Case Studies

The Haitian Revolution, Part I: Creating a Language

In today’s article, we will explore the history of the slave revolt starting in 1791 while analyzing Haitian Pidgin and Creole. Pidgins are created when two or more distinct societies, each with their own native language, come into contact as adults and create a hybrid of their mother tongues in order to communicate. Creoles evolve from pidgins into fully functioning languages with an expansive lexicon and predictable grammar.

1492-1600: Christopher Columbus & Spanish rule of Hispaniola


Pre-Colonial Hispaniola, 1492. “A sketch of La Navidad.” Christopher Columbus (allegedly). (1492).

On Christmas Day, 1492, Christopher Columbus crashed the Santa Maria into an island, sinking the flagship and stranding himself with the crew. They named their accidental landing spot La Navidad after the special day and soon began farming tobacco and cotton for trade. The indigenous population had initially been welcoming to the Spanish intruders, even helping them build La Navidad, but this friendship soon soured. They were, understandably, perturbed by their treatment at the hands of these Europeans who couldn’t even tell the difference between the Taíno and their enemies, the Caribs, whom Columbus insisted on referring to as cannibals. The Taíno, in response, had destroyed La Navidad by the time Columbus returned the following year with 1,300 more Spaniards and a whole bunch of sugar cane, ready to colonize and trade in earnest. Undeterred by the loss, Columbus founded the island colony of Santo Domingo, which remains the oldest European settlement in the western hemisphere.

The Spaniards’ lack of respect for the locals quickly escalated to genocide. The new white residents overworked the Taíno’s land for food, which they hoarded for themselves, and for the gold supposedly littering the New World just under the surface. There was, of course, only one way to feasibly farm and excavate so much land, and that was by enslaving their new friends, the Taíno. The combination of long hours, hard labor, and malnutrition from the Spanish taking all the crops for themselves caused the indigenous mortality rates to soar while their fertility rates plummeted. As a result, the Taíno population plunged from approximately 1 million at the time of Columbus’ arrival to 14,000 over the course of only twenty-five years. Two years later, a third of the remaining Taínos died from smallpox brought over by their conquerors. The Spaniards cared little for this obstacle to their plans, as they had already begun importing African slaves in order to increase productivity in the fields.

The stage is set for a new language

The production of tobacco and cotton was achieved by a fairly even mixture of workers that included Spanish colonists, white European employees brought over specifically to work the fields, indigenous slaves, and black slaves. This was the origin of the Carribean-European-African melting pot, but it would take several generations before a common language even began to form. What more does a region need than speakers of different languages working in close proximity?

1600-1700: The French want a piece of the New World


Spanish Hispaniola, 1492-1695. “Map of Hispaniola.” G.B.Ramusio. (1565)

The first settlement of the New World soon lost its shine once the Spanish set their sights on the American mainland, which as-of-yet had been untouched (by white Europeans, at least, and that’s really all that mattered). The Spanish left a good number of colonists back on Santo Domingo but its little neighbor island, Tortuga, was soon battered with pirate raids. These attacks prompted King Philip III of Spain to order his colonists to abandon the smaller, unprotected Carribean islands and gather within inland Santo Domingo. Predictably, the abandoned islands with fields already primed for farming did nothing to deter the pirates, particularly French buccaneers, who jumped at the chance to establish their own societies on these lush beaches left bare for the taking.

When the French first set up shop on Tortuga in 1625, they didn’t stop acting like pirates right away. On the contrary, they captured Spanish ships on their routes to and from their colonies, subsisted on the wild animals they could manage to trap or shoot, and traded the skins from their kills with whatever foreign trading ships they could afford not to loot. Over thirty years later, the natural resources were still plentiful and the rogues-turned-settlers finally gained legitimacy as an established society by replacing their hunter-gatherer-pirate lifestyle with the production and trade of cash crops.

