‘Vinn Vit’ or ‘Vine Vite’?

Which rendering would you prefer as the Creole
equivalent of “come quickly”?

By Paramanund Soobarah 

You can’t say you don’t want either version – “Kreol as an optional language” is part of electoral manifesto of the Alliance de l’Avenir. The leaders of the Alliance probably agreed to it during the barterings with those who were believed to command the votes of the Creole community. We are all proud to have as Prime Minister a man who keeps his word – never mind that the other party in the bargain signally failed to keep their side of it. The Minister of Education is moving ahead furiously in the implementation of that promise. We wish that some similar alacrity had been displayed for the introduction of Bhojpuri in the education system.

Coming back to the question above, there is perhaps a more important angle to it. Which version do you think will make it easier for children who first learn Kreol to write French subsequently? The script being imposed on our children, going by the meaningless name of grafilarmoni (could it not have been “grafi harmonisé”?), contradicts all the rules of French pronunciation. It would seem that at the University people don’t believe there are any pronunciation rules in French. The Head of the French Department there believes that the word “oiseau”, for example, displays the chaotic nature of French spelling; he believes that the name of the feathered biped should be written “wazo”. We on the other hand believe that symbols can only have the meanings assigned to them, by convention or otherwise. In modern French, the letters “oi” always represents the phonetic sound /wa/, the string “eau” always represents the phonetic sound /o/, and the letter “s” between two vowels always has the soft z-sound. The spelling of “oiseau” therefore illustrates three of the basic rules of French pronunciation. How safe is the French language in that department, particularly when its head wishes to be the authority in Kreol?

The Creole language used to be an offshoot of French; but with the introduction of the grafilarmoni, the two languages have become antagonistic to each other. A child taught the grafilarmoni in his or her initial learning years (this should be the case for all with Creole mother tongue) will have great difficulty in learning French subsequently. This question came up at the recent national forum on the introduction of Kreol in schools organised by the Ministry of Education. The microphone was turned over to the expert in the subject, Mr Dev Virahsawmy. As far as we could gather, he waffled this way and that but ended up by firmly saying that Kreol written in grafilarmoni would not adversely affect the study of French. We at the Genocide Watch Group adamantly maintain that it will seriously affect the study of French and may even kill it out entirely. We have made this point in our memorandum submitted to the Ministry of Education in response to the request for views in preparation for the forum, and we are prepared to supply further substantiation. But we would first like to know that our paper has been read; otherwise, we see no point in wasting time.

English into a Creole language

Mr Virahsawmy also repeated his earlier assertion that English is a Creole language — he had three books in his bag stating as much, he said. In a previous article we explained, also quoting authorities, why we found it difficult to agree with him, and asked him to debate the matter with us in the press. The information in his books is not of great help; we expect him to put those arguments forward in his own article. We agree that Creole shares with English and several other languages certain characteristics. An important one as far as British English is concerned relates the pronunciation of the letter R at the end of syllables, but that does not turn English into a Creole language.

What is being proposed – indeed, what was agreed in pre-election bargaining – is the introduction of Kreol as an optional language. How the option will be exercised is not very clear yet. Presumably some children will attend Kreol classes while others are attending Asian language classes. Was this an attempt by one community to “appropriate” the Creole language? If so, they are likely to be defeated. In our results-driven education system, parents will opt for whichever subject likely to secure a pass more easily for their children. Asian language classes will empty out fast as the children concerned will drift to Kreol classes. We will get into a most undesirable situation where children of Asian origin will systematically outdo children of other communities in a language they regard as theirs. Will there be a law stopping Asian-origin children from attending Kreol classes? That may even be a good solution, for it will stop Asian children falling into the trap of learning an orthography conflicting with that of French. We are prepared, with some financial help from the government, to put forward in a few months an alternative orthography for Creole for use by our children that respects the rules of French spelling. The use of spoken Creole as “support language” is being encouraged by the Ministry. If that is going to be the case, our children will need a spelling system to take down notes in.

