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HomeEquityHaitian Creole is a Living Language

Haitian Creole is a Living Language

Marleen Julien celebrates Haitian Heritage Month with recognition of the vibrancy and growing importance of Kreyòl Ayisyen


Haitian Creole has faced dismissive attitudes and linguistic bias for years. Some people have seen it as a “broken” version of French rather than a distinct language with its own grammatical structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation. As the owner of a thriving translation company with an exclusive focus on Haitian Creole, I disagree. Haitian Creole is a modern, functional language that keeps growing in importance. It has a rich cultural heritage and a growing presence in the global community. As we celebrate Haitian Heritage Month, it is important to recognize the significance of Haitian Creole in preserving and promoting the Haitian identity and culture.

Haitian Creole, known to Haitians as Kreyòl Ayisyen or simply Kreyòl, is a creole language that developed in Haiti during the 18th century as a result of the contact between European colonizers, African enslaved people, and the indigenous Taino people. It is a unique blend of languages and has become an integral part of Haitian identity and culture.

After Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, French became the language of the government, education, and official communication. However, most Haitians spoke Haitian Creole in their daily lives, and the language continued to evolve and develop. It wasn’t until 1987, with the ratification of the Haitian Constitution, that Haitian Creole was recognized as an official language alongside French. This was a significant milestone in the country’s history and helped to legitimize and promote the use of Haitian Creole in all areas of public life.

A Growing Presence and Recognition

The widespread use of Haitian Creole extends beyond the borders of Haiti, as many Haitian immigrants and their descendants have brought the language with them to other countries, particularly the US. Today, there are an estimated 10–12 million Haitian Creole speakers worldwide. It is the primary language used in everyday communication among Haitians, as well as the language in which most Haitian music and other cultural expressions are produced.

The growing importance of Haitian Creole is evident from various indicators, including its recognition as a minority language in the US and inclusion in the US Census. Moreover, it is one of the top twelve languages spoken in New York and is the third most spoken language in Florida after English and Spanish. This highlights its widespread use and significance in these states. The New York State Language Access Law requires government agencies to provide translation and interpretation services in the top languages spoken in the state, including Haitian Creole. This further underscores its importance and the need to ensure access to essential services and information for its speakers.

It is important to note that the recognition of Haitian Creole as an important language has implications for the broader society as well. By recognizing and providing language access services for the language, society acknowledges the diversity and richness of its linguistic landscape, promotes inclusion and equity, and helps to bridge language barriers that can hinder access to essential services and opportunities. Its growing importance also reflects the larger trend of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in the US, highlighting the need for language access policies and practices that meet the needs of all speakers, regardless of background or language proficiency.

Haitian Creole: A Living Language

A living language is a language that continues to evolve and adapt to changes in society and culture. It is not static or frozen in time but dynamic and constantly changing. A living language adopts new terminology and changes with the times to reflect the changing needs and experiences of the people who use it.

Haitian Creole is a living language that has undergone significant changes over time. In addition to its general evolution, the language has also been shaped and influenced by the contributions of young people, artists, poets, writers, and other members of Haitian society. Through music, literature, and other forms of creative expression, these individuals have added new words, expressions, and styles to the language, further enriching its cultural significance and relevance. The creativity and innovation of these individuals have played a significant role in Haitian Creole’s continued growth and evolution as a living language.

Neologisms in Haitian Creole

One indication of its vitality is the creation of neologisms, which are newly developed or coined words that start to come into mainstream usage. Neologisms can take many forms and may be entirely new or formed of existing words. After the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, causing widespread destruction and loss of life, Haitians invented the term goudougoudou to describe the event. The term is an onomatopoeic representation of the shaking and rumbling caused by the earthquake and is now widely used among Haitians to refer to earthquakes.

In addition to events, neologisms in Haitian Creole are also being influenced by music and social media. For instance, we have words like rabòday and bòdègèt as new slang terms for dancing, which became popular through music and dance trends. There are also new expressions like krèm mayi (corn cream), which describes someone considered too soft. Moreover, some English words have been borrowed into Haitian Creole, such as twit (tweet), layk (like), vayb (vibe), tchalennj (challenge), estrit (street) and ay (high). Finally, a recent term is foulay, which is believed to come from the English “full of lies,” and it refers to someone who is not worthy of trust.

As a living language, Haitian Creole reflects Haiti’s changing social and cultural landscape and the Haitian diaspora. It continues to be an essential tool for communication and community building.

The Role of Translation in the Growth and Evolution of Haitian Creole

As a Haitian language and culture consultant with over 15 years of experience, my passion for communicating in my own language led me to establish Creole Solutions. Our company provides translation services and support to organizations serving Haitian communities, translating about five million words annually for clients in healthcare, technology, NGOs, and government agencies.

Translation plays a vital role in the growth and evolution of a language. Through our work, we are providing translation services to our clients, helping to make information accessible to Haitian communities in their native language. This, in turn, helps to promote the use and understanding of Haitian Creole.

In addition to making information accessible in Haitian Creole, our work at Creole Solutions contributes to the growth and evolution of the language’s vocabulary. When it comes to translation, especially technical translation, there may not be direct equivalents for certain terms or concepts in the target language. Therefore, we often need to invent new terms or find creative ways to express the meaning of the source text in Haitian Creole. This process requires a deep understanding of the source and target languages and the translated subject matter. As we continue to translate more materials, we are also helping to enrich and expand the vocabulary, contributing to the language’s growth and evolution over time.

