Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ethnolinguistic Identity and Racialization in Haiti By: Erin Newman

 A prime example of social stratification associated with language distinction between language communities is the use of French and Haitian Creole as the two official languages of Haiti. In her article,“Exposing Prejudice,” anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli comments on the opposition between race discourses and ethnic discourses. She defines racializing as “a polarity between dominant and subordinate groups, the latter having minimal control over their position in the nation-state (15)”.  Taking this into consideration, some problems of racialization can be seen in the distinction between the speakers of Haiti’s two official languages.  

After Haiti was colonized by France in the 16th century, the French culture and language left a lasting supremacy upon the nation. While French exercises its hegemony as the official governmental and administrative language, Haitian Creole is spoken by the vast majority of Haiti’s population, about twelve million people (including Haitians who have emigrated). It is based in French, some African languages, Spanish, Taíno, and English, in addition to various influences between the 18th to 21st century. Although Haitian Creole can be considered the “we” language, or the language of the people, it’s orthography and literary history are very young, with the language having only been standardized in 1979 and having gained official status in Haiti’s 1987 constitution. French, on the other hand, was the only literary language of Haiti since the country gained independence in 1804. All educated Haitians are expected to know French, which is spoken in academic as well as business domains in addition to certain ceremonious events such as church masses.

Examples of the formation of ethnolinguistic identity and the ensuing problems of racialization are evident in the country’s history and literary discipline. I will provide examples from the first half of the 20th century and one from present day. The novel General Sun, My Brother by Jacques Stephen Alexis (an example of Caribbean/African literature translated from French) is set in the years preceding World War II. It highlights the class distinction between the wealthy and the impoverished majority of residents of Port au Prince as well as the poverty-stricken Haitians who live outside the city in the countryside. It is the story of an unskilled laborer, Hiliarion, and his wife, who journey from their life of poverty in Port au Prince to the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Throughout the novel there are countless references to racilaization, ethnolinguistic identity, and the power of language as a unifying element.

One instance occurs when Hilarion is serving his one-month sentence in prison for having attempted theft. Through his interaction with a man from a higher rung on the social latter, Alexis makes evident the social value attributed to language, as well as the severance of relations between individuals who come from different backgrounds, language communities, and races. Alexis writes:

One day a guy had come in, a mulatto, an important fellow, one of those people who speak good French and have no real sense of suffering. He had come to speak to Hilarion, stepping down from his social class and forgetting his status, paying attention to guys with dirty feet for reasons unknown, adventurers, thieves! He was in fact, in prison with them, but he had always been something of a devil (42).

This example accentuates the implications of speaking French and opposition between French-speakers in Haiti at this time and someone coming from the impoverished lower class, characterized by suffering, who speaks a non-standardized dialect. It points out the higher social status given to mulattos who “speak good French”, as opposed to Blacks who speak a subordinate Haitian Creole, and the lack of solidarity between the two men because of these differences even though they are in prison together.

This instance in the novel relates back to a quote by Bonnie Urciuoli in her article “Good English as Symbolic Capital.” She describes the benefits of speaking properly, in the “standardized” form of a language, and the inevitability of further judgments unrelated to language in the process of building a schema for social relations. She explains, “The payoff is to gain respect and escape race/class stereotyping. The problem is, using the right words and accent cannot guarantee respect because one might also be judged by one’s skin or name (107)”.  This idea is interwoven with Michael Silverstein’s notion of ethnolinguistic identity. In “The Whens and Wheres—As Well As Hows—of Ethnolinguistic Recognition” he writes that the institutions of “social categoriality” which stem from certain preexisting notions about language “construe language as constituting a basis for the divisions among types or kinds of people, especially as people conceive languages to be the central and enabling vehicle or channel of thought and culture.” Relating this topic back to the novel, there are significant instances that demonstrate the nature of language as a social construct; that sharing similar means of socializing or having certain rituals in common is a powerful force in exercising language as “the central and enabling vehicle or channel of thought and culture (532).” Hilarion exemplifies this concept as he feels a specific connection with some people he reconnects with, who he knew from a distance in his childhood. In expressing Hilarion’s reflection upon his first encounter with these individuals, the narrator says, “When he met them, there was no need to speak, they immediately understood one another’s experience (35)”. In the aforementioned interaction, the commonalities of Hilarion’s childhood and that of the individuals with whom he reconnects serve as the basis for their unique unspoken language.

Having presented certain examples of racialization and the construction of ethnolinguistic identity from Haiti in the 1930s, we can now relate these concepts to the value attributed to Haitian Creole in present day. In a recent posting for the blog site All Voices, a blog for local and global news, a contributor wrote a piece entitled “Haitian Creole as a Vital Service For Rebuilding Haiti.” ( After the severe devastation that Haiti suffered from the earthquake last year, many individuals have realized the power of spreading literature in Haitian Creole as a way to revitalize the nation’s spirits. Because it has only recently developed an orthographic component, speakers have struggled to implant the language’s literary roots. This post expresses that the efforts and products of translating texts from other languages into Haitian Creole would empower those Haitians who are bound together by the language, which is for many, the foundation of their ethnolinguistic identity.


Alexis, Jacques Stephen, and Carrol F. Coates. General Sun, My Brother. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1999. Print.

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