Portrait photo Jean Bernabé

Jean Bernabé

Jean Bernabé, builder of the Creole language

Born in 1942 in Lorrain (Martinique), died in 2017 in Schœlcher (Martinique), Jean Bernabé was one of the youngest French grammar graduates of his time, keen on Greek and Latin, in love with French literature and promoted to a bright future in his chosen fields. Nothing, if not his family and territorial roots, could have predicted that he would become the major figure in Martinican creolism and one of the most important in world creolism. His state doctoral thesis,Fondal-Natal, Grammaire basilectale approximation des créoles guadeloupéen et martiniquais , published in 1983, notably influenced the study of the creoles of the Lesser Antilles and Guyana, often marked until then with the seal of the amateurism or alignment with French studies. J. Bernabé indeed tried to apply the theories of Noam Chomsky to the analysis of Guadeloupean and Martinican creoles, something which allowed him to question and sometimes to question certain concepts commonly accepted in creolistics, such as those of " diglossia ", “ continuum ” or “ interlect ”. The Martinican creolist advanced, in particular, the notion of "double continuum-discontinuum", which remains to this day one of the most relevant keys for the analysis of the sociolinguistic situation of these two islands.

Jean Bernabé grammarian, linguist and creolist

Grammarian, linguist and creolist, Bernabé was, of course, first and foremost. But he was also a great literary analyst who endeavored, in now essential articles, to dissect the work of Joseph Zobel, Jacques Roumain and Simone Schwarz-Bart from innovative concepts such as "the native language of the story", “procurative language” or even “mother tongue/matrix language”. These concepts made it possible to refocus literary analysis on the question of language/languages, criticism having hitherto focused too much on biographical, historical or sociological questions, and to show that writing in the "French" West Indies, it is first and foremost a question of positioning, conscious or not, in relation to the linguistic question.

He also worked on the equipment of the Creole language. His graphic proposals today represent the references in terms of writing this language, in Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana. These models offered to Creole writers led to a standardization of the written language (at least in its literary and academic expressions) in societies where it had not been formalized until then.

His university career was also remarkable, since he was twice elected dean of the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences of the former UAG (University of the West Indies and Guyana), founder of GEREC (Groupe d'études and research in the Creole-speaking area), CRILLASH (Center for interdisciplinary research in letters, languages, arts and human sciences), creator of UTL (University of free time), CIRECCA (International center for research, exchanges and cooperation of the Caribbean and the Americas) and Radio Campus-FM. He was still a tireless builder of diplomas: the DULCR-C (university diploma in Creole regional language and culture) in the 1980s, then the DULCR-I (university diploma in regional language and culture, Indian option), the license and the master's degree in Creole in the 1990s, the master's degree in Creole thereafter, and finally, the doctorate in Creole regional culture and language. These creations of diplomas within the UAG and its activism for the teaching of Creole at school, led to the creation of the CAPES de créole (Certificate of aptitude for second-level teaching) and the CRPE (Contest for recruitment school teachers) Creole option, in the 2000s.

Towards the end of his career, Jean Bernabé launched into the novel. Author of four novels written in a scholarly language, although imprinted in places with creolity , the latter were waiting for a new eye to come and revisit them. We must not forget that linguist as he was at the time, in 1989 therefore, J. Bernabé had co-published with Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant the famous Éloge de la créolité , a literary, cultural and political manifesto which enjoyed significant success. both Caribbean and international, particularly in universities in the United States and Canada.

Finally, in addition to the creolist, the literary analyst and the novelist Bernabé added a last string to his bow in the first decades of the 21st century: that of the philosopher. Worried about the rise of fundamentalism around the world and fearing that the Creolity movement that he helped to found would sink into identitarianism, he published several articles and essays, including Ladrift identitariste, in which he distances himself of an essentialist conception of identity which develops in reaction to globalization and generalized migrations. Other works focused on the genesis of Creole societies. In the latter, he elaborated the essential concept of “generational break”.

But such a course would lose its relief and its coherence if it were not related to the way in which the university career and the scientific productions of J. Bernabé entered into resonance with the commitments of the "activists" of the cause. Creole that he knew, with the help of Raphaël Confiant , to federate around the GEREC-F . Indeed, what the HCERES (High Committee for the Evaluation of Research and Higher Education) has recently promoted under the name of "popularization of scientific research", Bernabé has achieved it long before, by sharing, with activists of the Creole cause, his scientific work in creolistics and related issues. Suffice to say that Bernabé was attentive to applied research, which often took the form of didactics but which also resulted in other events such as Creole dictation, Creole day, etc.

The fertile lines of Jean Bernabé

Such a course deserved to be studied in its different "traces", a term inspired by the work of René Ménil and also by the famous Creole "trace", that is to say the crossroad that Édouard Glissant loved, which saw in it a metaphor for the long, difficult fight led by West Indian man from slavery to the present day. “Tracées” also refers here to the imprints that Bernabé's journey prints. Linguistic traces, militant traces, literary traces, philosophical traces therefore punctuate the life of this intellectual in islands with an uncertain destiny, in a world in which new technologies have brought people together while paradoxically exacerbating navel-gazing impulses.

If Bernabé has always refused to see himself as a master of thought, he gives us to think and rethink the notions of language, linguistic conflict, literary diglossia or ethnocultural specificity, concepts always threatened by ideological tropisms.

It also reminds us that scientific research, in territories such as ours, does not have its place only in libraries, congresses or laboratories. It must also spread among the population, in order to make them aware of the specific issues that underlie our various affiliations and identifications. This is why the symposium around the figure and work of Jean Bernabé brought together, around academics, teachers of the first and second degree in Creole, activists, friends who are as many witnesses and actors of these plots.

See here the biography of Jean Bernabé, by Raphaël Confiant (work in progress)

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