A legacy of the French spoken by the colonists who arrived on the island in the 17th century, which was adopted by the slaves present the following century and nurtured by the successive waves of immigration, Creole is spoken by all Reunionese, without any distinction on the basis of ancestry or social class. Despite having been banned, along with the local maloya musical genre, by a Republic anxious to assimilate its overseas populations (an attitude that prevailed into the 1960s), and having been rarely written down or codified during the time since, Creole nonetheless acquired the status of a regional language in 2000 and is now taught in schools.
This is a title from which a visitor, even French-speaking, who arrives on Reunion Island will not be able to escape: to the island's residents, he (or she) is a "zorey" (pronounced "zo-ray"). There exists barely a single travel forum editor who fails to highlight this! Among the etymologies proposed attempting to explain the origins of this word, the most frequent is this: the zorey has to listen very carefully in order to understand Creole (zorey deriving from oreille, the French term for the ear)...
It is indeed true that this language can be unsettling. One can occasionally find words taken from classical French (thus a Creole does not “parle” [speak], he "cause"), whereby the liaisons and the genders of nouns sometimes seem to be made up as they go along. For instance, “mon" [masculine possessive pronoun] caz, refers to a house, even though the French word for house (maison) is in principle feminine. Furthermore, the grammatical rules are often simplified ("mi di a ou", literally "moi dis à toi" ('me say to you'): je te dis [I am telling you/saying to you]). However, the friendliness of the Reunionese, who love to speak about their island, a pleasure that is enhanced by just a little effort on the part of their visitors (you will also be surprised how quickly you adopt the singing inflections of the Creole language) more than compensates for any problems of comprehension.
In order to understand the origins of this language, you have to go back to the 17th century. The arrival of the first colonists on this previously uninhabited island, accompanied by slaves who included Madagascan women, followed by the beginning of slavery in the 18th century with the rise of sugar cane production, made possible a shared language between masters and slaves from Africa. This shared language was then also adopted by the "hired" workers arriving from India following the abolition of slavery.
A regional heritage
With the arrival of the modern era, and into the 1960s, speaking Creole was forbidden, both in school and in public administrations, as well as on the air: the Republic, installed in distant mainland France, seeks to impose a form of integration on its overseas administrations that bears a strong resemblance to forced assimilation. Nevertheless, Creole is still spoken at home and remains very much alive among the more modest strata of society. According to the figures of the 2010 Insee report, 38% of Reunionese speak French (official language) and Creole interchangeably, depending on the conversation partner and the circumstances, whereby 91% are Creole-speaking and 53% only speak Creole.
In 2000 Creole was recognised as a regional language, much like Corsican or Breton, and is now taught at school... which has not been without difficulty. Rarely written down and therefore without a genuine system of spelling, Creole has been the subject of a number of controversies before it was finally possible to reach a consensus regarding its spelling using the Tangol system.
The language of musicians
Essentially a spoken language, Creole is well established among Reunionese artists: from Danyel Waro to the group Lindigo, singers of the maloya genre sing in Creole! As for poets and writers, if inspired by the landscapes of this paradise island, tend to write in French, and it is not difficult to understand why... We would, nonetheless, like to mention the works of Jean Albany (1917-1984), poet and author of Miel vert (1963) [Green Honey]; Daniel Vaxelaire (Chasseur de Noirs, 1982 [Hunter of Blacks]; Le Roman vrai de Paul et Virginie, 2001 [The True Story of Paul and Virginia]), Axel Gauvin (Train fou, 2000 [Crazy Train]) or Jean-François Sam-Long, founder of the Créolie movement (L’Empreinte française, 2005 [The French Footprint]): edited by publishing houses based in mainland France, they successfully transfer the Creole spirit of Reunion beyond the shores of the island.