Digging Our Own Grave

By Paramanund Soobarah


Mr Chafeek Jeeroburkhan’s recent article with the above title took me down memory lane to my own vantage points. The same landscape may offer radically different views of an object from different vantage points, unless it is inherently symmetrical.

If I have read right, Mr J. is not happy with the influence of the French language on Creole, regarding it as an instance of “domination”. These days, it has become very fashionable to speak and write about “linguistic imperialism”. But recently, Ms S Boolell, a newly elected Council Member of the Municipality of Quatre Bornes, and a former lecturer at the UOM, was, in her interview with MT, exulting in the fact (as seen by her) that French is widely spoken in the country.

From the vantage point of the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group (to which I belong), the view is very different. We share with Ms Boolell her admiration for the cultural aspect of the French language, but do not share her enthusiasm about its present status. We fear that, after Bhojpuri, French is the language facing the greatest threat of extinction in the country. While Mr J. fears that it is having too much influence on our national language and attitudes, we fear that it is sadly dying out. My own experience supports this view. Never mind performance in examination rooms. It is the performance out in society at large that matters.

I left the country in early 1982, missing the crucial 60-0 debacle of June that year, and missing also the 1983 demise of the old, weak Jugnauth and his rebirth immediately after, all clad in steel from head to toe (rendering a sari-clad intervention totally unnecessary). I came back to the country a year or so after the notorious Kaya incidents. During most of this period there was no Internet. But I kept in touch with the country through newspapers regularly forwarded to me by colleagues in the Department of Civil Aviation to whom I shall always remain grateful.

Before my departure, when SSR was Prime Minister, French was the language of civilised intercourse in the country. In any government or business office visitors with any pretence of education would speak French and were replied to in French without any complex, but Creole was available to those who could not, or would not, use that language. In our homes, Creole, Bhojpuri and French were used, according to families’ preferences. On the street, it would be Creole or French in the urban areas, and Creole or Bhojpuri in the rural areas.

On my return about 18 years later, admittedly after a period vigorously rocked by language issues involving even government break-ups, the number of homes where Bhojpuri was still being used, even in rural areas, had dwindled very severely; the language had totally disappeared from the streets. This was a very painful state of affairs for me, when I recalled that it was so prevalent before my departure, and that I had myself learnt it while being carried around on the shoulders of my grandfather. The very first words that SSR addressed to me at the airport following my appointment as Director, immediately following the departure of my English predecessor, were in Bhojpuri. (The British High Commissioner had not been too happy with the change.) Sadly, gone were the days!

French had also disappeared from the streets in urban areas where it used to be quite common. One can still speak French in banks, but many tellers will now look at you and initiate their conversation with you in Creole. In Police Stations and other government offices, Creole now seems to be the “approved” language. Old-timers like me are taken aback by the surprised, at times offended or even contemptuous, look on the faces of government officials when addressed in French.

One very unpleasant experience I had recently was at a hospital where I was looking for a particular service. I knocked, opened the door and asked politely in French whether that was the service concerned (the signs on the door were rather ambiguous). I was told very roughly by the officer-in-charge: Ici na pas cause Français ici! I swallowed my astonishment (and anger at the roughness) and pursued my enquiry for the service concerned, as I was in great physical pain. It did indeed turn out to be the service I was looking for, and my ailment was treated, quite well too. While I was being treated, the officer concerned addressed a trainee, who I inferred was from abroad, in English. It became clear to me that the officer was politically biased against the French language. Or is there some ruling from the Ministry of Health or the Central Government to such purpose?

In another similar experience, a girl from the Telecommunications Services conducting some survey or other once called up my number, and spoke to me in Creole. I did not have much to say concerning her survey, but I did ask her, in French, whether she always spoke Creole with customers. “Ça dépend des noms, Monsieur” she said and rang off. Perhaps the only things that you can judge from somebody’s name are his or her ethnicity and faith. Do the Telecoms have some ethnicity-related policy on languages to be used with customers?

We believe that French is in need of special nurturing. Some may argue that as an international language, French is in a rapid state of decline. But at the GWC we believe that it will remain a language of prestige in Africa for the foreseeable future, i.e., as long as English remains elsewhere. To date, only one African country, namely Rwanda, has switched from French to English as its official language. The painful circumstances that led to that change are too well known to need repetition.

On one issue, however, the view from my vantage point coincides totally with that of Mr J’s, and that is the national weakness in the English Language. If our academia had made one-tenth of the effort they have put into Creole in improving the teaching of English, we would not be in the position we are in today. In every English-speaking African country, English is pronounced much more accurately than it is in Mauritius. You may not like the person, but listen to Robert Mugabe speaking! His enunciation of English is no different to that of Tony Blair’s or David Cameron’s. After SSR, we have not had a single Prime Minister who did not fault on some common word or other, some very badly so. Perhaps Shakeel Mohamed or Steve Obeegadoo may undo that trend one day, but just now it does not look as if they will ever get the chance. I am not suggesting that the ability to speak English well is the only or a sine-qua-non qualification for the position of Prime Minister, but it is an important asset for the holder to have, as he or she goes around the world addressing international fora and speaking to other world leaders, and informing listeners indirectly how well languages are taught in the country – one element taken into account when computing the Global Competitive Index of a country.

More often than not, our English is spoilt in our pre-primary classes – unless we have the chance or the means of attending one of the two or three specialised pre-primary schools that exist in the country. Whatever sounds a young child learns is learnt for life. If the pre-primary doesn’t kill off your English, the primary school will surely do it for you. How many primary school teachers can pronounce the words “orange”, “onion”, “banana”, “carrot”, “cabbage”, “lettuce”, “thyme”, “chocolate”, recipe, and “breakfast” correctly? If just ten of them can do so in the whole country without a single mistake, I shall happily concede that I am wrong.

A young relative once perhaps validly retorted to me that if we pronounce English words as the English do, nobody will understand us. True, but only partially so – it is true that few Mauritians will understand us, unless they have been taught to recognise English sounds. That is why our cinemas do not show American or English films in the original – they would go bankrupt in a week if they tried it.

The teaching of English sounds is anathema to our teachers – because they don’t know them, never having been told about them. Nobody learns a language by merely hearing others speak. Without prior preparation of the listeners, no amount of BBC broadcasts is going to change that situation, as everybody “hears” only the sounds they are used to since their early childhood. Adults only recognise new language sounds when they are taught them explicitly, and are made to practise them until they reproduce them correctly.

The only sounds our teachers know are those of Creole and, for some, Bhojpuri, the latter only partially and less and less so, given the vigorous on-going creolisation process. Consider the word “relative” that I have just used. It is systematically mispronounced by every teacher and lecturer I have listened to since my return (dozens of them). The same thing applies to the word “negative”. The vowel sounds used in the pronunciation are all from Creole. Unless the Ministry of Education shifts its focus from Creole to English, we shall soon be in the grave danger that Mr J is speaking about: we shall be standing on the edge of the grave we would have dug for ourselves, getting ready to jump in. Forget about the Knowledge Hub and all the dreams associated with it – Adieu veau, vache, cochon, couvée…

Mr J speaks about the emergence of the Mauritian personality through the Creole language. That in my view would be the final death of the Mauritian, suffocated in his own narrow well because like the proverbial frog he will not be able to see further afield. Even as things stand, the Mauritian personality is characterised by linguistic incompetence — a nation of linguistic bastards, somebody once said about us, because we cannot speak either English or French properly.

Salman Rushdie takes a dig even at our Hindi. He visited this country while he was waiting for one of his early books to come out. He recounts the experience in his latest book, where he laughingly writes about a “leading” Mauritian Hindi-language poet he met during the visit. What the exact tenor of the conversation was I cannot tell, but the “great” poet must have been introducing himself to the great writer, presenting himself as a “leading” poet. He informed Rushdie that he had recently been to India to attend a poetry congress; his reading of Hindi poetry, he confessed — or boasted, I am not sure which — to Rushdie, had “mystified” Indian audiences, because while he read “to convey meaning” as was “normal” to him, the stupid Indian poets only read to declaim their lines rhythmically!

The problem that the “leading” poet had with declaiming Hindi verse is identical with what we all have with English – we strive to convey meaning by pronouncing every syllable accurately according to our understanding; we are loth to imitate the English, who eat their words and can’t speak their own language intelligibly! Any one of our great professors, who are all great experts in phonetics, having recently devised a brand-new phonetic script for Creole, could teach them a thing or two about how to speak their language respectably.

The Political Events around Independence Time

The struggle for and against Independence did indeed inflict a deep wound in our society. Most people opposed to Independence saw it as a transfer of power basically from the culturally European-cum-Christian-oriented segment of the population to Asian-cum-non-Christian-oriented one. Perhaps there was also a feeling of guilt and a fear of retaliation for the injustices committed. Long simmering dislike and contempt of Indo-Mauritians had burst out into the open at the PMSD meeting in November 1963 with the cry “Enveloppée pas oulé” when a sari-clad lady had approached the rostrum, which cry soon turned into an uglier explicitly ethnical slogan. The exodus to South Africa and Australia became a flood. Among those that stayed behind, there was little faith that the rule of law would be preserved, and the grim determination was made to fight it out to the last man.

But not long after Independence in March 1968, the healing effort was initiated by SSR with a heavy blow of the axe to the IFB, one of the constituents of the Independence Party, and indeed, to my personal knowledge, the first party to propose the assembling of pro-Independence forces under one banner. The IFB had opposed the deal with opponents of Independence which SSR was contemplating, but the latter was keen on national reconciliation and economic development; postponing the elections for four years accompanied by the launching of a four-year plan was only a small price to pay. The Export Processing Zone did see light of day, a most auspicious development.

At the personal level, the IFB was the party to which my family had belonged even since “the Andolan (movement)” had been created by the Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal on his return from India in the late thirties. All of my generation in the family had grown up in it and had thoroughly imbibed its values, principles and aims, indeed its way of life. For us SSR’s blow was a time of deep mourning. I must stress though that these events did not in any way affect our commitment to our work – that indeed was part of the teaching of the IFB.

An additional sorrow for me was that in the development plan, there was not one word about developments in airport infrastructure. In the seventies I was very busy running Plaisance Airport, improving its safety status and increasing its capacity to handle rapidly rising traffic, all on a shoestring and, initially, with about a hundred people inclusive of all grades down to sweepers and cleaners. Whatever I would ask for would invariably be turned down, with the reply that it would become available at the New Airport. Only when it would become politically embarrassing to turn down the requests were some resources allocated – as when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth visited us, when arrangements had to be made to receive wide-bodied aircraft like the B747, or when extensions were required to parking areas to accommodate aircraft of Heads of States for the OCAM and OAU conferences, etc… I took care to ensure that all extensions to parking areas would remain useful to us after the events for which they were made, but the Terminal Building was another story. The bit-by-bit extensions turned it into a caricature of a Terminal, with a ramshackle building with its back turned to the runway. Being so busy, I never got to know about the Club des Etudiants Militants.

What I did come to know about soon enough was the new party called MMM which seemed bent on undoing everything the government was doing, and disrupting the economic life of the country. Lecturers at the University paid to teach students abandoned all pretence at teaching and took to proselytising their students on behalf of the new party. We lost many bright, young, near and dear relatives to the devil in the process; it took some of them more than ten years to realise the error of their ways and come back to the family fold. To me the strikes organised in the transport sector looked like a determined effort to choke the country by the throat and grab hold of power by a Cuba-style revolution, turning the slogan “Star and Key of the Indian Ocean” into the “Red Star Rising over the Indian Ocean”. The State of Emergency came as a great relief. Even so the seventies remained a decade where the seeds of racial and caste hatred were more firmly planted, led by the efforts of the Guru of Scientific Communalism.

