| Creole was - and still
is - a mixed dialect based largely on the French language. It was the product of the
verbal interaction between the white landowners and their slaves. However, despite the
presence of numerous French words, Creole contains some characteristic words and sometimes
a specific syntax. Creole also became the language of the white people who came too late
to acquire lands and who had an economic status very close to that of the slave
population. Though French was spoken by a small proportion of the population (the upper
strata), it was from the beginning the official written language of the society and Creole
was the adapted dialect for the lower population. French was the language of judicial
power and Creole the language of subjection. A crucial characteristic of Creole is that it
was a subsequent language largely created from French. This fact still has an imprint on
the linguistic and social situation in La Réunion today (Nemo1979).
The abolition of slavery took place in 1848 (Wanquet 1977). From that time, the majority of the emancipated slaves stopped working for the white landowners who had to find other labourers to work in their plantations. This situation put the Island in a crisis. Numerous Indian workers were progressively brought to La Réunion to substitute for the slaves in the sugar cane plantations. The bulk of this population came from South India (notably the French settlements of Pondichery and Karikal in Tamil Nadu) (Lacpatia 1982; Gerbeau 1986; Marimoutou M. 1986). The labourers who went there under a five-year contract were mainly men. Despite their status as "free workers" they experienced a situation very close to that of their predecessors in the plantations. They had to comply to strong authoritarian behaviour and even to endure some bad treatment from the white landowners. Moreover, because of the French policy to "civilise" the populations under its control, Indian immigrants had to avoid any outward expression of their difference. Not only could they not practise Hindu rituals freely at the time of their introduction to the Island (something that their contract nevertheless authorised), they also had to go to church, to wear western clothes and to speak the language associated with their status (Benoit 1986; Barat 1989; Ghasarian 1991).
Ranked among the lower strata of the population, Indian workers had to learn Creole. It is important to indicate that although it was not the official language, Creole became then the most common spoken language of the colony It was the first new language immigrants had to learn. The appropriation of Creole by this new population of Indian descent transformed this dialect as numerous Tamil words were added to the Creole lexicon that already contained words of Malagasy origin (Chaudenson 1974; Carayol 1976; Carayol et al 1984, 1989). Among the new words was the word kari, meaning 'meal' in Tamil. The entire population of the Island uses this word today to designate the daily meal based on rice. Since the masking of Indian patterns facilitated incorporation into the society, the use of the Tamil language (that was sometimes simply prohibited by the landowners) became less and less favoured and was eventually forgotten. This original language has only been maintained by a few people who began to act as priests in the Hindu temples, when the official practice of this religion was ultimately tolerated.
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