African vs. French Elements within Haitian Creole

French vocabulary and African grammar are believed to make up the core of Haitian Creole. For example, the definite article the in Creole is traced back to African elements as shown below:

imageThe placement of the article la after the noun is the same in Ewe and Yoruba, whereas French places the article before the noun. A notable exception is found in the formation of lexicon from French grammatical elements (a sort of backward grammaticalization). The functional categories of Creole mostly derive their phonologies from forms that are lexical categories in French, but there are some instances in which French grammatical elements remained as phonological forms in the Creole.

For example, the French form l’ancre meaning ‘the anchor’ was relexified in Creole as lank meaning just ‘anchor.’ Also, de l’eau ‘of the water’ became dlo ‘water’ in Creole.

The mixed African and French elements are best theorized by the way African slaves originally formed Creole. Slaves would retain Popular French grammar that was most similar to their native African dialects and scratch most everything else. Thus, although Creole is deemed as retaining 90% of popular French vocabulary, native French speakers generally cannot understand Creole because the grammar is so different. Thinking historically, this tendency of slaves to minimize grammar makes sense because the Creole language was originally intended to serve as the only communication system between various African peoples with unintelligible languages; a simple and easily acquired grammatical system worked best for this purpose since Haitian Creole was not meant to be heavily written during the 18th century.

Application to Romanization

Although culturally and grammatically separate, the Haitian Creole language evolved in a similar way to how the Romance varieties evolved from Latin (known as Romanization). The evolution of the Creole was much faster, but the attitudes on the island Hispaniola were also very different than those in Europe; they were much less settled and less focused on arts and education. Still, Haitian Creole and Romance varieties all emerged through contact and influence of super/substratum languages. One definition of a substratum language is an indigenous language that contributes features of its language to that of invading or prestigious peoples. Thus, common changes follow in the transition from the ancestral language. Patterns of consonant deletion and loss of certain vowel sounds occurred in both the formation of Creole and the Romance varieties. Verbs took different strategies in inflection in both transitions–Romance varieties often inflected more than Latin while Creole inflected less than French–but the common change is the important part. In fact, substratum influence on Haitian Creole from surrounding African dialects may account for it being more phonetic and having no inflection for plurality as opposed to French. Thus, contact and awareness account for transitions in all languages.


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