This success led King Louis XIV to officially recognize the fast-expanding settlement as a French colony in 1659. Five years after that, he recognized the new villages now covering Tortuga and reaching onto the western-most beaches of Spain’s precious first colony. The Spanish government sort of – kind of – acknowledged that the western third of Santo Domingo was now in French hands: they signed a treaty with France in 1697 but never explicitly mentioned the island itself, which Spain would never again reclaim in its entirety. The French third was similarly named Saint-Domingue and, with the help of a new influx of African slaves, its agriculture and economy soon became the envy of its rival colonies.

hispaniola1723 - 2.jpg

Hispaniola, 1697-1777, following the Treaty of Ryswick (the faint north-south line left of center is the border). “L’Isle St. Domingue ou Espagnole Decouverte l’an 1492 par les Espagnols.” Nicolas De Fer and Guillaume Danet. (1723)

New languages dominate the new society

Stage 1: Restricted Pidgin

The slaves brought to Saint-Domingue over the latter half of the 17th century were largely from the Niger-Congo region of western Africa and spoke Bantu, Central Tano, and Kwa languages like Gbe. In fact, about half of the slaves brought to Saint-Domingue during this period spoke Gbe. They created their own communities, speaking less and less with their white counterparts as the demographic of laborers skewed heavily towards African, which reinforced the use of their own languages. However, they needed to communicate with their fellow slaves who spoke other African languages and, at least occasionally, with the French-speaking colonists and engáges. The only solution here was a pidgin.

A pidgin is a loose collection of agreed-upon words used only out of necessity, as when societies with different languages need to trade with each other. There is no set grammar that would allow for the creation many new or unique utterances; it initially exists only to convey necessary information. There are several features of pidgins that you may observe to varying degrees depending on the pidgin’s stage of development:

  1. High percentage of content words (e.g., nouns, verbs) with a correspondingly low number of function words (e.g., articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs)
  2. Little morphological marking (e.g., -er, -tion, un-, de- in English)
  3. Word classes more flexible than in adult language (e.g., using a noun as a verb, as when we say “to Google” or “to fax”)
  4. Contrasts of pronouns greatly reduced (e.g. “he” might refer to any singular person, regardless of gender)
  5. Invariant verb forms derived from the infinitive or the least marked finite verb form (e.g., verb forms may be static, as in the trio “I walk,” “He walk,” and “She walk yesterday.”)
  6. Loss of determiners (e.g., “the,” “that”)
  7. Placement of a negative particle in preverbal position (e.g., “I not have seen him.”)
  8. Fixed single word order with no inversion in questions (e.g., “You are going to see her?” instead of “Are you going to see her?”)
  9. Reduced or absent nominal plural marking (e.g., “I have three egg.”)

As with most pidgins and creoles, the African population chose to learn the lexicon of the superstrate, or target language, usually that of the colonizing/dominating culture and often associated with European languages. In this scenario, the superstrate is French, while the substrates consist of all their native languages, which are only minimally absorbed into the pidgin through accent, grammar, and a handful of words. During the first stage of pidgin development, the superstrate and substrate(s) barely interact and only a small number of words are learned based on their necessity; there are little to no grammatical features or sentences, either partial or complete. It is never used in a social setting during this stage.

1700-1725: Social classes in the French Caribbean

Saint-Domingue’s growing population included white, land-owning colonists and the slaves consistently imported from Africa over the past 200 years, since nearly the entire Taíno population had been wiped out before the French had even arrived and what few survivors there were had long since moved up into the region’s impenetrable mountains. But there were two other officially recognized classes within Saint-Domingue as well:

  • Engáges were white Europeans brought to the colony specifically to work low-level labor jobs. They usually did not own land and were an officially class distinct from the French colonists. As such, they were not particularly invested in the nationalist fervor which had been characteristic of the Age of Exploration.
  • Gens de couleur, literally “people of color,” were the mixed-race descendants of plantation-class French colonists and their African mistresses. They were sometimes called gens de couleur libres (“freed people of color”) because they made up over half of the colony’s emancipated slaves. They were often recognized by their European fathers and educated as well as their legitimate half-siblings.

For the first 50 years of Saint-Domingue’s existence, these four distinct social classes had worked in fairly equal proportions within the tobacco and cotton fields, but the more complex and lucrative sugar cane industry required far more time and manpower. There were only so many colonists, and while the white engáges were considered reliable, hiring them had become costly with the new labor demands. They were increasingly placed in more administrative positions, overseeing the planting, harvesting, and production of sugar cane.

Later, in the United States, mixed-race descendants of slave owners would typically be raised by their mothers and were thus enslaved themselves, but gens de couleur in Saint-Domingue could own land and earn prosperous upper-middle-class positions like shopkeeper and artisan. The denial of their mothers’ homelands is exemplified by their rejection of the Vodou religion and Nigerian languages in favor of Roman Catholicism and classical French. The wealthy French colonists didn’t like employing them as field hands because gens de couleur were, above all else, French.

