| The use of Creole and
the loss of Tamil by the immigrants and their descendants is linguistic witness of their
adjustment into the pre-existing social structure of colonial society. Those who settled
in the Island after the completion of their contract became part of. the general
population. At the end of the last century, immigrants' children born on La Réunion were
automatically French. Like the majority of the population of the Island, they were French
citizens speaking Creole as a first language.
An interesting anthropological fact about the loss of the Tamil language among this population of Indian origin is that this loss did not imply the disappearance of Tamil representations forms of speech and practices. These have persisted, especially in the private sphere, even through the media of Creole and, in a smaller degree, of French. People whose ancestors are all Indians, still have numerous traditional ways of thinking, notably by proverbs and maxims referring to elders and their advice, in both of the two adopted languages. Notions such as cleanliness, purity, honour, protection, devotion, auspiciousness, sacrifice, fate, separation, propitiation, the evil eye, dependence and hierarchy are still constantly mentioned or implicitly referred to in daily life (Ghasarian 1991, 1993, 1997). This shows that a specific system of values and ideas can persist outside the context of its original language of expression. Multicultural societies often create this kind of disjuncture between language and culture (Shopen 1987).
At the end of the eighteenth Century and at the beginning of the twentieth Century some Chinese and Muslim Gujaratis were brought to the Island to do business (Ly-Tio-Fane Pineo 1981; Nemo 1983). If the circumstances of immigration of these populations differ from that of the African, the Malagasy and the Hindu population, the Chinese and the Gujaratis still had to speak Creole to accommodate themselves to the host society. Their coming and integration did not change the basic linguistic stratification of colonial society. As for the Hindu population, the second generation, under the cultural pressure of the larger society, did not speak its ancestors' native language anymore. For almost all the non French immigrants in La Réunion, Creole has been the first language to learn and to practice. The loss of the original language among Africans, Malagasy, "Poor Whites" (Petits-Blancs), Tamils, Chinese and Gujaratis is also due to the numerous inter-marriages that occurred from the earliest days on the Island.
Historically French has always been the official language used notably by the administration and the church. Particularly since 1946, when the status of the Island changed from a colony into a department and when most of the infrastructures of France started to be developed in the Island, French has been the language of general education. However, even today, French is not spoken by the majority of people at home. It is a second language whose apprenticeship only starts during the second socialisation when going to school (Lauret 1985; Cellier 1987). For most of the population in the Island, Creole, integrated during the first socialisation into the family, is the mother tongue. It is the language of emotion and is used among relatives and during informal interactions outside the household.
Being the official language of this French department, French is yet widespread in the society. In its written form, it is the language of the law and of everything that implies political power. It is also spoken in administrative arenas, in office work (except among workers in the fields and in the factories), on the radio, on television, etc. As French is learnt at school, its mastery demonstrates a level of education. Because the French language is in every institution of the society, everyone on the Island generally reads and understands basic French. Yet only a small fragment of the population can actually speak it Techer 1984; Saint-Omer & Lauret 1986; Cellier 1985, 1986). The ability or the inability to speak French both establishes and expresses stratification in society. Everyday interactions and conversations operate with this implicit criterion. This linguistic feature explains why metropolitan French people, visiting the Island or living there, place themselves - and are placed by the native population of La Réunion - in an implicit position of superiority, just because they speak French fluently. Although this phenomenon is not quite fully and consciously experienced on both sides, it nevertheless operates as a distinctive pattern among people in the Island.
Since the beginning of settlement on the Island, French has been the language of political power. Its usage today places one in a valued position, especially when interacting with someone who does not manage the language very well (or at all). We thus have two kinds of population using the French language in La Réunion : a small proportion of people from metropolitan France (approximately five percent) who "naturally" speak French as a mother tongue; and the native Islanders who, with the exception of the very few families of French descent who have owned - and for a great part still own - the lands, and educated families (middle-class and upper middle class) who make a point of speaking French at home, hardly speak French outside the formal contexts in which they are involved in society For this general population, French is a second language that, although it is present everywhere in the places of power and status in society, is not easy to manage because it is not practised very often.
Retour à la page précédente
Page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4, page 5, page 6
Copyright © Christian GHASARIAN - 2002