03 July 2010

Creole 101

“Bonjou, mesyadam,” an older man says as he passes us…this is one of my favorite things here. “Mesye è madam” just takes too long to say, apparently, so they push it all together to greet everyone at once. My favorite “how are you” is more difficult to translate…the first person asks, “S’ak pase?” (What’s happening?) and the second person responds, “N’ap boule,” which literally means, “We’re burning.” I think its meaning is something like, “we’re cool,” except the temperature has obviously been adjusted for the island climate.

We’ve been at this for about four months now—hard to believe sometimes, since I still sit in church and just shake my head, understanding like this: “God…Christian…sin…saved us…Abraham …we must…”, just like that for two hours. But overall, our skills are improving. We both realized the other day that we can eavesdrop more easily now, without having to look at the person’s lips…which is great fun when our neighbors are outside arguing about who took 100 goud that was sitting on So-and-So’s bed.

We are able to hold real conversations now, but when we first got here, our conversations revolved around very few subjects:

1. I don't have any children: "M'pa gen pitit."
2. Yes, I am married: "Wi, m'se marye."
3. I don't know why I don't have any children: "M'pa konnen poukisa m'pa gen pitit."
4. Don’t do that, please: “Pa fe sa, souple!” (This is particularly useful when small children try to eat things off the ground, climb on you like a jungle gym, break your screen door, look in your windows, etc.)

5. No, I don’t have a football or candy or money for you: “Non, m’pa gen yon football ou siret ou lajan pou ou.”

6. Do you think it’ll rain?: "Eske ou ponse lapli ap vini?"

However, what’s more interesting is the things people say to us in English. Here are a few examples:

"Good morning!" (Useful any time of day.)

"How-ah-you?" (Usually a gesture of friendship, but if you offer any other response but “I-yam-fine,” you’ll get a big blank stare.)
"Give me one dola!" (Usually a gesture of extortion.)
"You're beautiful!" (Proper response: I’m married.)
"Help me learn English." (Proper response: Byen si! Of course!)

Words are, of course, such a cultural structure that we’re learning a lot about Haiti the more we learn Creole. Creole is a fairly simple language, but I’m coming to appreciate its quirks. For example, if you want to say that someone’s really sick, you just repeat “a lot”: “Li malad anpil anpil.” If you won’t gossip about someone, you say “bouch mwen feme”: my mouth is closed.

And then, there’s Cringlish. This is the best part of learning Creole, because you can throw in an English word and keep right on going: “M’ ta remen yon…Twinkie.” No one bats an eye at this, because they’ve already incorporated quite a few English words into Creole. Bleach? “Klowox.” Generator? “Delco.” Refrigerator? “Frigiday.” Stick a French accent on a popular brand name, and you’ve got yourself a Creole word.

Of course, it’s simple until someone informs you that you’ve been using a French word, which is not really Creole. You may try to argue with them that ALL CREOLE COMES FROM FRENCH, but this usually just annoys them and does little to change their mind. People who throw in French words here in the village are thought to be flaunting their education, but in Port-au-Prince, everyone does it. Since we are white, and therefore educated, people who first meet us often assume that we speak French, and will even greet us with “salut” or “bonjour” which are more French rather than “bonjou,” which is Creole. Interestingly, they are often very relieved when we don’t, because it means they don’t have to put up a front of knowing the language, when they truly don’t.

Mesi, paske ou priye pou nou (Thanks for praying for us)! 


  1. Mesi, paske ou ede moun ayisyen.

  2. Your blog really gives us an insight to what living in Haiti is like. Very interesting.

  3. He he--oh my! Your "first" conversations remind me of my students! I'm trying to help them say more things, because I know how boring it is to only be able to say a few things. Their attempts do leave me in stitches sometimes though. For example, when asked if she's married, my only single student (who is well into her 40s now) pretty much always answers, "No, I'm single." followed immediately by "No, I no know why I single!!" (now, you have to picture a small, Asian looking woman saying this while throwing her hands up.)

    You and David sound like you're making excellent progress in your learning! I continue to pray. Love you, guys!

  4. Love reading your blog,Christine! Thanks for giving us such insights into your journey!