Recent Milestones in Haitian Creole Translation

Haitian Creole has seen significant growth in its recognition and importance as a language in recent years, reflected in several key milestones in the translation industry. For example, in 2022 the United Nations–Haiti website became fully localized in Haitian Creole.1 This development makes important information more accessible to Haitian communities in their native language, which can help promote the use and understanding of the language.

Another significant milestone was the 2022 publication of a New York Times article in English, Haitian Creole, and French.2 This highlights the language’s growing importance in media and journalism and demonstrates that it is a modern language that continues to evolve and grow in relevance.

Major tech companies like Facebook have also recognized Haitian Creole’s significance and made their interface available in the language for users. This not only makes their platform more accessible to speakers but also promotes the language’s continued growth and development.
Furthermore, Haitian Creole is one of the languages offered by Google Translate. This shows that the language has gained enough recognition and significance to be included in such an important translation tool, further cementing its status as a growing language. These milestones are critical steps toward promoting and preserving Haitian Creole as a language with a rich cultural heritage and a growing presence in the global community.

Overcoming Challenges in Translation and Communication

My work has given me valuable insights into reaching Haitian Creole audiences. One of the challenges we face is the low literacy rate among the Haitian population, which makes it necessary to use different modes of communication to reach them effectively. My company mainly offers translation services, but we understand that these modes alone may not always be enough to convey a message to native speakers effectively.

Recently, we have been involved in large-scale efforts to train the growing workforce of Haitian immigrants in sectors such as hospitality, healthcare, and construction in the US. While these workers need to learn about safety rules and workplace expectations, printed manuals may not be the most effective means of communication. Instead, we have worked with companies to produce fully translated and voiced-over educational materials in video format. These materials can be viewed from any location. They can be replayed as often as necessary, allowing workers to learn at their own pace and in their preferred mode of communication.

Plain Language Principles: Ensuring Accessibility and Understanding

One of the biggest challenges in reaching all Haitian Creole speakers is ensuring that the message is understood by everyone, regardless of their literacy level. We strive to overcome this challenge by using plain language principles in our translations. This means that we simplify complex concepts and use clear and concise language that is easy for a wider audience to understand. We also pay close attention to cultural nuances and ensure that the message is preserved in translation.

In addition, we often face challenges when translating technical or specialized terminology. For example, in the medical field, translating the pain scale can be particularly challenging, as it involves conveying a subjective experience through a numerical system. In such cases, we work closely with subject-matter experts to ensure that the terminology is accurately translated while still being understandable for the target audience.

Another challenge is ensuring that our translations are of the appropriate length. Haitian Creole is a language that tends to be longer than English or French, which can sometimes pose a challenge when translating marketing or advertising materials. However, we have developed strategies to address this challenge, such as using concise language and strategic formatting.

Overall, our goal is to ensure that our translations are accessible and understood by all Haitian Creole speakers, regardless of their level of literacy or familiarity with technical jargon. By using plain language principles and cultural sensitivity, we can bridge the gap between languages and help our clients effectively communicate with their target audience.

A Vision for Haitian Creole

My passion for promoting the Haitian language and culture has driven my vision to further evolve Haitian Creole into a modern language that can serve a new generation of Haitians who have made their homes in countries other than Haiti. My ultimate goal is to build a language service consultancy that provides translation services and advises clients on the best ways to prepare materials for a Haitian audience and effectively reach them in various fields.

To achieve this vision, I understand the importance of staying up to date with the latest trends in language services and adapting to the evolving needs of our clients. I constantly strive to offer new and innovative solutions to language barriers that will help promote Haitian Creole’s growth and development.

At the same time, I recognize that the challenge of promoting the language lies not only in making it accessible but also in ensuring that it is understood and embraced by all Haitian Creole speakers. Therefore, I prioritize using plain language principles in our work to ensure the language is accessible to all literacy levels.

My ultimate vision is to see Haitian Creole become a respected language in the global community and a valuable tool for international communication. With my expertise and dedication, I am committed to contributing to its growth and evolution while helping bridge cultural and linguistic gaps in the world.

A Testament to the Resilience and Adaptability of the Haitian People

The story of Haitian Creole is a powerful testament to the strength and adaptability of the Haitian people. Despite centuries of oppression and adversity, Haitians have continued to build and evolve a language that reflects their unique cultural identity and heritage. Through the creative contributions of artists, writers, and everyday Haitians, Haitian Creole has become a living language that adapts to new experiences and reflects the evolving needs of its speakers.

Recent milestones in its recognition demonstrate the growing importance and significance of the language in our global community. By promoting and preserving Haitian Creole, we not only honor the contributions and resilience of the Haitian people but also enrich our understanding of the world’s diverse linguistic and cultural landscape. As we celebrate Haitian Heritage Month, let us recognize the enduring legacy of Haitian Creole and continue to support its growth and evolution. Let us amplify the voices of Haitians and their language and work toward a more equitable world that values and respects the diversity of languages and cultures.

Links

  1. https://haiti.un.org/ht
  2. www.nytimes.com/2022/05/20/world/americas/haiti-history-colonized-france.html

Marleen Julien has a background in international development and came to the translation industry driven by her passion for language and community development. From the beginning, giving native speakers of Haitian Creole access to a wide range of authentic materials in their own language has been her highest priority. She is dedicated to raising the quality standards of Haitian Creole and creating business opportunities for Haitians. Dynamic and multitalented, Marleen directs the day-to-day operations at Creole Solutions. Her children’s book Nan Jaden Amoni was published in 2022 and was praised widely in the Haitian community.

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