Cultures and Languages of Mauritius
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In consequence of the diverse origins of the population several cultures coexist in the Republic. Due to the fact that around two-thirds of the population is of Indian origin and a small percentage of Chinese origin means that the Mauritian society is very much Asian in character with corresponding values. But Western and African cultural components are indeed very much present in this society. Taken together, the Asian, African and Western cultural components shape the different strata of society.
Settlers from France and their accompanying slaves from the African mainland brought with them their languages and cultures.
The West has very much been present ever since through the French presence. Law and government was in French till 1810, date of the take over of the island by the British. For political reasons they left in place most of the French legal structure. Even notary documents continued to be written in French, a practice that endures till the present day. That language is still taught at schools, used in the press and publications. The French sugar oligarchy was not dispossessed of its wealth and status by the British and that meant the survival of French cultural influence in Mauritius. English was used mainly by government, in courts of law and eventually taught in schools alongside French. The tolerance of the British towards French and the introduction of English in Law, Government and education have ensured that eventually bilingualism would be common among a significant proportion of the population.
English never spread throughout the population like French. It became the language of rule and French remained the language of the rich and powerful and became associated with the cultured, the educated. Even today, the ability to speak French fluently and flawlessly is considered to be a hallmark of high education and culture whereas the same skill for English invokes less prestige.
The import of slaves from Africa has meant that around 25% of the population has African origins. Intermarriage between African slaves and European settlers and much later and to a lesser degree, with Indians means that approximately 30% of the population has mixed origins. This group of people is denoted by the term "General Population". It is a meaningless term not indicative of the fascinating historical processes that resulted in the emergence of a group of people of mixed backgrounds.
The need of the French settlers to communicate with their African slaves and other immigrants have, over the past 300 years, fostered the emergence of a new language: Creole and a new Creole culture. The Creole language is very much derived from French, though words of diverse origins can be found in it.
This language, it can be said, is the real lingua franca of the island. It is widely used and understood and very few people neither use it nor understand it. The use of the Creole language transcends all ethnic, religious and class barriers. It is spoken by the rich, the poor, the highly educated and the less highly educated. It is widely used by politicians, ministers and business people in private or in public. The use of that language is certainly not the sole province of the lower classes. It is and has been widely used in the homes of the so-called upper classes.
It is to be noted that Creole does not have a definite written form, though serious attempts have been made to give it a formal written form. The Roman alphabet has been used for that purpose. The written form of Creole is limited to a few publications only. The reason for that limited usage is the fact that there is, as yet, no real need for a written form. Either English or French being the languages of choice for education, the press, government, the law and business.
The Creole language is the vehicle of a vibrant and thriving artistic creation of songs. The music and dances that support those songs is known as Sega. Its origins are to be found in the music forms brought by African slaves during the French period. Sega is the music, songs and dances of choice played to tourists as a taste of the local culture. It is widely played in the discotheques of the island, on television and radio. Recordings of Sega are made and sold to an eager public.
This ambiguity of the different components of society towards the Creole language is perhaps because the process of nation building is not yet over in the Republic. The emergence of the Creole language amongst the down ridden, oppressed African slaves of the past is, perhaps, not conducive to it being considered by everyone as a language worthy of pride, indicative of high status. Yet the Creole language is and will be one of the cements of the different components of the Mauritian society in all its diversity. Far from being a factor leading to uniformity and loss of identity, it may become the passage way for dialogue between the different components of society in Mauritius leading to an appreciation of the cultures of others.
A few press articles on culture and society (in French)
Un sursaut doit rapidement venir de ce pays tout entier (14 Avril 2002)
Lettre de Ramadan du Muslim Council à la Nation mauricienne: pour que soient l'harmonie et la paix (6 novembre 2002)
Last Update: 14th of January 2003
Date on the web: Thursday, January 22, 1998
The URL of this page is: www.intnet.mu/iels/culture_mau.htm