basic geographical facts about Beaufort
County's Sea Islands, see:
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.
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):
Gullah and Krio
Compare these versions of Luke 6:29 in Gullah and Krio, an English-based creole language spoken in Sierra Leone:
anybody knock one side ob oona face, mus ton de oda side an
enibodi slap una na wan ja, una fo ton di oda wan gi am fo
mek i slap insef.
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.)
Gullah Links on the Internet: