What's in a Language? (Learning Kreyol)

  • Posted on: 26 January 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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It's been said that a person's first language is the language of the heart and the second is the language only of the head.   Is it possible to really understand a country without knowing the predominate language?  I don't think it is.  Haiti is often called a Francophone country, and while the politicians and wealthy speak it, they are a minority.  The country is Kreyolphone!  Below is some information on Haiti's only widely spoken language and some resources for learning it.


Haitians are survivors and Kreyol is a survival lannguage.  It is a mix of French vocabulary while the grammar structure is drawn from various West African languages.  Imagine what it must have been like - kidnapped from West Africa with many others who had different languages, cultures, and belief system.  You would have been brought to Hispanola, and as records show, it would have been cheaper for the Colonists to work you to death than to provide you with health care. 


You may have been taken from your family and may have been prevented from building another in this strange, new land. You would have worked every day except Sunday being forced to attend a Catholic mass.  By drawing connections between saints and African spirits, you would have kept a lifeline to Africa as many Haitian still do today.  Vodou was important to Haiti and still is today - it gave them the organizing force to rise up against the so called Christians who enslaved them.  In this case, religion was both a tool of oppression and emancipation.


Haiti was able to do what no other country had ever done.  It led a successful slave rebeliion and became the first free black republic.  The price the international community would make it pay throughout the years for its audacity was steep indeed. After freedom was attained, the geat scattering occured.  Being a mostly rural country, as it is today, the language would continue to reflect the realities of country living, even in the urban centers.  Some of the most amusing, and the most ominous, words in the language reflect agiriculture.


The French would have addressed them only in the formal tense.  Hearing that tense only, you would have co-opted it.  Believing you to be little more than livestock, the colonists would often referr to you disparagingly - this is quite possibly why the word "garcon" means boy in French, but in Kreyol it means man.


Being a country with a oral rather than written tradition, similar to the African countries where Haitians were taken from, expressions and proverbs would be an important mechanism for passing on life lessons to the next generations.  Even today, the right proverb at the right time can stop an argument flat.   


Twenty five years ago, Haiti was more diverse with a substantial presence of French, Italians, Lebanese, etc.  The Lebanese have stayed, and remain the business class, but many others have moved on.  The drain of financial and human capital continues - though it is possible to stop it with the right incentives.


Haitian colleagues tell me the children did not used to say "Blan!" (foreigner) when they saw people from other countries.   Today you hear it more often.   This is not an insult but a statement of fact.  I used to yell back "Haitian!" and this would always make people laugh.   If you are a black man from the United States, you are still a blan - but in this case, a blan nwa!


Technical words are either imported from French or English.   The language is becoming more Anglicized as time goes on for this reason.   But it is still its own distinct language - not a French dialect, as I have heard some people suggest.


In terms of its sound French flows while Kreyol is clipped.  When spoken quickly, it reminds me of rap.  It is full of irregularities and abbreviations.  Like any other language, it is its own form of poerty.


Here is an example of the extent to which words can be abbreviated:

Sa Li Fe, Li Fe (What ever happens, happens) 

Sa'l Fe'l Fe.     (Same thing, just abbreviated)


If you are going to be travelling or working in Haiti, take some time to learn the basics.  Haitians are genuinely thrilled when foreigners take the time to learn the language.   Most Haitians are not comfortable saying they dont speak French - its akin to admitting a lack of education, something no one would like.  Enough for greetings and small talk would make a difference.


With that, there are good resources available online for learning Kreyol.  We hope that they will be useful to you, and of course, if you have any questions, we are here to help.


Geocities Kreyol Page:  An online dictionary and a collection of basic noun, verbs, and phrases.  


Travelling Haiti: A collection of common words and phrases.


Indiana University Kreyol Institute: The institute has links to numerous resources for learning Kreyol, some of which have to be ordered.  Ann Pale Kreyol (Let's speak Kreyol) is a pretty good resource for beginners.


The Creole ClearingHouse: This website has a wide variety of electronice resources divided by sector - including health, civil society, human rights, etc.  Contains brochures, guides, etc.


The Bible:  For the Biblically inclined, here is a bible in Haitian Kreyol.


Kreyol.com:  Kreyol phrases, dictionary, etc.


Kreyol for NGOs:  Thanks to John Rigdon for sending this out to the Corbitt's List.  An impressive resource with lessons, study guides, phrases, etc.


Haiti Surf:  Have a question on how to say something in Kreyol?  Post it in this forum and someone will be able to help.


Have any other resources that have been useful to you and could be a good resource to others?  We will post them for you.





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