Cappuccino Soul

Cappuccino Soul

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My People: Gullah Language and Culture

Listen to Gullah. (Da lettle smaat gal ober yah.)

The Gullah Language
by Dennis Adams and Hillary Barnwell
(of the Beaufort County Library, Beaufort, SC)

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.

"Noon Wash"
by Jonathan Green, an artist out of the Gullah
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.

Here Gullah Folk Tales by Aunt Pearlie Sue.

Dey bless fa true, dem wa saaful now, cause God gwine courage um.
(Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.) -- De Nyew Testament


Anonymous said...


Cappuccino Soul said...

Sho nuff!

The Ghetto Intellectual™ said...

very cool post. i am fascinated by gullah culture. i hope to visit the area sometime next summer. i also want to have a look at Oyotunji Village.

i have uploaded my Gullah files, including Gullah bible project, to "Dropbox." You (or anyone else) can click here to view the files. GI

The Ghetto Intellectual™ said...

Sorry, I am still learning dropbox. Turns out i have to send the files individually:

1. Reading from Gullah bible. nyew testament.

3. Gullah retentions.

4. Matthew 21.

5. Gospel according to Gullah.

Cappuccino Soul said...

Thanks for the awesome resources. Yes, you MUST visit Gullah country. It's fascinating!
Thanks also for the LA Times article. I've owned my Gullah Nyew Testament Bible for years and was hoping some others would write about it. It's quite a Treasure.
In the Times article, the reporter interviewed a man who said he used to laugh at him grandmother's speeech ("dey", "dat", etc.), now he sees the light. My father said people used to laugh at my Grandfather, who moved from S.C. to N.C. They didn't realize the heritage he brought with him.
I LOVE everything Gullah!

Jamara Newell said...

Excellent post. I am interesting in gullah culture also.

Cappuccino Soul said...

I love everything Gullah. If you find out more info., please let me know.

Anatole Ledet said...

"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. "

This portion of the article is completely untrue.

Creole/Kreyol/Criollo as a people (in the Americas, in its original sense) refers specifically to the people of African heritage who were BORN ON colonial-period soil.

The people, called kréyol were not solely restricted to those of "mixed race" ancestry. This is a popular myth and a fairly recent one (within the last century or so) perpetuated not only by us (kréyols in the US), but also by anglo-americans who misused the term and later employed it as a division tactic between the former "gens de couleur libre" and the rest of the kréyol population. A simple perusal of the historical archives of Napoleon would clear much of this up (I am currently in France researching the archives of Napoleon's republic), and if not readily accessible - one can simply research the Black Creole descendants in the Americas, Antilles, and Sierra Leone/Liberia.

For example, in Matnik, "kréyol" denotes those who descended from the Africans born on colonial soil. The same can be observed in Brésil, Gwada, as well as Sierra Leone & Liberia where the "indigenous African-American" population (referred to as just that) are called "krios". It has nothing to do with the racial makeup of the person, though it can be assumed that most likely, when a person is African-American (particularly today) they are likely of mixed ancestry, regardless of whether or not they're kréyol from the former French-speaking territories or creole from the former English-speaking territories (e.g. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, etc.), or criollo from the former Spanish or Portuguese territories (e.g. Florida, Bresil, etc).

Cappuccino Soul said...

This is all VERY interesting information. Thank you for sharing this and thanks for reading the blog.