Gullah Culture in America

Wilbur Cross,


The Mellifluous Gullah Tongue

Click to see larger image

From the Collections of the S.C. Historical Society.


“If you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you come from.” It is as simple as that. This chapter provides a mini‐lesson in Gullah, with examples of words and phrases, proverbs, jokes, and conundrums. It also contains traditional short stories and tales, with English and Gullah side by side. Many of the favorite stories are from Uncle Remus and Bre’er Rabbit, Aesop’s Fables, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We also are introduced to Geechee, that genre of Gullah common to some locations in Georgia. Samples of the language will bring the reader into close contact with not only the dialect but also the subject and philosophy of native communication. Some examples follow:

Milk ain’t dry off e mout yet. Said of a person who is very young.

Evry frog praise e ownt pond. Everybody favors his own home.

Fox da watch de henhouse. A mistake to put a crook in charge of an establishment.

Throughout the history of the culture, place has always been important, whether it was a huge live oak in the forest where people went to meditate, the landing where local fishermen kept their boats, or a tiny praise house for religious services. However, the language, more than any other cultural asset, has allowed individuals to remain part of one big family despite the devastation of wars, famines, slavery, or epidemics. The spirituality of the communities and the forms of communication—whether hymns, art forms, or prayers—have resulted in an abiding faith that has transcended religions and denominations. As Du Bois and other prominent African American writers have pointed out, Gullah is a language of cadence and accents, words and intonations, as exemplified in the religious “shout,” the lyrics of songs in everyday life, and even in the world of the marketplace.

Previous page: Street Vendor, circa 1905, en route to market with jars of fresh milk.

A favorite saying in Gullah lands throughout the Sea Islands and Low Country is sometimes startling to visitors who are not quite prepared for it: Ef oona ent kno whe oona da gwuine, oona should know weh oona kum from. Translated it makes a great deal of sense: “If you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you come from.”

Although places such as Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah and islands such as St. Helena, Hilton Head, and St. Simons do not seem like foreign countries for the many tourists who visit them at all seasons of the year, the Gullah ancestry, heritage, and customs have all been a distinctive part of the locales from early times. Most important, although Gullah was a culture that was in imminent danger of dying away, its roots were strong enough to grow again, and its language was ingrained enough to be influential and of increasing importance in the annals of America. Fortunately an increasing number of associations, studies, and groups of people have become interested in the culture and are actively researching it and spreading the interest to others.

“The Gullah people of the Georgia and South Carolina coast are among the most studied populations in the United States,” according to David Moltke‐Hanson, an authority and historian on the Sea Islands, “and for several different reasons: they are generally of a purer strain than any other African American group, show more resistance to changes


Dog got four feet but can’t walk but one road.

No matter how many things you’d like to do, you can do only one at a time.

E teet da dig e grave.

He (or she) is overeating.

New broom sweeps clean but old broom gets corners.

To get the job done use someone familiar with it.

Li’I pitcher got big ears.

Be careful what you say around children.

Evry sick ain’t fa tell de doctor.

Don’t tell the doctor all your ailments.

Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree.

Take care of the roots in order to heal the tree.

affecting the historical traditions and customs of their race, and are rich in music, dance, arts, and skills whose origins generations ago have been described as ‘powerful, beautiful, and evocative.’”1

The Gullah language, a Creole blend of Elizabethan English and African languages, was born on Africa’s slave coast and then developed in the slave communities of isolated plantations in the coastal South. Not only did the language cross the Atlantic on the slave ships but also the dress, food preparation, art forms, religion and spirituality, and medicinal practices did as well. Even after the Sea Islands were finally freed in the early 1860s and people were at liberty to travel, the Gullah speech and customs flourished because access to the islands was by water only until the middle of the next century. In effect, most of the Gullah peoples along the coast were as isolated as if they lived in another country. Interestingly, during the decades of the thirties and forties, when island communities began building bridges in order to have better access to medical facilities, shopping centers, and other desirable facilities, their residents, reminiscing about the past often came to use the phrase “before the bridge” or “after the bridge.”

Thousands of enslaved Africans survived to reach the Sea Island shores, the majority of them from a section of Africa known as Angola. Their ancestral traditions and ways of life survived and the words Gullah and Geechee have come to describe that legacy. West Africans not only survived, they thrived—spiritually, intellectually, and physically—mainly because family members and families bonded with one another. After slavery, a close‐knit community evolved with these basic qualities already in place, drawing on each other individually and collectively as time moved from period to period.

The Gullah language itself, perhaps more than any other cultural asset, allowed the people to remain one expansive family, helping to keep them intellectually, collectively, and ethnically protected. Their spirituality had always been—and to some extent still is—secured by an abiding faith in varied historic beliefs that transcended traditional religions and denominations. In addition, art forms have always been critical to the Gullah people, enabling them to use natural assets for both artistic and practical purposes. Sweetgrass baskets, household wood carvings, and beautiful fabrics, for example, have traditionally combined art and utility in one. As in several other native cultures, obtaining and blending foods—whether from field, forest, stream, or ocean—has played an immeasurable part for ages past in more than simply the preparation of nourishment for the body. The fact that West Africans have been growing and preparing succulent rice dishes for five thousand years before the slave trade even began has left its mark firmly on the customs of the Gullah peoples today, influencing not just the food ways, but the beliefs, spirituality, customs, language, and even art forms.


