Same-sex marriage in Ireland

I’m of (part) Irish descent, so I like to keep up-to-date with what is happening in the so-called old country. Last May, however, a piece of news out of Ireland grasped the attention of many people with no connection to that country whatsoever: the Irish public voted in a referendum to legalize same-sex marriage. ‘Gay Couples Awake to New Ireland,’ shouted The New York Times.

Part of the headline grabbing stemmed from the fact that Ireland was long considered one of the most socially conservative countries in Western Europe. It was one of the last nations in the world to legally permit divorce (in 1995) – interestingly, also after a referendum. Abortion still remains highly restricted. With regard specifically to same-sex relations, male homosexuality was a criminal offence in Ireland until 1993 (lesbianism in contrast was never illegal).

On the other hand, it is clear that Ireland has changed. For instance, in 2007 33% of babies in that country were born outside marriage – although a couple of studies suggest that these children are not born to mothers truly on their own but to women living in what are marriages in everything but name. Public support for same-sex marriage seems less surprising in light of these figures.

One perceived hindrance to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Ireland was the Roman Catholic Church, the religion to which most Irish adhere and which officially opposes gay marriage and homosexuality in general. However, many individual Catholics do not necessarily share the church hierarchy’s views on same-sex marriage. Polls in the United States have shown that Catholics are actually more likely than the general population to approve of marriage between two people of the same sex, at about the same level as mainline Protestants and at far higher levels than Christian fundamentalists. Even some Catholic priests in Ireland have voiced support for same-sex marriage. One priest in County Donegal explained why he would be voting ‘yes’ in the referendum in defiance of ecclesiastical doctrine. Finally, not all homophobia is religiously motivated: for example, male same-sex relations were punishable by jail time in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union.

Ireland’s ‘yes’ vote appears to be part of a trend toward the recognition of same-sex relationships throughout the Western world, whether in the form of actual marriage or civil unions, which even some people who feel marriage should be between a man and a woman can accept. Canada legalized marriages between members of the same sex in 2003. An effort to re-open the issue by the federal Conservative government in 2006 failed. Ireland now simply seems to be coming in line with the rest of the West.

As a person of Irish descent (and, for the record, a heterosexual), I lack strong feelings about same-sex marriage in Ireland or elsewhere, for that matter. I tend to be fairly skeptical of marriage as a whole, regardless of the gender of the people involved. Part of this may be due to my own parents’ highly dysfunctional marriage. My skepticism is further boosted by news reports, for instance, of a woman forced to pay alimony to her ex-husband ‘disabled’ by his alcoholism. On the other hand, if heterosexuals have the option of legally marrying, homosexual couples should be able to do so too, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with legal wedlock – such as having to pick up an alcoholic ex-spouse’s bar tabs. Speaking more seriously, I can understand why a gay or lesbian couple might want to have an official seal of approval on their relationship, especially if they have children. I wouldn’t begrudge any gays or lesbians the right to marry – not in spite but perhaps because of my own disinterest in the institution of matrimony.

To Irish gays and lesbians hoping to take advantage of their new right, choose wisely!


Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian?

Last December marked the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind. The film, like the historical novel by Margaret Mitchell on which it was based, has generated a wide range of reactions over the years. A (White) teacher of mine in high school called Gone with the Wind the best movie ever made. On the other hand, my mother (also White) happened to chance upon the film as she was flicking through the channels on her TV and remarked to me, ‘It really was a racist movie,’ echoing a criticism often voiced against Gone with the Wind.

To be fair, Gone with the Wind was not The Birth of a Nation. Rather, ‘Negroes,’ the polite word by which Blacks were known then, were portrayed in the former film as good people as long as they knew their place, which happened to be slavery before the Civil War and serving in the O’Hara household afterwards. Even the bumbling slave girl Prissy (‘I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies’) comes across as more or less benign; she, after all, isn’t clamouring for freedom or joining the Yankees.

It might come as a surprise, therefore, that Vivien Leigh, the actress who played the main character Scarlett O’Hara, may not have been purely ‘White’ as we understand the term. Although Leigh is generally described as British, she may actually have been part-Indian, from India.

Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, at a time when that country was under British rule. Her father was from Britain itself (Yorkshire), but her mother’s origins are more mysterious. Leigh’s maternal grandmother is believed to have been Irish; her Catholic religion seems to suggest this (statements that Vivien Leigh was half-French were in all probability fictitious, part of a ruse to make her further resemble the character she played in Gone with the Wind). Her maternal grandfather’s surname is given as Yackjee, which is thought to be an Indian name. Vivien Leigh may therefore have been an Anglo-Indian.

