A Trivial But Curious Matter

Haitian dogs understand standard Creole. To convince one to leave a house it has entered, or generally to get lost, one need only say “sòti chen!” Creole for “Dog, leave!” My Lilly only appears to be an exception. She ignores what I say to her, but immediately obeys anyone else in the neighborhood. If I really want her to get lost, all I have to do is ask Valouloun, Madan Anténor’s 14-year-old girl, to speak to her.

Cats here are, as they are in the States, a little different. People don’t much bother to tell them to go away, but when they want to call them, they say “Mimi, Mimi.” In a sense, that is their name. They all are called “Mimi”. It’s also a Creole word for “cat.” Haitians sometimes use the word Creole borrowed from French, “chat,” but they just as often use “mimi” instead.

The word’s source is obvious enough. It’s just an imitation of the sound a cat makes.

Things get interesting after dogs and cats. To tell a chicken to get lost, a Haitian says “shee!” Apparently, the word means “go away” in the language of Haitian chickens. It works for other species of domestic fowl as well: ducks, turkeys, and guinea fowl.

But if I’m not talking to a bird, I can’t say “shee”. Goats, for example, respond to “sa!” Donkeys respond to “weed!” Cattle respond to “wach”. It is as though each type of animal has its own language, and Haitians speak them all.

It’s a little curious.

I can’t figure out why, say, goats and donkeys are addressed in different ways. In the case of cats, things are clear. Haitians make a sound like a cat makes. And often enough they do the same thing when calling other animals, such as when they call chickens to feed, as opposed to when they’re driving the away.

But goats do not say “sa.”

One could try to argue that that is how Haitians hear them. It might not seem plausible to someone who’s heard a goat, but, after all, we English speakers somehow think that roosters say “cock-a-doodle-doo”. Nothing could really be farther from the case. So it shouldn’t surprise us too much if Haitians hear goat noises differently from the way we hear them.

But the argument starts to crumble when one hears young Haitians yelling “mehmeh,” when they see UN peacekeepers. Haitians say that the peacekeepers steal and eat their goats, and accuse them by making goat sounds when they pass by. If nothing else, that shows that Haitians think of goats as saying “meh.”

And the same argument can’t even get started in the case of donkeys. The odd noise they make sounds nothing like “weed.”

So I’ve been wondering where these various animal words come from. Why can’t I say “sa” to a Haitian chicken or a dog? Why can’t I say “sa” to a cow?

Surely I could. And the animal I was addressing would just as surely get the message well enough if I used the right tone of voice. No one has ever suggested that the reason Lilly fails to obey me and me alone is that my Creole pronunciation is poor.

Haitians, however, don’t mix these words. Or they don’t very much. And I just can’t figure it out.

I can tend to think of my ignorance about “sa” as contrasting sharply with my good understanding of “sòti”. I might know nothing about “sa”, but I know that “sòti” comes from the French verb “sortir*”, and can trace this latter word even farther to its Latin roots. There are people who can trace the word back farther still.

But I shouldn’t kid myself. I know nothing at all about how a sound like “sòti” came to mean “leave”. Tracing the word backwards through history might push the question into the remote past, but it doesn’t suggest an answer.

Such an unanswered question is surely less important than others, like how to fund Fonkoze’s education programs or how a poor Haitian family will pull together its next meal.

It’s trivial, but that doesn’t make it any less of a question. Enough of a question, at least, for a quiet Saturday morn