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The Gullah Creole Language

by Virginia Mixson Geraty

Virginia Mixson Geraty lived for over fifty years in the Edisto Island area near Charleston, South Carolina, where she studied the language and culture of the Gullah people. She is the one of a very few people in the country who can speak, read and write this unique, English-derived creole language. In recognition of her work in the preservation of Gullah she has been awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by the College of Charleston.

Photo of Julian Linder, by Muriel and Malcolm Bell, Jr.

Along the southeastern coast of the United States there is a narrow strip of land which is known to linguists and dialect geographers as the Gullah Area. This region, which includes the sea islands along the coast, extends roughly from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida, and inland for about one hundred miles. Living in this area are African-American people who are descendants of the tribesmen brought to the New World during the time of the Slave Trade. These people still speak variations of the original creole language known as Gullah.

This creole, one of the six which comprise the group known as the English-derived Atlantic Creoles, began to develop from the pidgin, or contact vernacular, which was spoken by the tribesmen brought from Africa by the slave traders. Many of the tribesmen were sold into slavery in the West Indies, where their pidgin language became influenced by the various creoles spoken by the natives in these islands. Later many of the slaves were brought by plantation owners in the American colonies, where their language was further influenced by the English dialects used by the overseers on these plantations. Finally, from the leveling of all these linguistic influences, a new language developed. This language, which became known as "Gullah," attained creole status during the mid 1700s, and was learned and used by the second generation of slaves as their mother tongue.

Contrary to the belief still held by some, Gullah is not poor, or broken English. It is not a dialect of any other language, neither is it Black English. Gullah possesses every element necessary for it to qualify as a language in its own right. It has its own grammar, phonological systems, idiomatic expressions, and an extensive vocabulary. Since this language was never intended to be written, there are no hard and fast rules governing its orthography. However, Ambrose Elliot Gonzales during the 1920s wrote the Black Border series, and at the time established a synchronic orthography which represents the sounds of spoken Gullah as perfectly as they can be written. No scholar has been able to improve on Ambrose Gonzales' written representation of the rich, soft sounds that fall so easily from the Gullah tongue.

To describe the language, Gullah is spoken softly, with a rolling rhythm. As the Gullah speak, you can almost hear the wind ruffling the marsh grasses. Their words sway like the long banners of moss that hang from oak trees that grace their homeland. Since this language is an English-based, or English-derived creole, it sounds like English, but there is a certain flavor of the West African coast in its intonation and stress. On hearing it for the first time you are apt to think you are listening to the Krio spoken in Sierra Leone, or the Jamaican or Barbadian creoles spoken in the West Indies. The vocabulary of Gullah is mostly English with only a few words from African languages reminiscent of its pidgin stage.

One of the most interesting feaures of Gullah is the frequent use of idiomatic expressions. While these expressions are both meaningful and colorful, and while they contribute to the charm of the language, they also make it difficult to understand. With only a few well chosen words, a speaker is able to convey thoughts and ideas. Example:

"Tek'e foot een 'e han"= to run, or to leave quickly.
"Dry 'long so " = without a reason or explanation.
"Two -time-one-gun"= a double barreled gun.
"Tas'e 'e mout'"= something appetizing to eat.
"Lawfully lady"= lawfully wedded wife.
"Haa'dly'kin"= barely able.

Sometimes only one word will express eight complete thoughts. Then, using the same word and changing the tone of the voice to indicate a question, eight additional thoughts are expressed.

Pure Gullah is seldom heard anymore, and as older speakers pass away much of the language is lost with them. However, in Charleston the generations of the past belong to the present, and you can hear recorded Gullah, "Maum Chrish' Chaa'stun" and read written Gullah in "Porgy, a Gullah Version."

To better contrast Gullah with standard English, Virginia Mixson Geraty has given us permission to reprint English and Gullah renditions of her poem "Thank God for Charleston." The Gullah version includes Dr. Geraty's phonetic spelling.

Thank God for Charleston

It's twilight and I take up my pen to write
These things that I think about Charleston.

I don't have the education to write like the buckruh write
That live on Broad Street.

Because when the Lord said to choose the box that held the
Things with which to make our living.

My old people chose the heavy box that held the most, and
The box held an axe, a shovel and a hoe.

That buckruh took the little box that was left and they got
The pencil, the paper and the books and things.

Very well then, I don't have the words to write about Charleston
My old home, my "Holy Land",

But the Lord knows that my heart "stands" just like the buckruh
Who has his name on the books that he writes.

The moon has risen now, and the wind brings the smell of the marsh
From the harbor of the land that I love.

Thank God for my life and the health to sing His praises.
Thank God that I was born and that I am going to die in Charleston.

T'engk' Gawd fuh Chaa'stun

'E, fus daa'k en' un tek me pen een han' fuh write
Dese t'ing wuh uh t'ink 'bout Chaa'stun.

Uh yent hab onduhstan' fuh write lukkuh dem buckruh write
Wuh lib tuh Brawd Street.

Bekase w'en de Lawd say mus' chuse de box wuh hol'
De t'ing fuh mek we libbin',

Me ole peepul chuse de hebby box wuh hol' de mo'res
En' de box hab ax en' shubble en' hoe.

De buckruh tek de leetle box wuh lef' en' 'e git
De pensul, de papuh en' de book en' t'ing.

Berry weellden, uh yent hab de wu'd fuh write 'bout Chaa'stun---
Me ole home, me "Holy Lan'".

But Lawd know me h'aa't stan' same lukkuh dem buckruh
Wuh hab 'e name 'puntop de book wuh 'e write.

De moon done rise en' de win' fetch de smell ob de maa'sh
F'um de haa'buh ob de lan' wuh uh lub'.

T'engk' Gawd fuh life en' he'lt' fuh sing 'E, praise.
T'engk' Gawd fuh uh bin bawn en' uh gwi' die een Chaa'stun.

Photo of Julian Linder by Muriel & Malcolm Bell, Jr. from the book Drums and Shadows by the Georgia Writers Project, WPA. © University of Georgia, 1940.