Gullah (also called Sea Island Creole English and Geechee) is a creole language spoken by the Gullah people (also called «Geechees» within the community), an African-American population living on the Sea Islands and in the coastal region of the US states of South Carolina, Georgia and northeast Florida. Dialects of essentially the same language are spoken in the Bahamas.
The Gullah language is based on English with strong influences from West and Central African languages.
Scholars have proposed two general theories about the origins of Gullah:
These two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While it is likely that some of the Gullahs’ ancestors came from Africa with a working knowledge of Guinea Coast Creole English, and this language influenced the development of Gullah in various ways, it is also clear that most slaves taken to America did not have prior knowledge of a creole language in Africa. It is also clear that the Gullah language evolved in unique circumstances in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, thus developing its own distinctive form in that new environment.
The vocabulary of Gullah comes primarily from English, but it also has words of African origin. Some of the most common African loanwords are: cootuh («turtle»),oonuh («you [plural]«), nyam («eat»), buckruh («white man»), pojo («heron»), swonguh («proud») and benne («sesame»).
Gullah resembles other English-based creole languages spoken in West Africa and the Caribbean Basin. These include the Krio language of Sierra Leone,Bahamian Dialect, Jamaican Patois, Bajan Creole and Belizean Kriol. It is speculated that these languages use English as a lexifier (i.e., their vocabularies are derived largely from English), and that their syntax (sentence structures) are strongly influenced by African languages; but research by Salikoko Mufwene and others suggests that non-standard Englishes may have also influenced Gullah’s (and other creoles’) syntactical features.
Gullah is most closely related to Afro-Seminole Creole, spoken in scattered Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, and Northern Mexico. The Black Seminoles’ ancestors were Gullahs who escaped from slavery in coastal South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries and fled into the Florida wilderness. They emigrated from Florida after the Second Seminole War (1835–42). Their modern descendants in the West speak a conservative form of Gullah resembling the language of 19th-century plantation slaves.
Lorenzo Turner’s research
In the 1930s and 1940s the African-American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner did a seminal study of the Gullah language based on field research in rural communities in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner found that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages in its sound system, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantic system. Turner identified over 300 loanwords from various African languages in Gullah and almost 4,000 African personal names used by Gullah people. He also found Gullahs living in remote sea-side settlements who could recite songs and story fragments and do simple counting in the Mende, Vaiand Fulani languages of West Africa. Turner published his findings in a classic work called Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949). His book, now in its fourth edition, was most recently reprinted with a new introduction in 2002.
Before Lorenzo Turner’s work, mainstream scholars viewed Gullah speech as substandard English, a hodgepodge of mispronounced words and corrupted grammar which uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish and French Huguenot slave owners. But Turner’s study was so well researched and detailed in its evidence of African influences in Gullah that academics soon reversed course. After Turner’s book was published in 1949, scholars began coming to the Gullah region regularly to study African influences in Gullah language and culture.
The following sentences illustrate the basic verb tense and aspect system in Gullah:
These sentences illustrate 19th-century Gullah speech:
The Gullah people have a rich storytelling tradition strongly influenced by African oral traditions, but also informed by their historical experience in America. Their stories include animal trickster tales about the antics of »Brer Rabbit», »Brer Fox» and «Brer Bear», »Brer Wolf», etc.; human trickster tales about clever and self-assertive slaves; and morality tales designed to impart moral teaching to children.
Several white American writers collected Gullah stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The best collections were made by Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. from Georgia and Albert Henry Stoddard from South Carolina. Jones (a Confederate officer during the Civil War) and Stoddard were both planter-class whites who grew up speaking Gullah with the slaves (and later, freedmen) on their families’ plantations. Another collection was made by Abigail Christensen, a Northern woman whose parents came to the Lowcountry after the Civil War to assist the newly freed slaves. Ambrose E. Gonzales, another writer of South Carolina planter-class background, also wrote original stories in 19th-century Gullah, based on Gullah literary forms. Gonzales’ works are well remembered in South Carolina today.
The linguistic accuracy of these writings has been questioned because of the authors’ social backgrounds. Nonetheless, these works provide the best available information on the Gullah language as it was spoken in its more conservative form during the 19th century.
Gullah language today
The Gullah language is spoken today 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. Nonetheless, Gullah is still understood as a creole language and is certainly distinct from Standard American English.
For generations, outsiders stigmatized Gullah speakers, regarding their language as a mark of ignorance and low social status. As a result, Gullah peopledeveloped the habit of speaking their language only within the confines of their own homes and local communities, hence the difficulty in enumerating speakers and assessing decreolization. They avoided using it in public situations outside the safety of their home areas and many experienced discrimination even within the Gullah community. Some speculate that the prejudice of outsiders may have helped maintain the language. Others suggest that a kind of valorization or «covert prestige» remained for many community members and that this complex pride has insulated the language from obliteration.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah speaker in coastal Georgia. When asked why he has little to say during hearings of the court, he told a high school student that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech as a young man caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public. Thomas’s English-speaking grandfather raised him after the age of six in Savannah.
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.
These sentences are examples of how Gullah was spoken in the 19th century:
This story, called Brer Lion an Brer Goat, was first published in 1888 by story collector Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.:
In modern English this is rendered as follows:
The Gullah phrase Kumbayah («Come By Here») became known throughout the United States and worldwide due to its inclusion in «Kumbayah», a song of the same name — though many of those who sing it are unaware of its linguistic antecedents.
Published - February 2016
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