March 31, 2011 | French
I look for Haitian French in this Brooklyn neighborhood.
At a local coffee shop yesterday, I found myself studying French between a French-speaking Haitian woman at the table to my left, and a Japanese woman at the table to my right. Sitting with the Haitian woman was another Japanese woman, who ended up speaking delightedly across my table in Japanese to the Japanese woman on my right, while I spoke in French to the Haitian woman.
The experience inspired me to search for more French speakers from Haiti. New York, especially Brooklyn, has many Haitian residents.
Offices of the Haitian Times
I decided to go to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, where I got off at the Prospect Park subway stop and walked over to Flatbush Avenue.
My first destination: the offices of the Haitian Times, a weekly distributed here and in Haiti. The publisher wasn’t there, but I had a nice albeit brief conversation in French with an employee there. She said that the paper has some French content, though most of the articles are in English, and gave me the publisher’s contact information.
According to the publication’s website, “In the last two decades the number of Haitian immigrants in the New York metropolitan area has grown from 100,000 to close to 500,000 people.”
A Slice of Flatbush Avenue
Heading Towards Church Avenue
Haitian Creole and French are Haiti’s two official languages. Official recognition came late to Haitian Creole, despite the fact that it is spoken by virtually everyone in Haiti, while French is spoken by a much smaller percentage of the population. Although French has a powerful hold on business, government, and literature there, only 10 to 20 percent of Haitians speak it.
Compere & Compere, for Tax Services
I did not know that the number of French speakers in Haiti was so small until I ended up in Flatbush looking for people to talk to, but I have spoken French to quite a few Haitians in New York over the years since I moved here and never had any trouble (well, aside from the fact that my French kept degrading).
Wandering off the street into Compere & Compere, which offers tax and accounting services, I struck up a conversation in French with an employee who told me that they generally use Creole and English with their clients, not French. The only non-English text on her business card was in Creole: a sentence announcing that she spoke that language.
After I left this establishment, I continued south down Flatbush Avenue, where I was told by one of various men hanging out on the sidewalk, “You look like Pink! I like you!” This in spite of the fact that I had my headphones on, with the sound turned off, in an effort to deter the commendable efforts of men such as this one to pay charming tribute to passing women. Some men are just too committed to language to be so easily deterred; their love of the art of communication is admirable.
As I walked, I couldn’t help noticing that French was thematically relevant to the names of numerous dry cleaners in the neighborhood.
Cleaning Services at Maison Charles
And Yet More French Cleanliness!
Heading South on Flatbush Avenue
Is that how it always is with dry cleaning businesses, or did this have something to do with the Haitian presence in this neighborhood? My own Upper West Side dry cleaner speaks Tagalog, and there is no French anything in the store name.
When I hit Church Avenue, I made a right and passed some French on storefronts. Not a lot, but some.
This Store Sells Articles Divers (Sundries)
Belle Fourchette (Nice Fork?) Offers Catering
A final observation: the percentage of non-French four-letter words I heard while walking around this neighborhood was somewhat higher than I encounter on my average day in New York. All such words came from men. “Fucking,” used in the adjectival sense, was in fact the first or second word I heard when I got off the subway.
This experience made me think about the use of the expression “pardon my French” to excuse expletives. A quick Google search has yielded multiple explanations of this phrase, with the most likely one from my point of view (and this is not an informed point of view, I admit) being that it grew out of anti-French sentiment and a desire to blame bad behavior on another country.