Take a Lesson in the Black American Dialect of Gullah

Thursday, May 252 min read

Some millennials might fondly remember the 1990s Nickelodeon sing-along TV show Gullah Gullah Island. Gullah Island was fictional, but it was inspired by creator and star Ron Daise’s home of St. Helena Island, part of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Gullah (also known as Sea Island Creole or Geechee) is an English-based Creole vernacular spoken predominantly by Black Americans who also identify as Gullahs or Geechees living on the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Today, about 250,000 people speak this dialect, and even if you didn’t grow up watching the Nickelodeon show, you’ll likely still recognize some Gullah words (“kumbaya” and “gumbo,” for example). Let’s learn more about the Creole dialect Gullah.

Origins of Gullah

There are two main theories as to where this dialect emerged. The leading theory is that Gullah developed in the rice fields on the southern seaboard during the 18th century, as a result of mixing colonial English with the languages spoken by enslaved people arriving from Africa. Just as it is today, 18th-century Africa was marked by wide linguistic diversity, so it was virtually impossible to find a common African language for everyone to use. While enslaved people adopted English as their common language, it became heavily influenced by the African languages they spoke, creating Gullah and other Creole dialects.

Other scholars suggest that some enslaved people brought to the region already spoke a variety of English called Guinea Coast Creole English (also known as West African Pidgin English) before they left Africa. This would have been spoken as a language of trade between Europeans and Africans and among Africans of different tribes on the West African coast, particularly around slave-trading centers. This would suggest that Gullah evolved out of this African dialect of English.

The dialect may have come about through some combination of the two, but regardless, Gullah eventually developed its own distinctions from the sources.

Grammar and Structure of Gullah

Gullah is mostly a spoken dialect, marked by null or free morphemes — small grammatical units of speech that are stand-alone words, but cannot be broken down into smaller morphemes without losing the word’s meaning. For example, go (pronounced “guh”) is used to mark the future tense (he go see um means “he will see him”), and duhz is used to express habit (How you duhz cook this? means “How do you (usually) cook this?”).

The dialect’s universal basic negator is ain, similar to the English “ain’t” (he ain go come means “he won’t come”). While she always refers to women, he is not gender-specific, especially when used as a possessive. For example, he mouth can mean “his/her/its mouth.”

Who Speaks Gullah Today?

Linguists speculate that this dialect will disappear from the English language within a few generations, as there are fewer and fewer native Gullah speakers. Never a widely spoken dialect, it was confined to specific communities of Black Americans on the seaboard of South Carolina and Georgia, specifically.

The land inhabited by the original Gullah speakers has been lost to developers, particularly on Hilton Head Island and James Island in South Carolina. Interestingly, this gentrification has helped to preserve the dialect because the new residents don’t socialize with the Gullah speakers. Linguistically, the dialect has been protected from assimilation with more mainstream forms of English.

If you are interested in learning more about the Gullah dialect and how the communities developed in America, many cultural organizations, such as Gullah Tours in Charleston, South Carolina, serve to educate the public on this niche Black American legacy and keep it alive.

Featured image credit: brianjhudson/ iStock

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