Who are the Anglo-Indians? Anglo-Indians are people of mixed Indian and European background who, as a group, arose during India’s days as a European colony. Anglo-Indians’ European ancestry generally hailed from England itself, but some Anglo-Indians had forbears from other European countries that ruled (parts of) India, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, while others descended from Europeans who came to India along with the English, like the Irish. Most first-generation Anglo-Indians were born to White fathers and South Asian mothers rather than the opposite combination. In time, however, Anglo-Indians became a community in their own right, marrying within their group and distinguishing themselves from the Indian majority around them in areas like language (usually English) and religion (Christianity, mainly Catholicism or Anglicanism).

In many ways, the Anglo-Indians resembled other mixed communities in Asia, such as mestizos in the Philippines, Indos in Indonesia, and Anglo-Burmese in what is now Myanmar. Like the Anglo-Indians, these groups were born mostly from unions of European men and Asian women. They too tended to adopt the language and culture of their paternal as opposed to maternal ancestors. However, because Europeans were never a large numerical presence in Asia, mixed White-Asian communities were always a small percentage of the population in the countries in which they lived. Hence they did not have much influence on these nations as a whole. This was quite a different situation from that of the mestizos of Latin America, who eventually became the majority of that region’s population and brought it into the Western fold (I discuss this in my previous essay ‘Race Mixing and Westernization in Latin America and the Philippines.’)
Anglo-Indians largely ceased to be a distinct community in India when that nation gained independence from Britain in the 1940s. Some historians theorize that being so much more European than South Asian in culture, Anglo-Indians felt they no longer had a place in a country that had broken off from the so-called motherland. Therefore, many Anglo-Indians left India, going to the United Kingdom itself or to Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada. Some famous Anglo-Indians include comedian Russell Peters and singer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the German composer of the opera Hansel and Gretel; the singer’s name was a pseudonym of George Dorsey).

Going back to Vivien Leigh, the idea that the woman who played Scarlett O’Hara may not have been 100% White puts her role in Gone with the Wind in a different perspective. I know that, contrary to the beliefs of left- and right-wing ideologues alike, different minority groups do not necessarily love each other. I also know that relations between Blacks and South Asians have not always been easy, whether in Uganda under Idi Amin, in places with large numbers of both groups like Guyana or Trinidad and Tobago, and even in industrialized countries such as Britain or Canada. It is not even that Vivien Leigh’s performance as the slave mistress who beats Prissy with a tree branch is less convincing. However, I do think it places my mother’s description of Gone with the Wind as racist (i.e., in this case White Supremacist) in another light.

Another question: if Vivien Leigh was actually of mixed race, did that help her career in terms of the roles she received? She portrayed characters of various ethnicities, from (French or part-French) Southern belles like Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to the title character in Anna Karenina (Russian) to Cleopatra (Egyptian of Greek origin) in Caesar and Cleopatra. Was Vivien Leigh perhaps a bit like Anthony Quinn (of Mexican and Irish descent), who managed to play a culturally diverse repertoire of characters? These are the many questions raised by Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian (?).



In November of 2014, Canada’s Immigration Minister Chris Alexander introduced the ‘Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.’ The bill – the title of which appears to be a jab at Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s condemnation of the ruling Conservatives’ description of the honour killing of women and girls in certain cultural communities as ‘barbaric’ in Canada’s citizenship guide – seeks to bar immigrants involved in polygamous and forced marriages from Canada. Temporary and permanent residents already in Canada found to engage in polygamy could be removed from the country. On announcing the legislation, Alexander said, ‘Canada will not tolerate any type of violence against women or girls in Canada.’

Like many observers, Chris Alexander evidently views polygamy as a wrong against women. This view is shared by Russian-American journalist Cathy Young. In an article explaining why Western women are better-off than those in less affluent countries (her definition of ‘West’ is a bit ambiguous; for example, she does not consider Latin America to be Western despite its language, religion and legal systems stemming from Europe), she takes aim at ‘Afrocentrists’ for ignoring anti-feminist practices like polygamy and female genital mutilation in Africa. The Muslim-majority country of Tunisia in North Africa has been hailed as ‘progressive’ for having outlawed plural marriages in the 1950s. Polygamy is seen as a mark of male supremacy and gender inequality. But does polygamy really benefit men at the expense of women or harm women to the advantage of men? Perhaps more importantly, if polygamy is found to be detrimental to women, should it be made (or, in nations that have never permitted it, kept) illegal?

It should first be noted that even in places where polygamy1 is legal, only a minority of men actually have more than one wife at a time. The cost of supporting more than one spouse in addition to any resulting offspring is generally beyond the reach of most men. It is also doubtful whether, even if polygamy were legalized in, say, the United States, many people would practise it other than some Mormons or immigrants from countries where it is allowed by law.
Some research does show that women in polygamous marriages suffer psychologically compared to their monogamously married peers. According to one study from Syria, for example, women who shared a husband with another woman were more likely to experience ‘depression, hostility, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation and psychoticism,’ among other things. Nonetheless, one could argue that while marriage at the age of 19 is hardly a great idea – spouses in their teens have a dramatically higher divorce rate than those who marry in their 20s and beyond – for either men or women, it still is legal and will in all probability remain so.

