Cracking open Creole with Little Haiti Book Festival

Little Haiti Book Festival Little Haiti Book Festival Poster

Miami Book Fair’s celebration of Haitian Heritage Month, Little Haiti Book Festival, is continuing its virtual programming this week. Creole, Creolish: Regionalisms in Haitian Creole is coming up this weekend, and we got a sneak peek at what to expect from M.J. Fievre, the festival’s director.

The panel

The experts on the panel, Prof. Jean-Robert Placide and Prof. Yvon Lamour, will discuss differences that exist in the North, the South, and the West of Haiti.

Telling the story of Haitian Creole

For a long time, Haitian Creole was considered a bastard language.

My sister Patricia Fievre and I grew up in Port-au-Prince, speaking what Prof. Yvon Lamour refers to as “Masterbrand Creole”—the Creole of the city. Because, at a young age, we were both fascinated with grammar and syntax, we took it upon ourselves to learn the rules of a language generally frowned upon, and not formally taught in school until the late 90s. We were already fluent in Creole when semi-rigid lessons were finally included in our high school curriculum. 

My colleague Nadege Cherubin was luckier: Although from Port-au-Prince, she grew up in a family environment that valued Creole even before it became recognized as a language. As a child, her vocabulary included many of the variations that my sister and I only learned as adults. She still recognizes many of the challenges that come with interpreting, particularly in legal and insurance-related settings that require technical vocabulary and the use of acronyms and lingos.

All three of us appreciate the intricacies of Haitian Creole and realize that the language remains misunderstood—often by its own people. 

“Sometimes, the person you’re interpreting for forgets that you’re not a machine,” Patricia says, “That there’s so much that you can catch at once and interpret.” Not only will Haitian Creole speakers talk fast, but they’ll ignore the fact that regionalisms exist—that an interpreter might need a few seconds to put a new word in context, and that certain regional accents are harder to understand than another. 

Nadege agrees and points out that the contrary is also true: “Sometimes, they’ll speak very slowly, breaking up the language in a way that makes the translation tedious.” Since English syntax can be different from that of Haitian Creole, “I’m waiting for a piece of information to complete the idea, its meaning.  I may interpret it, but this key piece doesn’t come until the end of a long-winded sentence.”

Haitian Creole is an ever-evolving language.

As explained by Prof. Jean-Robert Placide, many of its words come from African languages such as Ewe from Togo and southeastern Ghana, and Fon from Benin. We inherited some words from the Spanish (ever wondered where “an n ale” comes from? Ándale!) and French colonizers. And during their occupation of Haiti, the Americans also left their mark – think about the Creole word for smelly, “mayas,” as in “pye santi mayas,” then think about it again. Many Asians and Middle Easterners made Haiti their home and contributed to the lexicon of the language as well.

With the advent of technology, the language continues to change very fast. Some find it exciting; others think it concerning. 

“I feel the language is losing its essence—its beauty,” Nadege says. “So many English words have found their way into everyday language. We’re losing our Creole.”

Please do join us at miamibookfaironline.com for Creole, Creolish: Regionalisms in Haitian Creole (Pale moun nan Nò ak pale moun nan Lwès ak Sid), which will examine variations in Haitian Creole and offer new perspectives to the new normal. Additionally, the program will include special segments with artist Morel Doucet and a chat about Haitian-American lifestyle, tourism, culture, society and entertainment with L’Union Suite.

Creole, Creolish: Regionalisms in Haitian Creole takes place on Sunday, May 16, and you can register in advance on Miami Book Fair’s website. The full itinerary for Little Haiti Book Festival can be found right here.