Gullah: A Language, a Life, a Living History

The land that makes up the Sea Islands off of the Southeastern coast of the United States is critical in the history and the future of a unique peoples. These barrier islands are shields of sand formed by wind and the force of ocean tides. Cradled between the Atlantic Ocean and brackish marshes, the islands defend the coast. These same islands, because of the isolation, offer a distinguished Island culture. From Waties to Cumberland, these islands have provided the necessary conditions for a culture, relocated by slavery, to continue. It is the aim of this paper to discuss some of the African retentions found in Gullah language and culture.

The Gullah culture is characterized by a language which combines a variety of African retentions. The Gullahs are known for their distinctive ability to vocalize stories and sing their prayers to God. The culture displays an intriguing uniqueness that revolves around the Africanisms found in the culture’s language and verbal arts.

The roots of Gullah came from Africa, and still the Sea Island culture reflects much of its African heritage. Santo Domingo, in 1526, brought the very first Africans to the South Carolina Low Country, these Africans remained after Indian attacks drove the Spanish settlers away. The first groups of West Africans slaves where transported to America around 1619 and eventually the African Americans out numbered the white Americans by almost two to one in South Carolina.

The West Coast of Africa mirrors the climate of the Sea Islands. In the time of slavery, the people captured and brought to America from the rice coast, or the areas of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and other rice growing West African countries were valued highly and only sold for the very highest prices to the rice growers of South Carolina and Georgia. It is this essential connection to the rice cultivating parts of Africa that has helped make distinct connections between the Sea Islands and other West African countries.

There are two main factors that allowed the Africanisms to survive in America: the isolation of the islands and the African Slave population versus the European American population. Although the islands were accessible by boat, they were essentially isolated. This gave privacy to the first slaves to arrive in America and allowed many of the original traditions to survive. The other factor was the minimal number of whites on the islands. The white men were not readily adaptable to the climatic conditions of the area and often left the duty of overseeing the slaves in the hands of an African. The isolation that permitted the Africanisms to remain in the Gullah culture up to the present was aided by the social and economic self-sufficiency among the agriculturally based islanders. The lack of need for the mainland for post-slavery generation resulted in a lack of exposure and fostered the continuation of the African survivals into the present-day culture. The author of When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands, Patricia Jones-Jackson says, “These factors have created and fostered an environment [on the Sea Islands] within which the inhabitants . . . have been able to reinforce vigorous traditions characteristic of their culture, and to perpetuate communities with concentration of African influences paralleled by no other black areas in the United States” (Preface xix).

There are several cultural traits among the Gullah that reflect their African heritage. The language similarities provide, perhaps, the most direct connection to Africa. According to Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist who lectures at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and author of The Gullah: Rice , Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection, “. . . all of the African texts remembered by modern [the 1980s] Gullahs are in languages spoken in Sierra Leone, especially Mende”(Opala 29). Also, among the similarities are the Gullah sweet grass baskets and the Gullah Uncle Remus tales. The Gullah baskets “. . .are constructed almost exactly like the Sierra Leone shukublay” and the Gullah “Brer Rabbit is analogous to the ‘trickster’ found in animal stories throughout Africa and represented in Mende, Temne, and Limba tales as the spider and, in Krio stories, as ‘Koni Rabbit'” (Opala 13). The Gullah culture finds its distinctiveness in America from its roots in Africa.
One of the most recognizable characteristics and perhaps the most popular topics of study about Gullah culture is its language. Lorenzo Dow Turner’s work is the most outstanding on this topic. He studied many African languages when he examined the Gullah language for his seminal work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949. Turner found that previous studies of the Gullah language were incorrect in labeling the Gullah language as a corrupted peasant English of indentured servants and, essentially, baby-talk (17-18). Owning great knowledge of African languages, he recognized the true origin of the Island speech.

Turner noted some of the problems investigators of Gullah language would face. He noted that the African Americans had a private and a public register. The African words used in the speech of the islanders varied in frequency. They were scarce in the company of strangers but much more common in conversation with close friends and family members. This is partly because, as Turner notes, the Gullahs “are extremely cautious when talking with strangers. . . The Gullahs say that they have fared so badly at the hands of strangers that they are suspicious of anyone whom they don’t know very well” (Turner 11). According to Sterling Stuckey, author of Slave Culture: Nationalists Theory and the Foundations of Black America, 1987, those ” who lived on the Sea Islands. . . could shift from intelligible English to an incomprehensible mixture, except to the trained ear, of African and English. . . the African words increasing in proportion to the desired degree of unintelligibility” (Stuckey 70).
Turner found similarities to African languages in the Gullah syntax and morphology. The syntactical features of the Gullah language mirrored West African syntax in the absence of any distinction of voice, the use of verbal adjectives, and word order among other similarities (Turner 209).