That left the African slaves. They soon outnumbered the colonists, and not only in the fields. The first problem, therefore, was to figure out a solution to the many language barriers.

A collection of words starts looking like a real language

Stage 2: Extended Pidgin

Before the French Revolution wrapped up at the end of the 18th century, the French language had never been officially standardized, especially not way out in the New World. Plantation owners and gens de couleur spoke classical French, but engáges spoke any one of a number of ancient French dialects known collectively as langues d’oïl, many of which were mutually unintelligible. The slaves picked up useful words that were easy to define within a recognizable context and/or were often repeated, such as the names of tools or food. Of course, they picked all these words up without differentiating between the many dialects to which they were exposed by their engáge overseers.

In this second stage of development, the pidgin is used much like a language. All speakers can reliably understand each other and they have the ability to express a wide variety of ideas. It may even be used in social situations outside the presence of the superstrate. However, this situation will only occur if the participants speak different native languages than each other (in this case, western African languages or langues d’oïl). It is not comfortably spoken by anyone, and all speakers maintain their own native language that affects how they use the pidgin. The resulting linguistic output often fails to follow the same rules from day to day and speaker to speaker.

It behooved the white population of Saint-Domingue to learn this pidgin, if only to ensure that the fieldwork went smoothly. After all, it was certainly easier than learning any African vocabulary. This was especially true of the engáges, who were the Europeans most likely to work directly with the slaves and the least likely to be able to communicate even amongst themselves. This resulted in a wide variety of French dialects being absorbed into the pidgin and, in turn, re-learned by the engáges and even their employers.

The gens de couleur, of course, refused to learn anything but classical French.

1725-1795: African slaves dominate the population and the language


Hispaniola, 1777-1804. “The political division of Hispaniola after the Treaty of Aranjuez.” (1777).

And so the economy of Saint-Domingue continued its meteoric rise, while the Spanish were now barely spending any time or money tilling their side of the island – they had bigger fish to fry on the mainland. There was a sugar boom at this time, and the Europeans back home couldn’t get enough of the stuff. The French colonists tilled every inch of their territory, leeching the land in the process. But the aftermath of that would come later – for now: profit!

With the booming economy came a boom in the population, and not just for the colonists. The African population grew exponentially, which caused more than a headache for the French a few years later. They were certainly aware of the potential dangers of a growing slave population, but the sugar industry was too lucrative to ignore. The immediate aftermath of this new generation, made up of children of the four social classes that had built this massive sugar industry, was far less violent and more mysterious.

At the speed of language

Stage 3: Development of the mother tongue

The creators of Extended Pidgin, as we know, all spoke vastly different languages and were members of drastically distinct social groups. The only thing they had in common was that none of them spoke the pidgin as their native language. Since most non-colonists living on the island while the pidgin was forming had moved there during the sugar boom, the different communities of Saint-Domingue had been exposed to each other’s languages for an equal period of time. More importantly, they had all been part of the pidgin’s creation, with no group having more opportunity to learn a language that was being constructed on the spot by the society as a whole. It was the one instance in which all four social classes were truly on an even playing field.

If the first speakers of the Extended Pidgin are Generation 0, then the first speakers of the brand new, fully functional, grammatical, predictable descendent of that pidgin were Generation 1. In other words, the children of Extended Pidgin speakers created a completely coherent language that their parents did not speak. Sure, their parents gave them the bones of this creole, and they could understand their children for the most part, but it was like being the American child of a Dutch immigrant who can only speak to you in broken English or fluent Dutch. Even more miraculously, all the children spoke the same creole, regardless of color or class; there was little to no variation among speakers, even though their colony now stretched across a fairly large swath of land made up of connected but separate communities. Many creole speakers of this generation may never have met each other during their childhoods.

When a language gains native speakers, it is called nativization. This often occurs when a parent speaks a second language non-fluently and their child learns it as a native language. During the first critical period of learning, children will easily fill in gaps and correct non-grammatical errors found within the linguistic input they receive from their family and peers. Moreover, they will almost always “fix” the input in the exact right way, following the rules of the target language, no matter how complex or different from another language they may already speak fluently. The only exception is usually a result of odd linguistic phenomena that don’t follow a predictable rule (e.g., irregular verbs).