Now to the crux of the matter: does polygamy really benefit men, as a whole, to the detriment of women? There are not, as far as I am aware, studies on the psychological well-being of men in plural marriages compared to their counterparts with one spouse. Even if, however, males in polygamous unions were found to be better-off, this would be primarily to the disadvantage not of women but of the men left without any wife at all. One exception would be in a time and/or place with a highly uneven sex ratio, with far more females than males. Interestingly, the few times polygamy was legalized – in both cases temporarily – in the West occurred once in Germany and another time in Paraguay following wars in which large numbers of men died in battle. One pro-polygamy Christian website claims that plural marriages would guarantee every woman a husband in the face of many men shunning marriage altogether. The ‘marriage-phobic male,’ though, seems to be a bit of a cliché: most actual surveys show men as likely as women to want to get married. Therefore, polygamy is unlikely to benefit men as a group beyond a select few.

The final question: should polygamy, or the admittance of polygamous immigrants, be allowed? I can’t say I have any absolutist opinions on the matter. Although I recognize the potential harms of polygamy to both women and men, I doubt permitting plural marriage would result in a rush of men clamouring to wed more than one wife. On the other hand, as the above-mentioned Cathy Young says in another essay, legalizing polygamy would change the nature of matrimony much more than, for instance, same-sex marriage. I’m inclined to answer ‘no’ to my final question. Yet I really can’t argue that on the grounds that polygamy would present a danger exclusively to women.

1. For the purpose of this essay, ‘polygamy’ will refer to ‘polygyny,’ the marriage of one man to more than one woman, not ‘polyandry,’ the (much rarer practice of) marriage of one woman to more than one man.


John Tory: Why he Won

If the saying ‘The only real poll is on Election Day’ was true of the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 and the 2014 Ontario provincial elections, John Tory’s victory in the recent Toronto mayoral race could sport the motto, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try again.’ John Howard Tory had earlier run for mayor of Toronto in 2003 but was defeated by David Miller. Four years later, as leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, Tory attempted to become premier of that province but lost to incumbent Dalton McGuinty. Finally Tory’s ship came in: he was elected mayor of Canada’s most powerful city on October 27, 2014.
Now perhaps the question is why Tory triumphed. First, we might do well to examine why his two main rivals Olivia Chow and Doug Ford lost. Ironically, in the beginning Chow, widow of federal NDP leader Jack Layton and a former Member of federal Parliament herself, was ahead in the polls. Her popularity gradually dropped, though, to the point where in the actual elections, she received a mere 23% of the vote. From the start, many people claimed Chow would ‘tax [them] to death.’ It was her idea of collecting an extra 1% on the land transfer tax from home sales of over $2 million to fund school nutrition programs, however, that struck fear in the hearts of even those who could not possibly afford a house of that price. With regard to Doug Ford, even though until the end there was always a slight possibility – judging by the polls – that he might emerge victorious, he was unable to shake off the tarnish of the ‘Ford era’ left by his brother Mayor Rob Ford, who resigned from the mayoral race on being diagnosed with cancer after a four-year term marked by scandals and international ridicule.

What was most remarkable about John Tory’s campaign was that despite his past as a leader of the Conservative Party, he received endorsements from a number of capital-l Liberals. They included Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Mitzie Hunter, federal MP Arnold Chan, and others. Tory also enjoyed support from many so-called ‘ethnics’ in Toronto, such as Hunter, who is Black, and her colleague in provincial cabinet Michael Chan (relationship to Arnold Chan uncertain – the last name ‘Chan’ among Chinese is like ‘Smith’ among Anglo-Saxons). The local Toronto paper the Caribbean Camera, which speaks for people from the Caribbean of all races (Blacks but Chinese and East Indians as well), went a step further and recommended in an editorial that readers vote for John Tory. Tory got a more cautious but definitive endorsement from the Italian-Canadian daily Corriere Canadese. The Corriere described him as the best person for the job on hand. Although some said it was in ethnic minorities’ self-interest to vote for Olivia Chow, her low percentage at the polls suggested members of the city’s cultural communities felt differently. (Perhaps in addition the ‘ethnics’ did not like being told they didn’t ‘know what’s good for them.’)

I also believe that John Tory’s moderate conservatism appealed to a considerable number of Torontonians. He has been called ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative.’ It’s a label sometimes scoffed at by self-described progressives. For example, in an article about Tory in the Toronto Star, feminist leader Judy Rebick questioned whether one could be liberal solely from a social angle when ‘most inequality is due to the conservative restructuring of the economy.’ Toronto voters, like the ‘ethnics,’ seemed to think otherwise, however. In other words, they might appreciate a mayor who will march in the Gay Pride Parade, which Mayor Rob Ford always found an excuse not to do, but who won’t raise taxes arbitrarily. Interestingly, one of the people who expressed happiness at Tory’s victory was Ontario (Liberal) Premier Kathleen Wynne, an open lesbian.

Personally, I did not vote in these elections. There was no one candidate I could say I really ‘believed in’ enough to support. If I had been forced to vote, though, I most likely would have chosen John Tory. His low-key conservatism would have appealed to me. That is why, as I’ve mentioned in some of my other articles, I’ve generally veered between the Liberals and Conservatives at the ballot box. Like the writer in the Italian-Canadian paper, I believe Tory is the right person for the job. Let us hope he does well in his new role.


What’s in a name: The case of Bill de Blasio

My father is Italian, and from time to time, I read papers from Italy. In July, one of the main dailies featured a picture of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with his wife and two children Chiara and Dante on a visit to his ancestral home in Southern Italy, the town of Grassano a few hours from Naples.

Seeing him looking so at home in his surroundings, it was hard to believe that Bill de Blasio once bore the name of Warren Wilhelm. Born to a German-American father and mother of Italian descent, in 1983 he had his named changed to Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm. He eventually dropped both the ‘Warren’ and the ‘Wilhelm’ in 2002 and just became known as Bill de Blasio.

Personally, I find the metamorphosis of Bill de Blasio from Warren Wilhelm to a man who names his son Dante far more fascinating than his wife Chirlane McCray’s transformation from an ‘out’ lesbian to a heterosexually married woman (I’d be much more intrigued by a gay man who ‘straightened up’ and wed a member of the opposite sex). One reason for Bill de Blasio’s rejection of the Wilhelm surname may lie in his uneasy relationship with his father. Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran, was apparently traumatized by his experiences on the battlefield and became an alcoholic (later committing suicide). His heavy drinking led to the break-up of his marriage when young Warren was only seven. After his parents’ divorce, Warren Junior lived with his mother and spent much more time with her side of the family than with his father’s.

Given the devastation that alcoholism can wreak on a family, Warren/Bill’s desire to distance himself from his father is not difficult to understand. The fact that he had more to do with his Italian than German relatives might also have led him to identify with his mother’s rather than father’s ethnicity. Political expediency can’t be ruled out either as an explanation for choosing the name de Blasio over Wilhelm. Although there are many people of German origin in the United States, Italian Americans are a far greater political force than German Americans are, especially in New York City. For example, on winning the elections, he tweeted ‘Grazie [“thank you” in Italian] New York,’ not ‘Danke New York.’

A third possible reason for the New York City Mayor’s name change may be the reality that in the Anglo-Saxon world, Italian names have always had a more glamorous aura than other ‘ethnic’ appellations. A look at Hollywood confirms this. For example, legendary Latin lover Rudolph Valentino was ‘allowed’ to keep his last name (with a minor change in the final syllable: his original surname was ‘Valentina’). On the other hand, the Jewish Bernard Schwartz – whose last name derived from a German word meaning ‘black’ – became Tony Curtis. While the New York City political landscape may be a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood, a touch of glamour would probably not have hurt Bill de Blasio’s career either.

A final word on de Blasio’s ‘other’ transformation: from Warren to Bill. In the end, he may not have completely disavowed his Teutonic heritage. Bill, or William, his childhood nickname, is of course the English equivalent of the German ‘Wilhelm,’ which may be either a first or a last name in Germany. But I think Bill de Blasio would prefer to be remembered as the fourth mayor of Italian descent in New York City.


Ontario Liberal Victory

The old saying that the only real poll is on Election Day was never more true than in the Ontario provincial elections of June 12, 2014. The Liberal Party emerged victorious with a majority government. The results were not a complete surprise, as polls taken before the elections suggested that either the Liberals or Conservatives would win, albeit with a minority government. However, in the end the Liberals got 58 seats, the Conservatives 28, and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) 21.

I personally voted Liberal in this election, as I did in the two previous ones at the provincial level. My general voting pattern is Liberal for the province, Conservative for the country as a whole, although there have been some exceptions and although I did not vote at all in the last two federal elections. As well, I chose the Liberals partly because I liked the representative in my area, Member of Provincial Parliament Dr. Eric Hoskins. He is a physician and, together with his wife (also a doctor), founded an organization to help children in war zones.

This is not to say I had no reservations about the Liberals. The gas plant cancellations in the cities of Oakville and Mississauga, for example, which cost Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars, remain a thorn in the Liberals’ side, in my view, and it would be a relief to see the problem addressed once and for all.