Many voices were raised at the forum for education to be conducted in the mother tongue. But just as the same people raise their voices against the injustices of slavery and other iniquities perpetrated on their ancestors, we raise ours on the linguistic iniquities perpetrated on us. On the initiative of Governor Higginson in the 1850s, a number of Indian-vernacular schools had been started, much against the wishes of the plantocracy and the Catholic Church; around 1880, they were closed down on the orders of the all-powerful Education Committee. With the executioner’s axe raised above their heads to strike the final blow, and while acknowledging that these schools were well run, they said that Indian languages would be “of little advantage here” and “will gradually be forgotten” – and they firmly brought down the axe. (Ramesh Ramdoyal, ‘The Development of Education in Mauritius’, MIE 1977, p 87). Manilal Doctor’s recommendation in 1909 to the effect that Indians should be taught in their mother tongue went unheeded (Ibid, p.111).

Deculturise Indians

Yet another effort was made to deculturise Indians in 1941, this time sadly by a British official, Mr W.E.F. Ward. He wanted to halt the small amount of teaching of Indian languages that there was then; he called a meeting of teachers at the Municipal Theatre to address the subject, but Shri Sookdeo Bissoondoyal, then a primary school head teacher furiously opposed Ward’s policies, led a walk-out which soon emptied the theatre. (Author Patrick Eisenlohr, at page 190 of his book ‘Little India’, erroneously assigns the responsibility for the walk-out to Dr S. Ramgoolam.) This was the end of official efforts at deculturising Indians, at least until the “Ene sel lepep ene sel nation” movement started post-1982. But insiduous and surreptitious efforts by sections of the media and some religious organisations have never stopped.

After having stifled mother-tongue education for Indian-origin children for more than a century, the government is in a hurry to impose “Kreol” mother tongue education on us. At the Genocide Watch Group (GWG), we are not against the Creole language, but we demand justice and equality of treatment for our own tongue first. We send our children to school for them to learn English and French to become citizens of the world, not just of the tiny frog’s well that Mauritius is, and also to learn one Asian language of the parent’s choice from among those brought over by the immigrants. By the age of five they know sufficient Creole to last them for the rest of their lives. Bihari origin children need to be taught in Bhojpuri to begin with, but beyond pre-primary they can be taught Hindi by the same teacher in the same class. The conditions under which Hindi teachers might be prepared to do so should be worked out with the staff unions concerned.

To get back to the forum, we have to acknowledge that it was overwhelmingly in favour of Kreol as an optional language. But we pointed out that the consensus was inside the room; outside it was a very different story. We are aware that twenty or so organisations had petitioned against the project; their voices were not heard. We doubt whether they were even asked. We doubt also whether that is the end of the story. In any case, all we can say at this stage is that we will take the option “Vine Vite”, and that is what we demand for our children. If others wish to opt for “Vinn vit”, they should be free to mess up the lives of their children. But for God’s sake, don’t force it on ours!

Paramanund Soobarah

PS – I spoke English at the forum, because I find it very difficult to speak Creole in public. If apologies are needed to the audience, I have no hesitation in offering them. But our paper had been written in English, and as the letter summoning us to the forum was in English, and it did not inform us that the forum would be held entirely in Creole, we had not taken the precaution of sending a representative who was more fluent than myself in Creole. I therefore thought I could speak English because it is still the official language of the country. One gentleman countered that he had read the Constitution end to end but had found nothing about English being the official language. That may well be true, but one fact seems to have skipped his attention, namely, that the document was entirely in the English language from end to end. There is an official reason for that. He should perhaps read up again about Sir Célicourt Antelme’s last speech in French at the Supreme Court, a speech that went on for as long as it was possible under the law to speak that language in that venue, that is to say right up to the last stroke of midnight of that fateful day. There are many Antelme streets in our townships around the country celebrating that feat, but has anybody heard of a Gomm street? This is like the Adrien d’Epinay case, where it is the esclavagiste who is honoured, except that being a slave to the French language and literature is a far cry from being one to a French plantocrat in a sugar cane field in those days. Ask Bernandin de Saint Pierre.

* Published in print edition on 5 September 2010

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