Talking Cuban

He ventured along a path, following a field of cane whose leaves shook softly with the noise of a crushed newspaper. In an end he could make out several triangular cabins. Near these primitive houses, a dying bonfire sent winks by its embers.
“Haitians!” thought Menegildo. “They must be completely drunk…

I think the key to Rita Dove’s mistaken attribution of /r/ > /l/ to Haitian patois speakers is to be found inter alia in Alejo Carpentier’s first novel, Ecue-Yamba-O, which he began in prison in Havana in around 1923 and finally published a decade later in Madrid. Here’s the scene in chapter 16 in which the protagonist, Menegildo, goes for a wander and meets his love:

He ventured along a path, following a field of cane whose leaves shook softly with the noise of a crushed newspaper. In an end he could make out several triangular cabins. Near these primitive houses, a dying bonfire sent winks by its embers.
“Haitians!” thought Menegildo. “They must be completely drunk… [Deben destar todo bebío…]”
And he spat to demonstrate his contempt for these inferior negros.
He continued walking. A little further, on a large rock, he could make out white form. Instinctively wary from the moment night fell, Menegildo stopped, all eyes. It appeared to be the a silhouette of a woman. Some Haitian from the camp…! He approached at a rapid pace and, without stopping, delivered a dry:
“Good evening [Buenaj noche].”
“Good evening,” responded a voice whose unexpected accent made him tremble.
He had already left the woman behind him, when he heard her speak once more:
“Out for a walk [pasiando]?”
“A little…”
Menegildo turned, pausing a few metres from her, not knowing what to say to her. He had come back, surprised by hearing her talk “in Cuban”. She had to be be home-grown, because almost no Haitian managed to make herself understood with “that patuá from over there…” Menegildo observed gentle, affectionate eyes glistening in her dark face. Her hair, fastened up as if a helmet, was divided into six unequal zones by three white partings. She was clothed in a light dress, covered in stains and patches, but well smoothed over her breast and hips. Her shoeless feet played with the grass [espartillo], damp with dew. She had a red flower behind her ear. (“She’s cute [Tá buena],” thought Menegildo, mentally undressing her.)
“I didn’t feel like going to sleep, and I came to sit myself here to cool down [No tenía gana e dolmil, y vine a sentalme aquí a cogel frecco].”
“Yes?”
Menegildo felt inhibited and couldn’t think of anything to say. [snip]
“Are you from round here [Uté e de por aquí]?”
“I’m from over that way, from Guantánamo.”

Guantánamo is–for those of you who have not spent the last few years there in a pretty orange suit–at the far eastern end of Cuba, where it almost touches Haiti. However, despite this proximity Menegildo’s new friend still speaks the same dialect as him, and I think this is the one Rita Dove had in mind. It’s roughly the same as what you’ll hear spoken in parts of the film Havana Blues, but I don’t know if people also talk like this in–for example–Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

I wonder whether Rita Dove (like Clarence Major (see followups by Mark Liberman & John McWhorter)) feels even slightly embarrassed about having written what is clearly intended as an attempt to rehumanise people thoroughly dehumanised by their lords and masters without having made a serious effort to find out how they actually spoke. Carpentier, although his intentions are nothing like as noble as those of Dove and Major, is much better. The novel is not a particularly good one–he confesses as much in his introduction to the 1985 edition–but he has obviously learnt from Galdós about the importance of going out and observing people. There are lots of lovely touches, particularly in his use of song lyrics. I rather liked this fragment:

Last night I saw you dancing
Dancing with the door wide open.

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