LINGUIST List 10.1812

Sun Nov 28 1999

Disc: Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax?

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Rebecca Larche Moreton, Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax? (fwd)

Message 1: Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax? (fwd)

Date: Sun, 28 Nov 1999 07:29:10 -0600
From: Rebecca Larche Moreton <>
Subject: Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax? (fwd)

The following message appeared recently on CreoLIST; I thought the
subject, and in particular John Rickford's response, would be of
interest to a larger audience, so, with Rickford's permission, here they 
are. Other responses on the same subject may be found under CreoLIST on
the LinguistList archive website,

Rebecca Larche Moreton
301 South Ninth Street
Oxford, MS 38655

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 8 Nov 1999 16:35:43 +0100
From: CreoLIST <>
To: CreoLIST <>
Subject: Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax?

Precedence: list

************* CreoLIST posting **************
Date: Mon, 8 Nov 1999 07:14:40 -0800 (PST)
From: John Rickford <rickfordcsli.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: Written Creole: Genuine or Hoax?

A student here drew my attention to the following query and reply on "The
Straight Dope" forum (,
which I reproduce for the interest of CreoLIST readers, along with my own
comment (which they may or may not print). Excuse the length, but I
thought the issues (which have to do with the legitimacy of writing
in English Creole as well as Haitian) might be of interest to our group.

John R.
- --
Did HUD publish a brochure in "Creole" containing a parody of black


Dear Cecil:

I work for a university library that receives massive amounts of federal
government documents. The shipment I opened today included multiple
translations of a pamphlet from the Department of Housing and Urban
Development called Resident Rights and Responsibilities in Spanish,
French, Ethiopian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Creole. The last one
stopped me, since I had never seen a document written in Creole. So I
opened it and read it. A paragraph is included below. This is a joke,

"Yuh as a rezedent, ave di rights ahn di rispansibilities to elp mek yuh
HUD-asisted owzing ah behta owme fi yuh ahn yuh fambily. Dis is a brochure
distributed to yuh cawze Hud ah provide some fawm ahf asistance aur
subsidy fi di whole apawtment buildin. As ah pawt ahfits dedication fi
maintain di bes pawsible living enviornment fi all rezedents, yuh HUD
field affice encourage ahn suppowts . . ."

I don't mean to cast aspersions, but this looks like bad phonetics! What's
the deal, Cecil?

(1) Is Creole a written as well as an oral dialect?

(2) Is there any French or Spanish influence in Creole (that's what I
thought I would find)?

(3) Are the above quotations formal written Creole?

(4) If number three is false, how do I find out exactly who's been
bogarting the bowl on the job to produce this
document?--Eli Harvey, Palo Alto, CA

Cecil replies: 

You skipped the best part: "We ave a pawtnaship wid everi rezedent of
HUD-assisted owzing developments: HUD prowtekss di rights ahf di tenants,
ahn tenants gauwd dem own right tru rispansible be'aviah. Owah goal is fi
guh beyan dat pawtnaship ahn create a sense ahf community . . ." This is
signed "Sekretary Andrew M. Cuomo fella." (For a longer excerpt, see doc.html.)

What do we have here: a sincere but spectacularly misguided attempt to
speak di language ahf di pipple, or racist parody? Michael Kane, executive
director of the Boston-based National Alliance of HUD Tenants, has no
doubts: "This is a vicious racist joke," he says. "It is clearly a
malicious slur" that is "deeply insulting to African-American people."
Kane speculates that the brochure was created by a prankster using one of
the burlesque "Ebonics translation programs" available on the Internet. He
thinks the responsible party "should be identified and fired."

I got conflicting stories from HUD. Initially I spoke to a junior PR
staffer who said a version of the brochure in Haitian Creole, a
French-based language, had been published in October 1998. (In
linguistics, creole is a generic term for the melding of a dominant
language with elements of a subordinate language. Both French- and
English-based creoles are spoken in the Caribbean.) The English-based
version cited above appeared earlier this year, but HUD withdrew it in
September (and the Haitian Creole version as well) after a complaint was
filed. Insisting no malice was intended, the HUD staffer said the brochure
was prepared by a contractor. Fine--blame the writer.

That was on Friday. On Monday I heard from Ginny Terzano, HUD's public
affairs director, who called to say that the document was bogus: "This was
not sanctioned or authorized by HUD. We did not knowingly distribute this.
We think it is offensive and in extremely bad taste." Having somehow
gotten through the approval process, the brochure had a print run of 2,000
copies (a small quantity for HUD), 1,500 of which were distributed before
someone higher up got wind of it. Says Terzano, "We are trying to get to
the bottom of this."

If the document was a prank, it was a clever one. "Whoever wrote the text
used certain features to reproduce phonologically the peculiarities of
Caribbean speech," says Professor Salikoko Mufwene, chairman of the
linguistics department at the University of Chicago and an expert in
English-based creoles. Authentic touches include "owme" for home, "affice"
for office, and "fambily" for family, as well as the word "fi" (to or
for), which is heard in the English-based patois of Jamaica.

But no one with half a clue would seriously attempt to write such a
brochure. One obvious problem: trying to produce a written document in
what is primarily a spoken language. While a few French-based creoles such
as Haitian have standardized spelling and are taught in the schools,
English-based creoles don't and aren't. If a speaker of Caribbean English
can read, he reads standard English.

Even if you accept HUD's explanation you have to wonder what kind of
review process would allow an embarrassment like this to get out the door.
And if it was written in good faith, then, as Mufwene puts it, "They were
stupid." No foolin, mon.


