New Language for Old (South Carolina - Gullah-Geechee)

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Title

New Language for Old (South Carolina - Gullah-Geechee)

Catalog Entry

In 2010, I moved to South Carolina from Virginia and made a new friend. I also learned about the Gullah-Geechee heritage in South Carolina. My friend’s mother, who passed away in 2004, was one of the country’s noted Gullah language experts. This is a brief story of how a group of enslaved West African people formed a nation in the North American continent and have preserved their heritage, identity, traditions, and culture for over 300 years.

At the heart of Gullah-Geechee cultural survival in North America is the creation of a new language that members of differing tribes could understand, but which remained unintelligible to the white society and masters that surrounded them. Historically, the language evolved as a Creole trade language in Sierra Leone in the 17th and 18th centries and was brought to North America with the Rice Slaves (Turner)

Its preservation, in large part, is thanks to the contributions of Virginia Mixson Geraty. Geraty lived for over fifty years in the Edisto Island area of South Carolina in the heart of the Low Country. This is the same area where West Africans were brought from Sierra Leone to the Charleston Slave Market and auctioned off to owners of cotton, rice, and indigo plantations.

She first learned the Gullah language from a family servant, Maum Chrish’. By the 1950’s “Ginia” was one of very few people in the country who could fluently speak, read, and write this unique, English-based Creole language. She fiercely defended the language at a time when Gullah speech was ridiculed as "ignorant" and "backward," urging that white teachers be trained in Gullah to better serve the local student populations.

During her 89 years, she created a Gullah/English dictionary, translated the Gospel according to St. Luke, translated Dubois Heyward’s “Porgy,” and authored a number of other books in the Gullah language. She also provided dialect coaching and consultation to the BBC (“The Story of English”), was a librarian with the Charleston County District schools for twenty years, and became an adjunct professor of Gullah at the College of Charleston, where she received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the college in 1995.

Gullah Language Tidbits

  • The language spoken by the Gullah-Geechee people is "Gullah." Gullah is a Creole language made up of English, and several African languages. The primary African language that makes up the Gullah language is Kria, spoken by the people of Sierra Leone (Turner).
  • Gullah is the only English-based Creole language used in the US. (New Orleans Creole is French)
  • Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah-speaker.
  • In 2017, Harvard University began to offer Gullah as a language class in the African Languages Program.
  • In the 1930’s and 40’s, the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner did a seminal study of the language based on field research in rural communities in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner found that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages in its phonology, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantics. Turner identified over 300 loanwords from various languages of Africa in Gullah and almost 4,000 African personal names (basket names) used by Gullah people. He also found Gullahs living in remote seaside settlements who could recite songs and story fragments and do simple counting in the Mende, Vai, and Fulani languages of West Africa.
  • In 1949, Turner published his findings in Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. The fourth edition of the book was reprinted with a new introduction in 2002.

Bibliography

The Charleston Museum. "Foot too Crooked." YouTube, 20 February 2013. https://youtu.be/RZFiDbhHo1c.

Geraty, Virginia Mixson. Gulluh Fuh Oonuh/Gullah for You: A Guide to the Gullah Language. Sandlapper, 1998.

Heyward, DuBose. Porgy: A Gullah Version. Trans. Virginia Mixson Geraty. Gibbs Smith, 1990. 

Jones, Jr., Charles Colcock. Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast. University of Georgia Press, 2000.

Opala, Joseph A. "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection." Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, Yale University. https://glc.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Gullah%20Language.pdf. 

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Veda Ross, Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area

Photographer(s)

Citation

“New Language for Old (South Carolina - Gullah-Geechee),” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed September 26, 2022, https://culturalheritagethroughimage.omeka.net/items/show/160.

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