Nonetheless, most Ontarians, like me, appeared to have concluded that the Liberals were the best choice in the existing circumstances or, at worst, the least of three or more evils (the three being the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP and the others being minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians). For one, neither NDP leader Andrea Horwath nor Conservative head Tim Hudak managed to convince voters to back them in great numbers. Even traditional Conservative supporters seemed puzzled by the mathematical logistics of Hudak’s plan to create a million jobs while at the same time cutting 100,000 civil service positions. In a similar vein, Andrea Horwath baffled many when she failed to endorse the Liberals’ latest budget, which had been described as the Liberals’ most ‘socialist,’ and thus NDP-friendly, budget in a long time. She was also accused of alienating some NDP stalwarts by embracing what many saw as a right-wing agenda.

One thing that did not become a matter of great concern during the election was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality. Wynne is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman. The fact that Wynne’s lesbianism never emerged as a hot issue may be a testament to Canadians’ – and Ontarians’ in particular – openness; it might also be due to the reality that, in an apparent reversal of the usual sexual double standard, lesbians have been subject to less persecution than gay men. For instance, in some countries, male homosexuality is a criminal offence while sexual relations between women are not. (This of course does not mean that lesbians have not or do not experience discrimination.)

One Toronto Spanish-language newspaper said that Wynne’s election will bring ‘four years of stable government.’ Let us hope so and hope that Ontario’s most pressing issues will be resolved.


Jim Flaherty

On April 10, 2014, Canada’s former finance minister Jim Flaherty died. His death was in some ways not particularly surprising. He was 64, which is perhaps not old but not young either, and he was suffering from a chronic skin condition, even though he had said that the disease was not life-threatening and that it did not play any role in his resignation as minister a month earlier. My suspicion is that Flaherty had more serious health problems that he was willing to let on and that he preferred to keep his private life private.

Jim Flaherty’s legacy as federal finance minister both in the Stephen Harper government and previously at the Ontario provincial level under Premiers Mike Harris and, later, Ernie Eves was controversial. As Ontario Finance Minister, Flaherty raised hackles when he said that it should be illegal for people to sleep on the streets and that those who did should be directed either to a shelter, hospital, crisis intervention centre, or, if the individual were deemed to have engaged in illegal conduct, prison. Advocates for the homeless and even socially conservative (but in some respects politically liberal) columnist Michael Coren pounced on Flaherty, accusing him of ‘wanting to jail the homeless.’ My own take is that homelessness is a complex problem with no ‘one size fits all’ solution and that any solution to the issue has to take into account the high rate of mental illness among people living on the streets. I am not sure that sending constables to force the homeless off the streets, as Flaherty suggested, is a realistic solution – but perhaps nor is the idea among some liberals of building a ‘tent city’ for them.

Flaherty’s approach to other social issues similarly gave rise to many debates. For example, in the early 2000s when he was in the Conservative provincial government, Flaherty declared himself to be pro-life, or anti-abortion. He ran afoul of the pro-life movement later as federal finance minister, though, when he was perceived as being too ‘gay-friendly’ after hiring an openly gay chief of staff, Derek Vanstone, and praising Conservative strategist Jaime Watt, who had won an award from a gay rights organization. (I have to admit to a certain perplexity at much of the pro-life movement’s obsession with homosexuality: being non-procreative, homosexual intercourse obviously doesn’t contribute to any abortions.) It is not that Flaherty was particularly pro-gay: in 2006, for instance, he voted in support of a motion to reopen the national debate on same-sex marriage, a bill that, if it had passed, would have put the future of gay marriage in danger. Yet his supposed ‘gay-friendliness’ and, in 2012, vote against a bill by Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth to re-examine the question of when life began (under Canadian law now, at birth) basically alienated him from the organized anti-abortion movement.

Jim Flaherty’s most memorable performance had to do not with abortion or homelessness but with the Canadian economy. Flaherty was credited in large part for getting Canada through the recession relatively unscathed – or at least less unscathed than many other countries. Nonetheless, many of his financial moves came under criticism. Journalist Thomas Walkom in the left-wing Toronto Star said that by condoning funding cuts to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Jim Flaherty was ‘part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a liveable country.’ On the other hand, disability rights advocates, who are generally seen as part of a ‘progressive’ cause, lauded Flaherty – one of whose children is disabled – for his financial measures in favour of people with disabilities and efforts to include them in mainstream society.

Jim Flaherty was perhaps a Conservative at the crossroads – a Conservative who must decide whether to be fiscally but not necessarily socially conservative or whether to embrace social conservatism as well. This appears to have been a dilemma not only for Flaherty but for the entire Conservative Party and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well. I think Flaherty ultimately chose the former course (to be fiscally but not socially conservative) and, for the most part, succeeded at it.


What is a Creole?

“Creole” is one of those words that like “humanist,” “secular” and “liberal” can mean anything and everything depending on where, when and by whom they are spoken.  For those with culinary inclinations, it brings up images of catfish, gumbo and jambalaya.  Students of history might recognize the word’s roots in the Spanish “criollo,” the name used to designate persons of unmixed European descent born in the New World.  But “creole” has another definition, according to Webster’s dictionary: “a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers.”