[Comment on this answer]

Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil at the
Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, or E-mail him at

- -------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 7 Nov 1999 18:48:52 -0800 (PST)
From: John Rickford <rickfordcsli.Stanford.EDU>

(1) It's not clear that this IS a form of "mock creole," parallel to
Hill's "junk Spanish" (Pragmatics 5:197-212) or Ronkin and Karn's "Mock
Ebonics" (J of Sociolinguistics 3:360-80). To begin with, there are
authentic linguistic elements, not only the ones Mufwene refers to, but
also the grammatical continuative marker "ah," found in Jamaican, Guyanese
and other varieties, as in "HUD ah provide" (=HUD is providing). If
someone is pulling a prank, it is someone with more "insider" knowledge
than those who created the internet Ebonics sites or the translation
filters that they utilize.

(2) One of the features that makes this sample look suspect is its
inconsistent and non-phonemic orthography. Contrary to "Cecil's" reply,
there is a widely accepted phonemic spelling system for English-based
creoles--the one developed by Frederic Cassidy in _Jamaica Talk_ in the
1960s, and subsequently adapted for other Caribbean varieties (Guyanese,
Barbadian, Trinidadian, and so on) in many publications since. University
of the West Indies linguist Hubert Devonish has for years been advocating
that a standardized version of the Cassidy orthography be used throughout
the Anglophone Caribbean to increase the amount of public writing in
Creole (see his 1986 book, _Language and Liberation: Creole Language
Politics in the Caribbean_). At the same time, we should not assume that a
consistent phonemic orthography is what non-linguists like best and
understand most easily. On the contrary, "lay" readers sometimes find
phonemic spellings (e.g. /kou/ for "cow") too far removed from the regular
spellings they're accustomed to, and they like the slightly modified
versions of the latter that they encounter in novels and the like. In
this respect, whoever wrote the HUD document might not have been
completely off the mark.

(3) To assume that Creole and other "vernacular" varieties that are
primarily spoken CANNOT or SHOULD not ever be written--as Cecil's reply
seems to suggest--is to foreclose the possibilities of change and to
kowtow to the strictures of the "standard language ideology" that Rosina
Lippi-Green writes about in _English with an Accent_ (1997), denying full
access, understanding and enjoyment to those who do not command the
legitimated variety. If similar strictures had been accepted in the
history of English, writing and formal discourse in England (and its
"Empire" around the globe) would still be conducted only in French (or
Latin). If similar strictures had been accepted more recently in Haiti,
the use of Haitian Creole in schools and in writing would never have

(4) So far as English-based Creoles and dialects are concerned, a number
of innovators have, for the past several decades, been flaunting
convention and producing written works in the vernacular. Not
unexpectedly, this has sometimes led to controversy, but this new
creole/dialect writing has also won praise for the increased clarity,
vitality and authenticity it has yielded. Examples come primarily from
literary genres (poetry, short stories, novels, plays), but also from
bible translations, and school texts (remarkably effective in boosting
reading scores to the extent that their experimental use has been
allowed). Two American examples that Russell Rickford and I cite in our
forthcoming book (_Spoken Soul_, Jan 2000) are P.K. McCrary's translation
of bible passages into African American Vernacular, and the American Bible
Society's translation of the Book of Luke into Gullah or South
Carolina/Georgia Sea Island Creole (_De Gud News Bout Jedus Wa Luke
Write_). Rev. Ervin Greene, an African American pastor on St. Helena
Island who assisted with the Gullah translation, said that an old Gullah
speaker thanked him effusively for it, saying "Rev, fuh de firs' time--God
talk to me de way I talk!" Prize-winning poets and writers from the
Caribbean, African America and Hawaii have drawn not only on mainstream
English, but also on their English creoles and dialects in their work. The
list includes Nobel Prize Winners Derek Walcott (St Lucia) and Toni
Morrison (USA) and Pulitzer and Tony Prize winner August Wilson (USA).

(5) It is striking--and evidence of the force of the dominant language
ideology faced by vernacular-writers and users that HUD's English creole
version was withdrawn after a single complaint was filed. It is even more
striking, that the Haitian Creole version was ALSO withdrawn even though
no complaint was directed at that version and even though there is an
established tradition of writing, reading and teaching in Haitian Creole.
This is a pattern that has occurred repeatedly in the Caribbean and the US
at least since the 1950s, and it has the effect of preserving and
protecting the status quo, and stymieing efforts to enfranchise and
include the masses in policy-making, communication, education and the
arts. What if we took another approach, and encouraged innovations in the
vernacular when a single commendation is received, like the one from the
Gullah speaker who was delighted that in _De Good News Bout Jedus Christ
Wa Luke Write_ God spoke to her for the first time, in her language? 
Even though it was written in a different creole than the one I speak
natively (Guyanese Creole), the first time I read a translation of a
portion of the bible into West African Pidgin English (similar to Guyanese
Creole in a number of respects), I understood it with a clarity and
immediacy than I never had before, despite my fluency in mainstream or
standard English. 

(6) In sum, the HUD translation may not have been a hoax, but an attempt
to convey whatever HUD intended to convey with a clarity and forcefulness
that speakers of English-based creoles (quite numerous in New York, LA,
Miami, Toronto, and elsewhere in North America) might well get most
readily in their own vernacular. Its effectiveness as a translation is
open to evaluation (as any translation might be), but let's not jump to
the conclusion that ANY translation of a HUD document, or ANY use of
creole for serious expository or expressive writing is out of the
question. There are numerous examples already of the possibilies for
innovation and success in this area.

- John R. Rickford (Stanford)
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