Monday, February 17, 2020

In the Shadows of French: Guadeloupian Creole between ‘Liberté’ and Oppression

by Nair Banks

Nair Banks is a senior in Political Science, French, and Gender and Women’s Studies at The University of Illinois. Nair’s future plans include moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a paralegal and studying for the LSAT. Nair wrote this blog post in the 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ course in spring 2019.

On International Francophonie Day, March 20th, 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron advocated for the promotion of the French language in Africa. One year ago, he had similar goals, expressing to francophone Africans: "If we go about it right, France will be the first language in Africa and maybe even the world in the coming decades!" As it turns out, this declaration comes across as shockingly ignorant: in what sense would Africans “go about it right”, if they wanted to promote the former colonizer’s language? Not only does Macron’s proclamation echoes French colonial discourse about some sort of a civilizing mission implemented in Africa through French culture, it is shockingly ignorant of the linguistic diversity and continued oppression of local languages, including large vehicular languages, in Africa. France’s prioritization of their language and culture over native languages and cultures is best exemplified by the case of Guadeloupian Creole. 

Guadeloupe Islands

Located in the French West Indies, the 12 islands of Guadeloupe have 448,874 inhabitants. It is an overseas territory of France, consisting of two main islands named Basseterre and Grand-Terre. The three smaller surrounding islands, Marie-Galante, La Désirade, and the Îles des Saintes or ‘Islands of the Saints’ are also dependencies of Guadeloupe. Considered an integral part of the French Republic, Guadeloupe is also represented in the European Union and the Eurozone. In 1635, Louis XIV led France to claim Guadeloupe as one of their slave colonies. In this century, Guadeloupe, just like other French plantation colonies, required many laboring populations. African slaves and European indentured workers were imported to the islands of Guadeloupe to work as the lowest classes. Consequently, the intermingling between Colonial French men and the multitude of African languages spoken by the slaves led to the development of Guadeloupian creole.

In 1946, the French government deemed the islands of Guadeloupe a ‘département d’outre-mer’ or overseas department. Since then, France has remained sovereign over the region and French has remained the sole official language.

Saint-Rose beach
Many other countries have adopted colonial islands into their official territories; one well-known example is the United States and the territory of Puerto Rico. However, the institutionalization of the French language in Guadeloupe has been largely incoherent. Although French linguistic influences have been present in the region since the 15th century, standardized French, as spoken in Paris, has never been the first language of the people living there. Nowadays, of course, many centuries after the French conquest and administrative takeover, almost all Guadeloupians are bilingual. However, they all acquire their creole native language before French. Guadeloupian Creole is a variant of Antillean Creole, spread across the archipelago of Guadeloupe and the island of Saint-Martin. In spite of its 430,000 native speakers, Guadeloupian French remains an unofficial language. It has no official recognition as its own language or even a co-official dialect status.

Guadeloupian Creole is recognized by the French state as a “créole à base lexicale française” or creole-based on the French lexical system (Cerquiglini, 1999). It is currently categorized as a ‘Lesser Antillean Creole’, alongside Martinican, Santois, Guyanese, Haitian, Dominican, and St Lucian. However, the reality is that these Creoles are languages in their own right. Although all ‘Lesser Antillean Creoles’ share a common French lexical origin, these languages have diverged grammatically and lexically over time after being scattered across many islands. Now they have become less mutually intelligible. In Guadeloupian Creole, the French lexicon operates superficially while the grammar of the language functions differently from French; with syntax clearly demonstrating Creole roots.

Currently, in Guadeloupe, there is diglossia between French that enjoys ‘High’ status in all its administrative functions, and Creole that remains a spoken ‘Low’ language with no status. As the ‘High’ language, bilinguals use French in formal settings such as school or work. Guadeloupian Creole, deemed the low dialect, is reserved for the home, everyday conversations and rural villages. Internalization of this mentality can be most clearly seen in educational environments. Today, students and teachers alike are anxious about the use of their native language, Guadeloupian Creole, in academic settings (Jeannot-Fourcaud, 2013).

Over generations, French hegemonic cultural and linguistic ideologies have been reproduced in the Guadeloupian society and education. This has resulted in the separation of languages by social spheres. The dominance of the French language in Guadeloupe was not accomplished by accident, but through thoughtful language and acquisition planning. French governmental actions have been the cause of how Guadeloupians see Creole through a French lens: to both the French and some Guadeloupians, Guadeloupian Creole continues to be looked at and feel marginalized as a ‘lesser, broken’ language living in the shadows of French.

To sum up, in Guadeloupe, French is not the ‘langue de liberté’. It is more like a language that has been imported, adopted, and cultivated by the French and the locals, but it also pretends to be the only one to matter. When one realizes that French is the language used by the colonists to assimilate African slavery for 200 years (1635-1848), its dominance is inexplicable. Forced to learn French in school, speak French in academic and business settings, and claim French as the sole official language, Guadeloupians’ cultural lives is still dictated by the hegemony of that centralized French state that brought plantation economy to the island. Guadeloupian society still adheres to exclusively French linguistic, educational and legal frameworks, even though Guadeloupian French citizens live very different lives than their counterparts in France.

While French citizens enjoy on average 38,476.66 USD per capita, Guadeloupian secondary citizens average only $7,900 USD per capita (Trading Economics, 2017). Similarly, unemployment in France is roughly 9% whereas, the unemployment rate in Guadeloupe has peaked at 50% for several decades (Crowell, 2018). The economic disparity between France and Guadeloupe demonstrates not only the secondary treatment of Guadeloupian French citizens, but a racialized treatment entangled in unresolved colonial sentiments. In 2019, France still cannot properly acknowledge their historical role in the cultural and linguistic oppression of Guadeloupian citizens. In 2019, it can still be said that the fate of Guadeloupian Creole seems to symbolize the neglect of an entire local society that makes it very hard not to see Guadeloupians modern-day slaves of a distant Metropole.

Works Cited

Jeannot-Fourcaud, Béatrice. “Language Emancipation and Attitudes towards Languages in ...” Sociolinguistic Studies, Research Gate, Dec. 2013, www.researchgate.net/publication/276914325_Language_emancipation_and_attitudes_towards_languages_in_the_case_of_Guadeloupe.

Bonan, Caterina. “The Core Grammar of Guadeloupian Creole. A Descriptive and Comparative Approach.” Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Research Gate, June 2013, www.researchgate.net/publication/321372396_The_Core_Grammar_of_Guadeloupian_Creole_A_Descriptive_and_Comparative_Approach.

Crowell, Maddy. “The Island Where France's Colonial Legacy Lives On.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Apr. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/france-macron-guadeloupe-slavery-colonialism/557996/.

“France GDP per Capita PPP.” Trading Economics, 2019, tradingeconomics.com/france/gdp-per-capita-ppp.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/Guadeloupe_Places_of_interest_map-fr.svg

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Plage.Guadeloupe.jpg

Iskrova, Iskra. “French in the Caribbean: Characterising Guadeloupian French.” Aberdeen: Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ireland, University of Aberdeen, 2010, www.abdn.ac.uk/pfrlsu/documents/Iskrova, French in the Caribbean.pdf

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