Gullah Language and Culture

Gullah Language and Culture

A Story by kano

A reaction to Gullah language and efforts to preserve its culture.


Gullah Language and Culture The main thesis of the article on the Gullah language as an African construct, is comprised by two key questions related to the differences or similarities between Atlantic pidgins and creoles in North America. These and various hypotheses are explored. The main geographical areas of study are Georgia and South Carolina. The claim is made that Lorenzo Dow Turner (1949) is the architect of scholarly research of Gullah. The article further states how a myriad of scholars continued the study of Gullah 20 years after Turner (1949) and beyond. Many of their scholarly writings were “unpublished dissertations” which portrayed various Gullah speech comparisons to the structural forms of standard English, and attempted to locate the origins of Gullah culture.


The field work into this study was undertaken by Mufwene (1983). The article also points out how many linguists used Turners’ data in their analysis of Gullah as more of a review. Beyond this premise are two theoretical terms, Afro-genetic or African substratum, and African geographic origin. Mufwene (1983) points out how the regional influences of the Caribbean as well as the parent West African pidgin and creoles are a shared communication system which uses forms of English, yet do not conform to rules of standard English. The universal hypothesis of Gullah suggests its’ “pidgins eliminates tense and aspect markers.” Gullah has preserved various African tribal lingual words and phrases. The demographic structures in the old south made Gullah the dominant language during the colonial period. Gullah is studied as an English/African formation brought about by the slave trade. The timeline being 1550 through 1807, during the cross Atlantic slave trade. The three groups, African, Caribbean, and other creoles found in North America are examined with conversational examples. 17 Gullah lingual structures are examined. Their forms are delineated regionally based on shared varieties(inter) and local(intra) sentence structural formations. Gullah sentences are shown against standard English structural translations.


The authors reject most findings presented, and leave open options for new interpretations of examing the structure of the Gullah language. This article seemed to reflect the unique nature of the language (speech) communities of Africans in the New World. The genious of the African was to find a way to preserve their cultural heritage by using diglossic means such as speaking as broken a form of English as possible in the master/slave relationship during the slave era (“puttin on ole massa“). Gullah as a means of communication kept Africans, of various tribal lingual origins, connected to their heritage, and to interact with other cultures as well. When the article discussed the introduction of words from various African tribes, it separated these tribes from Caribbeanites, whose tribal roots (Africa) are interrelated. By doing this the authors showed how different dialectical patterns differed from one local to another. Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, and Antigua were mentioned as case studies. The 17 structural examples reflected this phenomena from within the study samples. The acquisition of the Gullah language appears to have been done by ear, rather than by formal educational means. The article was unable to trace the evolution of Gullah. Like which African tribal language was most dominant. It did explain in great detail how indeed Gullah is African. The “why” needs further study.When the language was initially formed. Where it was formed.


Traveling to South Carolina and various Caribbean Islands one can see how the degrees of pidgin and creole vary among social class structures. Gender is neutral in some regions within Gullah speech patterns. This could reflect how tribal customs created inclusiveness in a collective communal social structure Since this article refers to findings ending in 1983-4, further findings are open to exploration. This article takes aim at previous theories related to genetic linguists studies of Gullah Creole. The argument that “ideological inclinations” by certain scholars, were the basis of interpreting that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is linked to Gullah Creole’s genetic relationship to AAVE is disputed by the author. The author states that other American English dialects are not properly considered as factors beyond the genetic link. The author illustrates how other linguistc scholars are skeptical of isolating the study based on genetic linkage also.


The article points how this area of study is short on corresponding data for comparative purposes. Examples given include “white nonstandard English” dialectical forms which may or may not have influenced Black English vareities. The article admits to not knowing how various offspring of American English came to be. The author suggests methods to trace such origins should be the “population genetics model” and studying ecological factors. The wonder of how and why similar (not identical) strains of ancestry branched off into varying lingual communities is the area to begin to research. The ancestral varieties include other European colonialists (Dutch, German, etc.). The suggestion of the author is that a compehensive study is warrented to rule in all possible facters related to understanding the genetic linguists history of the English and the African speech communities. The conclusion of this article suggests that more questions than answers are available to linguists in this cultural field of lingual study. The article opened a window into how speech communities have a fluid evolutionary movement through time in which the opportunity for new forms can emerge based on various forms of social interactions.


