian"). One factor influencing the unusual growth of this Creolewas its development on an island in relative isolation from otherlanguages. Probably the most significant factor that led HC to develop andflourish beyond the plantation-slavery era, unlike many similar creolesin the Americas, was the Haitian Revolution, in the early 19th century,ousting French colonial rule from the island (Jacobson). Thedescendents of the slaves who developed Haitian Creole have nurtured the language into a rule-governed full linguistic system (St. Fort).

The French arrived in Louisiana in the early 18th century, a hundred years later than they had arrived on Hispaniola (Klingler 4). Between 1719 and 1743, 5,500 Africans were brought to Louisiana (7). In the first decade of slave trade, the Africans were speakers of many different languages including Ewe, Yoruba, and Bantu. Two-thirds of the slaves brought to Louisiana originated in the Senegambian region, speaking Sereer, Wolof, Pulaar, and Malinke. The largest group from Senegambia was the Bambara, who spokemutually intelligible dialects of Mandekan (327). The fact that themajority of Louisiana slaves came from oneregion was unusual during the plantocracy, since it was consideredprudent to separate people of similar tribes andlanguage groups in order to prevent uprisings. Such a precaution wasnot taken in this case because it was "difficult to get any slaves in Louisiana" (Marshall 337). Also, the monopoly held by the Company of Indies in both Senegal and Louisianamay also have contributed to the Africans' relative ancestralhomogeneity (334). Because of this homogeneity, retention of theAfricans' indigenous languages may have delayed the development of a Creole in Louisiana.In fact, the Pointe Coupee slave revolt in 1731 was organized by theBambara who were purportedly speaking their ancestral languages to planthe coup. Ultimately, LC did develop, like HC, with West Africanlanguages becoming the substrates to a varied French lexifier. NotedFrench Creole scholar Margaret Marshall suggests the varieties of French that impacted the Louisiana slaves likely had two influences: a maritime French spoken by the sailors of slave ships and a "Colonial French" marked by a range of abilities in its speakers that included the well-educated as well as "criminals andrejects of French society with little or no education whatsoever"(338). It seems highly likely that this maritime French also influencedother French-lexifier pidgins and Creoles during the slave trade era. There are a few socio-historical events that have led to today's diminished Louisiana Creole presence. The transfer of the Louisianacolony to Spain in 1762 had little linguistic effect on LC because fewSpanish speakers actually came to the colony, but the transferunderscored what a burden the colony had become for the French (Klingler17). Another event was the arrival of between 2,600 and3,000 Acadian exiles who had been expelled from Nova Scotia by theBritish (19). Lastly, though the French reacquired the colony, Napoleonsold it to the United States in 1803, reiterating its burdensomeness.This act anglicized the Louisiana territory, signaling a centuries-long death knell for Louisiana Creole that may well end in the next few decades.

Despite demographic evidence suggesting the presence of a creole in Louisiana prior to the influx of refugees from the Haitian Revolution, there isalso much linguistic evidence to support the claim that the languagesdeveloped separately. Early HC and 19thcentury LC shared few features that were not also common to otherFrench-lexifier creoles of the Caribbean. Those features they did sharedo not suggest a close relationship. The most significant sharedfeatures include the progressive marker ape; the future markers va/a/ale; the conditional markers sre/se; the postposed plural markers -ye (LC)/-yo (HC); differentiation of the subject and object forms for the 1stand 2nd person singular pronouns mo vs. mwa/mwe and to vs. twa/twe; and use of the particle ken/kin for the possessive pronoun (moken - LC and kin-a-m - northern HC). The preverbal conditional marker, the postposed plural markers, and differentiated subject and object forms for first andsecond person singular pronouns have all either been located in earlierstages of other Caribbean creoles or continue to be used in one or moreof them today. Additionally, the progressive marker ape can befound in French-lexifier creoles of the Indian Ocean. This means thatonly the possessive particle is a feature distinguishing HC and LC from other French-lexifier creoles (Klingler 26).

Additionally, there are critical differences between 19th century Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole. One is the possessive marker. Haitian texts consistently take the form Noun++Pronoun as in the example caf li (his coffee). Possession in Louisiana texts is expressed by a set of pronominal forms including mo, to, so, nou/nouz'ot, vou/vouz'ot, and ye (my, your, his/her/its, our, your, their). Another difference is the placement of the negative particle pa, which always occupies the position prior to the verb phrase in Haitian, and other French-lexifier creoles of the Caribbean. In LC, pa comes after the preverbal markers te, sa, and se, but before the markers ap(e) and ale. Finally, HC has numerous serial verbs, but LC only has a few constructions that resemble serial verbs and are more restricted than in other creoles that have true serial verbs.In many creoles, the verb of motion follows the main verb or "the two[verbs] are of equal importance and are to be seen as a lexical and semantic unit, as is the case with idiomatic verbal series such as pot vir bring back' in HC" (qtd. in Klingler 27). In contrast, LC constructions are always comprised of verbs of motion such as kouri or vini followed by a second verb. The meaning of the first verb is weakened and cannot be translated as in the following example: Mo pa wa ler li vini rive.(I didn't see when he came.) In other cases, the two verbs express asequence of separate actions, one of which immediately follows theother: La fiy vini reste avek mon isi (The girl came to stay with me here) (27). Despite considerable differences in the two creoles' geneses, contemporary LC and HC have some notable verb-phrase similarities. Both creoles contain unmarked predicate adjectives andstative verbs that signal a present state, though in certain contextsthey might express an action in the recent past. Habitual actions andactions beginning in the present but leading to a future action arealso features of the two creoles (263). The fact that both HC andLC contain nonstative verbs conveying habitual meaning distinguishesthem from other French-lexifier creoles, which tend to use a marker.Additionally, "[t]o the extent that, depending on context, they may haveeither present or past reference, Haitian unmarked nonstative verbsresemble those of Pointe Coupee Creole [ . . . ] and [ . . . ] those of nineteenth-century Louisiana Creole" (264). Another verb phrase similarity is the anterior marker te, which expresses the past with stative verbs and an anterior past with nonstative verbs in each creole. The future marker a (with variants va and ava) is also shared by HC and LC, though in Haitian aseems more strongly to express an irrealis mood (265). Because of itshistorical relevance, the most significant similarity betweencontemporary HC and LC is the progressive marker form ap (with variants ape, pe, and p). This form is used with nonstative verbs to signify both the progressive aspect and the prospective future tense (264).

Since the evidence suggests that Haitian Creole did not strongly influence Louisiana Creole, what can be surmised from these historical and contemporary linguistic comparisons is the infinite potential forvariation among human languages. These two plantation creoles arose inisolation from each other with a minimal amount of contact; yet, becauseof the similarities in their superstrate and substrate languages, some native speakers find a degree of mutual intelligibility between the two. One native speaker of Louisiana Creole reported to have had little trouble learning Haitian Creoleduring a period when he lived on the island nation. Another nativespeaker claimed to have been able to communicate with Haitians in NewYork City by speaking Creole (129).

Despite the parallels of development between Haitian and Louisiana Creole, the futures of these languages couldn't seem more different. Haitian Creole is a vibrant, living language. For many years, HC was used informally,primarily for daily communications. Bilingual Haitians often shifted toFrench or English for more formal linguistic situations. Now, however,these old social patterns are breaking down, andHC has penetrated all dimensions of Haitian expression. One example ofthis is the mid-1970's publication of Haitian writer Franktienne's novelDezafi, which broke exciting new ground for the language. The novel was acclaimed by a majority of creole-speaking literary critics as a major literary creation. Since then, a few poetry texts and stage pieces have been published, though none at the level of Dezafi.This suggests that there is difficulty surrounding the creation of aspecific literary register for HC (St. Fort).The language faces otherproblems. Thus far, the standardization of Haitian Creole has been limited to orthography. Several good bilingual English and French-Haitian Creoledictionaries exist, but a monolingual HC dictionary has not yet beenproduced. There is a need for such a reference text not only in Haiti but also in New York, Boston, andMiami where HC has been integrated to some degree into the publicschool system. It has been estimated that there are 30,000 Haitianchildren in the New York City public schools alone. Additionally,Haitian Creole is the fourth most common non-English language spoken and taught in that school system. The language itself is taught at all levels and is also used as a classroom vehicle to teach students subjects like math, science, and social studies. Besides reference texts, another area lacking materials in Haitian Creoleis literature. Because of the aforementioned problem surrounding thecreation of a specific literary register for HC, some educators arepushing for more translations of literary works in other languages intothe Creole. This need for reference andliterary texts is significant to education beyond public schooling: atleast four American universities teach classes in Haitian Creole (St. Fort).The problems associated with the expansion of HC are signs of its vitality. On the other hand, the future of Louisiana Creole is beyond unsteady; its extinction is imminent. Besides the Anglicization of Louisiana by the sale of the LouisianaTerritory to the United States, LC has always also had an additionalchallenge that HC did not have because of its relative isolation: a morediverse linguistic (specifically francophone) context. Historically,there have been three varieties of French in Louisiana: Plantation Society or Colonial French, Cajun French, and Louisiana Creole. Plantation Society French differs little in structure from standard French, but it reflects a specific time and social space, that of the plantation era; this variety has virtually vanished. Cajun French was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians fleeing Nova Scotia and is still spoken by a sizable but shrinking community (Klingler xxx). Creole French is, of course, that variety which arose from the interaction between the enslaved Africans and their European masters during the plantation slavery era, and it is unlikely that LC "will be spoken in any recognizable form beyond the next two or three decades" (xxxii).

