The Languages Used in Mauritius and Their Origins
June 18 2018
June 18 2018
The sensational emerald gem of Mauritius is so much more than it’s pristine white sandy shores and perfect azure waters; this stunning multifaceted country has so much to offer guests from around the world with a huge range of stunning luxury accommodation, ample activities both on land and in the water and some of the best beaches in the world. But it’s also an island with a rich cultural heritage and chequered past, one that has resulted positively in a beautifully colourful cultural landscape; it’s a destination with a myriad of religions and an array of languages. The languages in Mauritius give huge insight into the history of the island but have also led to some confusing facts.
For one, there’s no official language in Mauritius. Amazingly, this wonderful tropical paradise has no official language according to the Mauritian Constitution (quite a contrast to a country such as South Africa which has eleven official languages!). However, it does imply that English and French are official languages of the National Assembly (parliament). On top of that, all official documents in Mauritius need to be in English—this is important information for you if you plan on getting married in Mauritius as you will need certain official documents to do so.
There’s no doubt that both French and English are the focus in both the professional and education sectors and for many, English is considered the official language. However, these two languages aren’t necessarily the most widely spoken. Let’s look at all of the languages in Mauritius and where they come from in more detail:
After the Dutch had abandoned Mauritius in 1710, the island was technically deserted and the French didn’t wait too long to lap it up in 1715 due to its strategic position which could then be used for military and commercial reasons. The French renamed the country “Isle de France” and started to bring in a large number of slaves from Africa and India. Between this time and 1810, when the British took over Mauritius, the French were able to firmly establish their language but because of the mix of people who were brought in as slaves, a type of pidgin arose as a means of communication, which was a merger of all the languages spoken by the different communities (more on this a little later). This Mauritian pidgin was rooted heavily in French.
When the French signed the treaty of capitulation with the British, there was a clause that allowed the people of Mauritius to maintain their language on the island. But from almost 100 years under the French, this time, however, it’s undeniable that the country was heavily influenced by the them; from their culture, food and religion (Christianity) to their language.
It’s no surprise that Mauritius eventually became an English colony with the way and rate at which the British colonised countries between the 16th and 18th centuries. As mentioned above, the British were finally able to take Mauritius from the French in 1810. The British gave it back its former Dutch-given name of Mauritius. While the British implemented many changes, they did allow the Mauritian people to maintain their culture, religion (which was mostly Christianity at this point), their property and their laws.
The British were very interested in expanding the sugar cane production in Mauritius which drastically improved the economic landscape of the country. Another huge improvement the British made was that they abolished slavery in 1835 and instead introduced indentured labour. The abolition of slavery saw a large number of Indians and Chinese coming to the island to work either as labourers or shopkeepers and small business owners which saw the emergence of varied ethnic communities which added to the eclectic cultural landscape of Mauritius as well as it’s host of varied languages.
During this time the British prioritised English for administrative purposes but did adopt much of the Franco-Mauritians’ ways and only started to obviously push their own language in the 19th century. Today, despite the fact that English is used as the language of instruction in schools, as the official language in parliament and in court as well as in the banks and other institutions, only a staggering 1% of the population actually speak it as their primary language.
As mentioned earlier, the unique interaction between the French people and the African and Indian slaves resulted in a type of pidgin which allowed them to communicate with each other in a language that fused all of their own languages into one. This pidgin evolved over time and become much of the Mauritian population’s first language which was then passed down from generation to generation. Once it had become a mother tongue language, this pidgin in Mauritius become known as Creole.
The Mauritian Creole language is undoubtedly rooted in the French language (as a consequence of the French colonisation) and is spoken widely throughout the country. In fact, approximately 86.5% of the country speak Creole which means that this is unofficially the main language in Mauritius and there is constant debate about whether it will be introduced as the medium of education in Mauritius, the issue being that the language originated as an oral language with variations in the spellings of certain words as well as a few other inconsistencies.
But in reality, Mauritius is a multilingual country, with more languages than the French, English and Creole already mentioned. The slaves and indentured labourers brought with them Bhojpuri (which is largely spoken by the Indians who originated from Calcutta), Urdu, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu (which are the languages that were spoken by the Indians who come from Madras), Marathi (spoken by the Indians from Bombay) as well as the different varieties of Chinese languages that includes Mandarin, Hakka Chinese and Cantonese.
Language in the media
The debate around languages used in Mauritius is even more interesting when you look at the languages used in mass media. The main language used in Mauritius’ mass media (so magazines, television, radio and newspapers) is actually mainly French, except when it comes to international British or American publications. Funnily enough, even English television shows are often dubbed into French. In the tourism industry, which is one of Mauritius’ biggest industries, official forms can often be found in both English and French and many of the people working in the tourism industry can speak both, making it a fabulous destination to head to if you speak either of these languages.
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