The Gullah tongue, like almost every other language, is often accompanied by motions and gestures to emphasize what is being said verbally, whether with or without grunts, groans, or other variations of emphasis. The following examples are typical.

If a conversation between two men becomes more heated, one of them is likely to cross his arms over his chest to signal the end of the conversation. Among the Congo people, this was called tuluwa lwa luumba and was considered to be more emphatic than the spoken word.

A simple left or right movement of the head by a person listening to a conversation can signal “yes” or “no,” but is so subtle that only people who are familiar with each other can interpret which is which.

Children who are being rebuked by a parent and who feel that the reprimand is not justified will often turn their heads and purse their lips to avert a direct gaze. Known as a gesture of nunsa, this is sometimes captured in sculpture to add emotion to the piece of art.

When people stand with their arms akimbo, the pose is referred to as pakalala, and proclaims that they are ready to accept a challenge.


Historically the Gullah language was part of the everyday life at Penn School from its very beginnings, though in the beginning, in the 1860s, it had not yet been realized or identified by outsiders from the north. Shortly after she arrived on St. Helena Island and began establishing the Penn School, Laura Towne recognized the melodic speech patterns of the freed slaves and the young children under her care and wrote about them in her diaries and letters home. But of course she had no idea of the origins of their speech or its name. What she did not know, and what has since been documented by scholars, was that as many as 20 percent of the words were (and are) West African, and even words of local origin tended to be influenced by the basic tongue and traditional manners of speech.

In his book Souls of Black Folk the noted African American writer and statesman, W. E. B. Du Bois describes the first time the Yankees— whether soldiers or civilians—arrived in the Sea Islands early in the Civil War and encountered Africans. These outsiders had not even an inkling of what they were hearing in speech, songs, and spiritual chants. And yet, these unique peoples were the cause for fighting the war—to release human beings from bondage.

As Du Bois and other African American writers have pointed out, Gullah is a language of cadence and accents, words and intonations. The Gullah shout, for example, so strongly associated with the spiritual lives of the Gullah/Geechee peoples, is “a sacred voice,” a rhythmic translation of forbidden drums and the oldest of plantation melodies.2 Old spirituals and songs spoke of storms and other events in the lives of the slaves and were often times used as codes for transmitting meeting times and places and as messages for freedom. However, it is not easy to define the mysticism that is part of the culture. As a former director of Penn Center, whose family has lived in the Low Country for many generations and who himself spoke Gullah as a first language, explained, “I was nearly half a century old when I comprehended that the culture in which I was born, Gullah, contains uniquely rich folklore and a fascinating, distinguished idiom. I realized that the waterways and the Atlantic Ocean that encircled our islands kept our peoples from mainstream America for more than 200 years, and also kept our culture relatively pure and free from outside influences. But even more revealing was the fact, as I later learned, that nearly half a million African Americans who live among the Sea Islands were equally distinguished.”3

As he further pointed out, he, his family, and their friends and associates took it for granted that the food they ate, the songs they sang, the spirits they embraced, the daily rituals they followed, and of course the language they spoke, were all as “American” as lifestyles anywhere else in the United States. For many years the differences only became apparent mostly to those islanders who moved away—to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other regions north of the Mason‐Dixon line. Strong though the convictions of Gullah peoples are, and in spite of their determination to endure, the sites and artifacts of the early Gullah/Geechee culture have unfortunately been slowly slipping away along the Sea Islands. Stories and traditions of this fusion of African and European cultures brought long ago to these shores have been lost because of the encroachment of developments and the pressures to assimilate into the “modern” world. Small enclaves of Gullah on St. Helena Island remain, in the form of houses trimmed in indigo, believed to ward off evil spirits. There you hear talk of life before the cumyas, those who are recent arrivals to the area, and the problems brought by the benyas, those whose domicile can be traced back to plantation life. In the Sea Islands, during celebrations of Gullah culture, you can still listen to traditional spirituals such as Kumbaya (Come By Here), and you can watch nimble hands weave gorgeous sweetgrass baskets with a skill that has been handed down for generations. You can enjoy the aroma and tastes of hoppin’ john, sweet potato pie, or benne wafers—a few of the Gullah specialties that have found their way into our modern culture.

According to a television program, NOW with Bill Moyers, it was reported: “Recently, historians, anthropologists, and preservationists have come together to realize that preserving a culture is akin to preserving an ecosystem. There are many interlocking parts to the whole. The Gullah culture of the Low Country is such a system. It has a language, history, economic system, and artistic vision found nowhere else. It is indeed, a heritage so rich no price tag can measure its value.”4


This spiritual was said to have been composed shortly after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

  • Slavery chain done broke at last, broke at last, broke at last,
  • Slavery chain done broke at last,
  • Going to praise God till I die
  • Way down in‐a dat valley
  • Praying on my knees
  • Told God about my troubles,
  • And to help me ef‐a He please
  • I did tell him how I suffer,
  • In de dungeon and de chain,
  • And de days were with head bowed down,
  • And my broken flesh and pain.
  • I did know my Jesus heard me,
  • ‘Cause de spirit spoke to me
  • And said, ‘Rise my child, your chillun,
  • And you shall be free.
  • ‘I done ‘p’int one mighty captain
  • For to marshall all my hosts
  • And to bring my bleeding ones to me
  • And not one shall be lost’.
  • Slavery chain done broke at last, broke at last, broke at last,
  • Slavery chain done broke at last,
  • Going to praise God till I die

    If there is any single person who deserves credit for rescuing the Gullah language from possible oblivion it is Lorenzo Dow Turner, an African American linguist whose skin color and family background made it possible for him to mingle with ease among even the remotest and lowly Gullah peoples in the Sea Islands. This was a remarkable feat, given the fact that Turner made many of his unique studies at a time when he was a high‐ranking scholar, with a PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago, head of the English department at Howard University, and editor and publisher of the Washington Sun newspaper.