This, apparently, is true when the linguistic input doesn’t even correspond to an existing language. If that weren’t the case, even if we assume that the individual children of Generation 1 will come up with grammatically sound creoles on their own, we would still expect these creoles to exhibit significant variations, similar to dialects of a language. Instead, a near-perfectly standardized language appeared as soon as these children were old enough to speak, across Saint-Domingue and the settlements of its neighboring islands. Sankoff & Laberge (1972), for example, reached this same conclusion regarding nativization in creoles using scientific observation of the Tok Pisin creole.

1790-1793: The Start of the Great Slave Revolt

Despite the Spanish giving up another third of Hispaniola to the French, the French kept colonizing parts of the Spanish side, unofficially gaining control of much of it as the 19th century neared. But the slave revolt the colonists had long feared finally came to fruition in 1791 as thousands of slaves and African freedmen stormed the towns of the Northern Provence. Within ten days, the north was lost. Some estimates of how many slaves rose in revolt just in the first two weeks range as high as 100,000, killing 4,000 colonists and burning over 1,000 plantations, which amounted to over 2 million francs of damage. The next month, the surviving colonists struck back and killed 15,000 Africans.

But that would not halt the slave revolt. The slaves did not actually want to declare freedom from France, only from the French colonists who had treated them so poorly. In fact, they insisted that they were fighting for the King of France, about whom they had heard a critical rumor: he had supposedly issued a decree to free all colonial slaves. The rebels blamed the colonists for continuing to enslave them and unjustly persecute black freedmen. By the next year, the rebels had taken over a third of the island and the government back in France was starting to get worried.

In response, the French republicans, successful rebels in their own right during the ongoing French Revolution, sent out a proclamation saying that any black freedmen could have all civil and political rights afforded to a white French colonist. Western Europe and the United States were flabbergasted and appalled, but the French rebels knew what was coming if they didn’t take drastic steps to curtail the rebellion that so clearly paralleled their own. They sent 6,000 soldiers to the island along with a new governor who would soon promise them freedom from slavery.

So why didn’t the pidgin just turn into French instead of Haitian Creole?

Stage 4: Decreolization

Haitian Creole, as the name implies, did not die off with the end of their enslavement. Instead, it went through a process called decreolization, in which a creole takes on the role of a people’s standard language. The vast majority of Haitian Creole words are from French, and yet no one in modern France could follow along without learning it as a second language, albeit a closely related one. It would be much like a present-day Spaniard learning ancient Latin: familiar but mostly unintelligible. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The grammar of Haitian Creole is closer to the African substrates than the French superstrate, causing aspects of the language such as sentence structure seem jumbled and confusing to French speakers.
  2. The spellings and pronunciations of French words were changed when the African speakers altered their orthography to match how the nearest phoneme would be represented in their native languages. They might also eliminate or even add phonemes in order to avoid vowel sounds or break up consonant clusters that cannot exist in their native languages. One example in which both phenomena occur is “what:” French qui becomes ki in Haitian Creole. English also does this frequently with French words, like when we turn –eaux into –o.
  3. The lexicon is based on not just classical French, which became France’s official language and is quite close to modern French, but also on all the dialects of the engáges. Many of these dialectal words are long gone from modern, standardized French, having been replaced by their more prestigious, classical counterparts.
  4. Some of these dialectal words and phrases did make it into modern French, but with different meanings.

From the University of Indiana:

A good example is the sentence Ki jan ou rele? “What is your name?” which corresponds to French Comment vous appelez-vous? Although a French person wouldn’t understand that phrase, every word is of French origin: qui “what,” genre “manner,” vous “you,” héler “to call,” or “What manner call (yourself)?” In France, the verb héler has been replaced by appeler.

Creole French English
ki qui what
jan genre manner
ou vous you
héler appeler to call

The story of the Haitian Creole plateaus from there; it’s still spoken and even taught in Haiti, but it has more or less the same form as described above, and it is still just as trivialized and mocked by those who speak “pure” European languages (which don’t exist, but the perceived purity of language according to nationalists is a different article entirely). However, the Haitian Revolution had only just begun where this story ends. If you are interested in reading about some badass underdogs fighting against all odds to create the first and only nation founded by rebel slaves, I wrote up the story of the Haitian Revolution for Part II just for you. And, as always, click the link below to read up on the sources I’ve used in this article.


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