10 May 2023 Caribbean French Creole languages, historical and contemporary prejudices
The observance of international mother language day during the month of February every year by the United Nations (UN) organization, since 1999, was intended to promote awareness of the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages that exist in our world. More importantly, people around the world in nations and organizations are encouraged to implement programmes to protect those languages. These efforts, however, have been thwarted among other factors by the increasing efforts of the developed north to continue expansionist policies to facilitate trade and economic growth. Inherent in the process of globalization is the dominant use of a few European and Asian official languages.
UNECSO estimates that 43% of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages are endangered.1 But the efforts of the United Nations (UN) and UNESCO, and financial support from private donors, pale in comparison to the factors which facilitate destruction of the indigenous languages. Since 1996, for instance, one of the many NGOs supporting language preservations, the Endangered Language Fund, has provided support for 221 languages under threat.2 On the other hand, the policies of discrimination against the use of indigenous languages are practiced in the countries of the global North and South.
In some countries, these mother tongues are used by small sections of the populations. In other countries, they are used extensively and have de facto become nation languages, the language which forms a critical component of national and cultural identity.
Among the languages that are under threat and endangered are the French creole languages and in particular the Antillean Creoles of the Caribbean region. These languages are critical for communications, governance, cultural preservation and development. While they remain in the mainstream of popular usage, they have not in many cases been officially recognized and protected by legislation. This situation constitutes a grave danger to their survival.
The UN has called on all the countries in the world to protect multilingualism and multiculturalism and to implement programmes to safeguard the languages. Sadly, these calls have not been matched by investment and financial support for language research and preservation programmes.
The creoles in the Caribbean are under constant threat not withstanding their popularity. St. Lucian Creole (Kwéyòl) is a variety of Caribbean French lexicon Creole and spoken by the majority of the population. It is mutually intelligible with other Antillean creoles spoken in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Commonwealth of Dominica, and Haiti.3 Similarly, virtually every Haitian speaks Creole (Kreyol). Michael De Graff notes, “The systematic use of Kreyol at all levels of education, administration, justice, etc., is therefore indispensable for ensuring equality of opportunity and non-discrimination among Haitians.”4
Narratives of discrimination
The protection of mother languages particularly those that are endangered, can be considered to be a battle for financial resources, for policy positioning, and for the minds of citizens many of whom are rapidly being made to believe that they possess active competence in the language of the former colonial powers.
There are many factors both contemporary and historical that continue to militate against development and survival of the mother tongues in the Caribbean. One factor is that the use of indigenous languages continues to be associated with the era of enslavement, underdevelopment, and backwardness of the societies.
Discrimination against use of indigenous languages continues in many domains in the creole speaking countries. Educators and cultural workers in Saint Lucia and Haiti, for instance, have noted that discrimination exists in households, the formal schools, the churches, the business sectors and government agencies. Notwithstanding the extensive development of writing systems and orthographies for indigenous languages, some argue that the Antillean Creoles are not languages. This situation contributes to an identity crisis for individuals, particularly youth who are eager to embrace their language and culture, traditions, and folklore in this era of increasing globalization.
These prejudices are clearly articulated in the historical accounts of the Saint Lucia society. Henry Breen, writing in 1844, described the creole language in this way:
“It is, in short, the French language, stripped of its manly dignified ornaments, and travestied for the accommodation of children and toothless old women … although possessing an extensive knowledge of the French Language, acquired during sojourn of five years in France, I have failed in obtaining anything like an adequate notion of this gibberish, during a residence of nearly fifteen years in St. Lucia and Martinique” (Breen, 1844).
Over the past four decades, some of the experts on the Kwéyòl have also cited cases where the prejudices against the language are clearly articulated. The list includes historian and educator Morgan Dalphinis, priest and cultural worker Patrick Anthony, and author/educator Simmonds Mac Donald.
Hazel Simmonds Mac Donald, one of the Saint Lucia’s leading proponents of Kwéyòl use in schools acknowledged that the use of the language in the public domain such as radio programmes, during the presentation of the throne speech by the Governor General, and in public cultural events such as Jounen Kwéyòl (international Creole Day) are commendable. She laments however that:
“Our institutions have not allowed Kwéyòl to be as powerful a voice in the shaping of Saint Lucian cultural imagination as it can be, or its expression in media other than the oral traditions that are not preserved in the collective memory of fewer St. Lucians” (Charles and Lee, 2017).
