The Face of an Island: The Gullah Language Variety of the Southern Coastal Sea Islands

Seminar Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Origins and History of Gullah

3 The Place of Gullah: The Geographical Region of the Dialect

4 Lorenzo Turner’s Earlier Studies

5 The Later Research of Salikoko Mufwene

6 Gullah Distinct Features
6.1 Grammatical Characteristics
6.2 Phonological Features.

7 The Endangerment of Gullah

8 Conclusion

9 Works Cited

1 Introduction

“Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree.” This proverb meaning “you need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree” offers one of many examples of the regional variation of English known as Gullah. This language is as unique as its speakers combining people of different African tribes, descendants of the British immigrants, or those who came to America as indentured servants in the early 17th century. Out of this “melting pot,” the Gullah variation developed – more than just a language or dialect, but a rich culture with a wonderful tradition of storytelling among other ways of life. Gullah, serving a vital example of original Creole language, revokes a great interest of the linguists from all over the world.

For years, linguists referred to Gullah as a dialect of Standard English, but in the 1940s, as African-American linguist Lorenzo Turner researched African languages, it became apparent that Gullah did indeed have its roots in Africa. Following Turner’s ground-breaking research, numerous other linguists considered an interest in study of the variation. One such linguist and professor who will be further discussed in this paper is Salikoko Mufwene, a native speaker of several Bantu languages originating from the Congo. Aside from the research of Turner and Mufwene, this paper will also explain the origins and history of Gullah, its phonology, its grammatical structures, and the threats of the extinction of Gullah.

2 Origins and History of Gullah

Gullah, also known locally as a Geechee, whose name originates from a tribe in Liberia, is the most conservative form of “black English” spoken in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia today. It strongly resembles the Krio language of Sierra Leone, and draws many elements from other West African languages as well.

Although the exact origins of Gullah, considered to be developed from a dialect of African American English, sometimes called as vernacular English, are still quite disputable, some theories exist explaining how this speech appeared and developed, the so called Creolist and Anglicist hypotheses (Wolfram 111-112). According to the first one, Gullah is considered to be a true creole language, i.e. “a special language developed in language contact situations … from one primary language is imposed on a specially adapted, restricted grammatical structure,” (Wolfram 112 ) still alive in the United States and very close to the flourishing creoles of the Caribbean: Jamaican, Giuanneses, Trinidadian, Barbadian, and others. Like these, Gullah preserves features of African languages brought in by plantation slaves as far back as about 300 years ago.

According to 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 (Crystal 336).

According to the Anglicist theory, some peculiar features in AAVE (African American Vernacular English) that cannot be explained on the basis of regional and social factors, observed in the Creolist theory result from the preservation of British dialect features. For instance, usage of habitual be and absence of the third person ending –s. The critique on the Creolist hypothesis is also cast in the works by Shana Poplack and Sali Tagliamonte indicating that a lot of insular language varieties of the African American immigrants from the USA to Canada have strong similarities to the earlier Anglo-American rather than a Creole predecessor (Poplack).

The origins of Gullah and its peculiar features still remain a subject for debating, though Creolist hypotheses have gained the widest acceptance being proved on the fact that there is no evidence for copula absence in the history of the British English; at the same time, there is extensive documentation of copula absence in creoles related to Gullah (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 177).

Following the Encyclopedia of the Southern Culture, the name may also originate from Gola, the name of people from Liberia and Sierra Leone, whence some slaves where brought from the Carolina Colony.

This group, however, was relatively small, whereas a very large number of slaves were brought earlier and over a longer period from Angola. The latter, therefore seems the more plausible sources for the word (Adams and Barnwell). The Gullah people and their language are known to be far more mixed, as both the history of slave importations and the surviving African features show. The early history of Gullah and their language comes back to 1670, when the Charleston Colony was founded. Planters from Barbados started it, bringing their slaves from Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Nigeria. Others came later from the entire coast of West Africa which stretches over 3,000 miles from Senegal to Angola, bringing various languages and dialects. Thus the Creole English of these first slaves was constantly affected by new importations.

3 The Place of Gullah: The Geographical Region of the Dialect

The Gullah variation is spoken on the Sea Islands on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The islands are composed of a chain of more than 100 low islands off the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, extending from the Santee River to St. John’s River. (Jackson 12) The ocean side of the islands is generally sandy; the side facing the mainland is marshy. The islands have a humid, subtropical climate with hot summers, warm winters, and rain throughout the year.

Once the center of the Gullah culture of former slaves, most of the Sea Islands have succumbed to modernization, and much of the African-American population has moved away. Some islands remain uninhabited; others are resorts and wildlife sanctuaries. The Intracoastal Waterway passes through the Sea Islands. The Spanish explored and were the first to inhabit the islands, setting up missions and garrisons in the 16th century. These were abandoned as the English steadily advanced in the area. James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony, “built Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island between 1736 and 1754, during the English-Spanish struggle for control of the southeastern United States” (“Sea Islands: US Physical Geography” 1). The ruins of the fort are now a national monument. (“Sea Islands: US Physical Geography”)


Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Face of an Island: The Gullah Language Variety of the Southern Coastal Sea Islands
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Main Differences between British English and American English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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497 KB
Face, Island, Gullah, Language, Variety, Southern, Coastal, Islands
Quote paper
M.A. Natalia Brouwers (Author), 2004, The Face of an Island: The Gullah Language Variety of the Southern Coastal Sea Islands, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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