Language strategies
in La Réunion*

Association for French Language Studies - University of Hull (England)
Cahiers 4.3 -
Autumn 1998

An article by Christian Ghasarian, anthropologist
Institut d'Ethnologie de Neuchâtel (Suisse)



     This paper addresses the contextual use of Creole and French in the French multicultural Islandd of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean. It shows how the situational stakes automatically induce the usage of such and such language to communicate. The paper also stresses that the common association between language and culture is not always accurate. This is particularly obvious through the example of people originally from Tamil Nadu living in the Island who (if they have an endogamous descent) carry a value system close to that of their peers in South India although they do not practise the Tamil language anymore.




    Multicultural societies are generally societies where one culture induces and exhibits a main. model. While members of this dominant culture generally speak only the official language of the society, members of subcultures frequently have to manage at least two languages, as the one they learn and practice at home may be different from that of the global society (Woolard 1985). Therefore the language can be used contextually, .according to the social situation in which people are involved. At the same time as it allows communication between people, language also says something about the speakers. In multicultural societies, it reveals, among other things, one's ethnic and educational background and, sometimes, one's political engagement. The speech act is thus an important part of the organisation of meaning in complex societies.

   The case of the Island of La Réunion, a small multicultural society in the Indian Ocean, offers an interesting example of cultural and linguistic complexity. Two hundred kilometres away from Mauritius, this island, previously a French colony, has been a French "department" since 1946. The continuous dialectic between language, culture and society is particularly obvious in this multicultural context.

   To understand the present linguistic situation on La Réunion, it is necessary to retrace briefly the "history of language" in this society. Like Mauritius, La Réunion was devoid of any inhabitants a little more than three centuries ago. At the end of the seventeenth Century, the French State decided to establish a colony there to produce sugar (Leguen 1979; Scherer 1980). Before (and to a certain extent even after) Mauritius became a British territory, the history of these two islands, based on the same principles directed to the same goals, has been quite similar. Slaves were brought from Africa, notably Mozambique, and from Madagascar to work in the sugar cane plantations (Filliot 1974; Capela & Medeiros 1989; Fuma 1992) (1). The population of La Réunion was at first divided between two very different categories: the French landowners on one side, the African and Malagasy slaves on the other. The white masters spoke French and the subordinates rapidly lost their original language. Under very difficult living conditions, this latter population developed a culture of its own as well as a. specific language called Creole.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented under the title "Everyday linguistic adjustments in a multicultural society" at the 92nd Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC, 17-21 November 1993. (Back to the top).
Some research has also found that some Indians and Malay were also in a kind of slavery on the Island (Gerbeau 1979).

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Copyright © Christian GHASARIAN - 2002