Language of the Month: Gullah

At the Museum, we respect those from backgrounds, races, and cultures all over the globe. Recent events have shown that the American ideals of liberty and justice for all have not yet been fully achieved.  We are sharing this message to show our support for the massive movement for justice and equality that these events have sparked across our nation and around the world.   Language has been used throughout human history as a means of oppression and discrimination, but language also has the power to inspire and unite us in our common humanity.   Language is a means to share culture, customs, and friendship, and a way to preserve these important human experiences and interactions. Language is to be celebrated, and we will continue our commitment to promoting languages from all peoples to show the beauty and magic of their languages and cultures.

Therefore, this month we will be looking at a language that not only evolved in America, but is representative of its rich Black heritage, Gullah. Also known as Geechee, Gullah is an English creole that saw most of its foundation in the 19th century. Today, as before, it is largely spoken in the coastal area of Georgia and South Carolina,as well as in small areas ofNorth Carolina and Florida. It is viewed by its speakers as an integral part of their heritage, going back to the time of their ancestors. Gullah helped shape their identity as both African and American.

Gullah may have developed from many African slaves who arrived in America knowing some form of English creole, as it was not uncommon for English and American slave traders to speak in a version of Creole that was understood by African slave traders. Regrettably originally seen as “broken English,” further linguistic study reveals that while the majority of the vocabulary derives from English, the sentence structure, grammar, and pronunciation have West African influences. A large amount of its vocabulary, in particular dem (they/them context dependent) and ain (ain’t) are commonly utilized in everyday English, even if they are not recognized as “formal” English. However, unlike English, the word ain for example can be utilized as the beginning of a sentence as part of a double negative, particularly an interrogative, indicative of potential French influences, highly likely given its origins as a creole in West Africa.

One of the most interesting aspects of Gullah is that it is somewhat understandable to non-speakers, such as the examples given above. Unfortunately, this also led to a social stigma brought about by those who considered the language “broken English.” For generations, Gullah was only spoken in the home, and nearly never in social contexts, leading to a decline in its prevalence.  Today there are  only about 5,000 speakers including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who remembers being  ridiculed during his time in high school for being a Gullah speaker.

Fortunately, Gullah is more celebrated now.  . In the 1940s, Lorenzo Dow Turner, embarked on the first serious linguistic study of Gullah, which helped raise awareness of its value in the linguistic community. Children across the country tuned into Gullah Gullah Island on Nick Jr. in the 1990s; although it did not feature much of the language, it was a positive representation of indigenous African culture in the US. For many generations, churches, camps, and Boy Scout troops have sung Kumbaya, whose name translates from Gullah to “Come By Here.” 

In 2005, the Gullah people announced a complete translation of the New Testament, and there is even the opportunity to learn the language at Harvard as part of its African Language Program. The endurance of the language in the face of adversity can be credited to the tenacity of its people, and how a language becomes an intrinsic part of a culture and helps shape an identity.

The endurance of Gullah in the face of adversity can be credited largely to its important role in shaping the identity and culture of its tenacious speakers.

Further Reading:

Gullah: Morphology and Syntax

The Gullah: Race, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection