Mollie McFee, PhD Candidate, Comparative Literature
When I began taking Haitian Creole in my second year of graduate school at the University of Chicago, one of the first proverbs I learned was “Pale franse pa di lespri.” The language is rich in word play exemplified by its proverbs, pithy encapsulations of social truths used to tease, admonish, or celebrate the listener. This particular phrase condenses Haiti’s social and political history into a curt utterance. It means, “Speaking French doesn’t make you smart.” Ever since Haiti’s formal independence from France in 1805, French has been the dominant language of the government, business, and the intellectual elite. However, most linguists estimate that only 5–10% of Haitians speak fluent French. Haitian Creole, on the other hand, is spoken and understood by all Haitians. The proverb serves as a reminder that though French has served as a gatekeeper to social mobility in Haiti, the language itself is only a system of symbols. True intelligence is in the content. To me, the proverb exemplifies Haiti’s remarkable history. When Haiti’s French colonizers failed to live up to the revolutionary ideals of equality by ensuring the freedom of slaves in its colony, the Haitian revolutionaries fought for those radical ideals despite a lack of resources or a trained army. I always interpreted the proverb as a reminder that the marginalized can outwit and outfight the elite, and that words are meaningless without action.
The Haitian army’s victory over its French colonizer did not end French culture’s dominant role in Haitian life. Despite the fact that only the very privileged and educated few spoke French, government affairs and services were conducted in the language of the former colonizer. The effects of this linguistic divide are staggering. Haitian children have been expected to learn in a foreign tongue, making education an enormous challenge. Adults, too, have not had access to politicians’ speeches, court proceedings, or virtually any of the fundamental tools for participation in democratic life. Over the past forty years the Haitian government has passed significant legislation addressing this problem. In 1979, the Reform Bernard required schools to provide students with education in Haitian Creole. In 1987, after the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was removed from power in a popular revolution, the country approved a new constitution that, for the first time in Haitian history, declared Haitian Creole one of the country’s two official languages (the second being French).
Even these major policy decisions have not significantly advanced the role of Haitian Creole in public life. Recently, the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (AKA), or the Haitian Creole Academy, was formed to take on the mantle of remedying the immediate problems and deep social history of Haiti’s linguistic divide. My current research centers on the efforts of this institution. When the 1987 constitution declared Haitian Creole one of the country’s official languages, it also called for the creation of an Academy to ensure “li bay lang Kreyòl la jarèt pou li fikse epi pou li ba li tout mwayen lasyans pou li devlope nòmal.” [it supports the Haitian language by codifying it and giving it all manner of scientific support so that it might become standardized.] The Haitian parliament and president approved legislation to establish the AKA in 2014. The AKA nominally resembles the French language academy, the Académie Française (AF), but the AKA’s mission and social context differs significantly from this French antecedent. Founded in 1635, the AF has been the official arbiter of the French language. The AF symbolically recognizes the most refined use of the French language by publishing a well-respected dictionary and awarding literary prizes. In its early days, the AF helped standardize French and establish its status in public life as Latin became increasingly less dominant. When I first learned of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen’s existence, I was shocked that Haiti had implemented this eminently staid model from its former colonizer. Didn’t Haitian Creole embody the spirit of the maroon, the escaped slave that carved out new forms of life on the margins to resist European hegemony? How was it that a language I associated with creativity, play, and subversive resistance of authority was now to be subject to an official and regulating body?
As I dove into my research on the extremely young organization, its unique role in Haitian society became clearer to me. While the AF served to reinforce the French government’s power at home and abroad by establishing linguistic and literary prestige, the AKA endeavors to use language as a tool to ensure that the Haitian state serves its people. Regulating the language is instrumental to this process. Establishing rules that settle a diversity of linguistic practices, for instance the notation of abbreviated words, makes it easier for people to write, read, and teach in Haitian Creole. The AKA also works in collaboration with the government to ensure that laws on the books for decades like the Reform Bernard actually get carried out. The AKA currently works with the Ministry of Education and Professional Development (MENFP) to promote pedagogical training for educators to teach in Haitian Creole. Rather than focusing on the forms that symbolize intelligence, like literary prizes, the AKA turned its attention to cultivating the minds of Haitians in their native language, reinforcing what all Haitians know: Pale franse pa di lespri.
The Akademi’s official logo is an image of the Nèg Mawon with a pen in his hand, signifiying the Akademi’s commitment to cultivating cultural practices that will preserve Haiti’s history and empower its people.
A recent photograph of the Akademi’s members, including prominent linguists, social activists, and cultural figures.
(1) I have chosen to write Haitian Creole in its English orthography here. I frequently see “Creole” written in its Haitian orthography (Kreyòl), which to me is akin to referring to French as français in an English language text. Some linguists argue that Haitian Creole should simply be called Haitian, as it is the language of Haiti.
(2) Atik 213, Konstitisyon Repiblik Ayiti 1987.
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