A Linguistic and Cultural Comparison of Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole

Kirstin Squint, Louisiana State University

It has been claimed that refugees of the Haitian Revolution imported the creole language spoken in Louisiana to the colony during the first decade of the 19th century. These more than seven thousand speakers of Saint Domingue Creole probably did impact Louisiana Creole, but there is evidence to show that a creole language existed in Louisiana prior to this flood of immigration (Klingler 25). Louisiana Creole has existed as a stable, autonomous language since the late 18th century, but whether it is indigenous to Louisiana or developed out of a pre-existing pidgin or creole brought from Africa or the Caribbean has been a subject of debate (91). In If I Could Turn My Tongue Like That: The Creole Language of Pointe Coupee Parish Louisiana, Thomas A. Klingler asserts that neither the demographic nor linguistic record suggests that the language was imported. It seems more likely that it arose along the plantations of the Mississippi River, spreading outward to areas such as Bayou Teche (92). Thus, the French-lexifier creoles of Haiti and Louisiana were born of similar roots in different New World soils, yet their linguistic development varied due to the social factors surrounding their growth. These social factors have led the two creoles to an historical space in which one enjoys popularity unknown to any other creole language in the world and the other faces extinction.

Haitian Creole (HC), or Kreyol, has over eight and a half million speakers; more people speak it than any other creole language. It is the native language of all Haitians born and raised in Haiti, but because centuries of social unrest have forced Haitians from their island home, there are many speakers of HC beyond the country's borders. HC boasts speakers in the United States, Canada, Venezuela, French Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Bahamas, France, and in some African countries. Since 1961, HC has been one official language of Haiti ("Haitian"). A holdover from the colonial era, French is also an official language of Haiti, despite the fact that less than ten percent of the population is able to speak it fluently (Jacobson).

Unlike HC, Louisiana Creole (LC) has not expanded beyond its original area of growth; the region in which the language is spoken has, in fact, shrunk. Originally, LC was spoken across a wide area as far north as Natchitoches, LA, and as far east as Mobile, AL, possibly even extending to Pensacola, FL. Today, the language is limited to three geographic locations: sections of the Mississippi Valley known as the German Coast and the Acadian Coast between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the area around False River in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, and in an extensive area west of the Atchafalaya River Basin along the banks of the Bayou Teche. There are also pockets of speakers along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and in Lafourche Parish. According to the 1990 Census, there were 6,310 speakers of Creole French in Louisiana. Though this number is questionable because some of the survey respondents may have chosen the "French speaking" category rather than the "Creole French" category, this limited number of speakers pales in comparison with the enormous volume of HC speakers (Klingler xxv).

Both Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole are products of French colonial expansion and the practice of plantation slavery. The French were present on the island of Hispaniola (the island currently the location of Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east) since 1629. In 1697, they officially occupied the western half of the island, then known as St. Domingue, and took charge of the slave trade. Between 1740 and 1791, there were approximately a half million slaves working on plantations in St. Domingue. HC emerged as the enslaved Africans tried to communicate with their French masters. Most of the St. Domingue slaves were speakers of Niger-Congo languages, which are several hundred languages spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa from the Atlantic to Sudan, and they were exposed to non-standard and non-homogenous French varieties spoken by the colonists. Standardization of the French language had not been achieved during the time of colonial expansion; thus, the French colonists spoke varieties known as Français Régionaux which contained significant lexical, syntactic, and morphological differences compared to contemporary French (St. Fort). HC developed as the Africans attempted to learn Français Régionaux; hence, the creole contains considerable morphological and syntactic influences from their indigenous West African languages ("Haitian"). One factor influencing the unusual growth of this Creole was its development on an island in relative isolation from other languages. Probably the most significant factor that led HC to develop and flourish beyond the plantation-slavery era, unlike many similar creoles in the Americas, was the Haitian Revolution, in the early 19th century, ousting French colonial rule from the island (Jacobson). The descendents of the slaves who developed Haitian Creole have nurtured the language into a rule-governed full linguistic system (St. Fort).

The French arrived in Louisiana in the early 18th century, a hundred years later than they had arrived on Hispaniola (Klingler 4). Between 1719 and 1743, 5,500 Africans were brought to Louisiana (7). In the first decade of slave trade, the Africans were speakers of many different languages including Ewe, Yoruba, and Bantu. Two-thirds of the slaves brought to Louisiana originated in the Senegambian region, speaking Sereer, Wolof, Pulaar, and Malinke. The largest group from Senegambia was the Bambara, who spoke mutually intelligible dialects of Mandekan (327). The fact that the majority of Louisiana slaves came from one region was unusual during the plantocracy, since it was considered prudent to separate people of similar tribes and language groups in order to prevent uprisings. Such a precaution was not taken in this case because it was "difficult to get any slaves in Louisiana" (Marshall 337). Also, the monopoly held by the Company of Indies in both Senegal and Louisiana may also have contributed to the Africans' relative ancestral homogeneity (334). Because of this homogeneity, retention of the Africans' indigenous languages may have delayed the development of a Creole in Louisiana. In fact, the Pointe Coupee slave revolt in 1731 was organized by the Bambara who were purportedly speaking their ancestral languages to plan the coup. Ultimately, LC did develop, like HC, with West African languages becoming the substrates to a varied French lexifier. Noted French Creole scholar Margaret Marshall suggests the varieties of French that impacted the Louisiana slaves likely had two influences: a maritime French spoken by the sailors of slave ships and a "Colonial French" marked by a range of abilities in its speakers that included the well-educated as well as "criminals and rejects of French society with little or no education whatsoever" (338). It seems highly likely that this maritime French also influenced other French-lexifier pidgins and Creoles during the slave trade era. There are a few socio-historical events that have led to today's diminished Louisiana Creole presence. The transfer of the Louisiana colony to Spain in 1762 had little linguistic effect on LC because few Spanish speakers actually came to the colony, but the transfer underscored what a burden the colony had become for the French (Klingler 17). Another event was the arrival of between 2,600 and 3,000 Acadian exiles who had been expelled from Nova Scotia by the British (19). Lastly, though the French reacquired the colony, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803, reiterating its burdensomeness. This act anglicized the Louisiana territory, signaling a centuries-long death knell for Louisiana Creole that may well end in the next few decades.

Despite demographic evidence suggesting the presence of a creole in Louisiana prior to the influx of refugees from the Haitian Revolution, there is also much linguistic evidence to support the claim that the languages developed separately. Early HC and 19th century LC shared few features that were not also common to other French-lexifier creoles of the Caribbean. Those features they did share do not suggest a close relationship. The most significant shared features include the progressive marker ape; the future markers va/a/ale; the conditional markers sre/se; the postposed plural markers -ye (LC)/-yo (HC); differentiation of the subject and object forms for the 1st and 2nd person singular pronouns mo vs. mwa/mwe and to vs. twa/twe; and use of the particle ken/kin for the possessive pronoun (moken - LC and kin-a-m - northern HC). The preverbal conditional marker, the postposed plural markers, and differentiated subject and object forms for first and second person singular pronouns have all either been located in earlier stages of other Caribbean creoles or continue to be used in one or more of them today. Additionally, the progressive marker ape can be found in French-lexifier creoles of the Indian Ocean. This means that only the possessive particle is a feature distinguishing HC and LC from other French-lexifier creoles (Klingler 26).

Additionally, there are critical differences between 19th century Haitian Creole and Louisiana Creole. One is the possessive marker. Haitian texts consistently take the form Noun+à+Pronoun as in the example café à li (his coffee). Possession in Louisiana texts is expressed by a set of pronominal forms including mo, to, so, nou/nouz'ot, vou/vouz'ot, and ye (my, your, his/her/its, our, your, their). Another difference is the placement of the negative particle pa, which always occupies the position prior to the verb phrase in Haitian, and other French-lexifier creoles of the Caribbean. In LC, pa comes after the preverbal markers te, sa, and se, but before the markers ap(e) and ale. Finally, HC has numerous serial verbs, but LC only has a few constructions that resemble serial verbs and are more restricted than in other creoles that have true serial verbs. In many creoles, the verb of motion follows the main verb or "the two [verbs] are of equal importance and are to be seen as a lexical and semantic unit, as is the case with idiomatic verbal series such as poté viré ‘bring back' in HC" (qtd. in Klingler 27). In contrast, LC constructions are always comprised of verbs of motion such as kouri or vini followed by a second verb. The meaning of the first verb is weakened and cannot be translated as in the following example: Mo pa wa ler li vini rive. (I didn't see when he came.)  In other cases, the two verbs express a sequence of separate actions, one of which immediately follows the other: La fiy vini reste avek mon isi  (The girl came to stay with me here) (27).     Despite considerable differences in the two creoles' geneses, contemporary LC and HC have some notable verb-phrase similarities. Both creoles contain unmarked predicate adjectives and stative verbs that signal a present state, though in certain contexts they might express an action in the recent past. Habitual actions and actions beginning in the present but leading to a future action are also features of the two creoles (263). The fact that both HC and LC contain nonstative verbs conveying habitual meaning distinguishes them from other French-lexifier creoles, which tend to use a marker. Additionally, "[t]o the extent that, depending on context, they may have either present or past reference, Haitian unmarked nonstative verbs resemble those of Pointe Coupee Creole [ . . . ] and [ . . . ] those of nineteenth-century Louisiana Creole" (264). Another verb phrase similarity is the anterior marker te, which expresses the past with stative verbs and an anterior past with nonstative verbs in each creole. The future marker a (with variants va and ava) is also shared by HC and LC, though in Haitian a seems more strongly to express an irrealis mood (265). Because of its historical relevance, the most significant similarity between contemporary HC and LC is the progressive marker form ap (with variants ape, pe, and p). This form is used with nonstative verbs to signify both the progressive aspect and the prospective future tense (264). 

