Does the Kreyòl Alphabet Deserve Rebranding?

This post is also available in: Kreyol

There is a common misconception that there is no established alphabet or spelling system for writing Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”). Too often, I have heard people say, “There’s no correct way to spell Kreyòl. You just make it up as you go.” This is false. Don’t feel too bad if you thought this. This misinformation isn’t entirely your fault.  You’ve most likely been exposed to conflicting versions of written Kreyòl because orthography standards for the language have changed overtime (which is true for any language). Most of my exposure to written Kreyòl happened on Sundays through the Chants d’espérances (Haitian hymnal) and my father’s big Kreyòl Bible, Bib La. The spelling differed even between those two books. Don’t let this confusion discourage you from learning the now established system.

If the spelling of words like, “knife, gnaw, or pneumonia” ever pissed you off, you’ll love the Kreyòl spelling system.

It turns out the Kreyòl orthography is quite special because it is completely “phonemic” or “transparent”, as the linguists put it. This means words are spelled just like they sound. There are no silent or superfluous or surprise letters like in English or French. If the spelling of words like, “knife,” “gnaw,” or “pneumonia” ever pissed you off, you’ll love the Kreyòl spelling system. The Kreyòl alphabet is a “morpho-phonemic” alphabet. Every letter or combination of letters represent exactly one sound. This makes it easier for people to learn to read and write, even those with disorders like dyslexia.  

Michel DeGraff broke this down in an interview we published with him last year: “…the orthography of Kreyòl is more logical than that of both English and French.  Just compare, say, the spelling of English “automatic,” French “automatique” and Kreyòl “otomatik.”  The sound that is represented by the letter “k” in Kreyòl is written by no less than three letters “q,” “u” and “e” in French.  As for the sound that is consistently represented by the single letter “o” in Kreyòl, it gets nearly 10 different French spellings: “au” and “o” (as in “automatique”) and “aud”, “aut”, “aux”, “eau”, “eaux”, “ault”, “ôt”, etc.”  This was actually an understatement.  DeGraff has updated the count to 46 distinct spellings for the sound “o” in French.

Mandaly Louis-Charles and Michel DeGraff from MIT released this handy video last year teaching the Kreyòl alphabet through song.

Catchy, right?? You’re probably asking why letter combinations are included in the alphabet. That goes back to the concept of the Kreyòl alphabet being “morpho-phonemic.” All of these single letters or letter combinations represent the distinct sounds you encounter when speaking Kreyòl, so once you have this memorized, you should ideally know how to spell words as you sound them out, without the need for a dictionary like you would need if you were learning to spell French or English.

Maybe it’s time we truly make the Kreyòl alphabet its own.

You’re probably also asking why she is calling the symbols a, ba, cha, da instead of the standard French names we are accustomed to. I had the same question. Apparently, while we have established many things in the Kreyòl language, we have yet to establish names for the 32 symbols of its alphabet. Many argue we should simply use the French names when learning the Kreyòl alphabet. Mandaly Louis-Charles and Michel DeGraff used the syllables a, ba, cha, etc. to give the listener a good idea of how these letters sound and are used, and because “a” is the most frequent vowel among Haitian words. But here’s a wild idea: what if we just made these the official names for the symbols in the Kreyòl alphabet? Maybe it’s time we truly make the Kreyòl alphabet its own.

Some of the French names of the Latin alphabet do not make sense in a Kreyòl context. Let’s start with the letter G. In Kreyòl, G only makes the hard g sound (like in gòl), never the soft g sound (like in the French word gel; the letter J is used for this sound in Kreyòl, as in the Kreyòl word jèl, every single time). The French name for the letter G is pronounced Jé (with French spelling). Calling Kreyòl G by the French name would mean that the name of this symbol does not carry the sound that the letter G makes in Kreyòl. There is a reason we call the English letter K, Kay. This name gives us a clear understanding of what sound the letter K makes. Using the syllable Ga as the Kreyòl name for the symbol G solves this problem, making the name of the letter G  (namely Ga) bear the sound it brings to words like galon, gason, genyen etc.  

Let’s look at the symbol R. R does appear in the Kreyòl language, but it generally does not appear at the end of syllables. So French words like frère and père become frè and . As a matter of fact, the R sound at the end of a syllable like or or aire, as pronounced in French, does not come naturally to the monolingual Kreyòl speaker, or the person who speaks Kreyòl rèk as we put it. The French name for the symbol R is pronounced Èr a syllable which does not come naturally to most Kreyòl speakers to pronounce. The monolingual Kreyòl speaker would simply pronounce it è.  The name for R in French carries the sound of R at the end of a syllable which never happens in Kreyòl (unless you’re trying to sound fancy, or if you’re from Cape Haitian). Naming the symbol R Ra in Kreyòl solves this problem as well. Ra displays the way the letter R is used in the Kreyòl language, which is preceding vowels like in rara.

The French name for the letter Y is i Grec which literally means the “Greek i.” This is because at the time of the making of the Latin alphabet, the Y sound was not native to Latin speakers. It was only used to spell foreign words. Centuries later, we’re still calling Y the Greek i in French. What significance does the title Greek i bear for the Haitian Kreyòl language? The name does not carry the sound that Y makes in Kreyòl, and the name is too long, as most symbols’ names are only one syllable. Spanish speakers also realized the problem with the name i griega and in 2010, the name “Ye” was recognized for the letter Y by the Real Academia Española.

The symbol W is especially strange. The French name is literally what the letter looks like, Double V. Here we have a name that is entirely too long, and gives the listener zero clue what sound the symbol makes. Imagine teaching your 4-year-old son Willy how to spell his name. Little Willy is going to start out by sounding out as he’s been taught to “www-iii-lll-yyy” where in that is he supposed to hear Double V? Whereas, a name like Wa perfectly encapsulates the sound the letter  makes, without being a mouthful.

If Kreyòl is in fact a full fledged language, why continue to treat it as simply a dependent daughter of French?

If we are going to boast about the special transparency of the Kreyòl orthography, why not go ahead and make the names of the alphabet as clear? If Kreyòl is in fact a full fledged language with its own rules and systems, why continue to treat it as simply a dependent daughter of French, borrowing all things French, including letter names, when we have the opportunity to establish a system that is not only ours but that works?

Of course, this isn’t the most dire or pressing debate when it comes to our language, but it’s still worth considering. In the meantime, I am happy to see more people making an effort to learn to read and write in Kreyòl. More and more online publications are producing content in Kreyòl proving that it is a language that can be used to discuss profound and technical topics. The fight to get Kreyòl included in Haitian curricula continues, so that Haitian children can thrive. Happy International Creole month, everyone!

Nathalie Cerin

Nathalie Cerin is a singer-songwriter, music teacher, blogger and graduate student in Multicultural Education. She likes to think of herself as the class clown all grown up. Nathalie has a deep passion for Haiti and the arts, especially wherever these two topics converge. She is the editor for Woy Magazine.

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