Americans may have heard the term “Creole” to describe the language spoken by Haitian immigrants.  (For the purpose of this essay, “Creole” in reference to a specific language will be capitalized; for a creole in general it will not.)  Those who have studied French may discern some French words, or derivatives of French words, in Creole.  This is hardly surprising; after all, Haiti was a colony of France and French is still its official language.  Creole also has an African component, as most Haitians descend from slaves brought there from Africa to work on plantations.  Haiti is not the only part of the world, though, whose inhabitants speak a creole as their mother tongue.

We might first address the question of how creoles originate.  Creoles tend to emerge in areas where people of different linguistic backgrounds interact without having a language in common.  Such places include slave or other agricultural plantations, military garrisons, and trading posts.  These people use their mother tongue to communicate with their family and countrymen, but with others they employ what is called a pidgin.  According to author Jared Diamond in the book The Third Chimpanzee, pidgins are primitive languages that consist largely of nouns, verbs and adjectives with few or no articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions or prepositions and no consistent grammar.  However, the next generation, that is the children of pidgin speakers, goes a step further and develops a creole.  Like a pidgin, a creole is made up of two or more linguistic components: a “superstrate,” which is usually based on the language of the colonizers (such as French in Haiti and English in most former British colonies of the Caribbean), and a substrate, in general a native or slave language or languages.  A creole is more advanced than a pidgin, having a more extensive vocabulary, a consistent grammar as well as the ability to express anything a regular language can, which a pidgin cannot.  Creoles are nonetheless somewhat deficient in comparison to regular languages in that they lack things like verbal conjugations and plural forms of nouns (then again, those who have struggled with the Herculean task of conjugating Latin verbs might jump at the chance to study a less complex system).

As mentioned before, creoles have sprung up in many parts of the globe.  The Caribbean and several islands off Africa whose populations descend from slaves are prime examples.  In such cases, Africans of many different nationalities, plus their European masters, were thrown together and forced to come up with a language in which to communicate.  The people of São Tomé e Principe and Cape Verde in the Atlantic speak a Portuguese-based creole, while those of Réunion and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean use one derived from French.  A Spanish creole called Chabacano developed in Zamboanga, the Philippines, around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities,* Spaniards, and Native Americans and mestizos from the New World.  A language called Cristão or Kristang (both corruptions of the word “Christian”) is spoken by a small community in the Malaysian city of Malacca.  A legacy of Portugal’s rule in Malaysia, Kristang boasts a mainly Portuguese vocabulary but a grammar based on Malay.

Beyond the Caribbean, the New World has been relatively creole-deficient despite the coming together of different peoples there.  A creole by the name of Palenquero did emerge in San Basilio in Northern Colombia, where it is still used by descendants of African slaves.  Some scholars believe that San Basilio’s isolation from mainstream Colombian society led to the development of Palenquero.  In most other parts of Latin America, however, the process of Westernization was so thorough that other than small minorities of unmixed Indians nearly everyone speaks standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.

The United States also witnessed the emergence of a few creoles.  One example is Gullah on the South Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast.  An English-based language with African elements, Gullah is spoken by descendants of Black slaves on the Islands and was featured in the film Daughters of the Dust.  Louisiana and some of the neighbouring Southern states are home to a French creole developed by African slaves there.  Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, children of plantation workers from places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Japan, China, the Philippines and Portugal as well as Native Hawaiians formed an English-based creole that is still used by some people born in the early 1900s.

Despite the wide range of areas in which creoles sprung up, they have many features in common. Most lack verbal conjugations, put the auxiliary verb before the main one (“have worked” rather than “worked have”), and use the subject-verb-object order.  As the first generation of creole speakers essentially invented the grammar from scratch yet managed to come up with similar grammars across time and place, some linguists, like Noam Chomsky and Derek Bickerton, speculate that the human brain may be “hardwired” for a certain grammar. Jared Diamond theorizes in addition that perhaps the difficulty young children face in learning the proper word order for asking questions (“Do you like John?” as opposed to “You like John?”) stems from the fact that the former sentence goes against a pre-programmed creole-like subject-verb-object order.

Finally, what is the future of creoles?  That of creoles used by the majority of a population (such as in Haiti or Cape Verde) seems secure.  Others’ future is more uncertain, especially when surrounded by speakers of other languages.  For example, a Portuguese creole in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India is near extinction.  Likewise, Palenquero is now mainly spoken by older people and is losing ground to Spanish.  However, whether dead or alive, creoles have much to teach us about language, history and the relationships between different peoples.

* Remember that many native languages are spoken in the Philippines; Tagalog is the official one but not the mother tongue of all Filipinos.


