The Gullah Language (with Video)

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Gullah (also called Sea Island Creole English and Geechee) is a language spoken by the African American population living on the Sea Islands and the coastal region of the U.S. states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida, now c

Gullah (also called Sea Island Creole English and Geechee) is a language spoken by the African American population living on the sea islands and coastal region of the US states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida, and those commonly known as the Gullah people.

The Gullah language is what linguists call an English-based creole language

Creoles develop in the context of trade, colonialism, and slavery when people of diverse backgrounds are forced together and must devise a common means of communication.  Creole languages are essentially hybrids that blend linguistic influences from a variety of language sources. 

In the case of Gullah, the vocabulary is largely English in origin, that of the socially and economically dominant, or "target” language, but the African "substrate" languages have altered the pronunciation of almost all the English words.  Linguists today view Gullah and other creoles as complete and independent languages with their own systematic grammatical structures.

Strongly influenced by West and Central African languages such as Mandinka, Wolof, Bambara, Fula, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Kongo, Umbundu, and Kimbundu, some linguists believe Gullah arose independently in South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries, while others contend that some of the slaves brought to this area already knew the language before leaving Africa

As the common trade language spoken along the West African coast during the 18th century during trade between Europeans and Africans, it may well have been a common language spoken between Africans of different indigenous groups as well.  In reality, both theories could be historically correct. 

In either regard, it is clear that the Gullah language evolved in unique circumstances in coastal South Carolina and Georgia and acquired its own distinctive form in that new environment.

Many linguists contend that Gullah was the ancestral language that gave rise to the modern English-based creoles in West Africa (Sierra Leone Krio, Nigerian Pidgin) as well as to the English-based creoles spoken by black populations in the Americas (Gullah, Jamaican Creole, Guyana Creole).  All these modern creole languages would thus fall into the same broad linguistic family which linguist Ian Hancock termed the "English-based Atlantic Creoles."  This theory would explain the obvious similarities found among these many languages spoken in scattered areas on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The first scholar to make a serious study of the Gullah language was Dr. Lorenzo Turner, who published his findings in 1949. As a Black American, Dr. Turner was able to gain the confidence of the Gullah people and succeeded in revealing many aspects of their language that were previously unknown. For example, Dr. Turner found that Gullah men and women all have African nicknames or "basket names" in addition to their English names which are used for official use.

The Gullah have drawn their African nicknames from various sources including African first, or given, names; clan names; and the African tribal names of their ancestors.  They use the masculine names Bala, Sorie, Salifu, Jah, and Lomboi; and the feminine names Mariama, Fatu, Hawa, and Jilo.  The Gullah also use as nicknames the clan names Bangura, Kalawa, Sesay, Sankoh, Marah, Koroma, and Bah; and the Sierra Leonean tribal names Limba, Loko, Yalunka, Susu, Kissi, and Kono. 

Gullah "loanwords" from Sierra Leonean languages used in everyday speech include: joso, "witchcraft" (Mende njoso, forest spirit); gafa, "evil spirit" (Mende ngafa, masked "devil"); wanga, "charm" (Temne an-wanka, fetish or "swear"); bento, "coffin" (Temne an-bento, bier); defu, "rice flour" (Vai defu, rice flour); do, "child" (Mende ndo, child); and kome, "to gather" (Mende Kome, a meeting).

Although Gullah vocabulary comes primarily from English, it also contains words strictly African in origin.  Some of the most common African words are: cootuh ("turtle"), oonuh ("you"), nyam ("eat"), buckruh ("white man"), pojo ("heron"), swonguh ("proud"), and benne ("sesame").

These sentences are examples of how Gullah was believed to have been spoken in the 19th century:

Uh gwine gone dey tomorruh. "I will go there tomorrow."

We blan ketch 'nuf cootuh dey. "We always catch a lot of turtles there."

Dem yent yeddy wuh oonuh say. "They did not hear what you said."

Dem chillun binnuh nyam all we rice. "Those children were eating all our rice."

This Gullah story, called "Brer Lion an Brer Goat," was first published in 1888 by story collector Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.:

Brer Lion bin a hunt, an eh spy Brer Goat duh leddown topper er big rock duh wuk eh mout an der chaw. Eh creep up fuh ketch um. Wen eh git close ter um eh notus um good. Brer Goat keep on chaw. Brer Lion try fuh fine out wuh Brer Goat duh eat. Eh yent see nuttne nigh um ceptin de nekked rock wuh eh duh leddown on. Brer Lion stonish. Eh wait topper Brer Goat. Brer Goat keep on chaw, an chaw, an chaw. Brer Lion cant mek de ting out, an eh come close, an eh say: "Hay! Brer Goat, wuh you duh eat?" Brer Goat skade wen Brer Lion rise up befo um, but eh keep er bole harte, an eh mek ansur: "Me duh chaw dis rock, an ef you dont leff, wen me done long um me guine eat you." Dis big wud sabe Brer Goat. Bole man git outer diffikelty way coward man lose eh life.

Translation: Brer Lion was hunting, and he spied Brer Goat lying down on top of a big rock working his mouth and chewing. He crept up to catch him. When he got close to him, he watched him good. Brer Goat kept on chewing. Brer Lion tried to find out what Brer Goat was eating. He didn't see anything near him except the naked rock which he was lying down on. Brer Lion was astonished. He waited for Brer Goat. Brer Goat kept on chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Brer Lion couldn't make the thing out, and he came close, and he said: "Hey! Brer Goat, what are you eating?" Brer Goat was scared when Brer Lion rose up before him, but he kept a bold heart, and he made (his) answer: "I am chewing this rock, and if you don't leave me (alone), when I am done with it I will eat you." This big word saved Brer Goat. A bold man gets out of difficulty where a cowardly man loses his life.

For generations, outsiders stigmatized Gullah speakers, regarding their language as a mark of ignorance and low social status.  As a result, Gullah people developed the habit of speaking their language only within the confines of their own homes and local communities, thus the difficulty in establishing the level to which Gullah was socially embedded.  Linguists speculate that the prejudice of outsiders may have helped maintain the integrity of the language. 

Others suggest that a kind of "covert prestige" remained for many community members and that this cultural pride has insulated the language from obliteration as has been the case with many languages brought to the United States.

Today, the Gullah language is spoken by about 250,000 people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.

Although some scholars argue that Gullah has changed little since the 19th century and that the majority of speakers have always been bidialectal, it is likely that at least some decreolization has taken place.  In other words, some African-influenced grammatical structures that were present a century ago are less prevalent in the language today.

In recent years educated Gullah people have begun promoting use of Gullah openly as a symbol of cultural pride.  In 2005, Gullah community leaders announced the completion of a translation of the New Testament into modern Gullah, a project that took more than 20 years to complete.


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