Research on Lorenzo Turner was carried out by Frances Moore for her Fall 2001 semester project in Languages of the USA (APLN 536).

The Origin of Gullah

Frances Moore

Languages of USA

ALPN 536

December 3, 2001

An old African proverb says: The River knows its Source

If you are familiar with African languages and you are traveling through the south, you will find yourself in Bantu country. In South Carolina alone, there are 39 place names having phonetic similarity to Bantu words. Ashepoo is similar to the verb ashipe, let him kill, Cainhoy to kenashu, he is not here. Cooterborough could be derived from nkuda for turtle, and Pindar Town from mpinda for peanut. Many small places in low-lying marshy areas with "Gall" in the name, such as Horse Gall, possibly stem from ngala, an embankment. Indian place-names usually reflect nature. However, those of American Blacks often reflect a human condition, such as hardships in slavery, just as place-names in the Congo commemorate significant human experiences, emotion or action. Beetaw is like the Bantu word for handcuffs or shackles, bita. Chukky resembles tshuki, to be closed mouthed; Kissah from kisa, to be cruel; Oshila is to set fire. Yoa is close to yowa, to be weak from hunger; and Chiahao, resembles tshiashu, a field gang.

Perhaps you might wonder how slaves would have been able to influence the naming of places. Continue your travel to Georgia and stop off at Picola, which resembles mpikula, meaning redeem me from slavery. Travel next to Florida and you will pass Chumukla, like tshiumukila, a motive for leaving; and Waylonzo, almost identical to walonza, shoot to kill.

According to Winifred Vass, in The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States (1979), 35 percent of the Gullah vocabulary included words that are similar to Tshiluba words found in the Congo. Furthermore, some 200 words of Bantu origin enrich Black English and many such Africanisms has become part of American speech. What is the meaning of the word Gullah? It has two possible African connections: The Gola are an ethnic group found in Sierra Leone. The word might also be a derivative of Angola, one of the countries from whence Africans came during slavery.

This paper will investigate two opposing theories regarding the origins of Gullah speech and the subsequent controversy surrounding the origins and influence of Gullah speech in America. One theorist and folklorist, Guy B. Johnson (1968) contends that the English dialect, once shared by both whites and blacks during the 17th century, directly influenced Gullah speech. Furthermore, Gullah retained this archaic and provincial form of speech because they lived in isolation on the Sea Islands, while the white population moved toward a Standard English. Additionally, the overseers used a simplified means of communication described as "baby talk" to the slaves. Subsequently, the African lost touch with his culture due to the dehumanizing experience of slavery. The other theory supported by linguist, Lorenzo D. Turner (1969), is that the African came from a polyglot society and was able to retain and preserve many aspects of his culture by creating a secret language or pidgin consisting of African and English grammar which enabled them to communicate with each other. The isolation of the Sea Islands enhanced the preservation of this speech and cultural practices.

I intend to show that the latter theory is the most probable and I will conclude with a summary of the evidence contained in this report to support my opinion.

"Carolina looks more like a Negro country than like a country settled by white people," said Samuel Dyssli, Swiss newcomer in 1737. In 1703, the total population of 9580 was 42.6 percent white, 42.8 percent black, and 14.6 percent Native American.

The differences in population continued to widen and by 1740, the slave population had risen to 39,155 while that of the whites was about 20,000(Pollitzer, 1999).

Between 1740 and 1750, most of the slave population had been born in Africa. The importation of Africans continued in the region of Brunswick, Georgia until 1858. The continued importation of slaves allowed the preservation of some African customs and in some isolated areas; the speech patterns of the slaves greatly influenced the speech patterns of their owners, particularly the women and children. According to Charles Joyner’s Down by the Riverside (1984), many of the white plantation children learned their first language from their Gullah speaking nurse and thus becoming native speakers of Gullah and learned English as a second language. Mr. Joyner (1984) continues, " A northern correspondent wrote that the children of the planters, brought up on the plantation, and allowed to run in the woods with the little Negroes, acquired the same dialect; and today many a gentleman’s son regrets that it is apparent in his speech." It was said of Benjamin Allston, Sr., of Turkey Hill, a wealthy planter, "his language was like a Negro’s, not only in pronunciation, but even in tone."

Serology studies reported in William Politzer’s book, The Gullah People and their African Heritage (1999), illustrates that inherited blood factors, showed the Gullahs of the Charleston area to be closer to their African ancestors and far less mixed with whites than those elsewhere in America.

The Gullah people are an admixture of numerous African cultures from different genetic and linguistic ancestry who formed their own Creole culture and language and retained their own unique physical traits because of climate and geography. A similar process occurred in the West Indies, Brazil, and elsewhere in the Americas.

Multilingualism was a necessary part of life in Africa and continues to be a factor in communication among the diverse language groups that populate Africa today. Linguistic skills are highly developed. Motivated by economics and trade, the average African today, speaks his village language, a pidgin or market language, and the colonial language of his country. Linguistic skills are his legacy. In Cote d’Ivoire, originally a French colony, there seems to be a movement to acquire English. Perhaps the Ivoirian perceives that acquiring English is a potential advantage to economic trade with the rich, western world.

By the time the slave trade began, Africans of different languages had already a system of communication in place. It is most probable that the linguistic patterns of the most influential languages in a particular region survived the Middle passage to the New World. The vocabulary of the alien languages of the New World created a new pidgin. According to Mr. Joyner (1984), Afro-Dutch developed in the Virgin Islands; Afro-Portuguese in Brazil and Curacao; Afro-Spanish pidgins in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Columbia; Afro-French pidgins in Louisiana, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Grenada, and the Antilles. Afro-French with some Portuguese influences developed in French Guiana There were also Afro-French and Afro-English pidgins in Trinidad and Tobago; and Afro-English pidgins developed in Barbados, Antigua, Guyana, Jamaica, and South Carolina. The Dutch colony of Surinam developed an Afro-English pidgin as well as an Afro-Portuguese pidgin with strong English lexical influences, rather than an Afro-Dutch pidgin. Many of these pidgins became Creoles in succeeding generations.

The first generation of slaves in South Carolina came from the Caribbean where they had acquired an Afro-English pidgin. The expansion of the rice culture in the early 18th century created a demand for Africans from rice growing regions of Africa. Slaves were imported from the Senegal-Gambia region, the Gold Coast region and Sierra Leone, and the Congo-Angola region.

Bunce Island is about twenty miles from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Captured Africans were taken here before importation to the New World. The island, about one quarter mile in length, was owned by a Briton, Richard Oswald, a slave trader who partnered with Henry Laurens a slave trader, colonialist, and rice planter from Charleston, South Carolina. Oswald and Laurens prospered from the tribal conflicts that still occur today.

Historian, Charles Joyner in Down by the Riverside (1984), theorizes that Gullah was created out of an effort to understand the demands of the master while communicating among themselves. As the language developed and passed down to succeeding generations, it became a Creole language.

The Gullah or Geechee culture of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia continues to be one of the most researched. Cultural biases are very revealing in some of these social, scientific and linguistic research methods.

Sociologist, Dr. Guy B. Johnson (1968) belonged to the anti-survivalist school of thought in interpreting the African American culture. In Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, (1968) he attempts to demonstrate that the origin of the Gullah dialect can be traced to a 17th century English dialect. Working side by side with indentured servants, laborers and artisans, the slave learned most of his English. Added to this theory is the idea that overseers used "baby talk" to their slaves that simplified tenses, inflections, gender and number, leaving only a skeleton of literary English. This theory fits under Johnson’s general theory that American regional differences are derived from English dialect differences. The isolation of the Sea Islanders fostered the retention of an archaic 17th century English dialect once shared by the dominant whites. Meanwhile, the white population moved toward Standard English.

The research efforts of Guy Johnson, Newman I. White, Ambrose Gonzales, George Pullen and many others, sought to prove that the African American made no contributions to speech or song in these United States and that they merely adapted to make their own, what originally belonged to the white man. According to Guy Johnson in Folk Culture on St. Helena Island South Carolina (1968), the African was thoroughly deculturized and dehumanized by the experience of slavery. There remained nothing of his culture. He goes on to say that the Gullahs’ only contribution to American culture has been the preservation of the white man’s linguistic past.

Johnson carefully explains in detail how the Gullah grammar and phonology is directly descended from the midland and southern English dialects. He cautioned that while actual accounts of the 17th century English dialect were difficult to obtain, there had been no great change in the phonological traits, so that 18th and 19th century records are accurate enough for his analysis. He relies on The English Dialect Grammar and the English Dialect Dictionary (Johnson, 1968) both by Joseph Wright for his comparative data. Johnson does not use phonetic symbols as often as he uses the conventional alphabet in his analysis.

Johnson (1968) skillfully supported his argument with comparisons of vowel and consonant uses of the Gullah with that of various English dialects in midland, southern and southwestern counties of England. He added that the Gullah dialect resembled the English peasants with whom they had the most contact and that this dialect is still common among low country whites in South Carolina. Johnson fails to connect the quick rapid speech pattern of the Gullah to that of the British dialects in his study.

Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Leicester, Worcester, Buckingham, Bedford, Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Isle of Wight, Somerset, Devon shire, Cornwall, and parts of Ireland were some counties mentioned in his study.

