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10/18/2012

Creole, a pattern of Haitian identity

[JEN seems to be everywhere on Port au Prince’s walls …]
121018_wall_3

Haiti has two official languages, French and Creole. Creole is actually the main language, spoken by the entire population, while French is mainly talked by educated people.
Originally Creole is a mix of Colons, natives and slaves’ mother languages, in order to understand each other’s. It then became the slaves’ language that evolved to do not be understood by the colons. Since the independence in 1804, the language continued to evolve and has been officially codified to be written. Writing codification is close to International Phonetic Alphabet. Indeed, while the pure creole is very precise, in reality one writes creole as one hears it.

To give an idea about Creole structure, let’s say that for a French speaker, most of creole is understandable. Nevertheless it’s more complicated to speak it, as the tendency would be to speak deconstructed French.
As any language in the world, it reflects a culture, and vice-versa. Therefore, understanding the language enable to better understand the country’s people and their interactions. Creole is a language that is deeply poetic, but also incredibly approximate on another hand.

Poetic definitively. Incredibly. Many expression in creole use images to say or describe something.
Not to illustrate an action or an idea. To express it.
For instance, do you know how a Haitian would ask to inflate a tire? He will say “mete van nan kawotchou a” [me-te][vɑ̃][nɑ̃][ka-wo-tʃu][a]. Which means, literally, “put wind into the rubber”. Poetic isn’t it?



121018_message_3
Inflate a tire is quite a prosaic and concrete action. Yet creole use as much images to express ideas.
The message in the picture above says “Viv Ayiti tèt kale” [viv][ɑjiti][tɛt][kɑle] and means literally “Go Haiti Shaved Head”. It has been used as a slogan during the last presidential election to promote a new start for Haiti. Indeed, “tèt kale” (shaved head, literally) means in fact “reboot” or “restart”. A new life for your hairs, somehow. And by extension for Haiti.

Unfortunately this poetic (and idealistic would say some) view of Haiti is rapidly undermined. Indeed, as much Haitians are present in the discussion, as much interpretations of the images could exist. Not only because of regional particularities, but also because everyone has his own understanding of the said image. Almost nobody tries to understand what the other means. What one has understood is definitively what the other meant. Empathy does not look to be the most important quality during discussions here.
This leads often to strong and deep misunderstandings. Of course the low level of education certainly reduces the number of words use by most. But you may also have words that have several meaning. And there is no way, as it could exist in some languages, to differentiate these meanings according to the tone or place in the phrase.

Let’s take the word Marengwen [ma-ʁœ̃-ɡwɛ̃] for instance. It means “mosquito”. It also means “swamp”. But also “skinny”.  Which one is the correct meaning if you say somebody that a Marengwen is dangerous?
Good luck.

To finish this note a quick word on the picture that introduces it. It would be quite surprising for you, if you would travel through Haiti, to see how much JEN is known after less than 3 years in the country. Everywhere on walls you can see inscriptions such as Jèn Kore Jèn [ʒɛn][ko-ʁe][ʒɛn] or Jèn an Aktyon [ʒɛn][ɑ̃][ak-sjɔ̃].
Nothing linked with us unfortunately: “Jèn” means only “young”. So the message above only means “Young support the Young”. The last year elected president, Michel Martelly (aka Sweet Micky in his professional life of singer) was the youngest in the election run, and this message supposed to support him.
Not too much disappointed?

October 18, 2012 in Haiti |