Black History Month — How Gullah Works, Summarised

In the past couple of posts, we have looked at the history, development and sounds of Gullah, drawing some influences from West and Central African languages, some of them noted by the father of Gullah studies, Lorenzo Dow Turner. Today, we will explore how Gullah grammar works, in brief, and try to draw similarities between some of these features and West African Pidgin English, one of the most commonly spoken varieties of English on the African west coast.

Remarks of the Gullah creole often put forward the idea that Gullah grammar is a simplified edition of Standard American English. However, linguists like Mufwene have noted the influences of non-standard English varieties, perhaps in addition to some African languages, on the grammatical features of Gullah. With these influences in mind, let’s look at some of the remarkable features of Gullah grammar, and how some words can convey a certain noun expression or verbal mood.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of Gullah is the way the speakers convey tense and mood. Verbs in Gullah do not appear to conjugate by tense, person and number, using various additional words to convey the tense and mood instead. However, this attachment of additional words is not quite necessary, so a single verb can be used to express the past, present and future tenses depending on the context. When there is a need to clarify when an event took place, a speaker would use one of the following five tense markers:

  • ben – to convey the psat tense
    (as in Uh ben he’p dem, I helped them)
  • bina – to convey the past continuous tense
    (as in Uh bina he’p dem, I was helping them)
  • don – to convey the perfect tense, or an action that has been completed
    (as in Uh don he’p dem, I have helped them)
  • de – to convey the present continuous tense
    (as in Uh de he’p dem, I am helping them)
  • gwine – to convey the future tense
    (as in Uh gwine he’p dem, I will/ am going to help them)

Verbal moods are largely conveyed in a similar manner as they are in Standard American English, using “can”, “could”, “must”, “would”, “may”, and “might”, but contracting “could have” to “coulda“, and “would have” into “woulda“. This pattern of contraction or shortening is fairly common, and might be shared with similar patterns shown in African-American Vernacular English, or even in colloquial speech, such as “gonna“, a shortened form of “going to”, and “imma” or “ima“, short for “I am going to”.

Interestingly, there are four different ways to express negation in Gullah sentences, involving particles that precede the verb phrase. These words are:

  • ain, a negative focus marker
    (as in “ain nobody ga worry wid you“, “there is not anybody who will worry with you”)
  • no, a rather general negative particle
  • don, short form of “don’t”, “do not”
    (as in “it don work no mo“, “it does not work anymore”)
  • didn, short form of “didn’t”, “did not”

The various grammatical features of Gullah extend beyond what we have mentioned here, which largely pertained to verbs. Take for instance, the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, which exist in Gullah as separate particles like “mo na” and “di moris” respectively. Gullah also features two different types of relative clauses, the factive and non-factive purposive relative clauses. They are marked by two different particles, “weh” and “fuh” respectively, although we could not find true, direct equivalents in Standard American English. We must note that these expressions share many similarities in form and feature with creoles along the west coast of the African continent. One particular example is the second person plural pronoun “oona” or “oonuh“, similar to those in Sierra Leone Krio, but are expressed differently in colloquial American English and its regional variants, as “y’all” and “youse“, depending on which state you are in.

So this has been a brief introduction to the grammatical features of Gullah, and we hope we have shown the most interesting grammar bits, from how verbs are modified, to other particles to convey the negative. In the next post, coming next Saturday, we will present examples of loanwords, and a conclusion of what we have presented in this year’s Black History Month. Stay tuned.

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