The absence of any distinctive voice in the Gullah language is found in a great many languages of West Africa as well (209). What would be said in English in a passive case is turned into an objective case by Gullah speakers. Turner gives the example that “instead of saying He was beaten, the Gullah speaker says, dem bit em ‘They beat him’ (209).”
Another of Turner’s findings concerned the use of verbal adjectives in the Gullah language which is also common in West African languages. Verbal adjectives are combinations of verbs and adjectives into one word. The sentences that are formed from this resemble English colloquial speech , advertisements, newspaper headlines, etc.: ‘He is tall,’ i tal, ‘He tall.’ Here, the verb which appears to be eliminated is actually encompassed in the adjective. Turner cites five different African languages that employ this same phenomenon (Turner 216).

A non-Gullah speaker may find that a Gullah sentence sounds foreign and awkward. Turner suggests that the word order of the Gullah sentence is different than that of an English sentence (216). In Gullah and in West African languages,” a verb may take the place of an English conjunction, participle, preposition, or adverb with the result that two or more verbs may fall together in a sentence. . . (217).” There is also a tendency to not make use of articles, prepositions, pronouns and other parts of speech that English depends on for clarity. It is a common practice for African language speakers to place an adjective after the noun it modifies (217). Where an English speaker may say ” big earthquake,” a Gullah or African speaker may phrase the sentence “earthquake big” (217). The nine African languages that Turner mentions that share this characteristic with the Gullahs include Fante; Ewe; Twi; and Ibo (217). It is no wonder that an individual that had little or no knowledge of African languages would misconstrue the Gullah language as poor English.

The morphological retentions in the Gullah language can be noted in number, tense, case, and gender. Turner found that practically all Gullah nouns took the same form in the plural and the singular. The Gullah speaker would say “five cat” using the numeral adjective instead of pluralizing the noun. Turner found that this was identical to the Ibo method of indicating number. The same goes for verbs. In Gullah, as in many African languages, there are virtually no inflections for distinguishing number or tense (223-229). Regarding case, “the nominative or subjective forms of the personal pronoun are practically the same as the objective forms and the forms of the possessive” (227). The same is reflected through the declension of personal pronouns of West African languages (227). Gender in the Gullah language is indicated in the same ways that gender is indicated in African languages. That is, the noun is preceded by the word for man or woman as what Turner calls, “noun prefixing” (230). The traces of African languages in the Gullah language seems to almost be miraculous in their frequencies. The strength of the retentions can be credited to historical circumstances.

The Gullah language is a historically rich combination of several African languages as Turner shows through his study. In spite of the relentless nature in which the slaves were brought to America, a very special commonality that was held between the various tribes became a base for communication in a strange land and under harsh circumstances. Once on land in America, the overseers did what they could to separate the Africans from their fellow tribesmen so that they could not communicate amongst themselves to plan escape or rebellion. But, the many tribes from Sierra Leone from whence many of the slaves were brought to America, had a common tongue, Krio, and this is the basis for much of the Gullah language today. It may be referred to as Creole in America. Certain words from the individual tribes could still be heard, however, among the Gullah speaking islanders when Turner did his examination in 1949. In fact, Turner found evidence that neither the meanings nor the pronunciations of the words he found had changed significantly at that time (Turner 43). Today, this Gullah language provides a source of self identity and privacy for many of the Gullah people.

For these people who had, historically, been isolated on the Sea Islands, family was essential for all means of social pastime and work. The family is central to the Gullah today. The Sea Islands provided an excellent environment for African family traditions to flourish. For example, naming a child in the Gullah culture is closely related to African practices. A Gullah child’s official name used in the non-African American society would be different from that used around family or close friends. The names used in this personal environment are nicknames, or basket names. These names are often influenced by the African heritage of the Gullah (Turner 30-36).

In West Africa, the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria considers the naming of a child as representative of the family and its state of affairs at the time of the child’s birth. One of many influences possible on a child’s name or nickname may include the day the child was born. The child would most commonly, in this case, bare a part of the name of the day just to say that that was the day of birth. And one would be considered lucky to obtain the whole name. Other events such as the child’s numerical order among other siblings, floods, or war at the child’s time of birth can influence the name given to the child (Bard 3).

As language can often affect the way speakers view the world, close African ties can be found in the relationship of the Gullah with the land. The issue of land is another strong basis for this culture. “The integrated and insular world view of the sea island people can be seen in an examination of their relationships toward their environment, which in part consist of land, water and the rest of the natural world about them” (Twining 70). This relationship between the people and their environment is most readily seen in the folk tales of the Gullah culture. Stories of Uncle Remus, for example, display evidence of an exceptional influence on the Gullah “by the ‘critters’ of the woods. Buh Rabbit, Buh Fox, and Buh Coon are as close as brothers, and among some of the South’s greatest students of nature and the ways of living things are the. . . people of the Coast country. . . .” (Crum 56).

While some may consider the stories of Uncle Remus to be mere amusement, many of the stories are morals used to teach children. Some of the stories explain how things have come about, like how the Alligator got his blackish-green, rough and bumpy skin, or “How Brother Hound Dog got his Long Tongue” (Janquith 23-30). When Turner did his extensive research on the Sea Islands, he found that “such recreational forms among the Gullahs as singing. . . and story-telling often reveal significant African survivals” (254). African retentions can be found in aspects of Gullah religion and spirituals as well.

A pillar of the Gullah culture is religion. And perhaps the most outstanding mark of this is the Gullah song. According to Janie Hunter of Johns Island, “the songs tell stories too – the religious songs and the blues songs. Those songs gave us feeling to go on. That’s all we had to live by. That is our talent God bless us with” (Hunter 215). The songs are more than words and tunes to the people of John’s Island and other Gullahs. Many of the songs provided the African slaves with a spiritual-uplifting pastime while working and as a vehicle through which one could remember his/her homeland.

The singing of the Gullah today still has this spiritual effect. “The singing brings joy to your soul. . . lifts you up. You start singing one of those songs about the good thing and we realize we’ve got somebody on our side” (Bligen 219). In an African style, the song, much like the story, is often changed to fit the environment. Names, situations, and places are changed so that “very rarely the same words are used. The tempo is different depending on whether it’s sad or happy, you can not really capture that” (Saunders 229).

The Gullah songs are often passed along through generations of the Gullah family. When Turner did his research, he found individuals who were singing songs in a language they did not know of and with words the singers didn’t know of the exact meanings of. Turner records the words of four songs. Two of them are from the Mende of Sierra Leone and two sung in Vai the language from Liberia (Turner 254-257). The songs are being preserved. They are passed on from one generation to the next. Ms. Elaine Jenkins of Johns Island concludes, “I don’t think there’s any danger of the older songs dying out. . . songs are being passed down from the old people” (Twining 84).

Religion is one of the most essential parts of this culture. This social organization is the most important in the community. The doctrine is Christian with some variations. One of the most distinctive of these variations is the three part “division of human beings into body, soul, and spirit. . . according to many elderly island residents, when one dies, only the soul returns to The Kingdom of God. The body and spirit remain on earth. And, although the soul of the person cannot harm the living, the spirit can, at will, cause another to harm him- or herself” (Jones-Jackson 24). The Christian based religion is mixed with the animistic African beliefs. The Gullah have many names for what is commonly called by the derogatory term ‘witchcraft’: wudu, wanga, joso, and juju. According to Opala, the Gullah “say that witches can cast a spell by putting powerful herbs or roots under a person’s pillow or at a place where he usually walks” (10). Individuals can gain protection from the witchcraft or be cured of a curse by special individuals called “Root Doctor” or “Doctor Buzzard” (Opala 12).

The African-based spiritual beliefs of the Gullah people provide them with another aspect of culture that is unique in America. The culture has attained many of its traits from Africa and has maintained many of them. The people of the Sea Islands are now faced with losing their culture because of modernization. But it does not seem that the culture will disappear. Again, according to Opala, “the Gullah are. . . showing an increasing spirit of community service and self-help” (Opala 26).
Development of highways and bridges has affected the survival of this culture in different ways. The paving of Highway 17 North in the 1930’s contributed to consumer interest in the Gullah basketry. This road made the route to Mt. Pleasant, S.C. more convenient (Foreman). The Gullah basket weavers then set up roadside stands and began to experience an increased interest in their basketry from tourists, museums and gift shop owners. The roadside stands are still in use by the Gullah women and men today.

Bridges are also a factor in the development of the islands and change for the culture. With the bridges built in the 1930’s, many of the islands began to flood with developers and mainland outsiders (Twining 10). Along with the new access to the islands, came formal education for the Island children. This factor would have surely caused a large deal of the younger generations to be increasingly aware of what was considered acceptable by the mainstream America. But this acculturation was postponed by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that school attendance was voluntary rather than mandatory (Twining 13).
The Sea Islanders are now taking measures to see that their culture is carried on. Saunders said in 1989 that, “there is a lot of community concern and coming together” (Saunders 226). This concern and awareness has begun a conscious effort to sustain the Gullah cultural identity. Bligen says that, “we’re tying to pass it on to the younger folks so they can carry the old traditions on. Our folks taught us. . . and they would like for we (sic) to carry it on through and they would like we (sic) to pass it on to the young generation” (219).

The people of the Gullah culture are expressing their desire for the continuation of their culture, and it is working. Many of the people in the culture that move away will return for family gatherings so they can subject their children to the family, elders, and the culture. The culture is continuing. The Summer Institute of Linguistics surveyed the Gullah region and found ten thousand people who spoke Gullah and absolutely no English and they found over one hundred thousand Gullah speakers collectively in 1979 (Opala 26).

