XII. - 7. Mauritius Creole.

The view here advanced on the character of these 'Pidgin' languages is corroborated when we see that other languages under similar circumstances have been treated in exactly the same way as English. With regard to French in the island of Mauritius, formerly Ile de France, we are fortunate in possessing an excellent treatment of the subject by M. C. Baissac (Étude sur le Patois Créole Mauricien, Nancy, 1880; cf. the same writer's Le Folk-lore de l'Ile-Maurice, Paris, 1888, Les littératures populaires, tome xxvii). The island was uninhabited when the French occupied it in 1715; a great many slaves were imported from Madagascar, and as a means of intercourse between them and their French masters a French creole language sprang up, which has survived the English conquest (1810) and the subsequent wholesale introduction of coolies from India and elsewhere. The paramount element in the vocabulary is French; one may read many pages in Baissac's texts without coming across any foreign words, apart from the names of some indigenous animals and plants. In the phonetic structure there are a few all-pervading traits: the front-round vowels are replaced by the corresponding unrounded vowels or in a few cases by [u], and instead of [S, Z] we find [s, z]; thus éré heureux, éne plime une plume, sakéne chacun(e), zize juge, zunu genou, suval cheval: I replace Baissac's notation, which is modelled on the French spelling, by a more phonetic one according to his own indications; but I keep his final e muet.

The grammar of this language is as simple as possible. Substantives have the same form for the two numbers: dé suval deux chevaux. There is no definite article. The adjective is invariable, thus also sa for ce, cet, cette, ces, ceci, cela, celui, celle, ceux, celles. Mo before a verb is 'I', before a substantive it is possessive: mo koné I know, mo lakaze my house; in the same way to is you and your, but in the third person a distinction is made, for li is he or she, but his or her is so, and here we have even a plural, zaute from 'les autres', which form is also used as a plural of the second person: mo va alle av zaut, I shall go with you.

The genitive is expressed by word-order without any preposition: lakaze so papa his father's house; also with so before the nominative: so piti ppa Azor old Azor's child.

The form in which the French words have been taken over presents some curious features, and in some cases illustrates the difficulty the blacks felt in separating the words which they heard in the French utterance as one continuous stream of sounds. There is evidently a disinclination to begin a word with a vowel, and sometimes an initial vowel is left out, as bitation habitation, tranzé étranger, but in other cases z is taken from the French plural article: zozo oiseau, zistoire, zenfan, zimaze image, zalfan éléfant, zanimo animal, or n from the French indefinite article: name ghost, nabi (or zabi) habit. In many cases the whole French article is taken as an integral part of the word, as lérat rat, léroi, licien chien, latabe table, lére heure (often as a conjunction 'when'); thus also with the plural article lizié from les yeux, but without the plural signification: éne lizié an eye. Similarly éne lazoie a goose. Words that are often used in French with the so-called partitive article keep this; thus disel salt, divin wine, duri rice, éne dipin a loaf; here also we meet with one word from the French plural: éne dizéf an egg, from des œufs. The French mass-word with the partitive article du monde has become dimunde or dumune, and as it means 'people' and no distinction is made between plural and singular, it is used also for 'person': éne vié dimunde an old man.

Verbs have only one form, generally from the French infinitive or past participle, which in most cases would fall together (manzé = manger, mangé; kuri = courir, couru); this serves for all persons in both numbers and all moods. But tenses are indicated by means of auxiliary words: va for the future, from été for the ordinary past, and fine for the perfect: mo manzé I eat, mo va manzé I shall eat, mo té manzé I ate, mo fine manzé I have eaten, mo fine fini I have finished. Further, there is a curious use of apré to express what in English are called the expressive or expanded tenses: mo apré manzé I am eating, mo té apré manzé I was eating, and of pour to express the immediate future: mo pour manzé I am going to eat, and finally an immediate past may be expressed by fék: mo fék manzé I have just been eating (je ne fais que de manger). As these may be combined in various ways (mo va fine manzé I shall have eaten, even mo té va fék manzé I should have eaten a moment ago, etc.), the language has really succeeded in building up a very fine and rich verbal system with the simplest possible means and with perfect regularity.

The French separate negatives have been combined into one word each: napa not (there is not), narien nothing, and similarly nék.

In many cases the same form is used for a substantive or adjective and for a verb: mo soif, mo faim I am thirsty and hungry; li content so madame he is fond of his wife.

Côte (or à côte) is a preposition 'by the side of, near', but also means 'where': la case àcote li resté 'the house in which he lives'; cf. Pidgin side.

In all this, as will easily be seen, there is very little French grammar; this will be especially evident when we compare the French verbal system with its many intricacies: difference according to person, number, tense and mood with their endings, changes of root-vowels and stress-place, etc., with the unchanged verbal root and the invariable auxiliary syllables of the Creole. But there is really as little in the Creole dialect of Malagasy grammar, as I have ascertained by looking through G. W. Parker's Grammar (London, 1883): both nations in forming this means of communication have, as it were, stripped themselves of all their previous grammatical habits and have spoken as if their minds were just as innocent of grammar as those of very small babies, whether French or Malagasy. Thus, and thus only, can it be explained that the grammar of this variety of French is for all practical purposes identical with the grammar of those two varieties of English which we have previously examined in this chapter.

No one can read Baissac's collection of folk-tales from Mauritius without being often struck with the felicity and even force of this language, in spite of its inevitable naïveté and of the childlike simplicity of its constructions. If it were left to itself it might develop into a really fine idiom without abondoning any of its characteristic traits. But as it is, it seems to be constantly changing through the influence of real French, which is more and more taught to and imitated by the islanders, and the day may come when most of the features described in this rapid sketch will have given place to something which is less original, but will be more readily understood by Parisian globe-trotters who may happen to visit the distant island.

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James Chandler 3-Jun-02