The term “Gullah” or “Geechee” describes a unique group of African Americans descended from enslaved Africans who settled along the Atlantic coast, often on sea islands, between what is now Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL. Gullah is a broad living culture embracing the political, social, economic, linguistic, and artistic life of native African-American Sea Islanders. Beaufort County South Carolina is the physical and spiritual center of Gullah culture in the United States. The Gullah people have made and continue to have a lasting impact on Beaufort County’s local culture and history.
As Wilbur Cross noted in his book Gullah Culture in America, Beaufort County Library “has one of the South’s largest collections of materials on the Gullah language and the sea island culture.” The Beaufort District Collection is home to an extensive Gullah/Geechee historical collection of books, manuscripts, pamphlets, vertical files, videos and more. St. Helena Branch Library near Penn Center has a reference collection of Gullah/Geechee materials on site in addition to its local history circulating collection and has recently added a small Reconstruction Era reference collection at its site.
Please note: This post is based on the Gullah Language and Sea Island Culture web pages written by former colleagues at Beaufort County Library, Dennis Adams, Hillary S. Barnwell and Fran Hayes before 2012. I have revised and updated their considerable contributions to include more recent sources. – Grace Morris Cordial, Beaufort District Collection Manager, MLS, SL, CA, May 2017
The Gullah Language:
Gullah is a creole form of English, indigenous from the Wilmington, North Carolina area, southward to eastern coastal Florida. Native speakers are found throughout the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Golden Isles of Georgia, stretching all the way down to St. Augustine Florida mostly in the older African-American population. Like all creoles, Gullah began as a pidgin language, transforming into a language in its own right with the first generation born in America. A similar form of plantation creole may have been widespread at one time in the southern United States, but Gullah now differs from other African-American dialects of English (which do not vary greatly from the standard syntax, pronunciation, and vocabulary). Though creole languages the world over share a surprisingly similar structure, the speakers of one creole can seldom understand speakers of another on first contact.
Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Dow Turner
De Nyew Testament : The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole
Gulluh fuh oonuh = Gullah for you by Virginia Geraty
According to David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, the word “comes from Portuguese crioulo and originally meant a person of European descent who had been born and brought up in a colonial territory. Later, it came to be applied to other people who were native to these areas, and then to the kind of language they spoke. Creole languages have been spoken on every inhabited continent, and are “English based,” “French based” – even “Romany based” like Sheldru, used by Gypsies in England. Krio, spoken in Sierra Leone, is just one example of an English-based creole with many similarities to Gullah, the creole language of the Sea Islands.
Most of Gullah vocabulary is of English origin, but the grammar and major elements of pronunciation come from a number of West African languages, such as Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba. The name, “Gullah,” itself probably derives from “Angola” (and possibly from the large number of slaves who arrived from that part of Africa in the early 1800s). “Geechee” — another name for the language and culture of black Sea Islanders — comes from a tribal name in Liberia. Traditions, language and myth stayed longer with the coastal Carolina Gullahs, who were allowed a greater latitude of self-sufficiency and were relatively isolated on the Sea Islands.
Most Beaufort slaves in the first decades of the 1800s may have been first-generation African arrivals. So it was not merely the remoteness of the Sea Islands that preserved the African culture and language influences among Gullah speakers. 23,773 slaves came to South Carolina from Africa between 1804 and 1807, and 14,217 of these originated from Angola, Congo, or “Congo and Angola.” The newly arrived slaves breathed new life into African traditions already established on the islands. A new infusion of pidgin influences would have had a profound impact on the existing creole language.
As with many minority languages the world over, television, education and increased social contact have all undermined Gullah to a large extent. Gullah speakers now use various Black American English dialects in dealings with non-Islanders, though Gullah is the language of home, family and community. Whatever its fate as a living vernacular, Gullah will live on with the general public as the language of Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris’s Bre’r Rabbit tales and of the fiction of South Carolina’s Ambrose E. Gonzales.
The following example is a Gullah translation of a familiar Bible text, Matthew 5: 3 -9, the Beatitudes, as taken from De Nyew Testament: The New Testament in Gullah Sea Island Creole with Marginal Text of the King James Version. The Sea Island Translation Team in cooperation with Wycliffe Bible Translators. American Bible Society, 2005.
The verse is written in standard English first and then the Gullah translation of the verse follows in bold print.
3. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 3. Dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deysef, cause God da rule oba dem.
4. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. 4. Dey bless fa true, dem wa saaful now, cause God gwine courage um.
5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. 5. Dey bless fa true, dem wa ain tink dey mo den wa dey da, cause all de whole wol gwine blongst ta um.
6. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. 6. Dey bless fa true, dem wa hungry an tosty fa wa right, cause dey gwine git sattify.
7. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. 7. Dey bless fa true, dem wa hab mussy pon oda people, cause God gwine hab mussy pon dem.
8. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. 8. Dey bless fa true, dem dat only wahn fa jes saab de Lawd, cause dey gwine see God.
9. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. 9. Dey bless fa true, dem wa da wok haad fa hep people lib peaceable wid ona noda, cause God gwine call um e chullun.
Here’s a Gullah, Krio, and Revised Standard English version of the Bible’s gospel of Luke, chapter 6 verse 29 as given in The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture, edited by Marquetta L. Goodwine. Clarity Press, 1998.
Gullah (Sea Island Translation and Literacy Team version): Ef anybody knock one side ob oona face, mus ton de oda side an leh um knock de oda side too. Ef somebody take oona coat, mus gem oona shat too. (Luke 6:29)
Krio (Lutheran Bible Translators version): If enibodi slap una na wan ja, una fo ton di oda wan gi am fo mek I slap insef. If enibodi tek una klos we ana wer pantap, una fo gi am di wan we de bottom, mek ih tek insef. (Luke 6:29)
English (Revised Standard version): To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well. (Luke 6:29)
Listen to Emory Campbell, former Director of Penn Center and member of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor Commission, speak some Gullah in this Beaufort County History Moment video http://bit.ly/2p1sU7W
Sources for this section:
The African American Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish, 1993.
Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Volume 1: North America. G.K. Hall & Co., 1991
The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina: Volume 1, 1514-1861 by Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers, Jr. University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
“Vignettes of African-American History” (Paper given at the “Lowcountry Traditions and Transitions Symposium” at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, October 4, 1997) by Hillary S. Barnwell, Beaufort County Public Library c1997, Hillary S. Barnwell.
Suggested Online Resources:
Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission website http://www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org/?Itemid=102
Beaufort History Moment: “Gullah Food” http://bit.ly/2pc0EPx
Beaufort History Moment: “Gullah Language” http://bit.ly/2p1sU7W
“Dr. Buzzard and Rootwork: A List” http://bit.ly/1CZtTXP
“A Glossary of Gullah Words” www.gullahtours.com/gullah/gullah-words
Gullah Net on Knowitall https://knowitall.org/series/gullah-net Annotation: Children and adults can listen to the Gullah language and hear stories and music with Aunt Pearlie-Sue. The educational site includes lists of materials, teacher resources, Web links, and other materials.
Listen to the “Lord’s Prayer” http://sweetgrassmarketing.net/gullahtours/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/LordsPrayer.mp3 and “Psalm 23” http://sweetgrassmarketing.net/gullahtours/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Psalm-23.mp3 in Gullah
Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition http://www.gullahgeechee.net/
“Introducing Folknography: A Study of Gullah Cultre” by Dr. Charles W. Jarrett and Dr. David M. Lucas (2002) https://www.ohio.edu/southern/folknography/upload/Intro-into-Folknography.pdf
SC African American Heritage: Gullah Culture, Language, Traditions on SCIway.net: http://www.sciway.net/afam/sc-gullah-heritage.html
Here are just a few suggestions to whet your appetite for visual images of Gullah people and cultural practices:
Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
Face of an Island by Edith Dabbs
Gullah Images: The Art of Jonathan Green by Jonathan Green
Reminiscences of Sea Island Heritage: Legacy of Freedmen on St. Helena Island by Ron Daise
Further explore the culture with …
Gullah Cultural Legacies by Emory Campbell
Gullah Culture in America by Wilbur Cross
An Annotated Bibliography: Books of the South Carolina & Georgia Sea Islands by Roberta Hughes Wright
Black Yeomanry: Life on St. Helena Island by T. J. Woofter, Jr.
Blue Roots: African American Folk Magic of the Gullah People by Roger Pinckney
Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina by Guy B. Johnson
Gawd Dun Smile Pun We: Beaufort Isles by Marquetta L. Goodwine
God’s Gonna Trouble the Water [DVD] by Teresa Bruce
Gullah Animal Tales From Daufuskie Island, South Carolina by Albert Stoddard
Gullah Culture: 1670 to 1950 by David B. McCoy
Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie way…by Sallie Ann Robinson
Gullah Songs of Hope, Faith, and Freedom [CD] by Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers
Hunnuh Chillun [CD] by Gullah Roots Production
A Peculiar People: Slave Religion & Community-Culture Among the Gullahs by Margaret Creel
A Social History of the Sea Islands by Guion Griffis Johnson
Tales from the Land of Gullah [DVD] starring Anita Singleton –Prather as Aunt Pearlie Sue
Verve! Messengers in the spirit [DVD]
When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands by Patricia Jones-Jackson
“By Industry and Thrift”: Land-ownership Among the Freedpeople by Kerry Normand
Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment by Willie Lee Rose
There’s a whole lot more … in the local history sections at the Beaufort County Library (SC) Branch libraries, in the Gullah/Geechee Room at St. Helena Branch Library and in the Library’s special research unit, the Beaufort District Collection. Please ask us about them! firstname.lastname@example.org 843-255-6468