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Robert Smalls bust sculpture by Marion Etheredge at Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort
Robert Smalls sculpture by
Marion Etheredge at Tabernacle
Baptist Church, Beaufort

The Gullah Language and Sea Island Culture
Part I:
The Gullah Language

Sweetgrass basket with lid
Sweetgrass Basket

Photo by Dennis Adams

by
Dennis Adams
Information Services Coordinator
and

Hillary Barnwell

Assistant Library Director


For basic geographical facts about Beaufort County's Sea Islands, see:
Sea Islands: Erosion Remnant Islands and Barrier Islands


Background:

Gullah is a creole form of English, indigenous to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia (the area extends from Georgetown, SC to the Golden Isles of Georgia above Florida). Like all creoles, Gullah began as a pidgin language, transforming into a language in its own right with the first generation born in America. A similar form of plantation creole may have been widespread at one time in the southern United States, but Gullah now differs from other African-American dialects of English (which do not vary greatly from the standard syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary). Though creole languages the world over share a surprisingly similar structure, the speakers of one creole can seldom understand speakers of another on first contact.

According to David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, the word "comes from Portuguese crioulo and originally meant a person of European descent who had been born and brought up in a colonial territory. Later, it came to be applied to other people who were native to these areas, and then to the kind of language they spoke." Creole languages have been spoken on every inhabited continent, and are "English based," "French based" – even "Romany based" like Sheldru, used by Gypsies in England. Krio, spoken in Sierra Leone, is just one example of an English-based creole with many similarities to Gullah -- the creole language of the Sea Islands.

Most of Gullah vocabulary is of English origin, but the grammar and major elements of pronunciation come from a number of West African language, such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba. The name, "Gullah", itself probably derives from "Angola" (and possibly from the large number of slaves who arrived from that part of Africa in the early 1800s). "Geechee" -- another name for the language and culture of black Sea Islanders -- comes from a tribal name in Liberia. Traditions, language and myth stayed longer with the coastal Carolina Gullahs, who were allowed a greater latitude of self-sufficiency and were relatively isolated on the Sea Islands.

Most Beaufort slaves in the first decades of the 1800s may have been first-generation African arrivals. So it was not merely the remoteness of the Sea Islands that preserved the African culture and language influences among Gullah speakers. 23,773 slaves came to South Carolina from Africa between 1804 through 1807, and 14,217 of these originated from Angola, Congo, or "Congo and Angola". The newly arrived slaves breathed new life into African traditions already established on the islands. A new infusion of pidgin influences would have had a profound impact on the existing creole language.

As with many minority languages the world over, television, education and increased social contact have all undermined Gullah to a large extent. Gullah speakers now use various Black American English dialects in dealings with non-Islanders, though Gullah is the language of home, family and community. Whatever its fate as a living vernacular, Gullah will live on with the general public as the language of Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris's Bre'r Rabbit tales and of the fiction of South Carolina's Ambrose E. Gonzales.

Sources:

  • The African American Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish, 1993.

  • Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Volume I: North America. G. K. Hall & Co., 1991.

  • The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1, 1514-1861 by Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers, Jr. University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

  • "Vignettes of African-American History" [Paper given at the "Lowcountry Traditions and Transitions Symposium at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, October 4, 1997] by Hillary S. Barnwell, Beaufort County Public Library Beaufort Branch Manager. 1997, Hillary S. Barnwell.).


An Example of Gullah:

The words, goober (peanut), gumbo and yam all have West-African/Gullah roots. The following example is a Gullah translation of a familiar Bible text (Matthew 5, verses 3-9):

3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   3. Dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deysef, cause God da rule oba dem.
     
4. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.   4. Dey bless fa true, dem wa saaful now, cause God gwine courage um.
     
5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.   5. Dey bless fa true, dem wa ain tink dey mo den wa dey da, cause all de whole wol gwine blongst ta um.
     
6. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.   6. Dey bless fa true, dem wa hongry an tosty fa wa right, cause dey gwine git sattify.
     
7. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.   7. Dey bless fa true, dem wa hab mussy pon oda people, cause God gwine hab mussy pon dem.
     
8. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
  8. Dey bless fa true, dem dat only wahn fa jes saab de Lawd, cause dey gwine see God.
     
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
  9. Dey bless fa true, dem wa da wok haad fa hep people lib peaceable wid one noda, cause God gwine call um e chullun.

Source:

  • De Nyew Testament: The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole with Marginal Text of the King James Version. The Sea Island Translation Team in Cooperation with Wycliffe Bible Translators. American Bible Society, 2005.

Gullah and Krio

Compare these versions of Luke 6:29 in Gullah and Krio, an English-based creole language spoken in Sierra Leone:

GULLAH
(Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team version):

Ef anybody knock one side ob oona face, mus ton de oda side an leh um
knock de oda side too. Ef somebody take oona coat, mus gem oona shat too.

KRIO
(Lutheran Bible Translators version):

If enibodi slap una na wan ja, una fo ton di oda wan gi am fo mek i slap insef.
If enibodi tek una klos we ana wer pantap, una fo gi am di wan we de botom,
mek ih tek insef.

BIBLE
(Revised Standard version):

To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well.)

Source:

  • The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture, edited by Marquetta L. Goodwine. Clarity Press, 1998.)

Gullah Links on the Internet:

  • Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition (http://members.aol.com/queenmut/GullGeeCo.html)

  • Gullah Net (http://www.knowitall.org/gullahnet) from Knowitall.org and SC ETV. Explore Gullah culture with Aunt Pearlie-Sue: music, folktales and sound files of Gullah words. The site includes bibliographies, teacher resources, Web links, and other resources.
  • Gullah Prayers (http://www.gullahtours.com/prayers.html) from Gullah Tours of Charleston.

  • Introducing Folknography: A Study of Gullah Culture (http://132.235.101.197/folknography/pdf/Gullah%20Paper%20-%20Chicago.pdf): A Web site Dr. Charles W. Jarrett and Dr. David Lucas of Ohio State University, incorporating the principles of folknography, which "search(es) for the 'voice of the people,' listening carefully for ‘emergent themes’ and ‘collective interpretations’ of a particular ‘folk'" (particular population or specific ethnic group), toward "an 'empathetic understanding' of their attitudes, their beliefs, their values, their views, their rituals, and their mode of interactive communication."
  • A Little Lesson in Gullah (http://www.gullahtours.com/phrases.html) "Som' Gullah fuh unrabble yuh mout' wid" ("Some Gullah to talk with") from Gullah Tours of Charleston.
  • Penn Center (http://www.angelfire.com/sc/jhstevens/penncenter.html) onSt. Helena Island, Beaufort County, SC.

  • Ron and Natalie Daise Web site (http://www.gullahgullah.com/meet2.html), from the creators of Nickelodeon's "Gullah, Gullah Island" children's television series. This link takes you to Ron and Natalie's list of Gullah Web links (Click on Learn more about Gullah culture and Beaufort, South Carolina!").

  • South Carolina – African-Americans – Culture, Heritage (http://www.sciway.net/afam/culture.html) A directory of links from SCIway, "South Carolina's Information Highway".
Go to Part II, Sea Island Culture , or
to our
Gullah Bibliography
.

 

 
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