According to Johnson (1968), the use of n to prefix words beginning with a u or yu sound may be a survival of an African language trait. Examples given were: Nyankee, yankee, nyoung, young, nyam, yam, nused, used, nignore, ignore.

Opponents of the anti-survivalist theory such as, Lorenzo Dow Turner and Melville Herskovits in their books Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1969) and The Myth of the Negro Past (1941) respectively, reveal another story. Turner pointed out that none of the above scholars had familiarity with any of the African languages spoken by imported slaves, nor were they acquainted with the speech patterns of other parts of the New World such as the Creole dialects of French, Spanish, and Portuguese in Latin America, and the Negro English of the British West Indies where speech patterns were similar to Gullah.

Melville J. Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), cites four factors allowing the retention of African customs: climate and topography; the organization and operation of the plantations; the numerical ratios of Negroes to white: and the extent of the contact between the Negroes and whites in rural or urban settings. Much of the scholarly research regards dialect have been investigated by white linguists who had not considered the sociolinguistic aspects tending instead to focus on phonetics and semantics.

How did the African accommodate himself to English in the acculturation process? Have there been any studies that investigate the experience of acquiring a second language under oppressive conditions? A return to the past may provide some answers.

The Gullah people have lived in African American communities along the Atlantic coastal plain and on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia since the late 17th century. This coastal strip is 250 miles long and 40 miles wide consisting of low, flat islands, separated from the mainland by salt-water creeks. The islands could only be reached by boat, back then. The Gullah lived in isolation from the mainland in areas, which were very similar to the African countries from whence they came. Climate and geography enabled them to preserve and maintain a strong identity with African cultures, values and languages. The Gullah’s immunity to many of the diseases that plagued their slave masters gave them the autonomy to develop their own culture. They were also familiar with the use of plants for medicinal purposes. When the first epidemic of yellow fever struck Charlestown in 1699, of 178 deaths, only one was black. Between 1817 and 1858, 2,885 whites and only 58 blacks died of yellow fever in Charlestown (Pollitzer1999).

"Since 1790, all who could, fled malaria on plantations from late May to late October. Abandonment of rice and indigo fields in the first half of the 19th century contributed more ponds for the breeding of mosquitoes, and such towns as Summerville, Summerton, and Plantersville grew up as retreats from malaria." (Pollitzer1999)

The Gullah people who survived various infections and parasites generally developed immunity. "The Sea Island citizens of today may be more resistant to some diseases through natural selection (Pollitzer1999)." The sinister side of this revelation about blacks was revealed when the Medical College of South Carolina opened in 1824 and its circular included an ominous note about its advantages. " No place in the US offers as great the opportunities for the acquisition of Anatomical knowledge, subjects being obtained from among coloured population in sufficient number for every purpose, and proper dissection carried on without offending any individual in the community…In addition, the southern student can nowhere else receive correct instruction on the diseases of his own climate or the peculiar morbid affections of the colored population (Pollitzer1999)."

Many of the Africans brought skills that led to economical prosperity for the early colonies. The elaborate irrigation systems of the African that allowed the successful cultivation of rice created a demand for Africans from those regions where that technology was highly developed. Newspapers of the day, advertised the arrival of Africans from particular regions. These rice producing cultures stretched from Senegal to the Ivory Coast and included Cape Verde and Sierra Leone. Such ethnic groups as the Bambara, Fula, Malinke, Songhai, Sera, Mende, Temne, Kissi, Papel, and Baga, utilized their own special techniques to cultivate rice.

"Indigo dyeing and cotton were high on the list of twelve most valuable commodities exported from Charlestown, SC for November 1747- November 1748(Joyner, 1984).

The early white colonialists of Charlestown needed the skills of craftsmen and used both white and black apprentices, who learned from each other. Weavers, fullers, chandlers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, brick masons, ironmasters, glassblowers, papermakers, bookbinders, hatters, and wigmakers served the city. By the 1760s, slave artisans were hired out by the day to clients, and some set up their own shops, paying a percentage of their earnings to their masters. This practice increased their value and

Advertisements for runaway slaves in the 18th century confirm their many talents. Each plantation had guilds of craftsmen who supplied most of its needs and finished products.

By the 1850s, there were some Free Persons of Color able to purchase their freedom with the money acquired through craftsmanship. The crafts (metalwork, woodwork, leatherwork, ivory work, pottery, weaving) brought from Africa and adapted to the needs of the New World helped its retention and development.

Not all Gullah were content to remain on the islands during slavery. The American concept of slavery was different from other forms of slavery. Men, women, and children suffered harsh treatment under its tyranny. Some fought back. Some took the Underground Railroad from the mainland to the North as far as Canada. Others, went

South to Florida, and eventually were joined by the Seminole Indians. The Seminole were refugees from the Creek Nation and called themselves runaways. Their common enemy was the white man. Escaped slaves and Indians lived in dense jungles of high grass, deadly reptiles, and tropical diseases. Africans were particularly adept at using plants found there for medicinal purposes. These conditions were a protection against European invasions and successful Black and Indian agricultural communities called "maroons" prospered (Katz, 1986).

However, British and US slaveholders were alarmed by the strong relationships that developed among the Black and Indian Seminoles. By the 19th century, Black Seminoles had become key advisors and valuable interpreters for the Indian nation. They spoke English, Spanish, and the Muskogee or Hitchiti Seminole languages (Katz, 1986). Georgia slaveholders fearing that these Black Seminole camps could put an end to the slave system by influencing other slaves to runaway began plotting the annexation of Florida. Eventually, Florida was bought from Spain in 1819 for 5 million dollars. Solving the "Seminole problem" became the next agenda.

The US was uncomfortable with an independent, confident, Black community allied with Indians and who kept their African names; dressed in fine Seminole clothing; adopting Seminole stomp dances; and singing African and Seminole songs (Katz, 1986). The US tried to disrupt this alliance by employing divisive techniques and finally driving the Black Seminoles deeper into the southern Florida swamps during the First Seminole war. The Second Seminole war was fought between 1830 and 1840 to protest the US governments attempt to drive these allies westward. The US suffered many casualties and many lives were lost because they had underestimated their opponents. A commanding officer, General Sidney Thomas Jesup, wrote back to Washington that this was not an Indian war but a Negro one. A treaty was signed on March 6, 1837. The US was most anxious for these Seminole to move out west: "Should the Indians remain in this territory, the Negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway Negroes from the adjacent states (Katz, 1986)". The Seminoles finally agreed to leave Florida along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The Blacks among them called freedmen left with them. The Seminole Freedmen, as they became known, have proudly retained their Africanisms in isolated homesteads in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico. (Hancock, 1980)

During the war between the North and South, the Sea Islands were captured by the Union during the winter of 1861. There were ten thousand slaves left behind during the war. Harriet Tubman, a scout for the Union, found the Sea Islanders weary of her. Her customs and language was different even though she was as black as they were. "The (Gullah) freed people spoke Gullah, a dialect containing hundreds of African words, and Tubman spoke to them in her native Maryland accent. "Dey laughed when dey heard me talk, an’ I could not understand dem, no how," she said. When she found that they were suspicious of her because she received army rations as the white teachers did, she relinquished the privilege and paid her way by selling pies, gingerbread, and root beer that she prepared at night." (Sterling, 1984)

Daughters of the Dust by Julie Nash reveals 19th century Gullah culture through the eyes of its main characters of an extended family that undergo psychological and spiritual conflicts in the decision to leave their island for the mainland and a new way of life. The film is authentic in its depiction of all aspects of life during the period of Reconstruction. Nana is the old matriarch of the Preasant family. She still practices Yoruba rituals that have been passed down from her ancestors. She has decided to remain on the islands because she does not want to lose touch with the old ways. Viola is a devout Baptist who returns to the island with a photographer to record the last family picnic before the trip to the mainland. Her new faith and adaptation to a changing world are in direct conflict with the old ways that Nana represents. There is one scene where Nana urges each one of the family members to take apart of her spirit with them by kissing her amulet. Viola’s reaction is intense as she decries the act. "Old people are supposed to die and go to heaven," she says. Haagar, an in-law, disparages its African heritage and is eager to assimilate into America’s middle class. Yellow Mary is the family pariah who comes back to the islands "ruint", having been living as a prostitute in Cuba. Her emotional attachment to the islands finally overcome her desire to leave. Eula is Nana’s granddaughter. Eula’s rape by a "buckra" white man has tormented her husband Eli into thinking that her unborn child is not his. Her unborn child is an off screen narrator whom Nana conjures, revealing that she has indeed been conceived by her parents.

This film reveals the strong extended family unit that is characteristic of matrifocal, African cultures. For all of its allusions to slavery and hardship, the film is a beautiful testament to the spiritual resilience of generations of African American women as it faithfully captures every detail of Gullah life in the late 19th century.

Maps dramatically illustrate the areas connecting the slave trade between the two continents in the film, Family Across the Sea (1991). The Africans brought directly to South Carolina and Georgia came from a section along the West Coast extending from Senegal to Angola and included Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Dahomey. In other words, the slaver obtained Africans from the same area and brought them to the same area in the New World. The vocabulary of the Gullah consists of words found in the following languages: Wolof, Malinke, Mandinka, Bambara, Fula, Hausa, Ibo, Ibibio, Mende, Vai, Twi, Fante, Ga, Ewe, Fon, Yoruba, Bini, Kongo, Umbundu, Kimbundu and a few others. These languages were spoken in the areas previously mentioned.

Legislative laws in South Carolina imposed lighter duties on Africans brought directly from Africa than from other parts of the New World such as the West Indies. For an example, the act of 1721 imposed a duty of 10 pounds on all Africans over 10 years of age who came directly from Africa. An additional 30 pounds was imposed for any Africans from other parts of the Americas with 150 pounds imposed on Spanish Africans entering the states, as they were thought to encourage the South Carolina Africans to run away. (Pollitzer1999)

Linguist, Lorenzo Dow Turner was the first to provide evidence of the connection between the Gullah speech and African languages. He lived among the Gullah people for several years listening, recording, writing their speech in the phonetic alphabet, and then comparing his findings with that of the people of West Africa. He also relied on twenty-seven informants who knew at least sixteen African languages. He, alone, acquired thirty African languages. His research took fifteen years and resulted in Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1969) which was first published in 1949. His research changed perceptions of the Gullah speech and the linguistic heritage of all African Americans.

The Gullah people have remained very suspicious among strangers and use code-switching methods when the occasion demands it. This has probably led to difficulties in obtaining accuracy with regard to investigations of Gullah life by some outsiders. The result was that white researchers "heard" a form of English that they labeled Gullah. In reality, it was not. Gullah speech is rapid and words blend together which is uncharacteristic of the southern drawl. One example (Turner, 1969) is dafa meaning fat in Vai language. One white investigator, who lacked phonetic training and knowledge of African languages interpreted dafa as done for. Even while acknowledging this aspect of Gullah speech, white southerner Guy B. Johnson (1968), continued to maintain the accuracy of his investigations on St. Helena Island.

White scholars were usually not privy to the valuable information that Turner had been able to acquire. His African ancestry provided entrée to the community.

Lorenzo Turner (1969) investigated the Gullah dialect in the South Carolina coastal communities of Waccamaw, James, Johns Wasmalaw, Edisto, St. Helena, and Hilton Head. Those in Georgia were Darien, Harris Neck, Sapeloe Island, St. Simon Island, and St. Marys. There were at least three informants; two were over sixty and one was between forty and sixty, in the seven communities where he studied the dialect. Both sexes were represented. Informants were interviewed and taped. Autobiographical sketches, narratives of religious practices, folk tales, proverbs, superstitions, and recollections of slavery were among the information obtained (Turner, 1969).

Linguistic studies by Lorenzo Turner have shown that the Gullah have maintained a language that was identical to the one they left behind consisting of a unique lexicon, syntax, and intonation which could be described as an African "Krio". This African Krio is a confluence of languages spoken along the West African coast stretching from Senegal, Sierra Leone, to Cameroon. Records of slave traders have helped to establish that many of the Gullah people came from a country of Africa, currently know as Sierra Leone.

The most remarkable example of proof that Gullah was a language with African roots was a recording made by Professor Lorenzo Turner (1969) in 1931. He recorded Mrs. Amelia Dawley of Harris Neck, Georgia, singing a song phonetically(she did not know its’ translation). Later, one of his African informants from Sierra Leone recognized it as a Mende song sung during funerals. Mrs. Dawley’s daughter Mary Moran was among the delegation of visitors whose invitation to Sierra Leone by former President Joseph Momah in 1989, was documented in Family Across the Sea (1991).

The Language You Cry In (1998) continues the chronicle of Family across the Sea (1991) and the search for the origin of the Mende burial song. It is a story of how the memory of one song connected a Gullah woman, Mary Moran with her African ancestry. Elder Chief Nabi Ja of this Mende village says, " You can identify a person’s tribe by the language they cry in. You can speak another language. You can live in another culture but to cry over your dead, you always go back to you mother tongue." The Language You Cry In (1998).

Turner’s exhaustive studies detail the similarities between Gullah and African use of vowels and consonants as well as the employment of tone to convey meaning and grammatical relationship.

A comparison of personal naming practices was compared with that of the Twi, Dahomeans, Mandingo, Yoruba, Ibo, Ovimbundu, and Northern Tribes of Nigeria.

The Gullah naming practices seems consistent with the tradition of naming found in these

African cultures studied by Turner.

The Twi people on the Gold Coast assign a name according to the date of birth and birth order. Sometimes the name describes physical characteristics.

The Dahomeans bestow secret names that are kept secret to prevent one from working bad magic against a child. Special names are also given for the birth order and conditions of the birth. Religious affiliations of the parents might also be included. Naming seems to continuing into adulthood. Thus, a person could have several names during a lifetime.

