Gullah language: Wikis


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Spoken in  United States
Region Coastal low country region of South Carolina and Georgia including the Sea Islands [1]
Total speakers 250,000[1]
Language family Creole language
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 cpe
ISO 639-3 gul
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Gullah (also called Sea Island Creole English and Geechee) is a creole language spoken by the Gullah people (also called "Geechees"), an African American population living on the Sea Islands and the coastal region of the U.S. states of South Carolina, Georgia, and northeast Florida.

Gullah is based on English, with strong influences from West and Central African languages such as Mandinka, Wolof, Bambara, Fula, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Kongo, Umbundu, and Kimbundu.



Scholars have proposed two theories about the origins of Gullah:

Many scholars believe that Gullah arose independently in South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries when African slaves on rice plantations developed their own creole language combining features of the English they encountered in America with the West and Central African languages they brought with them on the middle passage. According to this view, Gullah is an independent development in North America.

But other scholars maintain that some of the slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia already knew Guinea Coast Creole English (also called West African Pidgin English) before they left Africa. Guinea Coast Creole English was spoken along the West African coast during the 18th century as a language of trade between Europeans and Africans and between Africans of different tribes. It was used especially in British coastal slave trading centers like James Island, Bunce Island, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle, and Anomabu.

These two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, however. While it is very likely that some of the Gullahs’ ancestors did come from Africa with a working knowledge of Guinea Coast Creole English, it is clear that most slaves taken to America did not have prior experience with a creole language in Africa. It is also 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.

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

Related languages

Gullah resembles other English-based creole languages spoken in West Africa and the Caribbean Basin. These include the Krio language of Sierra Leone, Nigerian Pidgin English, Bahamian Dialect, Jamaican Creole, Bajan and Belizean Kriol. All of these languages have vocabularies derived largely from English, but grammars and sentence structures strongly influenced by African languages.

Gullah is most closely related, though, 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), and their modern descendants in the West still speak a conservative form of Gullah resembling the language of 19th century plantation slaves.

Lorenzo Turner's research

In the 1930s and 1940s an African American linguist named 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, Vai, and 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 4th 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 uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish, and French Huguenot slave owners.[2] But Turner's study was so well researched and so convincingly detailed in its presentation of 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 on a regular basis to study African influences in Gullah language and culture.

Gullah verbs

The following sentences illustrate the basic verb tense and aspect system in Gullah:

Uh he'p dem -- "I help them/I helped them" (Present/Past Tense)
Uh bin he'p dem -- "I helped them" (Past Tense)
Uh gwine he'p dem -- "I will help them" (Future Tense)
Uh done he'p dem -- "I have helped them" (Perfect Tense)
Uh duh he'p dem -- "I am helping them" (Present Progressive)
Uh binnuh he'p dem -- "I was helping them" (Past Progressive)

African grammar influence

These sentences illustrate African grammatical and syntactical influences in 19th century Gullah speech. Note the literal, word-for-word translations into English used here in order to show the influence of African sentence structure:

Da' big dog, 'e bite'um -- "That big dog, it bit him" (Topicalization)
Duh him cry out so -- "It is him cried out that way" (Front Focusing)
Uh tell'um say da' dog fuh bite'um -- "I told him said that dog would bite him" (Dependent Clauses with "Say")
De dog run, gone, bite'um -- "The dog ran, went, bit him" (Serial Verb Construction)
Da' duh big big dog -- "That is big big dog" (Reduplication)

Sample sentences

These sentences are examples of how Gullah was 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."
'E tell'um say 'e haffuh do'um. "He told him that he had to do it."
Duh him tell we say dem duh faa'muh. "He's the one who told us that they are farmers."
De buckruh dey duh 'ood duh hunt tuckrey. "The white man is in the woods hunting turkeys."
Alltwo dem 'ooman done fuh smaa't. "Both those women are really smart."
Enty duh dem shum dey? "Aren't they the ones who saw him there?"