    Turner, a graduate of Howard University in 1910, who had worked his way through college as a Pullman car porter and waiter with the Commonwealth Steamboat Line, was unique: a person who could hold his own in the highest level of the halls of ivy, yet was perfectly at home and at ease with a farmhand in the cotton fields, a shrimp boat crew in Port Royal Sound, or a midwife in a Sea Island shack. Most importantly, he could speak Gullah and distinguish its nuances so well that he could tell you whether the speaker was from an inland produce farm in the Low Country of South Carolina, Daufuskie Island off Savannah, or the waterfront of Sapelo Island, Georgia. In the field of languages he was astonishingly gifted. During his early academic career he became eminently well qualified in documenting, analyzing, and comparing the Gullah dialect with African, Louisiana Creole, Afro‐Brazilian Creole, Native American, and Arabic languages. He studied Portuguese, Arabic, German, French, Italian, Kino, Igbo, Yoruba, Krio, Mende, and two Native American dialects, and had a reading knowledge of Latin and Greek. During his studies he identified many unusual findings to prove that Gullah was strongly influenced by African languages, not only in the variety of sounds but also in vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantics. He identified, for example, more than 300 “loan words” from African sources that are common in Gullah speech and some 4,000 African personal names that are also used by the Gullah peoples in America. Even in the remotest villages in the Sea Islands of the Carolinas and Georgia, he met people who readily recited tales and sang songs of African origin, although it was obvious that they had never set foot outside their own tiny communities. Some could even do simple arithmetic in the Mende, Vai, or Fulani vernacular of West Africa.

    For Turner there was a seemingly endless source of information that had to be accumulated in what at first had seemed like a fairly simple study of an African‐based language. It was said that he explored more than twenty African languages, including Wolof, spoken in Senegal; Malinke and Bambara, spoken in Guinea; Mandinka, spoken in Senegal and Guinea; Fula, spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea; Mende, spoken in Sierra Leone; Vai, spoken in Liberia; Twi and Fante, spoken in Ghana; Ga and Ewe, spoken in Togo; Fon, spoken in Benin; Yoruba, Bini, Hausa, Ibo, Ibibio, and Efik, spoken in Nigeria; and Kongo, Umbundu, and Kimbundu, spoken in Angola.

    Despite the drawback of being an African American at a time when a majority of those he associated with in the higher levels of academia were white upper crust, he not only held his own but dared to take issue with some of the top practitioners in the field of linguistics. He particularly took issue with three of the most noted men in his field: Henry Mencken, George Krapp, and Ambrose Gonzalez, who looked down on his studies of Gullah, whose grammar and pronunciation they termed as “incorrect English grammar” and of little value as a language. He described all three as “shocking” in their lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the Gullah tongue as a language in its own right.

    Beginning in 1932 Turner was a virtual resident in the lands of the Gullah, living among them in many places, listening, conversing, writing, and recording. Over a period of some fifteen years, he created a phonetic alphabet, comparing it bit by bit, with the alphabets he had compiled in West Africa. Attesting to his thoroughness, those who knew him said that he did not rely on his own judgment alone but enlisted the help of twenty‐seven researchers who between them had an accumulated knowledge of more than fifteen African languages. He also was in touch with more than fifty informants in a number of key Gullah communities in Georgia and South Carolina. He focused his investigations in four categories: distinctive figures of speech, the dynamics of language usage, the role of the language within the Gullah culture, and the origins and composition as a Creole language system. In regard to the origins, he suggested that the Gullah language resulted from a merging of English and West African languages, particularly Yoruba, Igbo, Efik, and Twi.

    One of the results of his studies was a book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, published in 1949 by Arno Press and The New York Times, through the University of Chicago Press. This unparalleled work included a history of the importation of slaves to Georgia and South Carolina, direct from Africa; a phonetic alphabet; West African words used in Gullah originating from African tribes, along with expressions heard only in stories, songs, and prayers; syntactical features; and morphological features—the forms, structures, and derivations of words.

    In his Preface, Turner wrote:

    Gullah is a Creolized form of English revealing survivals from many of the African languages spoken by the slaves who were brought to South Carolina and Georgia during the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. These survivals are most numerous in the vocabulary of the dialect but can be observed also in its sounds, syntax, morphology, and intonation; and there are many striking similarities between Gullah and the African languages in the methods used to form words. The purpose of this study is to record the most important of these Africanisms and to list their equivalents in the West African languages. One chapter in the volume is devoted to Gullah texts, in phonetic notation, that show varying degrees of indebtedness to African sources.

    The present study is the result of an investigation of the dialect that has extended over a period of fifteen years. The communities in coastal South Carolina that furnished the most distinctive specimens of the dialect were Waccamaw (a peninsula near Georgetown) and James, John’s, Wadmalaw, Edisto, St. Helena, and Hilton Head Islands. Those in Georgia were Darien, Harris Neck (a peninsula near Darien), Sapeloe Island, St. Simon Island, and St. Mary’s. On the mainland of both South Carolina and Georgia many of the communities in which specimens of the dialect were recorded are situated twenty miles or further from the coast.