In a study published in 2021, Caribbean linguist Sandra Evans5 studied the use of the language in the justice system and concluded that translations of witness evidence by the police from Kwéyòl speakers were so varied that they could have negative consequences for the dispensation of justice.
Counter narratives and advocacy
In the Caribbean region, however, there have been over the past decades many counter narratives, arguments and initiatives that promote indigenous and nation languages and mother tongues.
The Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (FRC) in Saint Lucia is a unique organization that has been at the forefront of programming and advocacy on Kwéyòl. The FRC implements programmes on the teaching of the language and has facilitated the publication of books in Kwéyòl including a dictionary and a compendium of songs and biblical readings. The FRC has continued to engage the government in discussions, supported by studies, to enact legislation to make Kwéyòl an official language. Some significant milestones have been achieved in the five decades of work. Leading among these is the use of Kwéyòl in the parliament and the extensive use of Kwéyòl by the creative community particularly poets and calypsonians.
Some of these milestones for Kwéyòl advancement in Saint Lucia in the past two decades have contributed to the counter narrative against discrimination. Dame Pearlette Louisy, a founding member of the global Creole language movement and former Governor General of Saint Lucia, lists some of them as the publication of the New Testament in Kwéyòl; the approval by the Saint Lucia government of a Kwéyòl version of the national anthem for use at public events; the publication by a leading national bank of its annual report in Kwéyòl.6
The advocacy for redress, respect and representation of Caribbean creole languages assumed global proportions in 1983 with the formation of the international grouping of Creole speaking countries. The organization − Bannzil Kreyol (Group of creole speaking islands of the Caribbean and Pacific region) − was established to promote the use of the Creoles in all domains in the respective member countries. Two Bannzil countries, Seychelles and Haiti, have enacted legislation that formalized their Creole language as an official language.
Initiatives in the Caribbean region include programmes at the University of the West Indies and Université des Antilles on the research and teaching of indigenous creoles and nation languages.
At the intergovernmental level, the establishment of World Mother Language Day and the declaration of the International Decade of Indigenous languages by UNESCO expands the new narrative of acceptance and importance to the level of governments.
Perhaps the most significant innovative new programme by an NGO for redress, respect, and representation of indigenous languages has been the programmes of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) on communications rights. The approach by WACC is to elevate indigenous language use within the broader context of the human right to communicate in his or her native language. According to WACC:
“Communication rights are premised not only on ‘holding opinions’ and ‘seeking receiving and imparting information’, all of which are rights of a single individual or entity, but also on communicating, that is on the completion of an interaction between people. They seek to bring about a cycle that includes not only seeking, receiving and imparting, but also listening and being heard, understanding, learning, creating and responding.”7
In 2020, WACC extended its advocacy on communications rights with the publication of a book that proposed the inclusion of communications rights as the eighteenth goal in the list of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The new SDG goal 18 Communication for All would be: To expand and strengthen public civic spaces through equitable and affordable access to communication technologies and platforms, media pluralism, and media diversity.8
Ongoing contradictions and dilemmas
In their efforts to implement programmes for the preservation of their mother languages, indigenous communities and non-governmental organizations continue to face new challenges. While many new sources of financial support have emerged, the conditions imposed on accessing funds are onerous and in some case beyond the capacities of these organizations.
Within some areas in the commercial and business sector, a narrative continues to be articulated about the relevance of mother languages in the world of business today. This is perpetuated through the propagation of fake news and biased opinions in the many echo chambers of social media.
While Mother Language Day is being observed by the United Nations and in particular UNESCO every year, the programmes have not captured the imagination of many publics.
Over the past decade the governments of the Commonwealth of Dominica and Saint Lucia have announced plans to introduce the teaching of creole language in schools, but the programmes either have not been launched, or they have been introduced in isolated cases. De Graff states that it the case of Haiti:
“In too many Haitian classrooms, students are still punished, humiliated and even expelled for speaking Kreyol at school. The practice of punishing children due to using their mother tongue interferes with their skill, creativity and well-being.”9
Above all however it is the continuing intransigence of governments and the relevant national institutions on the issue of formalization and legislation to protect this language which remains one of the greatest setbacks. The absence of the formal recognition of Kwéyòl in Saint Lucia as an official language is a significant drawback to the implementation of national programmes for development and promotion.