The islands that made possible the continuation of Gullah culture can play a part in the culture’s future. Many of the islanders feel that the land is home with or without bridges. Bligen comments that he loves his home on John’s island and he says, “I make up my mind to be here until the lord change my life, to take me home” (Bligen 219). Mrs. Hunter is also a believer that her island will not lose its culture: “What I know I try to teach my children – my seven daughters and six sons, and ninety-five grandchildren, and twenty-four great grands, so as the generations go on it won’t die out. I think it is very important for them to understand” (Hunter 215).

Today the same type of enthusiasm is found in Beaufort, South Carolina. There, the eleventh annual “Gullah Festival” is organized. This event is part of the reason the Gullah culture still thrives in the Sea Islands. According to Emory Cambell, executive director of the Penn Center in St. Helena, South Carolina, when the President of Sierra Leone came to speak to the congregation at the Penn Center Church about the likeness of his people and the Gullah people, many of the older residents become more accepting of their own culture and more confident about the way they were viewed. Cambell said the after that event, the women were more often speaking in the Gullah language and that they felt comfortable enough to argue with each other about pronunciations and meanings of certain words (Cambell).

As the character of the islands is changing with development, the Gullah will have to adjust to an incoming resort and tourist population. Seabrook Island was the first to open as a resort, and Sandy Island may be the last. Sandy Island, South Carolina fought off developers for sometime (Jones-Jackson 25). “In, December [1996] a South Carolina government agency dashed developer’s hopes for a 750 foot bridge from the mainland” (Lerner 16). The bridges are built and the Islands are no longer shielded in isolation from the mainland. The Gullah had to decide, individually and collectively, if the culture would fade with the influx of mainstream ideas or if the mainstream ideas would have to adjust to the influx of Gullah.

When people are proud of themselves and where they come from, they find it important to share that with others. Special events like the Gullah Festival, Julia Dash’s movie, Daughters of the Dust, and the television program Gullah Gullah Island encourage the Gullah culture to thrive. The culture, it seems, has gone to another level. The Gullah that existed one hundred years ago in isolation will not be the same as the Gullah of today who exist today in celebration. The culture is alive and has taken on new forms of continuation. The Sea Island people who once were untouched by the mainland culture, are now finding ways to expose their culture to the rest of America. Along the way, the Gullah are capturing the hearts, the fascination, and the appreciation of many.

Carawan, Guy and Candie. Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? : the People of Johns Island, South Carolina. Brown Thrasher ed. Recorded and Edited by Guy and Candie Carawan. Athens, Ga.: Brown Thrasher Books, 1989.
__________. Bligen, Benjamin. “I Find No Fault Living Here on This Island.” 219.
__________. Hunter, Janie. “What I Know I teach My Children.” 215.
__________. Saunders, William. “I Like the History of it, And to Know that I have been a Part of it.” 226-229.

Creel, Margaret Washington. A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and community-Culture Among the Gullahs. New York: New York University Press, 1988.

Crum, Mason. Gullah: Negro Life in the Carolina Sea Islands. New York: Negro University Press, 1968.

Cambell, Emory. Family Across The Sea, Produced by the Modern Education United Network.

Foreman, Joseph and Betty. Sweetgrass Baskets of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina: a proud tradition, a valuable investment . . . South Carolina: Joseph and Betty Foreman, n.d.

Lerner, Jonathan. “A bridge too far.” Mother Jones, March/April 1996, 16.

Janquith, Prisiclla. Bo Rabbit Smart For True: Folktales from the Gullah. New York: Philomel Books, 1981.

Jones-Jackson, Patricia. When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987.

McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. A History of World Societies. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

Opala, Joseph A. The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection. Sierra Leone: USIS, approx. date 198-.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Stoddard, Albert H, trans. Gullah Animal Tales from Daufuskie Island, S.C. as Told by Albert H. Stoddard. by Will Killhour. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina: Push Button Publishing Company , 1995.

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Chicago: Chicago Press, 1949.

Twining, Mary A. and Keith E. Baird ed. African Presence in the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands: Sea Island Roots. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1991.
______________. “Preface.” in African Presence in the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands: Sea Island Roots. edited by Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Bard, VII-XI. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1991.
______________. “Sea Island Culture: Matrix of the African American Family.” in African Presence in the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands: Sea Island Roots. edited by Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Bard, 1-18. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1991.
______________. “Names and Naming in The Sea Islands.” in African Presence in the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands: Sea Island Roots. edited by Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Bard, 37-56. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1991.37-56.

Twining, Mary Arnold.”An Examination of African Retentions in the Folk Culture of the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands.” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1977.

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