When the author discussed the need to study all colonial players, the Dutch and German for example, it could suggest that migration, as well as ecological factors, are equally important to studying the evolution of various North American dialects. This could help explain how and when certain dialects were formed in North America. The Dutch Caribbean islands have the own type of Gullah called Papiamento which emerged during the era of the slave trade (17th to 19th centuries). Some slaves from these territories were sold to mainland North America and could have brought certain speech patterns into the Gullah lexicon as well. Fortunately the author is continuing research into this area. It is interesting to note how the article addresses the study of American dialects as offspring of standard American English, yet suggests that the formation of various dialects are a consequence of the settlement communities spawned by colonialism. If ecological factors are fundamental to the study of Gullah, then one could summize that Sea Islanders share more of a lingual connection with Caribbean speech communities than inland American speech communities.


The study of Gullah could produce larger sets of probabilities pertaining to the notion that there may never will be a universal standard language even if certain language, such as Gullah, die off. We instead could see the formation of new dialectic formations as people continue to migrate throughout America, or, for example if another Katrina like catastrophe occurs forcing Sea Islanders to abandon their domain and become absorbed by the mainland and its dialectic variants then the language communities of the Sea Islands could become lost forever. The speech communities that absorb those dispersed under such a scenario could have its’ speech community altered as well. The real difficulty in tracing the evolution of the Gullah language is that Gullah does not seem to have a written trail to link researchers towards past patterns of its’ speech. It appears to be a spoken word language passed down orally from generation to generation. Recent reporting of the Sea Islanders link to Caribbean ancestry suggests that a DNA link has been found between Sea Islanders in South Carolina and a particular Parrish in Jamaica. African American literature studies have traced Slave Songs from Port Royal Jamaica to Charleston South Caorlina. This evidence needs to become incorporated with the compilation of evidence gathered in the expanded research tracing the origin of the roots of Gullah culture.


This article stresses that governmental research of Black speech in America is a positive approach on the one hand, while illustrating its’ shortfalls on the other. The positve aspect of this recognition is the need to create such a study to “ reverse negative attitudes” and progress towards enhancing curricular for Black students in general. The author also stresses disdain for certain regional areas of study of Black speech. Such as inner city communities as opposed to rual black communities particularly in the south where heavier concentrations of black people reside. The author suggest that in these rural communities greater speech forms could be found. Also the author states that the research is mostly conducted on black youth, not their elders. The article focuses on aspects of contemporary study (1983). The dichotomy between northern urban centers for these studies and southern area neglected by this study motivated the author to conduct field study of Gullah lingual patterns. The author, Patricia Jones-Jackson, surveyed Gullah people in 1978 and listed lingual structures of Gullah and how Gullah contrasts with standard English. In fact she stresses that Gullah has to be a language because it cannot be understood in standard English terms. Gullah is pointed out as being comprised of several West African languages such as Igbo, Yoruba and other tribal tounges.


Interestingly enough, the author points out that whites in the region of the Sea Islands can speak fluent Gullah as well. Though Blacks are the majority inhabitants. Cultural practices are central to the structure of Gullah communications as well. Such as religion, child rearing and other social practices. The primary language within Gullah is shown to be English. Jones-Jackson (1978) shows how Gullah has “underlying” grammatical constructs which trace back to West Africa. Through her field work Jones-Jackson found patterns of usage in “pronominal” usages. She used frequency devices to numerate and deliniate the use of standard English pronouns and Gullah replacements. The absent pronouns are shown in contrast to what should appear within a Standard English sentence structure. Including the gender usage of he/her versus the lack of these pronouns in Gullah. When verbs were examined Jones-Jackson noted that tense was not as important as the mood in which time of a discussed event was stated in Gullah. She also noted the lack of applied suffix (-s) in third person referal.


