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Lorenzo Dow Turner (August 21, 1890 – 1972) was an African American linguist who did seminal research on the Gullah language of coastal South Carolina and Georgia.


Early life

Born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on August 21, 1890, Turner was the youngest of four sons of Rooks Turner and Elizabeth Freeman. His father completed his masters degree at Howard University even though he did not begin first grade until he was twenty-one years old. His mother gained the education allowed to black women at the time (six years). Two of Turner's brothers earned degrees in medicine and law. Turner's family background provided the inspiration that helped him achieve great academic success.

Academic career

Turner earned a master's degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Chicago. He taught at Howard University from 1917 to 1928, and during his last eight years, he served as Head of the English Department. After leaving Howard, he founded the Washington Sun newspaper which closed after one year. From 1929 to 1946 he served as Head of the English Department at Fisk University where he designed the curriculum for the African Studies Program. In 1946 he began teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago where he was Chairman of the African Studies Program and cofounder of the Peace Corps training program for preparing young volunteers for service in Africa. Turner retired from Roosevelt in 1967; and after his death in 1972 a junior high school in Chicago, the Turner Drew Language Academy, was dedicated to him (and Charles Drew, an African American scientist who invented a technique for the storing of blood).

Gullah research

Lorenzo Dow Turner is best remembered as the father of Gullah studies. His interest in the Gullah people began in 1929 when he first heard Gullah speakers while teaching a summer class at South Carolina State College (now University). Although established scholars at that time viewed Gullah speech merely as a form of substandard English, Turner sensed that Gullah was strongly influenced by African languages, and he set out to prove it. For the next 20 years, he made trips to the Gullah region in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, interviewing Gullahs (often in isolated locations) and making detailed notes on their language.

When he finally published his classic work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949, Turner made an immediate impact on established academic thinking. His study of the origin, development and structure of Gullah was so convincing in its detail that scholars quickly accepted his thesis that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages. Many scholars have followed Turner over the years in researching the African roots of Gullah language and culture, and he is credited with launching this new field of study.

Lorenzo Dow Turner was strongly influenced by the American linguistic movement which he joined at its inception. Through his Gullah research he on gave shape to several academic specialties: Gullah studies, dialect geography and creole linguistics.

Turner died in 1972.


  • Wade-Lewis, Margaret (1988) "Lorenzo Dow Turner: First African-American Linguist," Philadelphia: Temple University, Institute of African and African-American Affairs, Department of African-American Studies.
  • Wade-Lewis, Margaret (2007) "Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies," University of South Carolina Press.

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