Universal Language

by Amos Kenigsberg

One linguist works to unpack Haiti's prejudice against its native tongue

As a child growing up in Haiti, Michel DeGraff spoke one and a half langauges. At school and in polite company he spoke French, a bona fide, nuanced tongue. But with his friends or out in the city, he spoke Haitian Creole, a gauche, stunted half-language. “It was a given that you couldn’t speak Creole at school,” he says. “I vividly remember trying to use Creole with [my parents], and they’d say, ‘No, no, no! Speak French.’”

Only two decades later, after getting his PhD in linguistics, did Michel DeGraff begin to unpack Haiti’s prejudice against its native tongue – the mistaken belief that it was less of a language. Now, as a professor at MIT, he tries to root out what he sees as vestigial biases against creoles, which are languages that form when other languages combine. “That is my hope, that the kind of work I’m doing shows that Haitian Creole is on a par with other world languages, like English and French,” he says.

DeGraff argues against what he calls “creole exceptionalism,” the idea that creoles are fundamentally similar to each other and different from other languages. He says the idea has roots that stretch back for centuries, to Western linguists who believed that non-Europeans’ low intelligence hindered their languages. Alfred de Saint-Quentin wrote in 1872 that creoles demanded “little strain on memory and… little effort from those with limited intelligence.” One linguistics article from 1902 was titled, “Isle de France Creole: An Infantile Language for an Infantile Race.” Modern linguists are not racist like the ones from earlier eras, says DeGraff, but they espouse some ideas that subtly connect to old prejudices.

DeGraff’s claims have met controversy among linguists, who say he has let his political ideas mislead his research. “I think he knew it was provocative,” says Brian Joseph, editor of the influential journal Language, which published DeGraff’s “Against Creole Exceptionalism.” “Pushing the boundaries, pushing the envelope can be very useful because it gets people to confront their own assumptions,” Joseph says.

Considering his intellectual heroes, it is not surprising that DeGraff wants to shake up the field. DeGraff moved to the U.S. to study computer science at the City College of New York and then studied computational linguistics in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. During a post doc at the University of Michigan, he became interested in work by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that academic theories often came from prevailing power structures rather than observation and rational analysis. That idea made DeGraff re-think something he’d been taught his whole life: that Haitian Creole was undesirable. Suddenly, that half a langauge became whole. “It was like a ‘eureka’ moment. Of course!” he says. “It’s not a source of shame, or a source of embarrassment.”

Eventually, DeGraff turned that critical perspective on academic linguistics. He concluded that some current theories about creoles were indeed tied to outdated, racist beliefs about creole speakers. In “Against Creole Exceptionalism,” he disputed a variety of these ideas, particularly those advanced by Derek Bickerton, an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii.

Bickerton says creoles arise suddenly when languages collide, and they do not have time to incorporate the parent languages’ complex grammar. So creoles draw on a basic, innate grammar that is universal among humans, and they are simpler than other languages. The lynchpin of this theory is that Bickerton says all creoles, regardless where they’re from, have some striking structural commonalities. That indicates their grammar comes from the universal language ability rather than their parent languages. He points out that nearly all creoles use a simple subject-verb-object structure – “Sally kicks the ball” – even if the parent languages do not. Because creoles come from the human language instinct, Bickerton says, they resemble the first complex languages spoken in Africa 40,000 years ago.

DeGraff says three main points disprove Bickerton’s “language bioprogram hypothesis.” First, he argues that creoles draw more complexity from their parents than Bickerton admits. For instance, Haitian Creole uses French-like prefixes and suffixes to make more complicated words; combine “bel,” meaning beautiful, with “te,” a suffix meaning “-ness,” and you get “belte” – “beauty.” Second, he says creoles are not always so similar to each other. Haitian Creole, for example, uses a unique method to stress various parts of speech. When emphasizing a verb or a noun, a speaker uses an extra “copy” of the important word. To stress an adjective, however, one instead changes the sentence structure. This unusual system also supports DeGraff’s third point: that creoles are not simpler than other languages. Emphasis in Haitian Creole is more complicated than in English, where you can stress any word just by vocal emphasis - John is sleeping on the red couch, or John is sleeping on the red couch, or John is sleeping on the red couch.

Moreover, DeGraff says, theories like Bickerton’s may help perpetuate a popular bias against creoles. DeGraff says many linguists think creoles are “separate but equal in status.” Bickerton, for example, says creoles are simple languages, but he insists that does not mean they are worse than others. But DeGraff says that asserting they are are especially simple or similar to ancient languages bolsters the belief that they are inferior.

For DeGraff, the defense of creoles is not just an academic matter. Sitting in his office in MIT’s new Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center at the end of a long day, he opens a package of teaching materials intended for a special student – his first child, 9-month-old son Nuriel Vera-DeGraff. Michel ordered a few children’s books and recordings for teaching Haitian Creole. DeGraff puts one CD into his computer, which plays a sweet anthem called “Beautiful Haiti.” DeGraff sits back in his chair for a moment, looks into the distance, and listens to the song he knows from his own childhood.

While he is working to bring Creole to his son, DeGraff has also vindicated it in the eyes of his parents, who used to scold him for using it. “Now, [my father] writes to me in Creole,” DeGraff says, laughing. “My family is thrilled by [the rise of Creole]. It’s amazing that it’s come around.”

DeGraff says the bias against creoles still causes real-world problems far more dire than parental scolding. In Haiti the elites use language to keep the masses—who speak only Creole—out of power. French is the language of the courts, politics, education, and business. Anyone who cannot speak French is therefore shut out. DeGraff remembers when Baby Doc, the brutal dictator, gave entire speeches in French before dropping a few perfunctory, basic Creole phrases. “Obviously, he was talking to the powerful 10% of the Haitians [who spoke French] and then at the end he would have crumbs for the masses,” he says. “And that’s exactly the way power is shared in Haiti.”

Although the vast majority of Haitians speak just Creole, the country has only recently begun using it as a proper language. The government adopted an official spelling system in 1980. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was elected in 1990 as a hero of the poor, took additional steps to promote the language. In 1991, he made the first ever speech to the United Nations in Haitian Creole. “That was a powerful example,” says DeGraff. “By doing so I think he gave legitimacy to the language.”

DeGraff’s effort to end creole exceptionalism has not won over the field, and many linguists, such as Bickerton, disagree with his ideas. But he hopes to convince a younger generation and prevail in the future. “Maybe the [older] linguists who have so much invested in these theories will never be convinced.”

So far, DeGraff’s work has inspired at least some younger linguists. Don Walicek, a PhD student studying creoles at the Unversity of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, says, “When I came across his work, I was extremely excited, almost flabbergasted, to find someone who was talking about exactly what I wanted to focus on.” Walicek says he uses DeGraff’s ideas to inform his own work studying the creole spoken in Anguilla.

Haiti is currently undergoing another terrible period in its troubled history. After Aristide was re-elected in 2000, his increasingly harsh rule made many enemies, and a military coup ejected him last year. Since then the country has fared even worse, with violence and poverty running rampant. For Haiti to become a healthy nation, it will at some point have to break down the massive wall between its social classes, and language is one buttress to that wall. One academic linguist writing theories will not save the nation from its current depredations, and DeGraff admits as much. But his project is a longer-term one. And it may eventually help make language something that unites rather than divides Haitians.