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American Flamingo, by John J. Audubon, Brooklyn Museum

American Flamingo by John J. Audubon, Brooklyn Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Famous Créoles

There are several famous Créoles. John James Audubon was born in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue. Saint-Domingue is the current HaitiJoséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon I, was also a Créole. She was born in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique. Although Célestine Musson De Gas, Edgar Degas’ mother, was a Créole, Edgar was born in Paris, France and, therefore, Degas is not a Créole.

John Singer Sargent‘s controversial  “Madame X” was Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Virginie Gautreau was a Créole (people) from Louisiana. She was born in New Orleans, but moved to France at the age of 8. Virginie and Joséphine de Beauharnais may have been exposed to créole (the language), but they spoke French, a standard or koiné language. (See Créole Peoples, Wikipedia)

The Cotton Exchange, by Edgar Degas, 1873

The Cotton Exchange by Edgar Degas, 1873 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Colonialism and the development of natural languages

Colonialism led to the growth of languages called natural languages, many of these languages are créole languages. Créole languages are spoken by people inhabiting former French colonies as well as the former colonies of Spain and Portugal. (See Créole Language, Wikipedia)

The Development of créole (language)

The development of Créole languages is related to the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves created a language based on the language spoken by slave owners yet somewhat different. In his Uncle Remus‘ stories Joel Chandler Harris used an eye dialect to represent a Deep South Gullah “dialect,” the English spoken by Uncle Remus, Harris’ narrator. Reading Harris is not easy. Deep South Gullah is also a natural language, as is créole, except that it is based on English. Joel Chandler Harris has been discussed and will be discussed again in a forthcoming post. There are many French Créole languages, Louisiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe constituting three locations where it has been preserved.

Such is also the case with créole languages based on Spanish and Portuguese. Criollo is Spanish and crioulo, Portuguese. The word “créole” is derived from the Latin creare: to create. (See Creole language, Wikipedia.)

My goal was to include a discussion of prominent black persons, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and mulattos. My post was too long. They will be discussed in a forthcoming post, perhaps today.


The Wikipedia entry on French Créole languages includes French as it is or was spoken in Quebec among créole languages. That is problematical. Alexis de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859), and Gustave de Beaumont (6 February 1802 – 30 March 1866) were able to communicate fluently with the citizens of the former New France. There were a few slaves in New France, but I doubt that they had to create a language slave owners would understand.

Alexis de Tocqueville

In 1831, when Tocqueville visited Bas-Canada (Lower Canada), the French nation he discovered spoke 17th-century French.[i] “The French nation has been preserved there. As a result, one can observe the customs and the language spoken during Louis XIV’s reign.”

« Le Canada pique vivement notre curiosité. La nation française s’y est conservée intacte : on y a les mœurs et on y parle la langue du siècle de Louis XIV. » (Tocqueville)  

However, as Tocqueville noted, anglicisms were entering the French spoken in Bas-Canada.

« Tant à Montréal qu’à Québec, la langue anglaise domine dans la vie et sur la place publique : ‹ La plupart des journaux, les affiches et jusqu’aux enseignes des marchands français sont en anglais. ›» (Corbo & Tocqueville)

In both cities, “all the signs [enseignes] are in English and there are only two English theatres.” During his visit to the courthouse in Quebec City, Tocqueville observes the predominance of the English language and the mediocrity of the language of French-speaking lawyers, which is riddled with Anglicisms. (Corbo)


French-speaking Canadians or Québécois sometimes speak “joual,” which is the “joual” way of saying “cheval” (horse). Shame on them! I have also noticed that some of my Acadian students spoke French more intelligibly than others. But they spoke French. Acadian author Antonine Maillet was awarded the Prix Goncourt for her Pélagie-la-charrette (1979). The Goncourt is the most coveted literary prize for authors writing in French.

Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, better known as

John Singer Sargent’s Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, better known as “Madame X,” was a Creole from New Orleans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Créole people and the créole language

Créole people: the common denominator is the place of birth, not colour or mixed racial origin.

Créoles can be white people born in a French colony, or black and mulatto people inhabiting French colonies mainly. However, créole is also spoken by the descendants of Spanish or Portuguese settlers born outside Spain or Portugal, in a Spanish or Portuguese colony. According to Britannica, a Créole was “originally, any person of European (mostly French or Spanish) or African descent born in the West Indies or parts of French or Spanish America (and thus naturalized in those regions rather than in the parents’ home country).”[ii]

As for créole languages, they are natural languages, as is African-American English. Joel Chandler Harris‘ Uncle Remus speaks African-American English, a Gullah English. According to Britannica, créole languages are “vernacular languages that developed in colonial European plantation settlements in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of contact between groups that spoke mutually unintelligible languages.”[iii]

Consequently, Créole people do not necessarily speak a créole language.  For instance, Edgar Degas‘ mother, Célestine Musson De Gas, was a Créole from Louisiana, but Edgar was born in Paris. He is not a Créole. Similarly, the first wife of Napoléon I, Joséphine de Beauharnaiswas a Créole. Joséphine was born in Martinique, a French colony, although she was white, she may have been familiar with a créole language. However, both Edgar Degas and Joséphine spoke French, a standard language or koiné language. A koiné language is a standard language or dialect (English, French, Spanish, etc.) that has arisen as a result of contact between two or more mutually intelligible varieties (dialects) of the same language.” (See Koiné language, Wikipedia.)[iv]

Quebec women caught speaking créole: Language Watchdogs Alerted

Recently, the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), the Quebec Board of the French Language, received a complaint because two women were speaking créole, in the workplace, rather than French.



[i] Claude Corbo, Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America. As indicated, Corbo is at times the narrator and, at times, a translator. 
[ii] “Creole.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/142548/Creole>.
[iii] “creole languages.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
[iv] “koine.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.
Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (c. 1745 – c. 1799)
11th Concerto, in G Major, Opus 7, No. 2, Largo
Orchestre de chambre de Versailles
Bernard Wahl & Anne-Claude Villars
The painting is a detail from Jean-Honoré Fragonard‘s  “Progress of Love: the Meeting”  


© Micheline Walker
19 January 2014
Monsieur de Saint-George, Portrait de Mather Brown & William Ward.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)