The Gullah Geechee Language 


 Prominent among the distinguishing characteristics of Gullah Geechee identity is a unique form of speech that is commonly known as Gullah. While the Gullah language developed, adapted, and has been spoken over the past roughly 250 years, from an outsider’s perspective it has historically been derided as substandard, or “broken” English. Beginning with Lorenzo Dow Turner’s groundbreaking work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949, University of Chicago Press), Gullah has increasingly come to be appreciated, even by outsiders, as a legitimate and remarkable language in its own right. Unfortunately, it is also an endangered language, due to the encroachment of English.

Awareness of creoles as a distinctive language type has only been developed over the past several decades. Gullah as an English Creole has much in common with similar creole languages that developed in Jamaica, Haiti, and other parts of the Caribbean, and also in West Africa and the Pacific. Rather than being interpreted in terms of English, Gullah should be understood in terms of creolization and decreolization processes, language diffusion, and a continuum of linguistic forms from the “deepest” Gullah to standard English.

Gullah has had an influence on American English in general, and a particular influence on African American English. Words like gumbo, yam, tote, biddy and nanny have come into English from Africa through Gullah.The rules of the grammar and the sound system are not the same as English, and what might sound to cultural and linguistic outsiders as bad English may be good Gullah, as in E done cyaa um ta de sto (“He/she has already taken it to the store”). Besides words of African origin, Gullah has many distinctive idioms. When is day clean? What does it mean to say that someone da rake straw or broke e leg or ain crack e teet?

There is a widespread interest in understanding the Gullah language better, and a concern, especially among those who claim a Gullah Geechee heritage, that a precious linguistic legacy is in danger of fading into oblivion. When asked which features of Gullah Geechee culture must be protected, preserved or continued, respondents in the Gullah corridor area consistently specified the Gullah language, including its vocabulary, idioms and folklore.

© 2016 Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor