Populism and the Campaign for Introducing Creole in the National Assembly

The decision to introduce any other language is as important an issue as that of whether to include one’s religion or ethnic group on the electoral voting paper, and must therefore be thought through very thoroughly

When this issue was flagged last year at the time that the National Assembly had taken to live broadcasting of parliamentary debates, the core problem that this paper identified regarding the suggestion of allowing Creole as well to be used by parliamentarians was the need for decorum: ‘At some stage of this debate, the question arose as to whether strict limits of decorum – as has been implied by authorising the use of European languages within clearly defined parameters of what is “unparliamentary language” – will not get violated when allowing an unbridled use of brittle Creole expressions yet to be tested as to their suitability in the “august assembly”. Some believe there are risks that members could take advantage to test their uncouth vocabulary during parliamentary debates – although the fact remains that MPs are already crossing the bounds of decency even when employing the two authorised European languages’.

It was also emphasized that ‘As Creole is the common language of communication of all Mauritians, all of us therefore have a stake in this matter’. Given this fact, there are a number of points that will merit consideration if and when it comes up for discussion.

Political protagonists of this move have been doing it to get votes — which is their main objective – and have been less explicit about how it will enhance the cause of parliamentary debates. Shouldn’t this be the fundamental concern of all its Members in the National Assembly? It is no surprise that it is the MMM which is spearheading this agenda, given that in the wake of its debacle in the No.18 by-election serious analysts have shown that after this 7th consecutive electoral defeat, its share of the electorate has dipped to a despairingly low level. With its recent internal bickerings strengthening the wide perception that it is well past its days of glory, it may be pushing for Creole as the proverbial straw. This raises the question: whatever happened to the MMM’s ‘projet de société’, to the ‘parti d’idées’ that it had been chest-thumping for so long? Beyond its repetitive harping on corruption and how it intends to tackle it, what is there coming from the MMM in terms of new ideas?

The argument that ‘Creole would be more widely understood’ is spurious. This may be true for common discourse in the public space, but as regards parliamentary debates this is not so. Thus, from the mass of comments seen on social media and heard across the board, what mostly retains the attention of the populace in these live shows is not the actual contents of what is being debated. It is rather the antics and theatricals of those who intervene, their satirical remarks, gestures and clichés, and the sheer quasi-pugilistic stance of some of them at times. The people who are genuinely interested in the substance of the exchanges resort to accounts given in the dailies and also on social media, and this too only about a couple of major ones that are of greater topical importance, such as the Metro Express for example. For the rest, it is only at election time that people get excited when masala-laden speeches are made by the politicians during electoral meetings.

On the other hand, there are those who feel more at ease with the existing linguistic disposition for parliamentary debates, and their stand should surely receive the attention that it deserves.

Further, let us be clear that this is not about the superiority or inferiority of any language. Every language has evolved in a given context, and has its own beauty and elegance. This applies to Creole too, which is dynamic – that is, continuously evolving as it easily adopts and adapts words from other languages, is colourful and grammatically simple, besides being relatively easy to learn and speak. As we know for ourselves, from the numerous words from Bhojpuri and other languages present locally that have crept into Creole – and vice-versa – for obvious historical reasons.

However, this very plasticity and fluidity of the language makes its prone to flippancy by its users, especially on supercharged occasions like political campaigns. Since we seem to be permanently in campaign mode here, this volatile atmosphere quite frequently spills over into the National Assembly as well. As a result, the use of Creole in such a situation presents a real risk of its elastic limits being stretched to resort to the more ‘brittle Creole expressions’ in which Creole abounds by virtue of the MPs being very fluent in Creole and its very richness – which here would be a weakness.

No doubt the two languages currently in use, English and French, do contain some such ‘brittle expressions’, but they fortunately do not lend themselves to such dérapages, for one because the MPs are less fluent in these two non-native languages. Although ‘MPs are already crossing the bounds of decency even when employing the two authorised European languages’ (for example about ‘licking hands and other parts’ – can one even imagine how this would come through in Creole!!), they can never go as far as using expressions loaded with the profusion of ‘mama’ expletives which are to be found in Creole.

This brings us to the second reason for the lesser possibility of uncouth vocabulary when MPs speak in English or French, namely that similar equivalents are not to be found in these two languages, in which interjections of disgust, exasperation or disdain tend to be couched more in subtle humour, irony or sarcasms. In the heat of the moment and the tongue having no lezo (bone) given free vent, the risk with Creole is ever present. Even if such words are made to be retracted afterwards as being unparliamentary, the offence and the damage done would be well-nigh irreparable, with unpredictable unintended consequences. As it is, ‘tombe dehors’ has on a number of occasions been heard in the National Assembly. Can we take the risk of more of this, and of the time that will be wasted in trying to cool tempers or prevent coming to blows?

But a more serious consideration is the Hansard. Will it be recorded in Creole, then translated back again? What a colossal waste of resources that would be. Has any thought been given to this aspect in the bid to be populist?

So let us recover some sense and be very careful before we make such a risky leap. The decision to introduce any other language in the Parliament cannot be taken lightly and cannot be only a political one. It is as important an issue as that of whether to include one’s religion or ethnic group on the electoral voting paper, and must therefore be thought through very thoroughly. Public debate and input must inform any eventual decision, because the politician will be too apt to take the path of least resistance and give in to populism. This, in the long run, will surely go against the larger interest of future generations of Mauritians in a globalising world where competence in the major international languages is a passport to higher goals and positions. So we have to tread very carefully and not take any hasty decision in the matter.

But more importantly, as Thomas Eriksen said in an interview in this paper last year, ‘let me add that a real asset for Mauritians in the wider world is the increasingly fluent and sophisticated mastery of not only French, but also English in the population. That is real knowledge capital; it is hard to get, it travels, and Mauritians have it.’

Globally, therefore, we stand more to lose than to gain from the introduction of Creole in the National Assembly. Those who force it down the throat of the unsuspecting future generations of Mauritians will be judged very severely by history.

 

* Published in print edition on 23 February 2018

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