    Equally important, Turner devoted a large segment of his research time to listening to and recording not only spirituals but also the local songs that had been passed down from generation to generation in America, which had their origins in West Africa. These are available today in the Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection of Audio Recordings, available in some public libraries, most notably the Hog Hammock Public Library, Sapelo Island, Georgia. An example is What Am I Going To Do with the Old Cow?, in Gullah, originally recorded by Turner on August 12, 1933:

    What am I going to do with the old cow hoof, sir?
    Make a good water cup you ever did see, sir.
    Water cup, drinking cup, tea cup
    Any kind of cup, sir.
    What am I going to do with the old cow tail, sir.
    Make a good buggy whip you ever did see, sir.
    Buggy whip.
    Licking whip
    Any kind of whip, sir.

    Another favorite was Katie Brown’s Getting Religion:

    An’ I first got religion, that is
    By goin’ to church with my mother
    Every night, I would beg her to let me go to church
    An’ she carry me to church.
    An’ then I heard the old people singing.
    It make me feel like I ought to been a Christian.
    An’ I went to pray.
    An I prayed an’ I prayed
    Until I got my religion.

    Turner also composed many of the “Brer Rabbit” and “Brer Wolf” tales, which were popular with adults as well as with children and are much quoted even today. He pointed out many common words in English that are almost directly related to their African counterparts. These include, for example, the following:

    Animal names: bambi, gorilla, zebra

    Plant names and foods: banana, goober, okra, yam

    Action words: bogus, booboo, boogie, dig, hippie, honkie, jamboree, juke, sock, tote

    Religious and “otherworld” terms: bad eye, booger, boogy, mojo, voodoo, zombie

    Musical and dance terms: bamboula, banjo, bongo, jive, mambo, samba

    According to Dr. John E. Holloway, a linguist at California State University:

    Most Americans are not aware that many of the words they speak and write every day are derived from African words. Who would have thought that the word doggies in the cowboy lyric “get along little doggies, for Wyoming shall be your new home,” stems from the African word kidogo, which means “a little something,” or “something small.” How did this African word become part of the American language? Part of the explanation is that one in every five American cowboys was black in the 1880s, and much of what we think of as “cowboy culture” is rooted in African cattle herding. For example, some historians believe that the trail‐driving practices of American cowboys (such as the open grazing of cattle) were based on the ways Fulani cattle herders in Western Africa had tended their animals for centuries. So, we should not be surprised to find African words as part of our cowboy culture. The word bronco (probably of Efik/Ibibio and Spanish origins) was used by the Spanish and by enslaved Africans to indicate the horses rode in herding cattle. Buckra, comes from mbakara, the Efik/Ibibio word for “white man,” and buckaroo, also coming from mbakara. These words described a class of whites who worked as “broncobusters.” Although such African‐derived words came from all of the five or six major cultural groups of West Africans enslaved in North America, many of the earliest words were introduced by the Wolof people. The African Wolofs were brought to the North American colonies as enslaved people between 1670 and 1700. Working principally as house slaves, they may have been the first Africans whose cultural elements and language were assimilated into the developing culture of America.


    Another noted linguist whose research uncovered many captivating facts and examples was the late Dr. William S. Pollitzer (1923–2002), a professor of anatomy and anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In addition to his most noted book, The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, he published almost one hundred articles on the subject of African American culture, and related subjects. According to Pollitzer, the first known appearance in print of a word resembling Gullah was on May 12, 1739, in which an ad had been placed seeking a runaway slave named “Golla Harry,” which apparently referred to a person from the Gola tribe in Liberia, many of whose people had been captured and sold into slavery. Much later, in 1822, the name again surfaced in a reference to “Gullah Jack,” who had been involved in a rebellion, and who had originally been purchased as a prisoner of war in Zinguebar.

    Pollitzer’s research indicated that the first known effort to reproduce the Gullah dialect appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on September 25, 1794. Edgar Allan Poe tried to reproduce Gullah in his curious tale, The Gold Bug, published in 1843, whose setting was Sullivan’s Island, just off the port of Charleston, South Carolina. The name became much more prevalent when the late Ambrose Gonzales, a wealthy newspaper publisher and son of a Cuban revolutionary leader, wrote a series of books, starting with The Black Border, Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast, published first in 1922. Although Gonzales based his dialogues on his many conversations with former slaves on his family’s rice plantations, he tended to take almost a condescending view of the Gullahs, referring to their speech as clumsy and the manner of presentation somewhat lazy or careless. He has been cited as having stimulated a great deal of public interest in the Gullah culture, but he seldom used the kinds of true Africanisms that scholars such as Turner were later to pinpoint in their writings.


    This little tale, entitled, “Buh Lion an Buh Goat,” was first published in 1888 by Charles Colcock Jones, who was an avid collector of Gullah stories.

