Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann: A few words on Haitian Kreyòl in the study of Haitian Vodou

Adapted from a lecture presented at the 3rd African Languages in the Disciplines Conference, Harvard University, April 19, 2012

In Haitian Kreyòl, a popular expression is, “Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann.”  Literally meaning, “Kreyòl speaks, Kreyòl understands,” it more broadly declares that the speaker intends her or his words for those who understand—and for those who don’t, no translation will help, nor be offered.  The broader implications of this are reminiscent of the fragment of Vodou ritual speech, or langaj, that Karen Brown recorded, “Sim salalam, sa salawu.  Pa salam, pa salawu,” which her informant, the Vodou priestess Mama Lola, understood to mean, “You in, you in.  You out, you stay out.”  In my own work with Haitian Vodou, I have frequently found that it is only through knowledge of Kreyòl that one can truly grasp the intimacies of the religion—but that, equally, only through knowledge of Vodou is one really able to understand Kreyòl.

Notably, in Vodou, Kreyòl functions not only as the lingua franca but also as a liturgical language.  In fact, Haitian Vodou and Haitian Kreyòl developed side-by-side, and I think that one could make an argument that they cannot be disentangled.  To the extent that Haitian Vodou relies on the symbolic and semantic density of deep Kreyòl to express its most sacred concepts, Kreyòl is likewise full of terms and concepts that derive from Vodou cosmology.  The rarified, poetic language of liturgical Kreyòl—used for Vodou songs and prayers, and spoken by the spirits in possession—is highly metaphorical, self-referential, and indirect, often rendering a literal translation into another language unhelpful or even misleading.  While this has often been described in terms of the use of pwèn—a simultaneous form of indirect code speak and unit of occult power—this is rarely connected explicitly with what I see as an aesthetic preference and delight-taking in the metaphorical, palimpsest, and paradoxical.  In this way, Kreyòl possesses initiatory layers of fluency that are tied to categories of outsider and insider belonging.

To provide one example, here is a clip of the Vodou priest and musician Erol Josué performing his version of a traditional Haitian Vodou chante pwèn—a song one sings to communicate an encoded message to the audience.

Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm rasin o
Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm gwo wòch o
M soti anba dlo, mwen voye dan lezè
Kou yo kwè yo pran mwen, m tounen lafimen o
Jou yo konnen sa m sèvi, latè va tranble
Jou yo konne non vanyan mwen, loray va gwonde
O se mwen-menm rasin o
Depi m soti lan Gine, moun y ape sonde mwen
Se mwen-menm rasin o
M soti anba dlo, mwen vole dan lezè
Kou yo kwè yo pran mwen, m tounen lafimen o
Jou yo konnen non vanyan m, latè va tranble
Jou yo konnen sa m sèvi, loray va gwonde
Se mwen-menm rasin o
Se mwen-menm gwo woch o

(Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the root
Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the big rock
I come out from under the water, I fly into the air
When they believe they have taken me, I turn into smoke
The day they know whom I serve, the earth will tremble
The day they know my valient name, the thunder will thunder
It is me, the root
Since I left Ginen, people have been sounding me,
It is me, the root
I come out from under the water, I fly into the air
When they believe they have taken me, I turn into smoke
The day they know my valient name, the earth will tremble
The day they know whom I serve, the thunder will thunder
It is me, the root
It is me, the big rock)

Without knowing the ways that Kreyòl in a liturgical setting uses coded language to communicate mystical messages, the literal translation of this song provides few clues to its meaning and it remains largely opaque.  Allow me to provide a few clues to the song’s deeper meaning.  The song begins with the singer noting that he comes from the underwater land of the spirits, referred to as Gine (for more on Gine, refer to my earlier post).  Since he left there, people have been trying to sonde li, literally, sound him—the way that one sounds the depths of a body of water.  Metaphorically, to sound someone in Vodou is to test the mystical force and knowledge of a priest or priestess (konesans).  This alerts us to the fact that the song is being sung by a priest who is boasting of his ability to succeed at all such challenges because he possesses konesans, mystical force, in abundance.  Such a process of testing often involves announcing one’s initiatory name, called one’s valient name, a mystical nom du guerre.  Then, without ever naming any particular spirits (lwa), the singer alludes in coded language to some of the powerful ancestral Vodou lwa, those rasin or roots, that protect and guide him—what he means when he speaks of “those he serves.”  For example, Gwo Wòch—big rock—brings to mind those spirits for whom this is a praisename, notably Simbi.  References to thunder allude to the spirits Badè, Sobo, and Agawou, all of whom are connected with thunder (loray) and storms.  Agawou is also associated with shaking the earth when he is Agawou Lefan, Agawou the Elephant, whose passing causes shaking.  Agawou also gives the powers of flight and invisibility, which are mentioned in the song.  These few examples allow one to begin to appreciate the elaborate forms of code speak and correspondence that exist in Kreyòl Vodou liturgy.

I raise these complex issues to drive home two central points.  First, to appreciate the subtleties of Haitian Vodou liturgy, one must know Kreyòl.  Second, to study Haitian Kreyòl does not stop with learning how to speak, read, and understand.  To really learn Kreyòl is to uncover insights into the entire constellation of what is said and thought in Kreyòl—in some cases, even what can only be said or thought in Kreyòl.  Whether one intends or no, the implications of such work are inherently political for, as creole linguist Michel DeGraff has shown, creole languages, and by extension creole speakers, have and continue to be denigrated and lumped together as an exceptional class said to share a lack of linguistic and semantic complexity.  Therefore, to make an argument for the uniqueness and sophistication of one of these languages is also to make an argument for the uniqueness and sophistication of its speakers.


4 Comments

Filed under Haitian Kreyòl, Vodou

4 responses to “Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann: A few words on Haitian Kreyòl in the study of Haitian Vodou

  1. Thank you for this marvelous piece. I spend a lot of time teaching the underlying meanings to my students — they often cannot suss out the inner meaning for the very reasons you speak of. Their Kreyol is limited, so the finer poionts or deeper meanings tend to get lost in translation for them. (I am beginning to really dislike Google Translator for this reason!)

    • Thanks for your reply! Google Translator is a wonderful tool but, as you imply, very limited as it is still sorting out even the literal translations of Haitian Kreyòl words. I don’t know of any translation software that excels at figurative translations–yet another thing that our brains do very well and computers cannot do at all.

      Acquiring a new language is not an easy task. I still feel as though my knowledge of Kreyòl in infantile. It’s a wonderful service to be able to provide translation for those who are just beginning, as you do for your students. I don’t doubt that in time they’ll learn Kreyòl, as there’s no substitute for being able to understand something for oneself.

      • I totally understand — my kreyol is very rudimentary. When I speak, I feel like I sound like a caveman – “Where gas?” “Me hungry – where food?” Fortunately, the Haitians are very forgiving (even if they laugh when I leave!)

  2. Lunine Pierre-Jerome

    I don’t think Haitians would laugh at your Kreyol. On the contrary, we understand what it takes to learn a language having being subjected to speak French to be accepted in some sectors of the Haitian society. I command your effort to learning a new language, especially one that has such low status… even its native speakers do consider it to be a 2nd class language. For example, the former Haitian president Manigat called Kreyol a “disability” according to Dr. DeGraff. It is obvious that many so-called Haitian scholars fall short of constructing their identity because they have a colonized mind. They have lost their “ti bonnanj.”

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