Gullah storytelling

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 Low Country after the Civil War to assist the newly freed slaves. Ambrose E. Gonzales, another writer of South Carolina planter class background, also wrote his own original stories in 19th century Gullah, based on Gullah literary forms. Gonzales' works are still well remembered in South Carolina today.

The linguistic accuracy of these writings has been questioned because of the authors' social backgrounds, but these works provide the best information we have on the Gullah language as it was spoken in its more conservative form during the 19th century.

A Gullah story

This 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.

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, it is clear that at least some decreolization has taken place. In other words, some African-influenced grammatical structures that were present a century ago are no longer found in the language today. Nonetheless, Gullah is still decidedly a creole language and still quite distinct from English.

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, and avoided the possibility of being heard speaking it in public situations outside the safety of their home areas. Ironically, the prejudice of outsiders was probably a factor in helping preserve the language.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised 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.[1] Thomas's English-speaking grandfather raised him after the age of six in Savannah. [3]

But in recent years educated Gullah people have begun promoting use of Gullah 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.

Gullah New Testament

This passage is from the New Testament in modern Gullah:

Now Jedus been bon een Betlem town, een Judea, jurin de same time wen Herod been king. Atta Jedus been bon, some wise man dem dat study bout de staa dem come ta Jerusalem fom weh dey been een de east. And dey aks say, "Weh de chile da, wa bon fa be de Jew people king? We beena see de staa wa tell bout um een de east, an we come fa woshup um op. Wen King Herod yeh dat, e been opsot fa true. And ebrybody een Jerusalem been opsot too. E call togeda all de leada dem ob de Jew priest dem and de Jew Law teacha dem. E aks um say, "Weh de Messiah gwine be bon at?" Dey tell King Herod say, "E gwine be bon een Betlem town een Judea."

Translation: Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem town, in Judea, during the same time when Herod was king. After Jesus was born, some wise men that studied about the stars came to Jerusalem from where they were in the east. And they asked, "Where is the child, who was born to be the Jewish king? We saw the star which told about him in the east, and we came to worship him." When King Herod heard that, he was truly upset. And everybody in Jerusalem was upset too. He called together all the leaders of the Jewish priests and the Jewish Law teachers. He asked them, "Where will the Messiah be born?" They told King Herod that, "He will be born in Bethlehem town in Judea."


  1. ^ a b Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (2005). "Sea Island Creole English". Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Ethnologue. Retrieved 2007-03-01.  
  2. ^ Mill and Montgomery "Introduction to Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Turner" xix–xxiv, Gonzales "The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast 10.
  3. ^ Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine, Doubleday 2007, at 106

External links

See also

Further reading

  • Carawan, Guy and Candie (1989) "Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina, their Faces, their Words, and their Songs," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Geraty, Virginia Mixon (1997) "Gulluh fuh Oonuh: A Guide to the Gullah Language," Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
  • Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987) "When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Joyner, Charles (1984) "Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community," Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Mille, Katherine and Michael Montgomery (2002) Introduction to "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect" by Lorenzo Dow Turner, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Montgomery, Michael (ed.) (1994) "The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Turner, Lorenzo Dow (2002) "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect," Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Wood, Peter (1974) "Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion," New York: Knopf.

Books in the Gullah language

  • Christensen, Abigail (1969) "Afro-American Folk Lore Told Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina," New York: Negro Universities Press.
  • Gonzales, Ambrose Elliott (1969) "With Aesop Along the Black Border," New York: Negro Universities Press.
  • Gonzales, Ambrose Elliott (1998) "The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast," Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company.
  • Jones, Charles Colcock (2000) "Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast," Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Parsons, Elsie Clews (1923) "Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina," New York: American Folk-Lore Society.
  • Sea Island Translation Team (2005) "De Nyew Testament (The New Testament in Gullah)," New York: American Bible Society.
  • Stoddard, Albert Henry (1995) "Gullah Animal Tales from Daufuskie Island, South Carolina," Hilton Head Island, SC: Push Button Publishing Company.

Films in the Gullah language

Listen to the Gullah language



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