    Buh Lion bin a hunt, an eh spy Buh Goat duh leddown topper er big rock duh wuk eh mout an der chaw. Eh creep up fuh ketch um. Wen eh git close ter um eh notus um good. Buh Goat keep on chaw. Buh Lion try fuh fine out wuh Buh Goat duh eat. Eh yent see nuttne nigh um ceptin de nekked rock wuh eh duh led‐down on. Buh Lion stonish. Eh wait topper Buh Goat. Buh Goat keep on chaw, an chaw, an chaw. Buh Lion cant mek de ting out, an eh come close, an eh say: “Hay! Buh Goat, wuh you duh eat?” Buh Goat skade wen Buh Lion rise up befo um, but eh keep er bole harte, an eh mek ansur: “Me duh chaw dis rock, an ef you dont leff, wen me done long um me guine eat you.” Dis big wud sabe Buh Goat. Bole man git outer diffikelty way coward man lose eh life.


    Brother Lion was out hunting when he spotted Brother Goat lying down on top of a big rock working his mouth and chewing. He crept up to catch him. When he got close to him, he watched him good. Brother Goat kept on chewing. Brother Lion tried to find out what the Goat was eating. He did’t see anything near him except the naked rock, which he was lying down on. The lion was astonished. He waited for Brother Goat. But Brother Goat just kept on chewing, and chewing, and chewing. When the lion couldn’t make the thing out, he close, and he said: “Hey! Brother Goat, what are you eating?” The goat was scared when the lion rose up before him, but he kept a bold heart, and he answered: “I am chewing this rock, and if you peace, when I am done with my eating, I will eat you.” This big word saved Brother Goat. The message: A bold man gets out of difficulty where a cowardly man loses his life.

    Pollitzer’s linguistic and cultural research was of a much higher order, and in his book he presented many findings that had previously been little known. One interesting highlight was the fact that most Gullah‐speaking people in the United States had two kinds of given names: one used in school and with strangers, which was English, and the other a nickname, or “basket name,” which was nearly always of African origin. “To the African,” he wrote, “the power to name is the power to control. Even when the Gullah name is English, it follows African naming practices, like those of the Twi, Dahomeans, Mandingo, Yoruba, and Ibo tribes of northern Nigeria, and the Ovimbundu of Angola. Almost universally in Africa a child has at least two given names, bestowed by an intriguing array of circumstances. Widespread is the practice of naming the baby for the day of the week … also common is the month or season of its birth, birth order, or one of a pair of twins. Conditions at birth, such as feet foremost, head presentation, born of a prolonged pregnancy, or with the cord or caul about the neck, are well‐known sources of names among the Dahomeans.… In addition to individual names, the Mandingo, among others, stress clan names, the descendants of a real or mythical ancestor, such as a crocodile. Animals, plants, or places inspire a cognomen, especially among the Twi and tribes of northern Nigeria.” In some instances, the first name is often considered a secret, and thus is not spoken aloud, but whispered into the ear of the infant, “lest some supernatural power, knowing it, could harm the child.”

    “The list of reasons for naming a newborn child are endless: time and dates; appearance of the infant, such as skin color, small size, fat, or wide‐lipped; parts of the body; animals and birds; feelings and emotions seemingly expressed at the start of life; regions of the country; kings, queens, and other rulers; and occupations. “Do‐um, suggesting ‘Do it,’” says Pollitzer, “was earned for assiduous application to an endeavor and audacity in sexual adventure. Cunjie, with very broad cheekbones, may have come from the Hausa word for cheek. Yaa for a girl and Yao for a boy, meaning ‘Thursday,’ keeps alive the Ewe practice for naming a baby for the day of the week on which it was born. Even an English‐appearing name like Joe may be an abbreviation for Cudjo, a male born on Monday. Similarly, Phoebe may really be Fibu, a girl born on Friday. Gussie may not be from Augustus, but from the Bambari gasi, meaning misfortune; and Pompey is not necessarily the famed Roman general but the Mende name kpambi, meaning a line, course, or red handkerchief.” He also points out that derogatory terms, such as Boogah, which means something frightful, or Nuttin, for what it sounds like in slang—“nothing”—are often given to African children at birth so that their ancestors might not become jealous and try to take the child back. In general, however, the names are given with the idea of being appealing because kinship is highly cherished, and thus there are numerous examples of double names in which one is the child and the other the grandparent—such as Minna Bill as a nickname for Bill, the grandson of a lady named Minna.

    Turner also discovered that some of the names that were considered most impressive for an individual related to the place of birth, or other location meaningful to the person so named. Thus he gave as examples, Asante, referring to the Gold Coast, Loanda in Angola, and Wida in Dahomey. Nago refers to southern Nigeria, and Uzebu relates to the home of a chief at Benin City. He mentions also that the Islamic influence is evident in a number of names, including Aluwa, in Wolof, which is a wooden tablet containing verses of the Koran, and Hadijata, the name of Mohammed’s first wife; legends and folk lore also play a part, with names like Akiti, a famous hunter, and other characters who were well known in the tales told by parents and storytellers.

    Gullah pronouns make no distinction between men and women. “In this behavior,” says one of the most recognized scholars in the Gullah language, Charles Joyner, in Down by the Riverside, his personalized book about a South Carolina slave community, “Gullah retained a structure common to a number of African languages, such as lbo, Ga, and Yoruba.”