Nevertheless, Gullah was being taught as a first language. Yet those who also learned Standard English became facilitators for the both the Sea Islanders and the mainlanders. Yet still the authors maintains recognition that the Gullah language cannot separate itself from its’ African roots and influence. The interesting pattern to the study of Gullah language and culture is that like Salikoko Mufwene (1983), Patricia Jones-Jackson (1978) realizes that conclusions cannot be drawn in the study. Further research and analysis is essential. Given the politics of 1983 it is interesting to note that research on the study of Black languages in America was “federally funded.” Yet the funds were used to study northern inner city Black dialects and not Black southern dialects and languages.


The absence of a Black elite class social structure (philanthropists) perhaps forces Black educators and scholars to neglect the study of Black speech in the south due to lack of funding. The political players in the south during the 1980’s must have been dominated by old school southern ex-segregationist who must have blocked such attempts legislatively to add the Sea Islands to the field of study. Jones-Jackson does an excellent job of keeping Africa in the forefront of attachment to the Gullah language. Her studies are empirically important in preserving the Gullah language since the language was virtually left alone decades and at least one or two centuries prior to the mid 20th century. Though Jones-Jackson shows how whites living in the Sea Islands speak Gullah as a first language, she does not say how whites in this category were taught Gullah, or when. This underscores the importance of why an historical study is important for the study of Black dialects in America. Studying this history could help Blacks in general trace their ancestral heritage and help whites learn to communicate and better understand Black culture in general, and Gullah in particular. This article illustrates how the Gullah language is being incorporated into Christianity by Wycliffe Bible Translators beginning in 1979. Their efforts were designed to produce a written form of Gullah. In doing so broad respect for the Gullah language is being achieved. The article stresses that the purpose of this endeavor was to create a spritual document for the consumption of the Gullah faithful.


The added consequence is that a vocabulary of Gullah words are being created in written form. The article describes the historical trail of the Gullah culture thus acknowledging the African roots of the Gullah language and the motivation of slavery and the slave trade as the catalyst to the development of the language. An initial benefactor of this project is said to be the Penn Center, the first school in the south for freed slaves. Since the Penn Center is located along the coastline, the article describes how Old Spirituals addressed the environmental events that affected the region, i.e. tropical storms, as well as other social occurrences related to both slavery and post slavery issues effecting the lives of the Gullah communities of the Sea Islands. The study brought to light the lesson of the “Gullah shout” as a method to retain the rhythms of the sounds the talking drums, which were forbidden, to produce a spoken cadence as a consequence of laws prohibiting the playing of the drum.


Thus informing us that this is the “ oldest of plantation melodies” which also helped produce the various “cadences” within the the sound of the Gullah speech inflections. In regards to the Gullah Bible, the book of Luke is said to have sold upwards of 5000 copies right off the press. Studies are being conducted to determine the “accuracy of the translations by Sea Island scholars. In addition the Gullah Bible, Gullah dictionaries are being created as well by the same group producing the Gullah Bible in both the New and now the Old Testiment. Sea Islanders wish to be the ones who play a principle role in this project, as they are the true experts of their own religion. What is most interesting about the Gullah Bible project is how motivated the Christian organizations are to assist in helping to preserve the Gullah language through religious textual material. The commercial aspect of the project appears to be more of an effort to help sustain the culture of the Gullah people as oppose to expoiting it. If this is the case then perhaps the Gullah people may not have to abandon their cultural roots and instead share their heritage with outsiders visiting their landscape.