Since the evidence suggests that Haitian Creole did not strongly influence Louisiana Creole, what can be surmised from these historical and contemporary linguistic comparisons is the infinite potential for variation among human languages. These two plantation creoles arose in isolation from each other with a minimal amount of contact; yet, because of the similarities in their superstrate and substrate languages, some native speakers find a degree of mutual intelligibility between the two. One native speaker of Louisiana Creole reported to have had little trouble learning Haitian Creole during a period when he lived on the island nation. Another native speaker claimed to have been able to communicate with Haitians in New York City by speaking Creole (129).

Despite the parallels of development between Haitian and Louisiana Creole, the futures of these languages couldn't seem more different. Haitian Creole is a vibrant, living language. For many years, HC was used informally, primarily for daily communications. Bilingual Haitians often shifted to French or English for more formal linguistic situations. Now, however, these old social patterns are breaking down, and HC has penetrated all dimensions of Haitian expression. One example of this is the mid-1970's publication of Haitian writer Frankétienne's novel Dezafi, which broke exciting new ground for the language. The novel was acclaimed by a majority of creole-speaking literary critics as a major literary creation. Since then, a few poetry texts and stage pieces have been published, though none at the level of Dezafi. This suggests that there is difficulty surrounding the creation of a specific literary register for HC (St. Fort).The language faces other problems. Thus far, the standardization of Haitian Creole has been limited to orthography. Several good bilingual English and French-Haitian Creole dictionaries exist, but a monolingual HC dictionary has not yet been produced. There is a need for such a reference text not only in Haiti but also in New York, Boston, and Miami where HC has been integrated to some degree into the public school system. It has been estimated that there are 30,000 Haitian children in the New York City public schools alone. Additionally, Haitian Creole is the fourth most common non-English language spoken and taught in that school system. The language itself is taught at all levels and is also used as a classroom vehicle to teach students subjects like math, science, and social studies. Besides reference texts, another area lacking materials in Haitian Creole is literature. Because of the aforementioned problem surrounding the creation of a specific literary register for HC, some educators are pushing for more translations of literary works in other languages into the Creole. This need for reference and literary texts is significant to education beyond public schooling: at least four American universities teach classes in Haitian Creole (St. Fort).The problems associated with the expansion of HC are signs of its vitality. On the other hand, the future of Louisiana Creole is beyond unsteady; its extinction is imminent. Besides the Anglicization of Louisiana by the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States, LC has always also had an additional challenge that HC did not have because of its relative isolation: a more diverse linguistic (specifically francophone) context. Historically, there have been three varieties of French in Louisiana: Plantation Society or Colonial French, Cajun French, and Louisiana Creole. Plantation Society French differs little in structure from standard French, but it reflects a specific time and social space, that of the plantation era; this variety has virtually vanished. Cajun French was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians fleeing Nova Scotia and is still spoken by a sizable but shrinking community (Klingler xxx). Creole French is, of course, that variety which arose from the interaction between the enslaved Africans and their European masters during the plantation slavery era, and it is unlikely that LC "will be spoken in any recognizable form beyond the next two or three decades" (xxxii).   

Francophone Louisianans have made an effort to hold onto their language in the face of a monolingual national attitude. Pressure by Cajun French activists led to the establishment of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) by the state legislature. CODOFIL originally promoted the use of standard French, but because of protests by the Cajun community has recently expanded its efforts to include all forms of French in Louisiana including Cajun and Creole. Interestingly, those originally opposed to the emphasis on Standard French now see it as a way of connecting francophone Louisiana to the rest of the francophone world. This has led some to hope that "the decline in the use of French might yet be reversed, an outcome that to many was inconceivable just ten or fifteen years ago" (xxx).

