Black History Month — Introduction to Gullah (Sea Island Creole English)

Disclaimer: This post discusses the role of slavery in the origin and development of Gullah creole, we want to make this communication the least offensive possible. We welcome any feedback or comments on how further refine this communication, but still reflects the history of the creole in the most accurate way possible.

Nestled in the states of the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia, we present a special type of English not many know about, but is spoken by a number of Black Americans living in these states. While overshadowed by the more widely-known African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), Gullah is still spoken by hundreds to thousands today, being offered as a language class in Harvard University in 2017. Therefore, in lieu of Black History Month, we would like to share some interesting bits about the English-based creole, Gullah (or Geechee, or Sea Island Creole English).

Widely recognised as an English language creole, Gullah draws influences from different varieties of English, as well as some languages of West Africa and Central Africa. This influence was first realised by Lorenzo Dow Turner in 1969, drawing examples from the sound systems, grammar, vocabulary and other semantics. It strongly resembles that of other creoles spoken in West Africa and the Caribbean, and is most closely related to Afro-Seminole Creole, spoken in Oklahoma, Texas and parts of Northern Mexico.

When discussing the origins of Gullah, it must be noted that there is no theory that is widely agreed upon, but they do draw rather similar historical events. However, there were early theories that many would now perceive as strongly condescending and discriminatory, such as the perception of Gullah as an “inferior dialect of English”, as mentioned in an article published in 1978, or that Gullah is an extremely simplified form of English, developed from the British dialect and the so-called baby-talk, published by George Phillip Krapp in the 1920s, and C. G. Woodson in 1958.

Looking further back at the history of Gullah, we have to talk about the Atlantic slave trade, as Africans were forcibly relocated from West Africa to North America, or in the case of Gullah, the Sea Islands. One hypothesis postulated that people in West Africa already speak variants of English-based creoles, such as West African Pidgin English, alongside their respective mother tongues. This pidgin, although initially formed from intermarriages between settlers and indigenous Africans, was later picked up by enslaved peoples in the slave depots, before their forced relocation to America. Over time, this variant of English developed and evolved, giving the creole we see and hear today.

The other hypothesis suggested that Gullah developed as an independent creole of English, by enslaved Africans forcibly relocated to the Sea Islands. By combining grammatical, lexical and phonological features of various West and Central African languages and the variants of English spoken, the creole developed, and flourished over time. This suggested the separate and independent origin of Gullah from AAVE and other English variants spoken in the southern states.

Another history we would look at here would be where the word “Gullah”, used to refer to the creole, came from. While it appeared to refer or reflect the Rice Coast origins of many of the slaves forcibly brought to South Carolina and Georgia, more analysis found the influence of West African languages in giving the name of the creole we see today. Turner thought that it originated from the Gola people, who lived on the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the Vai and Mende territories somewhat intersect. Other proposed origins include “Gallinas”, another word used to refer to the Vai people, or “Galo”, the Mende word for the Vai people. While these origins seem to point strongly to refer to Vai, the Gullah also call themselves by a different name, the Geechee, which sounded much like the Kissi people who lived adjacent to Mende lands, in modern Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Considering the influence of Vai and Mende in the modern Gullah creole, these theories seem to hold some backing to them.

With most people more familiar to AAVE than Gullah, one would wonder about the status of the creole today. Estimates of native speakers widely vary, from the hundreds to thousands. According to Noura F. Abdou, in a paper published in 2014, Ethnologue estimated the number of Gullah to be around 250 000, though a substantial proportion may not be necessarily Gullah speakers. If one searches the number up on Wikipedia, they would be presented with an estimate of 5 000 speakers, but lacks a citation for this figure. Another figure, given in 1990-2010 by Ethnologue, puts the number at 350. Given these estimates, it is undoubtedly difficult to pinpoint the endangerment status of the creole precisely.

Discrimination against the usage of creoles in society is rather prevalent, and Gullah is no exception. Linguists have highlighted concerns about the possible occurrence of decreolisation, where the creole converges towards the standard language, in this case, Gullah re-converging towards Standard American English. For generations, stigmatisation against Gullah have occurred, such as the perception of the creole as a less-educated, low-class or low-status variant of English, creating this sociolinguistic push to restrict the use of Gullah generally to the confinements of the speakers’ own homes or communities. This also compounded the difficulty of assessing the number of native speakers, giving the wildly varying estimates mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, in recent years, Gullah speakers aimed to challenge this social stigma, promoting the use of Gullah as a symbol of cultural pride. These efforts could have contributed to the offering of Gullah as a language class in Harvard University. Following the translation of the New Testament to Gullah over a 20-year period, more publications have followed, and will continue to follow as this creole thrives.

Following the introduction to the Gullah English-based creole, in the next posts of Black History Month, we will explore the interesting features of Gullah, such as the influence of Vai and Mende on Gullah words, as well as some of the grammatical features of Gullah.

Further Reading

Abdou, N. F. (2014) A study in Gullah as a creole language, supported with a text analysis. Linguistics and Literature Studies, 2(2), 58-64. Available from: DOI: 10.13189/lls.2014.020203

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