Francophone Louisianans have made an effort to hold onto their language in the face of a monolingual national attitude.Pressure by Cajun French activists led to the establishment of theCouncil for the Development of French in Louisiana(CODOFIL) by the state legislature. CODOFIL originally promoted the useof standard French, but because of protests by the Cajun community hasrecently expanded its efforts to include all forms of French in Louisiana including Cajun and Creole. Interestingly, those originally opposed to the emphasis on Standard French now see it as a way of connecting francophone Louisianato the rest of the francophone world. This has led some to hope that"the decline in the use of French might yet be reversed, an outcome thatto many was inconceivable just ten or fifteen years ago" (xxx).

Yet, with such a diverse francophone history, what does it mean to promote French in Louisiana, and how does that affect the future of Louisiana Creole? Linguist Thomas Klingler suggests that on a continuum of French spoken in Louisiana, Louisiana Creole sits on one pole, standard French sits on another, and Cajun French falls in between the two. As the revitalization of thelanguage occurs, there is a shift down the continuum toward standardFrench because of its greater prestige and usefulness in the broader francophone world. This is not because native Cajun and Creolespeakers are having much more contact with Standard French, but becausethose Louisianans learning French for the first time are learningStandard French in school, not Cajun or Creole at home. In a 1990 survey conducted jointly by CODOFIL and the University of Southwestern Louisiana,25% of the respondents claimed to be French speakers. However, only8.9% said they spoke Cajun French at home, while 14.3% spoke StandardFrench learned in school (xxx). It is unclear whether or not speakers ofLouisiana Creole were included in the survey.

Despite the survey results, Cajun French is not on its last legs. Instead, the French revival movement has persuadednative Cajun speakers that their language and heritage is one of which they should be proud, despite years of prohibition and shame. Currently, limited elements of Cajun French are being incorporated into French instruction in Louisiana public schools, which will at least give the Standard French taught a regional hue (xxxii).

Speakers of Creole French have not been as politically powerful as those of Cajun French.This can be attributed to the social factors which have shaped thecontemporary Creole identity. The term Creolehas experienced considerable evolution since the colonial era:initially it referred to the first generation of people born to thecolony regardless of race or status; during the Civil War and Reconstruction it referred to people with French ancestry, mixed race, and/or speakers of the Creole language; finally it referred to French ancestry and race at the end of the late 20th century. Even though there are still a few white people who call themselves Creole, it is the black Creole community that "is the repository of Creole culture, and, where it is still extant, the Creole language" (Melancon 38). It is within the framework of a primarily black Creole community that one must look in order to see how political activism to support Louisiana Creolewas delayed. Consider the era in which CODOFIL was being organized - atthis time, blacks in America were fighting for rights even more basicthan those of language preference. Black Creoles were doublymarginalized; hence, losing LC would have actually helped them to morefully integrate into American society. The effect of this socialsituation is that there are few fluent speakers of LC below the age ofsixty, and the language is not being passed on to future generations. Additionally, the LC community is small and is fragmented into several zones (Klingler xxxii).

It is ironic that at the historical moment that Louisiana Creole is disappearing, the idea of being Creole has become a symbolic marker of a distinct identity that many black and mixed-race Creoles have become interested in preserving. Poetry and other writings in LC have been appearing in print since the 1980's, and there was a series of short lessons in LC in the early 1990's in Creole Magazine, out of Lafayette, LA, which is unfortunately no longer being published.Lafayette is also home to the radio station KRVS which runs a weeklyzydeco radio show in LC (xxxii). There are three activist groupsC.R.E.O.L.E., Inc., the un-Cajun Committee, and the Southern Heritage Foundation supporting LC, and it is their claim that the French revival movement has privileged white Cajun culture over black and Creole cultures (Melancon 32).

It is no mystery, then, why Haitian Creole is flourishing and Louisiana Creole is languishing. Haitian Creole was able to develop in isolation from other languages and has existed for two hundred years in a country with a populationprimarily descended from the Africans who initially developed thelanguage. Louisiana Creolehas not only had to face linguistic marginalization, but it has alsofaced racial marginalization. Perhaps the efforts at reviving the FrenchCreole of Louisiana will result in a prouder Creole identity, but it is doubtful that the language will ever grow again.

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