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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Dismantling Language Borders in Haiti and Curacao

When European colonists and African slaves needed to communicate in 17th century Haiti, African speakers of several Niger-Congo languages had to learn French because it was considered the language of “prestige” in Caribbean society. A new language, Haitian Creole, was born which combined both African and European linguistic elements.

Centuries later, in the early 1900’s, a new field of linguistics emerged in the United States called “Creole Studies.” An aspect of this field is to examine the effects of language and borders, or “language apartheid,” on Creole speaking communities in the Caribbean.

Does the field of linguistics, one that creates borders, actually have the ability to dismantle them? The event, “Language and Borders” explored this question, and was organized by Esther Torrego, Professor of Linguistics/Hispanic Studies and sponsored by the Undergraduate Linguistics Program. Lecturers were Professor Michel DeGraff, from the Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, who spoke about Haitian Creole, and Professor Cristina Schmitt of Michigan State University, who spoke about Papiamento, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and English.

“Language denies Haitian Creole speakers human rights,” stated guest speaker, Professor DeGraff of MIT. There are many linguists who do not recognize “Creole” languages as “normal” languages, referring to them as pygmy dialects, primitive and exotic linguistic neonates. DeGraff offered listeners a view that challenges traditional thought in the field of linguistics, arguing that Haitian Creole gives linguists an exceptional window on how to observe language creation and evolution, showing how two distinct language groups came together through uncontrollable social and historical circumstances.

DeGraff’s articulate presentation dismantled linguistic myths, such as the idea creole speakers are “degenerate descendants” of the European colonialists as well as the claim that “creole grammar lacks complex structure.” These myths have had devastating consequences on speakers of Haitian Creole, and although Creole is now one of the two national languages og Haiti, language is intricately attached to issues of race, class and power in that country. This social fabric of Haitian society has created a situation of “linguistic apartheid” with grave consequences.

Professor Cristina Schmitt spoke about the fundamental similarities of Papiamento (one of the national languages of Curacao), Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish and English. She has done extensive fieldwork with child speakers of the listed languages and concludes that they share the same core properties.

Professor Schmitt’s hypothesis was proved through analysis of speaking patterns of children, primarily between the ages of three and 11. These children had shockingly similar speech patterns until they learned prescribed grammar rules.

The Q&A period of this event brewed some interesting conversation coming from a small minority of linguistics concentration students. Kevin Zlomek, who is in the program, expressed concern regarding this language divide in the Caribbean. For Zlomek, his primary distress rests in the area of education, where he sees language as a tool for internal repression within school systems of creole speaking societies.

“Language borders” are manifested in all multi-lingual societies, where a dominant linguistic group rules and linguistic minorities struggle to survive in challenging environments. Questions and discussion took place with speakers and the students after the lecture while everyone enjoyed the refreshments provided at the event.