Creole in the National Assembly?

Public debate and input must inform any eventual decision, because the politician will be too apt to give in to populism

This issue was flagged in last week’s editorial of this paper. As Creole is the common language of communication of all Mauritians, all of us therefore have a stake in this matter which has been coming up from time to time. Lately, as pointed out in the editorial, ‘Now that the National Assembly has taken to live broadcasting of parliamentary debates, the question has been asked as to whether, over and above the accepted official English and French languages to be used in parliament, it would not be time to let Creole become one more language in which members of the Assembly could also make deliberations.

In this context, the argument has been put forward that Creole would be more widely understood, helping the TV viewing public to better understand the issues being debated. Whether for political correctness vis-à-vis voters or out of sheer conviction, most political parties have lately exhibited some type of quasi-concurrence for the additional use of Creole in the Assembly. There are those who feel more at ease with the existing linguistic disposition for parliamentary debates.’

However, in my humble opinion this argument ‘that Creole would be more widely understood’ does not hold too much water. While there is no doubt that this is true, from the mass of comments seen on social media and heard across the board, what mostly retains the attention of the populace is not the actual contents of what was being debated. It is rather the antics and theatricals of those who were intervening, with satirical remarks on their gestures and clichés, and a focus on the sheer quasi-pugilistic stance of some of them at times.

The people who are genuinely interested in the substance of the debates resort to accounts given in the dailies and also on social media, and this too only about a couple of major ones that are of greater topical importance, such as the Metro Express for example. For the rest, it is only at election time that people get excited when masala-laden speeches are made by the politicians during electoral meetings.

Need for decorum

On the other hand, ‘At some stage of this debate, the question arose as to whether strict limits of decorum, as has been implied by authorising the use of European languages within clearly defined parameters of what is “unparliamentary language” will not get violated when allowing an unbridled use of brittle Creole expressions yet to be tested as to their suitability in the “august assembly”. Some believe there are risks that members could take advantage to test their uncouth vocabulary during parliamentary debates – although the fact remains that MPs are already crossing the bounds of decency even when employing the two authorised European languages’ (italics added).

The first point here is that we have now gone well past any consideration of the superiority or inferiority of any language. On the basis that the medium is the message, any language that fits the occasion is the one that is used. In Mauritius this can mean using two or three different languages concurrently, from among French, English, Creole, Bhojpuri, Hindi in the main.

Every language has evolved in a given context, and has its own beauty and elegance. This applies to Creole too, which is dynamic – that is, continuously evolving as it easily adopts and adapts words from other languages, grammatically simple, colourful, besides being relatively easy to learn and speak. As we know for ourselves, from the numerous words from Bhojpuri and other languages present locally that have crept into Creole – and vice-versa – for obvious historical reasons.

However, this very plasticity, if I may call it so, and fluidity of the language makes its prone to flippancy by its users, especially on supercharged occasions like political campaigns. Since we seem to be permanently in campaign mode here, this volatile atmosphere quite frequently spills over into the National Assembly as well. As a result, the use of Creole in such a situation presents a real risk of its elastic limits being stretched to resort to the more ‘brittle Creole expressions’ in which Creole abounds by virtue of the MPs being very fluent in Creole and its very richness – which here would be a weakness.

The two languages currently in use, English and French, do contain some such ‘brittle expressions’, but do not lend themselves to such dérapages, for one because the MPs are less fluent in these two non-native languages. Although ‘MPs are already crossing the bounds of decency even when employing the two authorised European languages’, they can never go as far as using expressions loaded with the profusion of ‘mama’ expletives which are to be found in Creole.

This brings us to the second reason for the lesser possibility of uncouth vocabulary when MPs speak in English or French, namely that similar equivalents are not to be found in these two languages, in which interjections of disgust, exasperation or disdain tend to be couched more in subtle humour, irony or sarcasms. In the heat of the moment and the tongue having no lezo (bone) given free vent, the risk with Creole is ever present – even if such words are made to be retracted afterwards as being unparliamentary, the offence and the damage done would be well-nigh irreparable, with unpredictable unintended consequences.

As it is, ‘tombe dehors’ has on a number of occasions been heard in the National Assembly. Can we take the risk of more of this, and of the time that will be wasted in trying to cool tempers or prevent coming to blows?

Demagogy and the larger, global context

Even as far back as 1982 in the heat of ‘ene sel lepep ene sel nation’ campaign, it was common knowledge that some of the most virulent protagonists of Creole were sending their kids to Lycée Labourdonnais, and that they spoke French with the family at home. This hypocrisy and demagogy continues: I have had occasion to come across a few of such votaries who interact with their children in French only.

So Creole was to be for the lumpen proletariat, and French for the elite, the existing and the emerging. However, the irony did not escape the former for they have caught up as they do not want to be left behind, and rightly so. It is a fact that almost every Mauritian parent speaks French to the children, and this is the reality in the so-called cités too. One only has to visit some families there to make this out for oneself. And that is why I have no hesitation in qualifying this démarche of the use of Creole in Parliament as hypocrisy and demagogy.

Everybody nowadays in Mauritius understands, and speaks, French, if even to a variable degree. Surely the use of French will incentivise those who are less proficient to better themselves? And the same reasoning applies to the use of English, both for those who will have to deliver in the National Assembly, as well as others who may be listening to the debates being broadcast live. Surely this will be a gain for the country, for the future generations, in the long run?

But more importantly, as Thomas Eriksen said in an interview in this paper some time ago, ‘let me add that a real asset for Mauritians in the wider world is the increasingly fluent and sophisticated mastery of not only French, but also English in the population. That is real knowledge capital; it is hard to get, it travels, and Mauritians have it.’

So, do we bite or don’t we? Wouldn’t we be eminently stupid and insular if we don’t?

And what about the Hansard?

Will it be recorded in Creole, then translated back again? What a colossal waste of time that would be. Has any thought been given to this aspect in the bid to score Brownie points for academic purposes or to meet populist rhetoric?

So let us recover some sense and take heed of what the editorial concluded, ‘The decision to introduce any other language in the Parliament cannot be taken lightly and cannot be only a political one. It is as important an issue as that of whether to include one’s religion or ethnic group on the electoral voting paper, and must therefore be thought through very thoroughly. Public debate and input must inform any eventual decision, because the politician will be too apt to take the path of least resistance and give in to populism. This, in the long run, will surely go against the larger interest of future generations of Mauritians in a globalising world where competence in the major international languages is a passport to higher goals and positions. So we have to tread very carefully and not take any hasty decision in the matter.’

As the adage goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ Besides we must not lose hope that at some future time the interventions in our temple of democracy may well reach – if we maintain the convention of speaking in French and English – a level of spoken proficiency that will truly make it deserve to be called an ‘August Assembly.’

Q.E.D.

 

 

* Published in print edition on 11 August 2017

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