Black History Month — The Sounds of Gullah

Previously, we introduced the brief history, and current status of the lesser-known English creole spoken in the United States, Gullah. In this post, we will explore the sound system of Gullah, and how it blends in both influences of the English variants, and of the West African languages.

The study of Gullah and its features was first significantly realised by America’s first black professional linguist, Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890 – 1972), who sought to gather evidence of Gullah and its African heritage and history. With this, came a shift in scholarly and academic perceptions of Gullah, prior to which, saw Gullah as an aberrant form of English. One of his publications, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, is one of the most significant works for the Gullah creole, creating an appreciation of a unique element of African-American culture.

Searching up online, we find various sources that argue for different amounts of vowels and consonants in Gullah, with Wikipedia suggesting about 16 phonemic vowels, and studies by Turner ([1949] 2002), Jones-Jackson (1978), and Weldon (2004) seem to agree on 12 core vowel phonemes, lacking the rhotic vowel /ɚ/. It is unclear if Gullah as nasal sounds, as noted in the Wikipedia edition of the phonology table, since other studies do not appear to note nasal vowels. Modern Gullah now also has three primary diphthongs, where a sound is formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable. These are /ɑɪ/, /ɑʊ/, and /ɔɪ/, although traditionally, /ɔɪ/ may have appeared as /ɑɪ/, such as the Gullah pronunciation of the word ‘oyster’, as [ɐɪʃta].

Compare the two different vowel tables covering the same creole. Does Gulah have rhotic vowels and nasal vowels? It may actually depend on what your sources are.

As for consonants, we see a similar picture. If we look up on Wikipedia, we see labial-velar consonants being mentioned, such as /k͡p/ and /ɡ͡b/. These consonants are present in many Niger-Congo languages, and many languages spoken in Central and West Africa, from Igbo to Ewe. Looking at the phonologies of Mende and Vai, the two languages thought to have major influences on Gullah, we see both the labial-velar consonants used. However, when we look at other sources, such as Turner’s study in 1949, the phonology table drawn up lacked these consonants.

The consonant inventory of Gullah, according to Wikipedia and its cited source (which seemed to be inaccessible at time of writing)
The consonant inventory of Gullah noted by Turner ([1949] 2002) is substantially smaller than the one shown by Wikipedia, lacking notable consonants such as /k͡p/ and /ɡ͡b/.

From these comparisons, it is certain that there are some disputes over which consonants are phonemic, and which ones are allophonic. Turner, for instance, thought the ejective consonants are allophonic with their non-ejective counterparts, and labial-velar consonants only appeared thrice in their study, such as [ɡ͡bla] ‘near’. Prenasalised consonants, where a nasal and an obstruent consonant behave as a single consonant, is noted by Turner to appear in the African lexicon, but is preferentially treated as biphonemic consonants, or two separate consonants. Whether or not these can truly count as separate phonemes is still up for debate.

There are notable patterns in sound substitutions between Standard American English and Gullah, such as the replacement of the “-er” ending sound (a rhotic vowel /ɚ/) with the front open vowel /a/ or the central unstressed vowel, the schwa. Another common substitution is the English [θ] and [ð] consonants (as in “thing” and “the” respectively) with [t] and [d], making “thing” sound like [tɪŋ], and “the” sound like [de], [dɪ] or [da].

The stops, /p/, /t/ and /k/, are often unaspirated at the beginning of stressed syllables in Gullah, unlike Standard American English. It is noted by Abdou (2014) that this feature is shared with many African languages such as Bambara, Malinke and Ewe, and several substitutions mentioned earlier share a similar pattern to those found in West African languages. This revealed some of the phonological influences of West and Central African languages in the creole, which still survives to this day.

However, to date, there is still no official orthography for Gullah, although a translation of the New Testament has been made for Gullah. Perhaps this may signal a drive to standardise the orthography and transcription systems for Gullah in the near future.

In the next post, we will look at some of the expressions used in Gullah to denote certain grammatical features like tense, mood, and negation.

Further Reading

Thomas B. Klein. 2013. Gullah.
In: Michaelis, Susanne Maria & Maurer, Philippe & Haspelmath, Martin & Huber, Magnus (eds.)
The survey of pidgin and creole languages. In “The survey of pidgin and creole languages”. Volume 1: English-based and Dutch-based Languages.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomas B. Klein. “African Sounds in Gullah Geechee and on Middle Caicos.” The Black Scholar, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, pp. 22–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5816/blackscholar.41.1.0022. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.

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