    The initial all‐purpose Gullah pronoun was e, as in “After de war ‘ e come back and took into big drinking and was’ ‘em till ‘e fall tru” (After the war he came back and took into big drinking and wasted it [his money] until it fell through [i.e., he lost it]). E served as the masculine, feminine, and neuter pronoun. Later, under the influence of English, he became the all‐purpose Gullah pronoun, although e was not completely replaced during slavery, when the last generation of slaves were learning to speak the language. The Gullah pronoun he was not the same, however, as the English pronoun he but served for masculine, feminine, and neuter gender. Interchangeable with e, he could serve as a subject or to indicate possession, as in “He broke he whiskey jug” (He broke his whiskey jug), or “Sam he husband name” (Sam was her husband’s name). The Gullah pronoun for objects in All Saints Parish was em, which served for masculine, feminine, and neuter gender, whether singular or plural, as in “See’ em the one time” ([I] saw him once); “Grandfather took old Miss Sally on he back to hid’ em in the wood where Maussa” (Grandfather took old Miss Sally on his back to hide her in the woods where the master [was hiding]); “He couldn’t believe, em” (He could‐n’t believe it); and “Flat’ em all up to Marlboro” (They took them all on flatboats up to Marlboro District).5

    Joyner, who with Mary Arnold Twining has done extensive research in such Gullah strongholds as Waccamaw Neck and the islands of Wadmalaw, Yonges, Edisto, and St. Simon, explained further that two other features of the Gullah system distinguished it from English. First, Gullah speakers marked possession by juxtaposition rather than by word forms, as in “He people wuz always free” (His people were always free) or “Joshuway been Cindy pa” (Joshua was Cindy’s father). The other distinctive feature was the practice of non‐redundant plurals. If pluralization were otherwise indicated in a Gullah sentence, it was not also indicated by the noun, as in “Dan’l and Summer two both my uncle” (Both Daniel and Summer were my uncles). As Joyner concluded, “This practice was in sharp contrast to English, which required agreement in number between determiners and the nouns they modified.”


    Sample sentences to show how Gullah was spoken in the Sea Islands in the nineteenth century:

    Uh gwine gone dey tomorruh.

    I will go there tomorrow.

    We blan ketch ‘nuf cootuh dey.

    We always catch a lot of turtles there.

    Dem yent yeddy wuh oonuh say.

    They did not hear what you said.

    Dem chillun binnuh nyam all we rice.

    Those children were eating all our rice.

    ‘E tell’um say ‘e haffuh do’um.

    He told him that he had to do it.

    Duh him tell we say dem duh faa’muh.

    He’s the one who told us that they are farmers.

    De buckruh dey duh ‘ood duh hunt tuckrey.

    The white man is in the woods hunting turkeys.

    Alltwo dem ‘ooman done fuh smaa’t.

    Both those women are really smart.

    Enty duh dem shum dey?

    Aren’t they the ones who saw him there?

    Dem dey dey duh wait fuh we.

    They are there waiting for us.

    Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia


    “She was beautiful. That was the first thing most people noticed about Patricia Jones‐Jackson. Those who knew her found her inner beauty— her charm and kindness and intelligence—even more striking than her appearance. Hers was a very special grace.” That was the beginning of the In Memoriam to this fine Gullah lady in her last, and probably most important work, When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions of the Sea Islands, before she died tragically in an accident while on an assignment for the National Geographic Society. Her book is about the lives and literature and language of the Gullah peoples of the Sea Islands, the free descendants of slaves. Patricia, an associate professor of English at Howard University, spent five years living among and studying the people she writes about—their habits of work, their family lives, their methods of communication, and the stories they had to tell. And she had much to say about their language or, as she said in Gullah, “The old‐time talk we still de talkem here.”

    After extensive years of research, she made the basic prediction, as a result of her studies, that the Gullah language can live and remain intact, but only as long as the families and the communities themselves remain intact. It was vital, too, that those who spoke Gullah be educated in the origins and roots of their language because when the roots die, the language dies. She expressed it in the beginning of a key chapter of her book:

    The factors which nurtured the Sea Island culture also nurtured the development and perpetuation of the unusual Sea Island language called Gullah or Geechee. The geographical isolation, the marginal contact with speakers outside the Sea Island communities, and the social and economic independence contributed to creating an environment where a mixed language could thrive. Gullah is defined as a Creole, the language that results when a pidgin, which has no native speakers but comes into existence as the product of communication among speakers of different linguistic backgrounds, takes over as the only language of the community.

    The Sea Island language, like the culture, is undergoing transformations. Several varieties of contemporary Gullah can be heard in day‐to‐day conversation on topics ranging from who is running for president to the best bogging place in the creek. With the exception of the unusual accent, some speakers show little deviation from standard English at all. The degree of standard English acquisition is a reflection of such factors as the level of education, the accessibility or inaccessibility of a given island to outside forces, and the extent of inside social mobility. Just as one hears a form of standard English, one also hears the ‘real Gullah’ spoken by children and adults in all aspects of community life.6

    As she explained, the history of Gullah is complicated. It is called a Creole language because it was determined to have resulted along the West African coast from the merger of English and the many languages in that region, including Ewe, Fantre, Efik, Ibebio, Igbo, Yoruba, Twi, Kono, and Mandinka. Some researchers, she reported, suggested that Angola was a possible source for the word, Gullah, and that Geechee may have been derived from the Gidzi, a language and people in the Kissy country of Liberia.