Collaboration for redress
In many cases around the world, the negative attitudes and practices of discrimination against indigenous languages resulted in minimal recording and archiving. Some early archivers, as in the cases of the Caribbean, painted their accounts with colonial tones. Their historiographies were inadequate and did not truly reflect the richness and significance of the language. Some of the early academic researchers did not have the tools to address the descriptions and perceptions of non-scientific and non-systematic qualities of the mother languages in the Caribbean region.
In order to address these issues and facilitate research, information exchange and archiving, Louisy10 stated that for the Antillean Creole, the foundational developmental work on the writing system were based on the following guiding principles, which have been applied from 1983:
- Economy – A one-to-one phoneme/grapheme (sound/letter) relationship ensured that any given sound was represented by the same letter or group of letters.
- Ecology – This took into account the compatibility of the language with which the Creole coexists.
- Technology – Availability of symbols/letters in current use on mechanical devices. This constraint has now been removed with advances in digital technology.
- Universality – That was the most important principle, as the main goal was that the written form had to be mutually intelligible, so that we could share each other’s work and have access to each other’s documentation.
These principles have been applied in the retrieval and translation of early historical accounts as well as current developmental work on the languages. In this regard, the work of the FRC and other related agencies in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti have set the parameters for collaborative work on addressing historic inequalities, as well as programming for redress and representation.
3. Mondesir, J. and Carrington L. (eds) (1992) Dictionary of St. Lucian Creole. Mouton De Gruyter (p. 1).
6. Louisy P (2019) “Major Milestones in Kwéyòl Language Development”. Paper delivered at the Creole Conference organized by the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre. October 28, 2019.
8. Lee, Vargas (2020).
10. Louisy P. (2019) “Major Milestones in Kwéyòl Language Development”. Paper delivered at the Creole Conference organized by the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre. October 28, 2019.
Alleyne, M. (1961) “Language and Society in St. Lucia. In Consequences of Class and Colour. West Indian Perspectives. D. Lowenthal and L. Comitas (eds) 199 -212. New York: Anchor Press.
Breen, H. H. (1844) St. Lucia: Historical, Statistic and Descriptive. London, Frank Cass.
Charles, E. and Lee R. (eds) (2017). The Road to Mount Pleasant: Selected Essays on Saint Lucian Culture in Honour of Msgr. Patrick Anthony, PHD, SLC on his 70th Birthday. Folk Research Centre, Saint Lucia.
Dalphinis, Morgan (1985) Caribbean and African Languages: Social History, Language, Literature and Education. London, Karia Press.
Evans, S. (2021) “The case for a standard Kwéyòl Translation of the pre-trial right to silence”. https://benjamins.com/catalog/jpcl.00072.eva
Lee, P. and Vargas L. (eds) (2020) Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces. Centre for Communication Rights.
Louisy, P. (2001) “Nation Languages and National Development in the Caribbean: Reclaiming our own voices”. Address delivered at the Inaugural Conference of the Caribbean Publishing Network, Montego Bay, Jamaica, November 1-3, 2001
Mondesir, J. and Carrington L. (eds.) (1992) Dictionary of St. Lucian Creole. Mouton De Gruyter.
Thomas, J. J. (1968) The theory and Practice of Creole Grammar. Chronicle Publishing, Trinidad.
Embert Charles has been president of WACC Global since 2019. He is a trained communications specialist and development worker with competencies and experiences in the management of grass roots organizations. He has extensive experience with regional civil society organizations in the Caribbean. Charles is a former president of WACC-Caribe. He serves as chair and was former executive director of the Msgr. Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre in Saint Lucia. Other leadership positions held included Communications Advisor to the OECS Natural Resources Management Unit, the Director of Information Services with the government of Saint Lucia and head of the regional body for telecommunications regulation on the Eastern Caribbean. He is member of the National Steering Committee of the UNDP GEF SGP in Saint Lucia. In addition to expertise in communications planning and media production, Charles also advises on matters related to electronic communications policy and strategy, cultural administration and environment issues.