It took English and French over 3 centuries to evolve a standard prose style after over 3 centuries of poetic and dramatic writing.
General prose and literary prose are very sophisticated genres. Poetry and plays have one foot in the oral world and the other in the literacy world. A poem is written and then read or sung in public. The audience may be non-literate but the message gets across through a combination of factors: words, intonation, context, body language etc. The same applies to plays. A few persons will use the written word (dramatists, actors, directors, stage managers etc.) but the audience needs not be literate for the message uses the oral medium. When it comes to written prose there is no external support. There are black signs on a piece of paper governed by orthographic, syntactic, semantic and punctuation rules. With these the ‘reader’ will have to negotiate the meaning of the text.
The spread of general and literary prose was the result of a rise in the literacy rate in France and England, the development of the printing technology and the rise of an educated middle-class. What is the situation in Mauritius? The printing technology is up to date; there is an educated middle-class representing about 30% of the population who are literate in French and English; the literacy rate is round about 30%. Official figures of the literacy rate (85-90%) are unreliable because only schooling is the measure used. We know that thousands of young people after 7-9 years at school are unable to read and write.
UNESCO has a reliable literacy test. People can be called literate if they can write a short 150 word essay on themselves (Ala ki mo ete! This is what I am! Voilà qui je suis!) in the language of their choice but complying strictly with the rules of orthography, grammar, semantics and punctuation. Can you guess what percentage of population of the Maritime Republic of Mauritius can score above 50% marks out of a hundred in this test? VERY LOW!
Literacy should start in a person’s mother tongue. Mauritian is the mother tongue of 90% of the population and is also our de-facto national language. Acquisition of mother tongue literacy will pave the way to literacy in English, our official language, which is also a creole language. The two languages have very similar grammatical features. On top of this, the phonemic orthography makes the development of literacy skills easy and fast.
Some people argue that the phonemic orthography deters reading efforts and think that an etymological orthography would facilitate mastery in literacy skills. Is it not another example of copping out to avoid the real issue. Let us take the example of 2 European languages which have developed from vulgar Latin: French and Spanish. French has opted for an etymological orthography while Spanish has chosen the logic of phonemics. Today over 535,000,000 people use Spanish as first and second language (L1 and L2) in the world. Regularly the Royal Spanish Academy updates the orthography to meet the needs of language change. In France a conservative mindset prevails and consequently although the French government and the French Academy invest heavily in the promotion of French and Francophonie only about 280,000,000 use it as L1 and L2. The French orthography is certainly a major obstacle to the proper mastery of French. All efforts at orthography reform have failed so far. There is a belief that there is a deliberate policy by conservatives to make it difficult for the lower classes to join the ‘upper culture club’. Orthography has become a tool to consolidate ‘class-culture apartheid’.
Educators in general favour a phonemic orthography for new written languages for it facilitates the acquisition of literacy as there is a phoneme/grapheme correspondence.
The well-established languages in the world have greatly benefited from the development of the written press. Journalistic prose has developed the muscles and sinews of standard languages and has thus helped the development of literary prose by providing literature with a literate readership. How many of you know that Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ first appeared in a serialized format published by a magazine.
Poetry and plays in Mauritian are well developed but prose and literary prose are only slowly picking up. To grow they will have to rely on support from the written press which then will fully respond to its mission to 1. Inform, 2. Educate and 3. Entertain.
Let us hope that in not too distant a future we will see the written press hosting prose and literary prose in Mauritian.