    Dr. Jones‐Jackson concluded that the very isolation of so many communities and tiny pockets of isolated neighborhoods in the Sea Islands of the Carolinas and Georgia was fortunate as far as the Gullah language was concerned because there were so few mixtures with people speaking standard English or other vernaculars. And as she said, “it can be credited with achieving even more than that. Growing up as a black majority almost free from outside social influences, such as racial prejudice … undoubtedly affected the attitudes and perceptions of the islanders, to the extent that few of them wish to leave the islands today.”

    This was particularly true until the middle of the twentieth century in many of the islands where there were no bridges and where some of the inhabitants had never even been to the mainland. Even when she was completing her research in the 1980s, she reported “several of the elderly informants for this study reported that they had not left their island in at least forty years.” And she added, “The islanders are very private people and will often guard the secrets of their culture just as they make attempts to guard their language.”

    Dr. Jones‐Jackson reported another interesting observation that had been overlooked even by some of the most accomplished researchers. Very minor details of speech, such as a consistent use of certain letters, or a distinctive “frizzing” sound on words beginning with “w,” subtle though they may be, permit Gullahs to determine which island the speaker is from. “During my first few years on the islands,” she wrote, as an African American who could perfectly well pass muster in looks and bearing, “I learned that I should not try to pass myself off as an islander by an attempt to imitate the local language. While I may have had the syntax right, I was never able to perfect the accent, and it is the stress and intonation that give one away. When I asked the islanders how they were able to detect such small differences, I was often told, ‘I ain’t know how I de know, but I de know.”

    As was pointed out in her sampling of characteristic “interpretations” of Gullah talk, a number of idioms were found to be common in the speech of elderly islanders. She gives the following examples:

  • dark the light: the sun was set
  • out the light: turn the light out
  • hot the water: bring the water to a boil
  • ugly too much: very ugly
  • the old man bury: the old man is dead
  • this side: this island
  • do the feet to you: cause harm to come to you
  • can’t bring the word right now: I can’t remember at the moment, or I will not speak of it at this time
  • pull off my hat: I had to run
  • de fix for you: lie in wait for you
  • watchitsir!: watch your step!
  • day clean: daybreak
  • clean skin: a person with light skin color
  • one day mong all!: finally!
  • nothing for dead: nothing dying
  • the sun de red for down: sunset
  • knock em: hit
  • sweetmouth:flatter
  • rest you mouth: shut up!
  • long eye: envy
  • Jones‐Jackson explained, too, that many characteristic features of grammar and syntax differ from those of other African American forms of speech and writing. “Unlike standard English,” she says, “which relies heavily on subordination to convey relationships between ideas, contemporary Gullah relies on coordination, or the combination of sentences that are short, abrupt, and loosely strung together.” In Gullah we see few of the parts of speech— verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and participles—that tie together complex English sentences. What results is a language that emphasizes the more vivid words and dispenses with the “joining” words. When Gullahs speak, they tend to use a single verb stem whether to refer to a present, past, or future action that is taking place, was taking place, or might take place. The time is not as important as the mood or tone of the action, and there is little or no passive construction. Neither are there plurals on nouns in the same sense that they are used in other languages. For example, tu baskit is “two baskets” and dem boi is “those boys.” To say in English “I heard he knows some old stories” would translate into “I hear tell e know sum old story.”


    “While millions of black Americans must wonder where in the vast continent of Africa their ancestors might have come from, one family from the U.S. need not ask that question. Mary Moran, a seventy‐five‐year‐old grandmother from Harris Neck, Georgia, could sing an ancient song in the Mende language of Sierra Leone, a song passed down in the family from mother to daughter for generations. And, due to the efforts of a number of scholars, Moran and her family were finally reunited with their long‐lost kinfolk in Sierra Leone.”7

    This opening paragraph of an article in West Africa magazine leads to a remarkable story of how words and music combined to change the lives of an entire family of Gullah people at a time when so little was known about this remarkable culture, its history, and its language. It all began in 1932, when Mary’s mother, Amelia Dawley, sang an old family song for Lorenzo Dow Turner when he was recording it on one of the primitive wire recorders of those days. Turner was sure that the song, so familiar to the family, was a key to the past, and that the lyrics, which on the surface of the young girl’s own recollection were “just a silly little old thing,” were indeed meaningful. Once he had made the recording, Turner played it on one occasion after another as he traveled extensively throughout the South and across the seas to West Africa, hoping that someone would recognize its origin and that he thus would be able to trace the family roots back to a specific location. Success came one day when he was interviewing Solomon Caulker, then a young student, but later a vice principal at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, one of the countries from whence hundreds of slaves had come to America. When he played the music, Caulker identified it right away as a funeral song, and thus Turner was able to deduce that the roots of the Moran family went back to that particular region. Turner published the song and its English translation in his remarkable book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, in 1949. But it was not until 1989 that a group of African Americans, under the leadership of Dr. Emory Campbell, a Gullah himself, and Dr. Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist who is among the topmost scholars in the field of Gullah history, initiated the first of several trips by Gullah groups to West Africa. And not until 1997 did Mary Moran make her own pilgrimage, based so unbelievably on “the silly little thing” of a song from her childhood.