Spanish versus Portuguese

Some years ago, I was asked to do a translation from Spanish to English. When I arrived at the translation office and looked at the document, I realized that it was in Portuguese, not Spanish. No worries: I can read Portuguese, given its similarity to Spanish, which I studied for three years, and to Italian, one of my ancestral languages. Also, there was a Portuguese-English dictionary on hand just in case.

I was not surprised that the translation company mistook Portuguese for Spanish. After all, the two languages are very similar in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. They are both neo-Latin, or Romance, languages, as are Italian, French, Romanian, and a handful of non-national languages like Catalan and Provencal. Nonetheless, Portuguese and Spanish have some unique features that distinguish them from other Romance languages. For example, ‘to eat’ is ‘mangiare’ in Italian, ‘manger’ in French, and ‘manca’ in Romanian from the Latin word ‘manducare,’ whereas Spanish and Portuguese use ‘comer’ from ‘comedere.’ (Another language with these distinctions is the non-national Galician. Although spoken in the region of Galicia in Northwestern Spain, Galician is actually closer to Portuguese.)

Spanish and Portuguese both benefited from being spread around the globe by the transoceanic empires of Spain and Portugal, respectively. Starting in the 1400s, the two countries accumulated territory across much of the planet. Spain gained control of most of the Western hemisphere south of the Rio Grande along with Equatorial Guinea in Africa and the Philippines and Marianas islands (one of which is Guam) in the Pacific. Portugal on the other hand took Brazil, places in Africa like Angola and Mozambique plus the small islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome e Principe, parts of Asia, and East Timor, an island located between Indonesia and Australia.

Nonetheless, over half a millennium later, a key difference in the two languages’ trajectories stands out. Spanish is reported as having approximately 330 million native speakers, vying with English as either the second or third most widely spoken mother tongue in the world, depending on the source. Portuguese, though also on the top 10 list, only boasts a little over half that number.

What accounts for this discrepancy? First, Spain tended to conquer areas that were much more ‘Westernizable’ than Portugal did: namely, the Americas. The Western hemisphere was not very populated when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived there, and the native inhabitants were susceptible to diseases brought by Europeans to which they (the natives) had little or no immunity. Portuguese and Spaniards also came in large number to their Latin American colonies, bringing with them their language and general culture.

Africa and Asia presented a different picture. There White colonizers for the most part ran into densely populated societies that not only were immune to European diseases but often harboured illnesses from which the would-be invaders had little protection. One sixteenth-century Portuguese historian described the travails of his countrymen (I say ‘countrymen’ because most Spanish and Portuguese explorers and colonists were male) in sub-Saharan Africa as such: ‘But it seems that for our sins, or for some inscrutable judgment of God, in all the entrances of this great Ethiopia we navigate along, He has placed a striking angel with a flaming sword of deadly fevers, who prevents us from penetrating into the interior to the springs of this garden.’ Hence the Spanish and Portuguese had less incentive to settle in Africa or Asia than in Latin America. In any event, their chance of displacing the existing residents in the former two regions would have been much slimmer.

Thus with regard to language, Spanish had an advantage over Portuguese in that Spain’s colonial possessions were concentrated in the Western hemisphere. The Spanish managed to transplant themselves plus their language and culture there with relative ease. Portugal in contrast had only Brazil in the Americas. Most of its other overseas territories were located in far less Europeanizeable regions. Not surprisingly, Spain failed to Hispanicize its one major Asian colony, the Philippines: most Filipinos speak a native language as their mother tongue despite 300 years of Spanish rule. In the same way, the ability of Portugal to spread its language to any great degree to its Asian outposts like Macau, Sri Lanka, or Goa, India, was limited.

Most of the Spanish spoken in the world today is standard Spanish. Portuguese, on the other hand, developed a number of creoles (not to be confused with capital ‘c’ ‘Creole,’ the native tongue of Haiti), a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers. The best-known Portuguese creole is that of Cape Verde off the West Coast of Africa. Cape Verdean creole is spoken by the majority of that nation’s population, although standard Portuguese has official status. The majority of Portuguese creoles, however, are used by only a minority of inhabitants of the places in which they evolved; for example, speakers of Macanese, a Portuguese creole in Macau in China, are dwarfed by Cantonese speakers. Still others are in danger of dying out entirely, as in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India.

Spanish in comparison has few creoles. One, called Chabacano, emerged in the Southern Philippines around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities and Spanish and Mexican soldiers. A creole by the name of Palenquero is still used by some descendants of African slaves in San Basilio in Northern Colombia. Overall, though, the process of Westernization was so thorough in Latin America that few creoles developed there. Other than small minorities of unmixed Indians, nearly all Latin Americans speak standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.