Yet, with such a diverse francophone history, what does it mean to promote French in Louisiana, and how does that affect the future of Louisiana Creole? Linguist Thomas Klingler suggests that on a continuum of French spoken in Louisiana, Louisiana Creole sits on one pole, standard French sits on another, and Cajun French falls in between the two. As the revitalization of the language occurs, there is a shift down the continuum toward standard French because of its greater prestige and usefulness in the broader francophone world. This is not because native Cajun and Creole speakers are having much more contact with Standard French, but because those Louisianans learning French for the first time are learning Standard French in school, not Cajun or Creole at home. In a 1990 survey conducted jointly by CODOFIL and the University of Southwestern Louisiana, 25% of the respondents claimed to be French speakers. However, only 8.9% said they spoke Cajun French at home, while 14.3% spoke Standard French learned in school (xxx). It is unclear whether or not speakers of Louisiana Creole were included in the survey.

Despite the survey results, Cajun French is not on its last legs. Instead, the French revival movement has persuaded native Cajun speakers that their language and heritage is one of which they should be proud, despite years of prohibition and shame. Currently, limited elements of Cajun French are being incorporated into French instruction in Louisiana public schools, which will at least give the Standard French taught a regional hue (xxxii).

Speakers of Creole French have not been as politically powerful as those of Cajun French. This can be attributed to the social factors which have shaped the contemporary Creole identity. The term Creole has experienced considerable evolution since the colonial era: initially it referred to the first generation of people born to the colony regardless of race or status; during the Civil War and Reconstruction it referred to people with French ancestry, mixed race, and/or speakers of the Creole language; finally it referred to French ancestry and race at the end of the late 20th century. Even though there are still a few white people who call themselves Creole, it is the black Creole community that "is the repository of Creole culture, and, where it is still extant, the Creole language" (Melancon 38). It is within the framework of a primarily black Creole community that one must look in order to see how political activism to support Louisiana Creole was delayed. Consider the era in which CODOFIL was being organized - at this time, blacks in America were fighting for rights even more basic than those of language preference. Black Creoles were doubly marginalized; hence, losing LC would have actually helped them to more fully integrate into American society. The effect of this social situation is that there are few fluent speakers of LC below the age of sixty, and the language is not being passed on to future generations. Additionally, the LC community is small and is fragmented into several zones (Klingler xxxii).

It is ironic that at the historical moment that Louisiana Creole is disappearing, the idea of being Creole has become a symbolic marker of a distinct identity that many black and mixed-race Creoles have become interested in preserving. Poetry and other writings in LC have been appearing in print since the 1980's, and there was a series of short lessons in LC in the early 1990's in Creole Magazine, out of Lafayette, LA, which is unfortunately no longer being published. Lafayette is also home to the radio station KRVS which runs a weekly zydeco radio show in LC (xxxii). There are three activist groups C.R.E.O.L.E., Inc., the un-Cajun Committee, and the Southern Heritage Foundation supporting LC, and it is their claim that the French revival movement has privileged white Cajun culture over black and Creole cultures (Melancon 32).

It is no mystery, then, why Haitian Creole is flourishing and Louisiana Creole is languishing. Haitian Creole was able to develop in isolation from other languages and has existed for two hundred years in a country with a population primarily descended from the Africans who initially developed the language. Louisiana Creole has not only had to face linguistic marginalization, but it has also faced racial marginalization. Perhaps the efforts at reviving the French Creole of Louisiana will result in a prouder Creole identity, but it is doubtful that the language will ever grow again.

Works Cited

"Haitian Creole Profile." UCLA Language Materials Project, 28 February 2004. <http://www.lmp.ucla.edu/profiles/profh01.htm>

Jacobson, Erik. "An Introduction to Haitian Culture for Rehabilitation Service Providers." Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange, 2003. 23 Feb. 2005. <http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/haiti.html>

Klingler, Thomas A. If I Could Turn My Tongue Like That: The Creole Language of Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Marshall, Margaret. "The Origin and Development of Louisiana Creole French." French and Creole in Louisiana. Ed. Valdman, Albert. New York: Plenum Press, 1997. 333-349.

Melancon, Megan. "The Sociolinguistic Situation of Creoles in South Louisiana: Identity, Characteristics, Attitudes." Diss. Louisiana State University, 2000.

St. Fort, Hugues. "What Is Haitian Creole?"  Association for Haitian American Development, Inc., 17 January 2004 and 28 February 2004. <http://www.ahadonline.org/eLibrary/Creoleconnection/Number20/haitianCreole.htm>