Origins and Future of Creole Language and Culture,
an Interview with Raphael Confiant

27 May 2003 at the UAG, Fort de France, Martinique

Jacqueline Couti

Raphaël Confiant

Jacqueline Couti:
I would like to hear your ideas about language and the way in which you’ve brought the French language closer to French Caribbean or Antillean culture, how you’ve appropriated it for yourself. Have you tried, instead of using Creole words, to find words in Old French or words from Canadian, Acadian, as we’ve seen in the works of Acadian authors like Antonine Maillet?

Raphael Confiant:
There are two possibilities regarding our appropriation of French, for French Caribbean people or Antilleans. We can either sprinkle our French with Creole or decide to Gallicize these expressions, these Creole words. Patrick Chamoiseau, for his part, uses raw Creole words. In his writing, we find “djok,” “dorlis,” etc. I prefer the strategy of re-Gallicizing them. When I say re-Gallicizing, remember that 90% of the Creole lexicon comes originally from French, but be careful, not from today’s standard French. Creole’s roots are in dialectal French from the seventeenth century, which is to say from Norman, Poitou, Picardian, Vendean. The Acadian language you mentioned is simply Norman French that did not evolve because the links to France were cut, and as you know, Nova Scotia was colonized by England. So the current form of Acadian became fixed as their everyday language, Norman; but the first French colonists who came to the Caribbean were from Normandy, Picardie, the Vendee, and their language was fairly close to Old French.

And when we say that Creole comes from French, we’re wrong. Creole comes from French dialects of the seventeenth century, which, precisely, are not standard French because what became standard French was the French of Paris, the Parisian dialect of the seventeenth century which was called Francien. So, if we take a Creole word like “razié,” which means bush, I can decide to write “Il était dans le razié (He was in the bush)” using the Creole word, or seeing that this word has an earlier French origin, which is “hallier,” I could write “hallier.” You see, what I do in the end is to return to an earlier stratum of French, a popular layer, a pre-classic layer because the seventeenth century emasculated the French language. Before then, it was rich with all its dialects and then as you know, Malherbe the grammarian decreed with his terrible expression that “We must de-Gasconize the French language (Il faut dégasconner la langue française).”

And Antonine Maillet, whom I know well, describes this with a beautiful image; she says that “at the time of Rabelais, French had 100,000 words, and a century later, after Racine, there were only 5,000 left (à l’époque de Rabelais le français avait 100'000 mots et un siècle après chez Racine, il n’en reste plus que 5'000).” So we renew our language with an older source of French, forgotten by the French people today because classic French was imposed. In this way, when we create our own French, Antillean, we aren’t creating it ex-nihilo, from nothing. We create it starting from the roots of an earlier French: Old French and the dialects of the North of France and from words created here.

The Creole language took root in the islands of the Antilles; it created its own words, its own vision of the world. Beyond words and expressions, we must recover a vision of the world and transplant it onto the French language. And this, this is a job that nearly requires Alchemy; it’s not a project that we can decorticate in a rational manner, or linguistically. It’s through the Alchemy of creation that this will happen. Of course, literary critics can always deconstruct the processes, analyze them, but for the moment, I mean, when we create them, we don’t do it as a mechanical game like Tinker Toys.

Do you think that your approach with regard to the problem of protection of the language compares to that of Antonine Maillet? She speaks of a consciousness that the Acadian language is doomed to disappear and I remember that you said, in La traversée paradoxale d’un siècle that you were afraid for Creole. Do you still feel the same way?

Oh, yes! Of course, there’s been a lot of progress concerning Creole in the past thirty years: we have a recognized spelling system; there is a university diploma (licence); a certificate for teaching Creole (Capes); there are several schools where we teach Creole; there is even an oral exam at the high school level (baccalaureat) for those who choose to take it—that started in 2000, three years ago now. We’ve made a great deal of progress institutionally. However, the language has qualitatively lost its strength at the same time as it has found new spaces. Televised news is broadcast in Creole on two channels: ATV and RFO. But on the level of quality of the language, it’s become frenchified.

Because it hasn’t been widely taught, once the people have been linguistically Gallicized, we no longer see the creative mechanisms of language in operation. And the creative mechanisms of Creole are blocked, which is to say that the Creole speaker, instead of creating a word, will borrow one from French. That wouldn’t be serious if it was only a word, but it’s whole phrases, for example, “Nou kai diskité de la grille dé salaire.” Certainly part of this is Creole, “We are going to discuss (Nou kai diskité),” yes, but what about “the salary scale (la grille dé salaire).” You hear that kind of thing more and more. I’m very afraid for Creole. It won’t die like a foreign language, like an Amerindian language encountering Spanish, or Breton running up against French because these languages are so different that one of them can die a brutal death. But since French is very close, since Creole is very close to French, it is paradoxically protected. For a long time, people will continue to speak, believing they are speaking Creole, but they will no longer be speaking Creole.

We’ve tried to form a counter-movement by publishing books, establishing the university degree in Creole, but it’s at too low a level, as far as I’m concerned. I won’t portend what will happen, but I have great apprehension for the survival of Creole. And if Creole disappears – and I tell Chamoiseau who doesn’t take it seriously enough for me, I encourage him to write in Creole also, but he hasn’t done it yet – our books will be hard to understand for future generations. Especially Chamoiseau’s books, because he writes “dorlis” where I write “incube” (incubus, evil spirit who enters women’s bodies during sleep); he writes “razié” where I write “hallier.”

While I write books in Creole, paradoxically, I have a clearer conscience of the border between the two. But if the Creole language disappears, who will be able to read Texaco in fifty years? A reader needs a Creole frame of reference to understand that book, or at least to understand it well, because when a foreign reader reads us, he only understands half of what we recount, we shouldn’t disillusion ourselves. Unless he has knowledge of Creole, he can only understand fragments of our text. This is serious for us; if Creole disappears, that means our texts will be only partially understood, even by our compatriots.

Do you see the changes in Creole as an evolution or rather…

A decreolization. All languages evolve, but they evolve in a manner I’d call natural, while the evolution of Creole is a restricted and forced evolution because French relentlessly encroaches on its territory. The only inviolate territory controlled by Creole was that of song. Creole was very strong there. Recently, we’ve observed an invasion of even this territory by French, for commercial reasons. People want to reach a larger market than just the Creole market. All this puts Creole in danger and I don’t see this as an evolution at all. Evolution implies a normal process, while what’s happening here is a decreolization, a loss of the language, a transformation of the language as a result of the pressure of exterior forces. And since there are very few of us defending it, if there is no collective reaction in time, Creole is threatened.

So the university degree, the teaching certificate, all your efforts, are not yet enough?

No way! It’s not that what we’ve done amounts to nothing, but I mean that we must act collectively, across the Martinican and Guadaloupean community, if we’re to save Creole. Of course, we will delay its expiration. You know, if you go to the South of France where no one speaks Occitan, you’ll find that they have a university diploma and a teaching certificate in Occitan. Only a tiny handful of people speak Occitan any more. We’re lucky that we still have a language that remains relatively alive, but things change fast.

Do you think that your growing readership can help you?

The French that we write poses a danger for Creole. I mean that French can replace Creole. Do you see the problem? People feel the pleasure of Creole without taking the trouble of reading it. That’s why I was reticent at the beginning, because in time Antillean French may replace Creole. Yes, it can replace it since in the end it unites the advantages of French and Creole – advantages of French because it’s a major international language, and at the same time the advantages of Creole because it flatters our little navel, our Antillean ego.

But then, what else could we do? I mean we’re obliged to defend them both at the same time; the weapons don’t make a fair match. French benefits from its whole international aura, while Creole is the official language in just two countries: Haiti and the Seychelles. And here, it’s largely rejected. So much so that my hope is that people who come to Antillean French will come to Creole – that’s Chamoiseau’s theory, but I’m more skeptical. In any case, I won’t see Creole die during my lifetime. That reassures me. What I’m saying is egocentric. I think that what will occur is the same as what happened in the English-speaking Caribbean. In Jamaica for example, there was a very different English Creole, incomprehensible for an American. However, today the English-speaking Caribbean has a “Caribbean English,” just as we have Antillean French.

Thus, it’s a common process…

Of progressive absorption.

But is this negative?

For me it’s negative because our language is Creole, that’s what we’ve created. We are, black Antilleans, one of the rare American black peoples to have created a language. Therefore, I would fight to the death for Creole, but I am realistic. I know very well that languages are mortal. I find it negative that Creole could disappear. At least I know there is one country where it will never disappear, and that’s Haiti. During the time that 90% of the population becomes literate, that another language takes the place of French, Creole is safe.

Then this literacy is not all positive…

Because it’s not taught in Creole, that’s all. It’s taught in another language – the same thing is happening in black Africa. We can talk about literacy, yes, but in what language? If a people become literate in another language, we should expect the language of the country to disappear. In Martinique, the people have become literate only in French. Literacy in French is detrimental to Creole, as it is detrimental to Wolof.

In Haiti, literacy is taught in Creole and also in the Seychelles, partially. When the language is both spoken and written, it can survive. In Saint Lucia and Dominica, Creole is threatened, very threatened. I wonder if this isn’t the same process that has happened in Trinidad, because in Trinidad in the nineteenth century, 70% of the people spoke Creole and the first Creole grammar with a French lexical basis was written by a Trinidadian, John Jacob Thomas, in 1869. It was entitled The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar and the Creole described by John Jacob Thomas was Martinican Creole. And there are still regions of Trinidad where they speak our Creole.

Creole is threatened everywhere except in Haiti, and on the other side [of the world] in the Indian Ocean, in the Seychelles. This is only because state power has taken charge of the question. Creole is the official language in Haiti, and it is an official language in the Seychelles. At the same time, it is barely tolerated in the French overseas departments (DOM), in Saint Lucia, in Dominica, but in these places the state power isn’t protecting it. A language can’t live alone in the modern world. Look at all the measures taken on behalf of French, look at what the Quebecois have done to save their language, even prohibiting public signs in English. Here, even the separatists consider the language a marginal issue while in the entire rest of the world, when there is a nationalist movement, language is one of the first elements. Take a look at any people in revolt who want to establish a strong identity, who are trying to affirm their self-identity.