Black History Month — Gullah Loanwords, and Conclusion

We have seen the various influences of West African languages, and varieties of English, on the development of Gullah spoken in the Sea Islands of the United States. Here, to conclude the post series on Black History Month 2021, we will explore the influences on Gullah by loanwords introduced from West African languages.

As we have seen from the possible histories of Gullah, this creole could have developed from a pidgin that was already spoken in West Africa, or arose on the Sea Islands after forced relocation. With the development of the pidgin from simplifying and mixing of different languages into a new one, over time, more speakers communicate using Gullah as a first language, thereby becoming a creole. Given that Gullah is an English-based creole, we would expect most of the words used in Gullah to be adapted from English. However, across history, the influence of substrate languages of West and Central Africa has introduced some loanwords to the creole, making it rather intriguingly intelligible with Sierra Leone’ Krio, among the creoles or pidgins spoken along countries of the African West Coast.

P. E. H. Hair, a British historian, reviewed the works published by Turner, realising that Sierra Leone is probably the region with the strongest influence on Gullah loanwords. Mende, accounting for most of the African passages and excerpts collected by Turner, is predominantly spoken in Sierra Leone, with other influential languages like Vai and Fula spoken in regions of Sierra Leone bordering Liberia and Guinea. With the large degree of intelligibility of Gullah with Sierra Leone Krio, this proposition does have some reasonable backing to it.

Examples of loanwords found in both Gullah and Sierra Leone Krio include: bigyai (greedy), pantap (on top of), udat (who) and usai (where), although orthography can vary a bit depending on the creole. Phonetic similarities between Gullah and Krio, noted by other linguists, also include some grammatical expressions and words, but they do not seem to appear anywhere else in Atlantic creoles. Such Krio expressions include bohboh (boy), titi (girl), enti (not so), and blant (a verb auxiliary), appearing in Gullah as buhbuh, tittuh, enty, and blang respectively.

Mende loanwords found in Gullah include: joso (from njoso, witchcraft), gafa (from ngafa, masked “devil”), and do (from ndo, child).

Similarly, Vai loanwords in Gullah include defu (rice flour), and Temne loanwords include bento (from an-bento, coffin / bier) and wanga (charm, from an-wanka, fetish / swear).

To conclude the series of posts for Black History Month, I hope that this has enlightened you about the language side of Black History, and how linguistic work conducted by notable academics like Turner have contributed to the understanding of Gullah, transforming attitudes and perceptions to creoles like these. It is amazing to see the progress made in popularising Gullah in publications over the years, such as the launch of the newsletter De Conch, and other websites and blogs. With the completion and publication of the Gullah translation of the King James Version of the New Testament as De Nyew Testament, some recreolisation of Gullah is projected to occur, given the embracement by the Gullah-speaking community.


I chose Gullah as a topic of discussion and introduction in this year’s Black History Month, seeing that it is a creole that has not quite gained much attention (in my opinion) through social media, and is often overshadowed, or lumped together with African-American Vernacular English, the variant of English that has gained way more popular appreciation. Having learnt some creoles myself, I have learned to appreciate that creoles are a linguistic way to blend cultures and languages together, and by no means should it be considered a “broken language”. Seeing Turner’s significance in the academic understanding of Gullah, I do hope that over time, the stigmatisation against speakers of creoles will end, and that we appreciate the diversity of languages, creoles, pidgins and patois we have today. Creoles are not “broken languages”.

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