The Sea Islands are mostly owned by the National Parks Services and have available facilities for vacationers similar to their Caribbean neighbors. Thus the Gullah people could become vital inhabitants which the state and local governments should nurture for the sake of authenticity of a social structure that only Gullah people could provide. Christian worshipors could travel to the region and enjoy the enviornment as a retreat for example and share spiritual interactions with the local Gullah communities. It is interesting that the Penn Center, located on St. Helena Island South Carolina, has been preserved by missionaries as part of an experiment. The likes of Martin Luther King and Bill and Cheasea Clinton have stayed at the Penn Center underscoring the significance of the region and the facility as well. Some of the oldest (and smallest) churches in America are located in and off the Sea Islands of Charleston South Carolina. The spritual culture of the Gullah people is perhaps the one part of the Gullah language which has drifted from the Sea Islands to the inland areas and can be found in inner city church communities throughout the united States. Among the major contributions to the Christian religion from the Gullah people are spirituals. The study of these spirituals were examined at the Penn Center as part of the Port Royal experiment (19th century). The most commonly sung spiritual being Kumbaya.


The 300 year old Gullah language finally has a religious text and is on the path towards ensuring its’ future through the theological written document which undoubtedly will be further revised by Gullah people themselves once they create more literal scholarship of the Gullah language and culture in the years to come. In conclusion, here is as a Gullah translation of the Lord’s Prayer:

We Fader wa dey een heaben leh ebrybody hona ya nyame.

We pray dat soon ya gwine rule oba de wol.

Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so een dis wol

Gii we de food wa we need dis day yah an ebry day.

Fagib we fa we sin, same like we da fagib dem people wa do bad

at we Leh we dohn hab haad test wen Satan try we.

Keep we fom ebil.


Congressman James Clayburn (D-S.C) wrote a poetic communiqué aluding to the plight of the Gullah/Geechee predicament. The fact that the Gullah people are becoming an endangered culture. He stresses the worthiness of preserving this “unique” heritage of a people whose communities are rapidly shrinking. He points out some of the cultural richness and communal practices which have a combination of social, religious, and horticultural significance. He reveals the maintanence of communal practices which trace back to the plantation era from a people who have preserved spiritual practices brought from Africa, even those who came to the Sea Islands by way of the Caribbean. He introduces words spoken by locals known regionally as “cumyas” and “benyas.” Their spiritual traditions combined to bring the song Kumbaya (come by here). The foods of the Gullah, which are named in Gullah, also provide a means to protect the legacy of the Gullah language. The foods are mostly made from crops brought from Africa which are refered to in Gullah. The Congressman alerts that he had requested the National Parks Service conduct a three year regional study (2001) of which the findings (May 2004) the dire sraights plaqueing the future of the Gullah people. The Congressman indicated that during a phase of political rangling a Bill (H.R. 684) which is co-sponsored by several Republican Congressmen has been introduced. The working title of the Bill is called the Gullah/Geechee/Geechee Preservation act. Initially the Bill only covered the geographically area of Georgia and South Carolina. It has since been amended to include North Carolina and Florida as well. The funding would provide 2 million dollars annually over a 10 year period to aid the National Parks Service in their conservation efforts.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation list the Gullah region as one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites. Rep. Clayburn would seek to provide the same protection for this region as is provided to the Grand Canyon and other endangered sites. The Bill still has not been passed. Congressman Clyburn (D-S.C.) seems to have encountered the same problems acquiring funding to help preserve the Gullah culture as has educators who have tried to as well. As earlier stated, federal funding has only been provided to mostly northern inner cities to study Black urban speech communities. There may be a racial or an ideological component preventing this legislation from receiving the necessary votes. Or perhaps economic factors such as local land acquisition of prime real estate by firms saddled with the political opponents of this Bill are paramount in wishing to expedite the decline of the Gullah people. These cultural genocidal political actions could have profound implications in years to come as Native American Indians have long experienced as well. However one thing Native American do have going in their favor in the fact they there are several set aside sections of land, called reservations, for their cultural and economic usage. The Sea Islands are only inhabited by an estimated 250,000 Gullah people.


Even if the federal government does not vote in favor of this Bill, it should at least become a states rights debate on a local level. If the Gullah culture is to survive more prominent members of society need to become involved in te process. At the very least those same cities who received federal funding in the past for research of Black speech should lend a voice to this legislative initiative. During the recent State of the Black Union Address this issue should have been included in the Covenant. Hopefully Rep. Clayburn will not have to wait that long, but he should prepare for next years State of the Black Union Address by perhaps enlisting certain members of the Hip-Hop community to help him publicize his initiative. It may also take the likes of a Condalezza Rice to pull the necessary support for this Bill. The Gullah culture is trully a National Treasure. A cultural tool enabling the preservation of the Gullah language and culture expressed in this article is that of the Gullah Festivals which are held bi-annually in Beaford South Carolina.


These events bring together the various members of the Gullah communities from not only the coastal region of the North American Atlantic sea coast, but also bring home those who have relocated to various inland locals as well. In addition, others interested in witnessing the Gullah culture (tourists) mingle with the participants of these events as well. Within these events are opportunities for teaching inlanders the history of the Gullah people and alow all to witness how historical practices of the Gullah managed to survive in spite of the conditions presented by the dominant culture which could have eliminated the Gullah culture long ago. For example the article points out how the drum was banned in 1742 in an effort to control the slave populus and their means of perceived subversive communications. The Festival program includes various forms of cultural entertainment created by the Gullah people of which includes the Griot (oral historian) speaker whose role is to recant oral story telling of the history of the people. (Gullah in this case, or in general, any particular African tribe) This oratator craft originated in West Africa and has been preserved by the Gullah people.


The artistic expressions presented during this festival have a language which is related to the Gullah people which allow those ouside of the Gullah communities to interpret the conveyance of the Gullah people in the forms of music, dance, and food. The festival illustrates how interconnected African and American cultures are and how such an event provides an educational opportunity fro those inland to learn a language system within the continental United States. Bringing inlanders into the region to share in this event also provides an opportunity for the Gullah to learn from the inland speech communities that intermingle with the Gullah during this event as well. The article shows how the Gullah Festival brings the spirit of Africa to those who have not the means to return to Africa to participate in similar cultural events which helped produce the prototype pidgins within the continent of Africa.


The artist present different representations of the various tribal heritages that comprised the Gullah cultural makeup. With the main tribal religious and social renditions coming from the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria. The article makes mention of the inclusion of the Caribbean, and South African participants which further expands the social varieties of regional black speech groups sharing their heritage and passing it along to future generations. “Each one teach one.” Out of many come one.” These are phrase that come out of the Harlem community and Jamaica respectively. Each are indication of the thought process which could have been the catalyst for the formation of the creoles of both Gullah and Jamaican creole. Collectively they each are responsible for the preservation of African speech traditions which help to preserve the cultural identities of an exploited mass of people ripped from the African continent. One of the commonalities of the Gullah festival and the various Carnival celebrations of those in the Caribbean is that they each stress pride in maintaining cultural survival in spite of what each regional displaced African sets of people were forced to defend. These commonalities are are highlighted at the Gullah festivals and Caribbean Carnivals annually.


With regards to afore mentioned expressions, “each one teach one” is attributed to transplanted South Carolinians who migrated to the Harlem over the decades from the late 19th century on up through the 20th century. Harlem made home to the influx of people from the Caribbean as well. Thus, we see the social connectivity of similar cultural practices. Speech being among them. One maintain that if not for these types of social gatherings the collective cultures within Gullah and the various Caribbean cultures would surely, perhaps, be extinct today. Yet the manner in which all cultures maintain their heritage are equally similar. White society in America uses similar types of gatherings (Columbus Day, Fourth of July, etc..) to maintain their heritage as well. The construct of these celebratory mechanisms allow for the sensory factors to absorb the lessons proved by these cultural events.Thus the food, the musicals sounds, and the topography of coastal South Carolina are vital in creating the cultural spread of Gullah culture, and also help to remove the social stigma of those who have not learned or wish not to learn standard English. Not to mention that those absorbed in mainland environs can also learn or relearn their ancestral traditions through these types of social interactions as well.

© 2008 kano

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Added on June 22, 2008
Last Updated on June 22, 2008



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