Haitian Creole: A (mostly) French Lexicon

The majority of Creole’s lexicon derives from French. However, Creole inherited several words from various origins such as: Fon, Wolof, Kongo, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Taino, and Arabic. The Creole does vary significantly from French’s morphology and pronunciation. Since Creole is a language that is still being spoken today, it is continuously borrowing and constructing necessary words to describe new and old ideas.

  • An example of this is the word napkin from English, which is being used as well as the original French word torchon, said tòchon in Creole.
  •  Mwen gen yon lot ti travay pat tayim le wikenn. ‘I have another part time job on weekends.’ The Creole orthography is very true to pronunciation. Very specific concepts like ‘part time job’ are borrowed from English.

Saint Domingue (present day Haiti) was a world-leading producer of cotton, coffee, and especially sugar. Thus, there were many workers. These four words in Creole correspond well with French because they form part of the basic vocabulary and were probably some of the first common words to be acquired by slaves. The grammatical words shown below do not match up as well because they do not share all the same syntactic properties.

Creole:

  • coffee: kafe
  • sugar: sik
  • cotton: coton
  • worker: travayè
  • who: ki moun ki
  • what: sa
  • when: lè
  • where: ki kote
  • why: poukisa
  • how: ki han

French:

  • coffee: café
  • sugar: sucre
  • cotton: coton
  • worker: travailleur
  • who: qui
  • what: quoi
  • when: lorsque
  • where: où
  • why: pourquoi
  • how: comment

The phonological representations of the Creole verbs are derived from the phonetic representations of French verbs. The details of their semantics do not correspond exactly to those of French, but rather to those of Fongbe. On the basis of these various types of data, it is argued that the bulk of Creole verbs’ semantic properties have been carried over into the creole from the substratum lexicons. This situation argues in favor of the claim that the process of relexification plays a central role in the formation of a Creole’s lexicon.

Creole Words of African Origin- Fongbe:

  • Boco // From Fongbe – Bokono // n. ‘a sorcerer’ (The French derived term is sósié ‘a wizard’)
  • Ounsi // From Fongbe // n. ‘a Vaudouisant’ (against the Christian faith)
  • Yo // From Fongbe – Ye // pron. They(‘re), them, their (Yo is also placed after a noun for pluralization purposes, from example: Liv ‘Book’ / Liv yo – ‘Books.’ The French derived term zot is used in some parts of Haiti)

It is common for African borrowings to have religious meanings, especially since the slave religion Vodou continues to have the largest cultural influence in Haiti.

Creole Words of Portuguese Origin:

  • Ba // Dar – to give // v. ‘to give’
  • Cachimbo n. a pipe used for smoking tobacco
  • Mantèg // Manteiga // n. ‘lard, butter’ (The French derived term for butter is, bé / beu)
  • Pikini // Pequenino // n. ‘a child’

Many of the words seen above can be used in everyday life, making them essential for small-talk type communication. Goods like pipes and butter were most likely traded between different groups of people within the island, so a common word needed to be established. In the case of cachimbo, specifically, the activity of smoking was probably done by Portuguese colonists/traders, observed by slaves and creoles, and in this way brought into the Creole language.

Creole Words of Taino Origin:

  • Ayiti n. ‘Haiti’
  • Babaco // Barbakoa – A Taino roasting process // n. ‘a feast’
  • Caco // Buticaco or Heiticaco // n. ‘a bumpkin, someone from the countryside’
  • Calalou n. ‘okra, also a soup that includes okra and crab among other ingredients,’ known as gumbo in Louisiana
  • Counouc // Konuko // n. ‘a shack’
  • Kiskéya // Ki sike a – Spirit of the big mountain // n. ‘Hispaniola’
  • Lambi n. ‘conch, a conch shell’

The borrowings above cover concepts and things that were most likely unique to the island when French settlers began arriving. Words for indigenous foods and nature items are commonly borrowed from substratum languages in conquest relationships.

Creole words have a similar pronunciation to French words and look related to French words in some instances, but are not placed in the same positions in sentences.

Creole French English
ki qui what
jan genre manner
ou vous you
appeler héler to call

Explore the Creole lexicon!

Creole Poetry:

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/01/poems-from-haiti-translated-byy-merete-mueller-with-dominique-herard/

Blog Post on Creole Poetry from Haiti:

https://heathermueller.wordpress.com/2010/01/18/creole-poetry-from-haiti/

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