Then came the 1976 elections and both Sir Abdool Razack Mohamed and Sookdeo Bissoondoyal lost their seats, and did not survive the shocks of ingratitude they got from the people they had worked for all their lives. SSR managed to stay on with the help of SGD and his PMSD. Secondary Education was made free for all, and English and French retained their status in Education, the administration and the country at large.

In my own area of work, I managed to design and persuade the airlines to agree to a non-standard (in those days) approach procedure for arriving aircraft straight from Flic-en-Flac (against the advice of all experts from advanced countries), and for which I obtained authority directly from SSR himself to implement. Some time after completing that work I left the country.

I learnt of the big effort that was made to push Creole into all spheres of life after 1982, 60-0 debacle, and was greatly relieved when the government collapsed. There has been some talk in the press recently about the Indian Government under Mrs Indira Gandhi having hatched a plan to save democracy in Mauritius when it had come under threat by persons wishing to displace a sitting Prime Minster by pushing him to resign in favour of their candidate. I do not know the facts of the case, but I certainly hope it was true. If anybody could do it, it was Mrs Indira Gandhi. She had earlier shown her guts in the face of American threats to invade India with the Seventh Fleet. Let nobody ever again think of using unconstitutional means to unseat a government of any hue in this country.

The Linguistic Landscape

Since my return I joined the Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group, and have with my fellow-members followed with great interest the developments on the language front, up to the pushing of Creole, rebaptised “Kreol”, into the school curriculum. This spelling is the transcription into IPA phonetic script of the pronunciation of the word “Creole” in the Creole language, and has no particular magic about it. It is just a happy coincidence that there are no special IPA characters in it.

I have no difficulty myself with using the word “Creole” to identify the language that we have always identified as such in this country. The only possible reason to change the name is the ambiguity it might give rise to as it applies both to the Creole language and the Creole community. The language is certainly not the property of that community, because it is the common language of all Mauritians. Identifying the language by the name Creole does, in the minds of those who cannot suffer to have the same name or symbol referring to more than one entity even in different contexts, become unacceptable. I do not see how the spelling “Kreol” changes the situation in any way. Languages are first and foremost spoken, and it is the spoken word that matters, not the way it is written. Our ancestors did not go around with pencil and paper on their chests to indicate what they meant by their spoken words.

The alternative name suggested by Mr Jeeroburkhan (Morisyen) is as good as any. But then, for God’s sake, why not call it and spell it “Mauricien” in Creole or French, and plain “Mauritian” in English? What’s wrong with the French spelling? Do we have to be ashamed of our French connection? Can we write off one whole century of our history? Our children thoroughly enjoy the French language, literature and culture. Just look at their performance in French in the recent SC exams, or the success of the recent show at the Swami Vivekanand Convention Centre by the Moroccan humorist Jamel Debouzze. Are these things to be ashamed of? We recognize that there are certain aspects of the language that are badly taught in our schools – these must be sorted out. The baby has to be washed, but is certainly not to be thrown away with the bath water.

It is true that our government inclusive of the Ministry of Education has been totally taken in by the academic gibberish of the leading lights of the “Kreol” movement. What political considerations went into this haste to please, appease and kowtow I cannot tell, but we have in the process been sold to the phonetic practices of just one segment of the nation and, indeed, have surrendered our national language to them, turning Mauritian Creole into the property of just the Creole Community. Judging by his occasional forays into Hindi and Bhojpuri phrases, it is evident that our Prime Minister is not used to the sounds of these languages. We do not think then that it is fair for him to take decisions on language sounds that might appear to him to be correct for Creole without realising their possible effect on Bhojpuri.

