Democracy, Hegemony and Languages

How are Mauritians going to call the new Indian Prime Minister? One does not have to go to grafilarmoni to know the answer.

We all know how Lundi, Mardi, etc. are pronounced in Mauritian Creole and also in Mauritian French as it is taught in our schools. We can therefore expect the same distortion with the name of Shri Narendra Modi, who has last week decisively swept the polls to become the new Indian Prime Minister. This distortion of Indian names raises many issues.

Last week opinion leader TP Saran, writing in this paper, dwelt at some length on issues relating to “hegemony”. In Mauritius the word is almost exclusively applied to perceived cases of “Indian hegemony” (hégémonie hindoue, as they call it, when they are being polite). Mr Saran rendered signal service to the youth of this country by his extensive coverage of the subject, for our young are apt to quickly take positions on cultural and political matters based on specious arguments that do not take into account our history. In his essay, he described many types of hegemony – political, economic, racial, social, cultural/intellectual, and even religious. In the cultural/intellectual area, there is one specific type of hegemony that we at the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group are particularly interested in, and that is Linguistic Hegemony. And our major grievance is that the government of Dr Navin Ramgoolam has completely bought into the views of a small set of language activists about promoting the Creole language at official expense to the detriment of our other languages.

The proposals of those people take no account of the fact that Mauritius is a multilingual, multicultural, multiracial country. They only seemed to be concerned about the acceptability of their script in the international Creole Diaspora, inclusive of Haitians and other Caribbean French-based Creole speaking communities, and about winning the approval of Prof Chaudenson. They have totally disregarded the fact that Mauritius is unique among Creole-speaking countries in that it is a multiracial and multicultural country, where the ethnic Creole community is only a minority however much it might enjoy the support of the sugar barons and their successors and of the Catholic Church.

In the seventies, I used to attend the debates of the Committee of Supply at the Assembly on matters relating to the Civil Aviation Department, and in the process had to sit through the discussions over many other items. On one occasion, while the topic of the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation was being discussed, a lady-member of the MMM-dominated opposition protested that the station was displaying advertisements of a product which claimed to straighten curly hair, thereby implying that curly hair was not a good thing to have; she wanted these advertisements stopped. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam stood up and retorted that in this democratic country of ours people were totally free to choose what they liked to do with their hair and free to have information about any product that was available, and the government wasn’t going to dictate the choices that citizens have to make about their personal lives. And that was the end of that.

Can it be that Dr Navin Ramgoolam believes that Creole should be spoken only it the way prescribed by the Réduit activists? Most educated people, and many even when not so educated, include French sounds in their words when they speak Creole. Until a few years ago I used to watch the MBC regularly; almost every guest speaker included French sounds when speaking Creole, and they probably still do. The activists have, in pursuance of their radical views, omitted many French sounds which people regularly use in their conversations in Creole with people including their children. Children naturally adopt their parents’ manner of speech: will teachers be required to tell such children that they are not speaking well? Is the government prescribing how people should speak Creole? The omission of French sounds from the list of “approved” sounds is a serious shortcoming that needs to be redressed. Or will the next move be about the type of hair people should wear?

It is our view that the only way to ensure that people retain the freedom of speaking the language as they choose is to keep the spelling of the original French source word. The notion that every sound should be spelt in just one way is a totally unnecessary piece of superstition. Our children have never complained about the fact that the sound “o” is also spelt “au” or “eau” in French. Besides, the spellings proposed in grafilarmoni for obviously French words will make it very difficult for our children to acquire proper French subsequently – spoken or written.

There is also the matter that, in this multicultural country, people use the sounds of their ancestral tongues when saying the names of people in their community. The most regrettable, and the most damaging, omission is a symbol the omission of the schwa sound which is used in all Asian languages and in English; it is also used in international French, but seems to be unknown to Mauritian teachers of French. There is no way one can properly read out any French verse without the schwa. How does one pronounce the mute Es at the end of the words “courbe”, “de” and “le” in the famous verse “La courbe de tes yeux fait le tour de mon coeur”? Some do not pronounce them at all; others pronounce them as “eux”; neither is correct. Very early in our studies my wife and I came to the conclusion that the schwa was almost the same in all languages, and we picked on the first letter of the Hindi alphabet for it, using it in Bhojpuri, Hindi, English and French. We have been around in every French-speaking country of the world – in Europe, Africa and Canada, and nobody has found fault with it. It is the belief of my Group that a few language experts from the MGI should be assigned the task of deciding which Asian sounds should be included in our national list of Creole sounds, regardless of what the international Creole diaspora, or Prof Chaudenson, might think. Mauritian Creole should first and foremost serve the Mauritian people, all segments of them.

Beyond the omission of certain sounds, the scripts for certain sounds are badly set out. For examples the sounds of the syllables “ti” and “di”. These are also badly pronounced in our French. French phonetician Monique Léon warns us not to introduce an “s” between “t” and “i” when saying “ti”, because the consonnant “t” has the same quality in both “ti” and “ta”. For the same reason a “z” sound must not be introduced “d” and “i”, for the quality of “d” must be the same in “di” and “da”. The spelling that should be used in Creole is “tsi” and “dzi”. Other languages have the “ts” and “dz” sounds too: look at Zimbabwean “Tsangarai” and the Chechen name “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev”. These are not the palatal “ch” sounds of Hindi and English. Only such a change will permit the proper pronunciation of the name of the new Indian Prime Minister.

The spellings proposed by the grafilarmoni crowd do not seem to gain the acceptance of many; notice writers who genuinely wish to convey a message in Creole but cannot bring themselves to accept their guidelines in toto. In one office that I visited recently the following notice could be read: “Pas faire tapaze. Tapaze dérange le bon fonctionnement dans bureau. Comporte zot bien et respecter zot prochain.” Nobody can deny that the message writer has got his message across. Whether the message is respectful of the public that the office is intended to serve is another matter. Will the government take steps against such notice writers?

I have woken up to the extent of the hegemony of the Creole language only recently – following the untimely demise of my wife. Prior to that I was living in a multilingual world, as my wife and I had embarked on language studies together following our marriage way back in the mid-fifties and conversed with each other in any of English, French and Bhojpuri indifferently. Now I am drowning in an ocean of Creole. There’s nobody around in my immediate vicinity to whom I could say a word even in Bhojpuri, let alone English and French. Even the maids, all Indo-Mauritians, do not know Bhojpuri. Recently, for the Shivaratri festival, all “pilgrims” were conversing with one another only in Creole – a practice which would have been totally unacceptable when I used to walk to Pari Talav way back in the forties and early fifties. I had heard of the expression “descente aux enfers” before but now I am experiencing it.


* Published in print edition on 23 May 2014

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