PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Most Haitians cannot understand the language used in the country's newspapers, law books, official documents, almost all billboards and most literature.
That's because French, the language of long-ago colonial rulers, is held in almost mystical regard by Haiti's elite--and they insist on using it, even though nine of every 10 Haitians speak only Creole.
In a nation where barely a fifth of Creole speakers can read or write, the upper crust uses French to maintain its privilege and power and, in the process, quietly suppress Creole, critics say.
To its partisans, such as former culture minister Jean-Claude Bajeux, Creole's suppression by past Haitian governments and intellectuals is a badge of shame, a willful subservience to old colonial masters.
"It's lunacy," Bajeux says, banging his fist on a table. "The same mentality of slavery is still imposing itself. Don't think independence has changed this."
To Francophiles of the upper class, such as bookstore owner Vania Auguste, Creole is a mere local vernacular, a sort of broken French she dismisses as "our thing."
"Creole isn't a language; it's a dialect," Auguste insists. "There are no dictionaries, no formal grammar."
Creole proponents dispute that. They argue that its origins are unique and defining: a language that developed on slave ships and in plantations as a means for Africans from different tribes to communicate with each other and with their masters.
The fact that Creole developed similarly in such faraway places as St. Lucia, a small island 800 hundred miles away, suggests not a broken French but a logically evolving language, its champions say.
Much of Haitian Creole is composed of words whose origins are clearly French, filtered through a different phonetic system. That system relieves words of their weak-ending syllables, such as barely discernible "r's." It's also written phonetically to approximate more difficult French vowel sounds like "eu" or "u."
Thus, the French "culture" becomes "kilti" (keel-TEE), and "ciel" (sky) becomes "syel."
To Auguste, this makes Creole a pidgin French. While her bookstore is stocked with works by Haitian authors like Gary Victor, the overwhelming majority of the books are in French.
"The people who buy books do not buy Creole," she says in beautifully enunciated French.
Such sentiments are fighting words to Bajeux, who recently compiled an anthology of 800 Creole titles, including an adaptation of the ancient Greek play "Antigone" by Morriseau Leroy, a revered local poet.
Bajeux agrees that perhaps 80% of the Haitian Creole vocabulary comes from French. But, he notes, non-Creole speakers cannot understand it.
One reason: In Creole, the article follows the subject. Another is that its verbs don't change with context --as opposed to the complex and frequently irregular conjugations of French, Spanish and other Romance tongues.
Bajeux compares Creole today to European languages during the Renaissance, trying to break free of Latin's control over letters.
Creole has made some strides. Haitian groups in the United States are developing dictionaries and supporting Creole studies.
A 1969 law in Haiti gave Creole limited legal status, and in 1979 a decree permitted Creole's use in schools. But Haiti is so poor that only half its children attend elementary school, and few of them get past fifth grade.
A 1983 constitution declared both Creole and French the national languages--but specified that French would be the official language. Another constitution, in 1987, gave Creole official status.
Although Creole is prevalent on Haitian radio, and parliamentary debates have been conducted in Creole, most government documents, including a recent electoral law, are published in French.
Bajeux dreams about setting up schools that would give Haitian children literacy in their language.
"If we want to develop this country, we have to put our finger on the root problem: the linguistic problem. We have to resolve our identity," he says.