In their haste they refused to listen to the arguments of the Genocide Watch Group. In our submission we had urged that a symbol for “Schwa” be provided, and that arrangements be made for the proper pronunciation of the “ti” and “di” sounds. Hindi and Urdu speakers cannot pronounce their names correctly when speaking Creole without these sounds. The schwa is very common in Bhojpuri, Hindi and Urdu – it is also the most common sound in English. I do not think would be possible to pronounce the name “Chafeek” correctly without it. It should also be possible for me, while speaking Creole in my own home, to call my niece Divya and nephew Teeluck without distorting their names. Even in French the sounds “ti” and “di” are incorrectly pronounced. I learnt this way back in the sixties, when I started looking into French pronunciation in Monique Léon’s little book “Introduction à la phonétique corrective”. I was surprised by her cautionary remark to Mauritians about their habit of saying “tsi” and “dzi” for “ti” and “di”, and “tsu” and “dzu” for “tu” and “du”. Our experts should perhaps learn from her and look at their symbols “ti” and “di” again.

We had also urged the retention of the original French sounds that usually get converted into other sounds in Creole (è, oeu, eux, û, ch, j, etc.) because, in actual fact, many Mauritians use these sounds when speaking Creole. Just listen to the interviewees in MBC TV programmes. Shortly after my return from abroad, about a decade ago, I had the opportunity of listening to Lady Ramdanee, the mother-in-law of Hon. Pravind Jugnauth, in and MBC programme: she spoke Creole. I was frankly unperturbed by her political connecitons, but I was frankly quite impressed with her language. It would have been impossible to transcribe her speech without using some of the phonetic symbols that our experts have left, presumably because they are too French. Are we going to send everybody who speaks like her to the gallows, or perhaps the guillotine? If the official sound set for the Creole language is to be restricted to the sounds used by the members of a small subset of the Creole community, how can it a national language?

Under the pretence of doing Science, some sociologists often divide up groups of people to suit their own political ends; that unfortunate practice is also followed by some sociolinguists, who have invented terms like basilect, mesolect and acrolect to divide us up. One or other of these terms was even used in a recent MOE circular. Teachers I spoke to could not even understand the terms. One came back and said “mesolect” was not in Concise Oxford. I grew up eating “douri”; I am most unhappy if somebody turns round telling me it should be “dziri” that I should be eating – in spite of my admiration for Lady Ramdanee’s way of speaking.

In the matter of script, we even believe that the inclusion of the English sounds in the alphabet would have permitted us to start pronouncing the sounds of that language from early childhood.

It would seem that the designers of the alphabet have assigned greater importance to need for communicating with the diaspora than with other components of the Mauritian nation. The needs of non-Creole Mauritians were not even considered. And guess who is regularly charged with being anti-national!

Most importantly, we had urged the maintenance of the original spelling of the source French words in all cases where the Creole word descends without or with little modification from source French word. This is not the place for a detailed exposition of all our submissions, but the aim we were pursuing was the avoidance of hurdles in the way of the acquisition of French orthography by our children. If that were done, our Group would have no objection to Creole being a compulsory subject at the CPE and being included among the subjects taken into account for grading on the same footing as English and French.

As far as we were concerned, all, I repeat ALL, our children have sufficient command over spoken Creole on the day of their admission into primary school to last them for all the school days. This insistence on writing it with an artificial script is a waste of time. What they must learn to write for livelihood purposes are French and English. Writing Creole in the script provided is a much less onerous task that doing arithmetic, for instance, but the trouble with it is that some children can get stuck in it for a sufficiently long time to dislike the more difficult letter-to-sound relationships that exist in French, and the still more difficult relationship that exits in English.

I must make it clear that we are not opposed to the Creole language, but only to the way proposed for writing it. That is the language we speak and have our arguments in, but we also realise that it is of no value at all beyond the shores of our tiny island. In this day and age of globalisation, getting stuck in the Creole language would be a great danger to our survival.

* Published in print edition on 22 March 2013

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