Haitian Creole is a Creole language spoken on half of the island of Hispaniola, in a little country called Haiti. Most Creole vocabulary comes from the French language. Specifically, it comes from Colonial French, various dialects of France spoken by pirates from the 17th and 18th century. Creole is often characterized by its simplicity. And its certainly true, from the lack of verb conjugations to the lack of grammatical gender (kinda), in many ways it is less complex than languages English-speakers are familiar with.
Here are 5 weird things about Haitian Creole that intermediate learners might not realize:
1.) Regional Variation
Language change is inevitable. So, if groups that speaks the same language are isolated from one another, inevitably the way they speak will become less similar. Haitian Creole is no exception in this regard. Due to geography, mountainous topography and history, there are a number Haitian Creole regional dialects.
Generally, they can be divided up into Northern, Central and Southern dialects. You can certainly argue there are more than 3 dialects, but we’ll stick with those 3. In fact, even though geographically it’s about the same size as Massachusetts, Haiti has some remarkable regional diversity (also like Massachusetts, funny enough). Here are some of the notable features of the North which includes cities like Port-de-Paix and Cap Haitien:
- Possessive particles a and kinan
- li turns into i; l turns into y
- ‘y’ appears at the end of words where you might expect ‘j’ in other varieties
- and a lot of unique vocabulary (kanistè, etc.).
The Central dialect, including that of the capital Port-au-Prince, form the basis for the Standard Language. Even though it’s considered the standard, it does have quirks of its own. One of the characteristic features is rampantly spreading nasalization. This leads to the definite article system to get even stranger. More on that below.
And the South, with cities like Les Cayes and Jacmel, is noted for some peculiarities of its own. I don’t know a ton about the Southern Dialect, so I’d be happy to learn more about it!
2.) Definite Article
Haitian Creole, like its parent languages (and many others) uses an article to represent definiteness. We can’t be sure what the source of the Creole definite article la is, but we have 3 good candidates:
- the French feminine definite article la (which goes before the noun)
- the French particle -là (which goes after nouns)
- the Ewe definite article la (which goes after the noun)
For comparison: The Ewe word can have 2 forms: la and -a (which gets attached directly to the noun).
Accounting for gender and number, there are 3 versions of the French article: la (f.), le (m.), and les (pl.). If you count all the ways you can pronounce those (depending on if the word is followed by a vowel or a consonant) you get about 5 versions:
- –la dame [la]
- –le monde/fais-le ! [lə] or [lø]
- – l’école [l]
- -les filles [le]
- -les élèves [lez]
The Creole word however changes form, based on the word that comes right before it.
Should that word end in a consonant: We start with the base form la. If the syllable that comes right before it contains any nasal sound, la is nasalized to lan. But, if the last consonant in the word is nasal, then lan can become nan. If the syllable that comes right before it contains a nasal sound, but ends with an oral consonant, the nan option is not possible, but nasalization is still triggered; so, you’re back to lan.
Now what if the word ends in a vowel? In that case the ‘l’ drops producing our second base variation a. If the last syllable ends in a nasal vowel (or if that syllable is ‘ni’, ‘nou’, ‘mi’ or ‘mou’) then the a is nasalized to an. That brings us to the 5 variations recognized in spelling: la, lan, nan, a and an.
However, the <l> disappearing after a vowel creates what’s called a hiatus. Which languages usually try to avoid. So, the solution is to put in glide-sounds ([w] and [j]*) to break up that awkward hiatus. You insert /w/ when the proceeding syllable ends in a rounded vowel and [j] when it ends with [i], [e] or [ɛ]. So, accounting for all common environments, that brings us to la, lan, nan, a, [w]a, [j]a, an, [w]an and [j]an.
Also, some speakers (especially from the capital) generalize article nasalization to a bunch of other environments. Those speakers may show basically free variation between forms. How ‘bout that for simplification?
3.) Sociolinguistic Variation
In addition to regional differences, Haitian Creole also has tons of diversity based on social class. In every language, there are forms of speech that are viewed negatively and others carry prestige. Creole is interesting in that not only are there class distinctions within the language, there’s also an entire other language whose influence is everywhere.
Only a minority of Haitians are bilingual in French. The kreyòl swa or kreyòl fransize spoken by those elite is considered the prestige dialect. But differences between kreyòl swa and monolingual Creole don’t always come from the former being more like French. Sometimes it’s just random and weird. An example is wide-spread nasalization in the definite article (discussed above), which is not a particularly French feature.
- rounded front vowels like “u [y]” and “eu [ø]”
- “r” at the end of certain syllables
- widespread borrowing of French words or phrases
To get an idea of how this can be confusing to someone with no knowledge of French, let’s look at an example. Pè can mean either “priest” (from French père meaning “Father”) or “fear” (from French peur meaning “fear”) and lapè means peace (from French la paix, meaning “peace”). In standard Creole, those 3 words would have identical last syllables. However, due to influence from the corresponding French words, some speakers may pronounce all 3 distinctly from each other.
4.) Phonetic “Inconsistencies”
The Creole writing system is often described as “phonetic”. What people mean by that is that the writing system represents the spoken language consistently and closely. To be sure, it’s much more transparent than say English or French (I mean seriously “grecques” [ɡʁɛk]? Are you kidding me French?). However, it’s far from being purely “phonetic”. It can be challenging when words can appear with different forms (allomorphic variation). Sometimes you can’t keep up with all the contractions.
It can seem a bit complicated, but here’s a rule of thumb: whenever you think something should combine it doesn’t and whenever you think it can’t it does. Simple.
- Yon -> ‘on
- Se + Yon = S’on
- Gen(yen) + Yon = G’on
- Fè + ou = Fò’w
- Men + ou = Mon’w
5.) Sentence-Final “Wi” and “Non”
Even the most seasoned Creole learner can often be left feeling bekeke by 2 of the most basic words in the language. Not only are “wi” and “non” basic words meaning “yes” and “no”, they can also be used as sentence tags whose meaning is… more subtle.
Side Note: Sentence tags are little words or phrases added usually right at the end of sentences. One of the primary types of sentence tags we find is question tags. These simple tags can change a sentence from a statement to question. Usually the result is a yes-or-no question and in some languages the tag itself can be the word “yes” or “no”. However, that’s not exactly what’s going on in Creole.
So, what do the wi/non-tags mean? Basically, they are tools to add nuance to a sentence by refuting an implied or overt expectation. So, the sentence Se pa de moun, non! (“It’s not two people, no!”) means “There’s a lot of people!” the non serves to subtly imply that the listener may be underestimating just how many people there are. But then there are times where the nuance is even more subtle. So, in the common expression M ale, wi or M ap vini, wi said when leaving, the tag is a subtle intensifier. Non works similarly to re-enforce negative sentences. Also, non can be added to imperative statements and can either be an intensifier (“Ale non!”) or a softener (“Vin non, cheri…”) depending on the tone. Absolutely wild stuff. Here’s a cool video that goes into further depth on this particular topic!
Not So Simple As It Seems
So, there’s the truth. In many ways Creole isn’t so simple. It gets complicated. It gets weird. But if you’re learning, please don’t let that scare you off. It’s a really cool language and a cool people and you’ll be better off for knowing it. If you’d like help communicating with a foreign language speaker, give us a shout. We know what we’re talking about.
*Remember, the IPA symbol [j] is pronounced like English <y>, not like <j>. So, for example the word “yesterday” would be [jɛstɚdeɪ].
Note: Symbols in [brackets] represent IPA characters. Learn more about the IPA here.