    The ultimate outcome of this experience, as far as the American public was concerned, turned out to be a very moving documentary film that received many reviews as one of the finest of its kind, entitled appropriately, The Language

    We Fada wa dey een heaben
    Leb ebrybody hona ya nyame
    Cause ya holy.
    We pray dat soonya
    Gwine rule oba de wol.
    Wasoneba ting ya wahn
    Let urn be so een dis wol
    Same like e da dey een heaben.
    Gii we de food wa we need
    Dis day yah, an ebry day.
    Fagibe we de bad ting we da do,
    Same like we fagibe dem people
    Wa do bad ta we.
    Leh we down habe haad test
    Wen Satan try we.
    Keep we fom ebil.
    You Cry In. When Dr. Opala had asked one of the elders of a tribe in Senehun Ngola, West Africa, why a Mende woman, stolen away from Sierra Leone 200 years earlier, would have carried that song in her memory instead of some other, the old man explained that it was an ancient funeral song and thus far more important than any other she was likely to have known in her lifetime. “All her people were buried with it,” he explained, “and by singing it, she would always be connected to her ancestors in Africa.”

    He then quoted an ancient Mende proverb, “You know who a person is by the language he cries in.”


    Gullah by its very nature is an ebullient and exuberant language, and so it is only natural that many well‐recognized poets—and quite a few lost in obscurity—have found a place in the creative history of the culture. Many compositions express the emotions of the black and enslaved populations of Africa and America, with themes relating to oppression, family life, hard work, and lifestyles. One of the most noted poets was Phillis Wheatley, who had been captured and sold as a slave at the age of seven. It was almost unbelievable that she was talented enough not only to have mastered the English language but also to have published a volume entitled Poems on Various Subjects in 1793 and to have won praises from several of the greatest people in America, including George Washington. An early sample of her talent was “On Being Bought from Africa to America”:

    Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land
    Taught my benighted soul to understand
    That there’s a God, that there’s a saviour too
    Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
    Some view our sable race with scornful eyes,
    ‘Their colour is a diabolic die.
    Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain
    May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.8

    There is little doubt that the most talented African American poet, and indeed one of the most talented poets of his time, regardless of race, was Paul Laurance Dunbar, who died in 1906 at the age of thirty‐four. Unfortunately, he suffered not only from the general bias against blacks but also from the prejudices of the literary establishment, which refused to believe that uneducated people of color could possibly forge the English language into readable text, let alone poetic expression. One of his most memorable poems was Sympathy, which in its extraordinarily beautiful expressiveness and sense of melancholy captured the centuries‐old plight of African Americans in the New World:

    I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through, the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals
    I know what the caged bird feels!
    I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a‐swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting
    I know why he beats his wing!
    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
    When he beats his bars and would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings
    I know why the caged bird sings!9


    Why Bro Cat na da wash e face fo e eat e brekwas

    Once upon a dm fo day was clean, one monin Bro rat bina wanda roun de rim ob barril wuh bin half ful wid watuh an bin slip an fal een.

    E binah tri fa gjt out, but ebry tim e fa grab de wal e slip and fal bac in da watuh. Wen e bin dun bout gib up e yeddy a nise.

    Da nise binab Bro Cat who bim saach fa brekwas. Bro Cat cock e yez and yeddy de watuh da splas. E clim up de side de barril and lok een and bi see Bro Cat. E sae how yu git down en da Bro Rat? Bro Rat sae, Maan, a bina wak roun de edge ob de ‘barril fa lok een an a slip an a fall een. Eef you hep me fa git outa ya, I let you eat me fa brekwas. Bro cat say, fa true? Bro rat say yeah fa true.

    Bro Cat gon an clim up tuh de top ob de barril an bi rech down an grab Bro Rat by e tail.

    E bi lay Bro Rat on de broad sid de barril an bi staat fa eat Bro Rat. Bro Rat holluh oh no Bro Cat yu baffa leh me dri fus fo you choke yourself tu det. Go wush you face wile a dry.

    Bro cat gon fa wush e face an wen e bi git bac e brekwas bin gon. Bro cat nebuh wush e face fo brekwas from dat dae tuh dis.

    The English Translation

    Why Bro Cat Does Not Wash His Face Before Breakfast.

    Once upon a time, Bro Rat was wandering around the rim of a barrel half filled with water and slipped and fell in. He was futilely trying to climb up the slippery side of the barrel when Bro cat, looking for breakfast, beard Bro Rat splashing in the barrel.

    Bro Cat climbed up the side of the barrel to see who was in there and saw Bro Rat.

    “How did you get yourself in such a fix?” asked Bro Cat.

    Bro Rat answered, “Man, I was curious about what was inside the barrel and slipped and fell in. If you help me get out, I’ll let you eat me.”

    “Would you really?” asked Bro Cat.

    “Sure I’ll let you eat me”, answered Bro Rat.

    “I’hat’s deal” said Bro Cat. Then he reached down with his two front paws and grabbed Bro Rat by the tail and laid him on a nearby board.

    As Bro Rat laid there soggy, Bro Cat approached to begin his meal.

    “Oh no!” screamed Bro Rat, “you don’t want to eat me like this.” “Man, my wet hair will choke you to death. You’d better let me dry so you can take my hair off. Why don’t you go and wash your face while I dry here in this sun.” Bro Rat advised.

    Bro Cat went and washed his face, but when he returned, Bro Rat had disappeared. From that day to this, Bro Cat never washed his face before he eats breakfast.

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * CITATION * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Gullah Culture in America --


    "The Mellifluous Gullah Tongue." Gullah Culture in America. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 13 Oct 2015. <>

    Chicago Manual of Style

    "The Mellifluous Gullah Tongue." In Gullah Culture in America, Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed October 13, 2015).