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Haitian Creole

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Number of Speakers: 6 million

Key Dialects: West, South, North, Northwest, Central

Geographical Center: Haiti

Haitian Creole is spoken by about 5.7 million speakers in Haiti with over a 100,000 in the adjacent Dominican Republic and 200,000 in New York, and much smaller numbers in Canada and Puerto Rico.

Haitian Creole is a French-based creole. It is a language that developed out the sociohistorical situation of seventeenth and eighteenth century Haiti, where a pidginized variety of French was used as a contact language between masters and slaves and among Africans of diverse ethnic origins in the plantation economy of the time. There are considerable morphological and syntactic influences from West African languages which were spoken by the overwhelming majority of slaves in Haiti, but the basic lexical structure of the language is French in origin. Thus, it is generally considered a Romance language, but in many ways one that is quite unlike a typical Romance language. It is not considered a dialect of French, but rather a completely independent language, about as closely related to French as modern Italian is to Latin (Hall 1953).

The main dialect divisions correspond roughly to the departements of the country: West (including the speech of Port-au-Prince); South; and North, Northwest and Center (Hall 1953). The dialect of Port-au-Prince is the basis of the standard. Most dialects are distinguished by differences in pronunciation, but there are lexical differences as well. Other names associated with dialect differences are Fablas, Plateau Haitian Creole, and Faublas-Pressoir.

A modified Latin-based alphabet is standard. For someone accustomed to the spelling system for French, the system for Haitian Creole will appear quite unfamiliar.

Haitian Creole preserves much of French phonological, morphological, syntactical, and lexical characteristics, but a merger of both French structural features and West African features characterizes the language. The inflectional system of French is greatly reduced.

Nouns are invariable for number. Number distinctions are made by suffixing particles (derived from French definite articles) to the noun; the numeral "one" is used as an indefinite article. Diminutive nouns are formed by a prefix (derived from the French word for "small") that is attached to the noun. Personal pronouns in some persons have single syllable forms that can be used as subject or object pronouns in certain grammatical contexts.

The verb stem is invariable; tense and mood are expressed by auxiliary particles which precede the verb; the latter can mark past (sometimes habitual) and future tenses; similar particles can be used to express imperfect or progressive aspects, recent past, conditionals, and other grammatical distinctions. Subject plus verb sequences can be either past or present.

Haitian Creole has Subject-Verb-Object word order. Genitive relationships are expressed by juxtaposing the possessed noun and the possessor. Serial verb constructions are a common characteristic of verb phrases. Relative clauses are formed by using a form derived from the French locative particle meaning "there" as a subordinator. A particle (derived from French pour 'for', namely pu) is used as a preposition, complementizer and a modal particle indicating obligation and futurity. Certain characteristics of phrase structure are reminiscent of African languages, for example: postposition of the definite article in noun phrases, and the very frequent use of verb-plus-verb phrases.

Haitian Creole has nineteen to twenty-two consonant phonemes (depending on analysis) and twelve vowel phonemes, five of which are nasalized. In some words the standard French front rounded vowels are used by some speakers in some words. Homonyms can be distinguished by tone, but stress is normally on the last syllable, as in French.

A number of African languages have been identified as influencing the language, among them are Wolof, Fon, Mandingo, and Ewe.

In 1961, Haitian Creole became an official language and was granted legal and educational status in Haiti. It is the mother tongue of virtually the entire population; furthermore, it is the only language of 90 to 95 percent of the population. The rest are bilingual in both Standard French and Haitian Creole. The educational system is based on the French model and instruction at all levels is in French. Experiments in the 1970s to use Creole in education failed. Radio and television broadcasts are in French and Haitian Creole with some English and Spanish programming. The press is predominantly French but since 1943 there have been newspapers published in Creole. There is also a growing body of poetry and literature and an evolving awareness among Haitians of the value and importance of their language.

Haitian Creole developed out of a pidginized form of French that began to be spoken in Haiti with the colonization of the western half of Hispaniola in the mid-seventeenth century by the French and then the subsequent importation of large numbers of slaves by the French. A pidgin is a form of communication that arises among speakers of different languages who need to communicate with one another; it is often lacking in linguistic resources and is only useful as a means of communication in restricted social contexts. However, in time, as a pidgin gains in native speakers, there is a natural process in which the pidgin gains in structural richness and linguistic nuance where it becomes a vehicle for sophisticated communication in all social contexts. The process is called creolization and the result is a creole.

Asher, R. E. 1994. "Haiti: Language Situation." In R. E. Asher, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 3:1520-1521. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Hall, R. A. 1953. Haitian Creole: Grammar, Texts, Vocabulary. The American Anthropologist, Vol. 55, no. 2, part 2, Memoire no. 74

Hall, R. A. 1966. Pidgin and Creole Languages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Rickford, J. 1992. "Pidgins and Creoles." In W. Bright, ed. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 3:224-228. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

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