Spanish remains the Iberian language, indeed the Romance language, with the largest number of speakers. At least in the near future, it seems it will stay that way. However, Portuguese is still an important language, and it might even prove to be more useful than Spanish in areas with a Portuguese colonial past, like Africa and parts of Asia. Still, at least in North America Spanish rather than Portuguese promises to remain the second language of choice for most students. Even so, don’t downplay the importance of Portuguese in relation to Spanish- or consider studying both languages!


It’s happening in Canada: The Charter of Quebec Values

It seems that when something happens in Canada, to paraphrase the title of the old book It Happened in Canada, it usually happens in the province of Quebec. Such is the case right now with Premier Pauline Marois’ new legislation known as the Charter of Quebec Values. If it passes, this charter, which has just been introduced in Quebec’s National Assembly, would prohibit employees of public institutions in the province from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. Such symbols would include Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs (headscarves) and burkas, Jewish kippas (skullcaps), and large crucifixes; small crosses and Star of David rings would not be forbidden. Among the venues affected by the new law would be hospitals, schools, and public daycare centres.

The Charter of Quebec Values has given rise to a huge amount of controversy not only in Quebec and Canada but around the world. While they might not agree on much else, Canada’s three major federal parties – the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives – have been unanimous in condemning Marois’ proposal. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney even showed a picture of himself on his Twitter account wearing a Sikh headscarf to show solidarity with the Sikh community, to whom the bill would deny the right to wear turbans in the workplace. In addition, thousands of people gathered in Montreal for a march to protest the Charter.

On the other hand, Marois’ legislation has its supporters. A Leger Marketing poll last month, for example, found 57% of the province’s residents to be in favour of the Charter of Quebec Values, with a higher percentage among Francophones (the majority of Quebec’s population) than Anglophones. In the Globe and Mail, David Rand, president of the group Atheist Freethinkers,* wrote a piece titled ‘Why a secular charter is good for Quebec,’ explaining that the charter will ‘establish a line of demarcation between… the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community and… the freedom of conscience of others who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives.’

I personally lack strong feelings either way on the issue, perhaps because I do not live in Quebec and because my religion (Lutheran Christianity) does not obligate me to wear any specific symbols. In general, I tend to lean against the Charter. In my view, an employee of an institution does not represent the institution as a whole. The man with a (large) Star of David around his neck who sold me my prescription medication at Toronto General Hospital, for instance, does not mean that Toronto General is a Jewish hospital. Similarly, the teacher at my daughter’s school who wears a small cross necklace – an item that would, incidentally, be permitted under the Charter of Quebec Values – does not teach at a Christian but at a public school. It might be different if the school had a crucifix on the wall or the hospital a Star of David on their front desk, but these items on an individual worker do not challenge the secularism of the institution itself. Also, although I find some of the charges of ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ hurled by the anti-Charter crowd to be overblown, it does seem somewhat suspicious that a large crucifix, a clearly religious symbol, will be kept at the National Assembly in the name of ‘tradition’ while turbans, kippas, and hijabs are banned in public buildings.

One pro-Charter argument is that if one chooses to live in a place – in this case, Quebec – one must abide by that jurisdiction’s legislation. For instance, if I decided to be a public school teacher in France, a country with a Catholic majority population but a longstanding separation of church and state, I would have to accept that I could not bring my large Hawaiian-made crucifix to class – even though when I did wear it in my younger days, it was to emulate my then-idol Madonna rather than express my religious faith. Again, my religion does not require me to wear a cross, but even in cases where a particular item, such as a turban for Sikh men, is a religious duty, the law of the land takes precedence.

A counterargument to this, of course, is that although Quebec is in some ways a separate jurisdiction from the rest of Canada, the province is receiving considerable transfer payments from other parts of the country. As a result, other Canadians – and the leaders of the country as a whole – have a legitimate basis for demanding at least some say in what the government of Quebec does. It is a bit like the question of publicly funded abortion: it is one thing to talk about the right to have an abortion; it is another to expect the taxpayers, some of whom may be vehemently opposed to the procedure, to pick up the tab for it. Therefore I do not see anything wrong with the Canadian federal government’s decision to possibly challenge the Charter in court.

As with many other contentious issues, there is hysteria on both sides of the Charter of Quebec Values debate. One letter writer to the Toronto Star, for example, states that Premier Marois’ proposal ‘reeks of the onset of fascism and Nazism that was born in Europe in the 1920s and quickly led to chaos and the holocaust in the years to follow.’ On the pro-Charter side, one commenter on a pro-secularism website stated that daycare workers who wore crucifixes were trying to convert their students to Christianity, as if wearing a cross around one’s neck were equivalent to telling young children that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (which I would undoubtedly agree with Charter supporters has no place in a publicly funded childcare centre; a private religious one is another story). As I said before, however, I do not really have much personal stake in the charter. The outcome of the proposed legislation thus remains to be seen.

*It should be noted that many of those who took part in the Montreal march against the Charter claimed to have no religious affiliation, so not all non-religious people share Rand’s opinions.

Further Research