The Mandingo assign individual and clan names. The individual name is given by the mother at the time of birth and designates sex and order of birth with respect to the mother’s people. This temporary name is sometimes replaced in a ceremony presided by the father or an official. The clan name can derive from the founder of an ancient family, no longer together. The child bears the clan name of the father in tribes of masculine descent and that of the mother’s brother in tribes of feminine descent. The wife never takes the clan name of her husband, retaining her own.

Yoruba naming bestows three classes of names given to children exclusive of totem or clan name: the circumstance of birth is expressed in a name, christening name, and attributive names.

The Ibo elder relatives have the honor of naming a child. The first name includes nwa. These succeeding name(s) indicate the day on which it was born or suggest some remembered event. However, it could also include the name of the Supreme Being as Chukuka, Okechuku and Nwa-Chuku.

The Northern Tribes of Nigeria have a naming festival, on the fifth day after the birth of a child. The mother names the first child. Subsequent children are named by the father and a libation of beer is poured to the ancestral spirits, seeking their aid on behalf of the child. Some tribes allow the seer to divine the name. Among the Hausa, a child is given a secret name that is whispered into its ear by the mother, and the second name for daily use.

There are no secret names among the Ovimbundu of Angola. There is the tendency to choose names reflecting the condition of one’s life, proverbs or animals.

A child may change his name after the age of sixteen.

There seems to be a confluence of African naming traditions among the Gullah. For an example everyone in the Gullah community has two names: the English name and the secret African name known as a basket name. The basket name includes the day of one’s birth as well as distinguishing characteristics such as the order of one’s birth. This secret name is only used within the community. The basket name has been traditionally a word of African origin . However, if an English word is used, it reflects some form of the African naming tradition.

Gullah and West African languages share similarities in syntactical features: the absence of distinction in voice; the use of verb phrases; the use of de as a verb of incomplete predication; the comparison of adjectives; the use of verbal adjectives; word order; and frequent repetition of words and phrases throughout the sentence(Turner, 1969). I will attempt to cite some examples from (Turner, 1969) reference:

The subject of a passive verb is put in the objective and the third person pronoun, they, he, or it is the subject of the sentence. A Gullah might say, "They(dem) bit him(em)" instead of, "He was beaten." A West African Yoruba would say, "I am loved" meaning, "Someone loves me".

Verb phrases have two of more verbs to express one idea. One performs the same function as a preposition, adverb, conjunction or participle in English. A Gullah would say, " yu beta go hom go si baut yo cilan," meaning, "you better go home go(to) see about your children." A West African Twi would say, " We are going go visit our mother," meaning, "We are going to visit our mother."

De is the Gullah verb ‘to be’ and is used in the present, past, and sometimes future tense as a verb of incomplete prediction. A Gullah would say, "mi de going gone," meaning, " I am going to go."

The English verb pass(surpass), mo na(more than) and di moris(the most) are frequently used in Gullah to indicate comparative and superlative degrees of adjectives. "I tal pas mi" meaning "He is taller than I," or "He is tall, surpasses me."

There is the extensive use of verbal adjectives on both sides of the Atlantic. The Gullah would say, "He mean to do that," meaning, "He was mean to do that." The Kimbundu would say, "They friends," meaning, "They are friends."

Word order is another area of similarity. It is a common practice to place adjectives after nouns in African languages. This feature is found in the Gullah language.

The syntactical examples that are cited above, are just a fraction of those mentioned in Turner’s Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect(1969). More examples may be found in the appendix to this paper.

Morphological similarities between Gullah and West African languages include number, tense, case and gender. A singular form of the number is qualified by a demonstrative pronoun or a numerical adjective(Turner,1969). There is no distinction between the tenses of verbs. This practice is found to be very common among West African languages. Distinctions between present, past or future are made by prefixing with a qualifying word or phrase. Nouns are uninflected in all cases. Prefixes express gender.

Gullahs add a vowel and or drop the consonant when pronouncing English words.

There is also a tendency to avoid certain consonant combinations by either inserting a vowel or dropping one of them. The simplification of English words,the rapid speech and intonation are difficult to understand. This is not characteristic of English speech but it is characteristic of speech found among the Bini, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Twi, Ibo, and Kongo(Turner,1969).

The use of intonations is marked in Gullah speech and is found also in the tone languages of Mene, Vai, Twi, Fante, Ga, Ewe, Yoruba, Ibo, Bini, and Efik. The difference is that the tones distinguish meanings in these African languages where as the several intonations found in Gullah have no distinctive meaning. According to Turner(1969),tone is used in the following ways:

A. There is the use of high or mid tones at the end of declarative sentences. The tone falls or is low in English declaratives when no special meaning is intended.

B. The use of level tones(high, medium or low) throughout a statement.

C. The alternation of low and mid or low and high tones throughout a statement.

D. The use of tones that fall from high to mid range in questions and statements.

E. The use of tones that rise from low or mid to high or from low to mid(This only occurs in English when some special meaning is implied).

F. The use of non-English tones in Gullah words and short phrases.

G. The use of a level Tone at the end of a question.

H. The use of a rising tone at the end of a declarative sentence. This is characteristic of Gullah and several West African languages.

A delegation of Gullah descendents were invited by former President Joseph Momah of Sierra Leone to visit Freetown in 1989. A documentary film entitled Family Across the Sea(1991), was produced about their experience. When they arrived, they were welcomed and told, "Thank God you’ve come home."

The official language in Sierra Leone is English but the lingua franca is a "krio" like the one spoken by the Gullah. President Momah greeted the delegation in krio which was immediately recognized and understood by all of the visitors It was a poignant moment. Members of the delegation were visibly shaken by the experience and expressed a deeper appreciation and pride in their language.

A form of Gullah also survives in Brackettville, Texas and El Nacimiento, Mexico(Hancock, 1980). According to Ian F. Hancock’s Texan Gullah: The Creole English of the Brackettwille Afro-Seminoles, the Afro-Seminole population are linguistically related to the Gullah speakers of the Georgia and South Carolina coast and the Sea Islands, speaking a closely related dialect within the community. Mr. Hancock(1980) briefly explains the historical connections and informs us that the language also survives in Hughes, Seminole, Okfuskee and Okmulgee counties in Oklahoma as well as Florida and the Bahamas.

These Gullah communities are very proud of their dialect and further distinguish themselves from the "state-born" or Americans by few intermarriages. When the study of this culture was undertaken, these Black Indians had been resisting formal education for fear of losing their Indian ways. They identify themselves as Seminoles, Mikasuki or Kickapoo.

An old African American proverb says: Still waters run deep

The investigation of two opposing theories as to the origin of Gullah has led me down many paths. This journey has revealed many answers. Some questions remain unanswered. There are some personal speculations that have come from my gut. For centuries, the African American has remained unheard while others have determined to devise a theory for the existence of his culture. Every decade has brought forth some new study regarding some aspect of his culture. These days it is language. If language is a measure of culture, one must not overlook the crossover influence of many AA idioms that are now in use, today. According to my investigation, many Gullah words have found their way into the American lexicon. This infers that there had already been influences on American speech that were adapted but not acknowledged. Why not?

The comparative study between Gullah and African languages by Turner(1969) conclusively supports the position that I take on the issue: Gullah is an African Krio. The circumstance of using English to bridge the gaps in communication among themselves enabled a secret language. At the same time, they managed to adapt to the use of a 17th century English dialect to communicate to their white colonial masters. The Gullah were code-switching. What is remarkable is that they have been able to preserve their unique language for over well over three hundred years.

An African proverb says, " A lie can annihilate a thousand truths." There is something more attractive about a big lie then a small truth. I investigated the lie and I uncovered the truth. "If a tiger sits, do not think that it is out of respect." The truth is that the Gullah never lost the fundamental parts of their culture while enduring the horrors of slavery.


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South Carolina Educational Television(Producer). (1991), Family Across the Sea, (FILM). California Newsreel, 149 Ninth Street, San Francisco, Ca 04103

Breen, T. H., (1976). Shaping Southern Society: the colonial experience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Burden, B., "A Bible to Call Their Own:Gullah Speakers Put Verses in Native Tongue." Atlanta Journal and Constitution, June 11, 1993, p.6.

Carraway, G & C, (1989). Ain’t you got a right to the tree of life?. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Cassidy, F., Hall, J., Doane, Nick. @Ringler, D., (Eds.).(1992) Old English and New: studies in language and linguistics, New York: Garland Publishers.

Green,J. (1996). Gullah Images: The Art of Jonathan Green. University of South Carolina Press.

Creel, M.W, (1988). A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture Among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press.

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Dash. J & Jafa. A. (Producer) (1991). Daughters of the Dust. (FILM). (Available from Kino Video, 333 West 39th Street, NY,NY 10018

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Hancock, I. F. (1980). Texas Gullah: The Creole English of the Brackettville Afro-Seminoles. (Dillard), Perspectives on American English. (pp305-333). New York: Moulton Publishers.

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Lee, M., (1999, Winter). Out of the Hood and into the News: Borrowed Black Verbal Expressions in a Mainstream Newspaper. American Speech, 74,4, 369-387.

