Haitians are sometimes baffled when I tell them that I do not speak Creole (Kreyòl); rather, that I speak Haitian, the language of a politically and culturally established independent nation. Once I explain my position, they either agree with my reasoning or they completely reject it, and revert to their default beliefs. For many Haitians, the ‘Creole’ notion is a significant problem, and it is old.
The entire Caribbean region became a constructed space once the Spanish colonizers who decimated the original inhabitants brought in West African slaves. Shaped by European economic needs, the region became an initiate of the first systematic process of globalization, linking the “New World” to new markets – a system entrenched to the point that a restructuring the physical landscape of the region was rendered. Differentiated social class structures were established as the aristocratic Spaniards (who wanted to distinguish themselves from the various grades of descendants born in the colonies) referred to colony-born Spanish descendants as “Criollos”.
From the outset, the term “Criollo” became a social marker for otherness, describing un-pure Spaniards. As other European countries joined the colonial quest, they too applied the Spanish term to their own descendants. “Criollo” became “Criole” for the French during their conquests of the Americas in the early 1600’s. By the time the island of Hispaniola was acquired from the Spaniards and separated through the legal treaty of Ryswick signed in September of 1697, the term “Criole” became “Creole”. As the French gained a greater political and diplomatic presence on the world stage, the French language became of primary use in diplomatic proceedings from the late 17th century through the early part of the twentieth century. Creole evolved to represent the established term for the process of race mixing, cultural newness, and exoticism.
Criollo, a term invented by the Spaniards, is today widely misused by many formerly colonized peoples, as are several other words, for what I would assume is a lack of historical understanding or linguistic transformation through appropriation. For example, words such as Bossales, Mestizos, and Cimarrones are now staple descriptors of not only people but of specific cultural phenomena that occurred within the colonized spaces of the Americas; those words were subsequently borrowed and transformed by other colonial powers. Bossales (also Bossale in French and Bosal in Haitian) initially described blacks that were forcibly brought from Africa, who were considered far better than New World-born blacks because of their presumed superior physical strength. They were seen as less cunning than the second generation slaves, more obedient, yet uncivilized (Bouki = bosal = ignorant vs. Malice = creole = intelligent). As far as the slave masters were concerned, the bossales were more productive than the black creoles who already grew adjusted to the plantation system or had purchased freedom. Consequently, rivalries came to exist between island-born Haitians and the bossales. To this day, in Haiti, a nèg bosal (a roughneck) is an uncivilized black man. The rivalries of the plantation still play a part in contemporary politics and Haitian social life without a second thought.
Mestizos, describing individuals of mixed blood, became synonymous with the term mulattos (a derogatory term that many Haitians wear with pride). Individuals falling under this category, despite occupying an extremely low percentage of the Haitian population, control the vast majority of the wealth in the country today. They are never referred to as Creoles, nor is their speech. Their languages of power are French and English. Unfortunately, many educated Haitian blacks have tried to adopt many of their behaviors and beliefs, and like the mulattos, look down upon the masses (peasantry) as modern day bosales who are incapable of speaking French, and thus incapable of constructing abstract thoughts.
The term Cimarrones, (later Maroons in English and Marron in French), was birthed in the early 1540s when groups of slaves escaped their Spanish masters and hid in the mountains to form communities. Later, in 1572, Cimarrones became much more political in meaning when slaves in Panama joined forces with the British Sir Francis Drake to fight off the Spaniards. In Haiti today, on the one hand, Nèg Mawon (the black maroon) is celebrated as a symbol of liberty, on the other, political marooning, or the concealment of one’s true intentions, is viewed negatively as it hampers transparency and good governance. Unfortunately, because of the ways that the system of slavery impacted us, marooning is imbedded in our culture. Meanwhile, despite the ruses of the Europeans, colonized people never applied the term marooning to them. Why? Colonizers get to define and colonized people are defined.
The point here is to indicate the power of naming and defining that the European former colonial masters have had in their definition of others as they establish their own agendas in the world stage, and our ready acceptance of these misconstrued names. The vast majority of Haitians are not Creoles, and our language is not a Creole. According to the dictionary of sociolinguistics, it “is a common but undesirable practice to refer to any language which has gone undergone admixture as a creole.” Both French and English are languages that have undergone considerable admixtures, yet these languages would never be referred to as Creoles. Truth be known, modern French did not come to exist until 1539, following a series of amalgamations to the Latin language during the Roman occupations of the Gauls, D’Ocs (Oïl), Franks and Alemani peoples.
All languages endure some process of admixture and standardization. Also, languages often undergo linguistic death; this is a vital part of human social and historical evolution. However, the designation given to what is a language and what is not is purely political. From 1783 to 1790, more than 70,000 slaves arrived in Saint-Domingue from various parts of West Africa and were sold to the plantation owners in the Northern plains. They had to learn to adapt and adjust to their new environment, and the ones who survived became Haitian in 1804. Many of those who were too old to master the new language of Haiti (forged by Toussaint L’ouverture as a way of establishing a unified identity and linguistic cohesiveness in the revolutionary army that he codified and led) suffered the fate of servitude under Boyer’s 1826 Rural Code where the so-called creoles and mulattos exploited the Africans.
The French that the various peoples of Africa were forced to learn was indeed a pidgin at the beginning - a collection of short word phrasings that consisted of rudimentary nouns and verbs. Language and speech however, evolved relatively quickly, and the pidgins of early forced language eventually gave way to a more elaborated form of communication, a “bastardized” French, a “Creole”. Between 1804 and 1860, the population of Haiti nearly quadrupled from about 500,000 to 1.9 million people, and the vast majority of the laboring population existed in relative isolation from the rest of the world. As the population sufficiently grew and remained isolated, normative internal cultural contacts, metaphors, idioms and names were established within the parameters of the grammatical process. A strong and coherent linguistic community was thus established
before the return of the French in 1860 and the signing of the Concordat. Unfortunately, much of the West-African based lexicon is now only found predominantly in the Haitian religion of Vodoun where the cultural memory of the Atlantic slave trade resides.
Despite some linguistic similarities with other former French colonies or territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe, the Haitian language is very distinct and serves as a strong representation of Haitian mental processes and world views. Creole identity, if there is such a thing, can be seen as a form of ghettoization of the colonized self that has not yet mitigated the burden of its colonial past. Those who have been colonized often define themselves within parameters where newness is seen as impossible and the markers given by old masters cannot be removed. We too often tend to regurgitate and pass down the absurdities of the past without analyzing how, why, and for what we were named. While we go on debating who we are and what language we speak, the hybridity of Europeans is never questioned. They have named themselves.
As for Haitians, despite being free since 1804, we are still unable to define our national character or rightfully identify what would make us Creole. Interestingly, our neighbor, Dominican Republic, is not a nation of creoles. Neither is Jamaica. Trinidadians,
who are possibly the most racially mixed people in the Caribbean, do not refer to themselves as creoles, but as Trinis. We Haitians are constantly reminded that we are Haitians, yet we erroneously call our national language “Kreyòl” (Creole). I am not a cultural bastard, or a vulgarized version of the French. I am Haitian, and my mother tongue is Haitian.
Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University.