Mellon (Ed.), (1988) Bullwhip Days, An Oral History. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Montgomery, M., Mishoe, M., (1999, Fall). He Bes Took Up with a Yankee Girl and Moved up there to New York: The Verb Bes in the Carolinas and Its History. American Speech, 74, 3, 240-247.

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Pollitzer, W.,(1999), The Gullah: People and Their African Heritage. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

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                   Web site:

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Appendix K
(By PRINCE SMITH, Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina)
When time come to set out to work, you list ground. From top of the
bed you bring the grass all down to the alley till all the land done fix that
way. N ow when time to bank the ground, you will take your hoe in your
hand again and now bank that land all around. There ain't any plow.
When you get through with all that, and everything straighten up,
, and time come to plant, then you trench on top of the bed and put the
seed in and cover up.
They have three class: whole hand, and three-quarter, and half hand. The
task-row length is thirty-five feet long. That's thirty-five feet long-task-
row length. The breadth of the task-that the widest of the task cross and
cross-is t,venty-four bed. This carry twelve ro'v each side. [They] call that
one task. Now, these whole hand have to do two task of that one day for
day's ,vork. That's the whole hand, now. Not a row must [be] left. The
three-quarter hand must do one of those whole task and a half. That's his
day's work. The half hand shall do one of those whole task, and that is
his day's work. That was the way they had them fix.
And 'v hen time crop done plant and cotton come up, the first hoeing of
the cotton you ain't had to pick no grass from the cotton hill then. It too
young; it can't bear pulling up; the grass pull it up too. But the second
hoeing, you can't put a hoe on that bed before you go through that half an
acre [of] the land and pick out every grass from every hill of the cotton. Then
you turn around; then you take your hoe and you will go, and it take you
till sundown to hoe out them task. Well, after through that, you got those
grass to pick up out of the alley and bundle up and tote it, [even] if [it is]
a quarter mile to the wood or the creek, before your day's work is done;
and [you] grind a peck of corn every seven days for you to feed off for a
week. Everybody had his corn to grind. After all that labor, you got your
peck of corn to grind to get your food to eat. And the driver was mean
and bossy.
Gullah Texts
Source: Turner, L.(1969)





Appendix J
(By DIAN.\ BROWN, Edisto Island, South Carolina)
You pick a basket of bean for five and one cent. Two basket-what it
come to.? I wouldn't go there today; not me! I'll eat the bean, but I ain't
going go pick none there. When them people come along there, they give
me a handful, but me ain't going there. I hear that Harrison daddy-
HalTison plant there, you knO\v. [They] say he pa come there, run the
people off the place, kick the people, curse up the people; the people not
gone back. They been there to help finish pick. He [was] mean to do that.
He say he has no use for nigger. Yes, he care for men; ain't got no use for
nigger. He curse up the people. Them girl come home. They talk ho,'l he
curse them. They ain't gone back. Them men go fetch the old people home
for them [to] pick them bean; [they] curse the people up in the field. [They]
say-the people say that man is the meanest n1an ,vas. Me not going there.
They have no white man. If you curse me, me and you fight. Yes, I ain't
no [one] to be cursed, you knO\v. I rather you knock me. [I] mayas well
tell the truth. See? I can't pass no bad \vord. When I been coming do\vn
the line and get in the church, man, I \vorse. When I had-My husband
been my leader; and [what \vas] worse, I had to stick; but that's my leader.
Yes, mam! Me not going go, for me and that \vhite man [\vill] fight. I lick
them head. I tell thenl plain yes-I say, "If I take go off to Williams'
for the flour,6 Williams going loclc me up; and that young man have to
loclc me up. See?" I going curse him, you know. I going tell him-tell
him about the nation. I going tell him: "You red devil ! You is a red devil !"
I say, "God's going pick you up"; and I say, "You'll never fetch until
Mr. Mitchie Seabrook bring you on the place as overseer. Then you will
brag, but God going pick you up and you. ..." I tell him so. Me not going
there; not me! Me not going for no flour. They [will] have to set that
Hour home. The mail man tell me today that when them get that Hour in
the automobile, they take [it] go around to all the old lady door and put
it there. Yes, Mr. Bailey tell me that today.
I don't intend to go for no flour. Them take [it] bring it to me. You see?
No\v, how I going [to] leave my home [and] go yonder two or five mile from
my house and go for Hour? And then, you see, ain't there no self-rising.
That Hat Hour. I['d] have to buy soda; I['d] have to buy lard. You see?
I['d1 have to buy sugar; for if I had the flour, I['d] have to pay. You can't
plant-you can't cook without salt. Them people what go there "have for
to buy all them thing. You see? Won't they? Ain't I going cook them
fresh? Huh! I [\vill] cook them fresh, all right. Yes, mam!
Gullah Texts
Source: Turner, L.(1969)