American Language, African Roots
It is 1997 in Sierra Leone, and Baindu Jabati and Mary Moran sing a Mende funeral song together. Both learned the song from women in their family, who hoped that their descendants could someday use the song to reunite. And it worked….eventually: Mary grew up in Georgia, and Baindu lived in Senehum Ngola, a remote village in Sierra Leone; they had never met before this moment. But they were family. Baindu had learned the song from her mother, and had lived through devastating war in Sierra Leone.
Mary’s grandmother was a freed slave named Amelia Dawley, who recorded the same song in 1930 for the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner. Amelia had, in turn, learned the song from her own grandmother: a slave named Catherine committed to preserving her culture. Mary and Baindu knew the same song because Mary was Gullah; her family preserved its African roots, even generations after her ancestors were sold as slaves.
Mary and Baindu met thanks to Joseph Opala. In 1992, Opala organized a reunion trip between two groups of slave ancestors. Thanks to the Sierra Leonan government, a group of the Gullah people from St. Helena Island traveled to meet their “family across the sea.” Upon arrival at the airport, they were greeted by thousand of dancing and singing Sierra Leonans. To their shock and surprise, the Gullah people could understand everything the Sierra Leonans said. They knew the same songs, and the same dances. But the Gullah people were American, and spoke what many people had long considered an uneducated version of English.
Americans might still consider Gullah merely broken English, if not for Lorenzo Dow Turner. Turner, a Howard and Harvard educated linguist, set out to record Sea Island dialects in the 1930s. He rowed to islands on the east coast, using tides to push his boat and wading significant distances to reach areas that did not have bridges to the mainland. His wife, Geneva Turner, also worked as his scribe and assistant while completing her own college degree. He often had to ferry islanders back to Charleston, as many islands did not have the electricity required to run his cumbersome, hundred pound recording device.
Through his recordings, Turner found that many Gullah words did not have any English precursors. He also found grammatical constructions in Gullah that did not resemble English. These words and phrases made him wonder about links between Gullah and African languages, and later to a connection between Gullah and Arabic. He later travelled to West Africa on a Fulbright grant, bringing eight thousand proverbs, sixteen thousand folk tales, hundreds of hours of recordings, and many musical instruments from the US. His lectures were well received in Africa, and he brought back new knowledge of African origins of spirituals like “I Am Climbing Up the Mountain” and “A City Called Heaven,” among many others. He later studied Afro-Caribbean culture and wrote Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, a critically acclaimed analysis of Gullah linguistic history.
Many scholars have aided the preservation of the Gullah language, including Joseph Opala, who organized the reunion trip to Sierra Leone; Clyde and Pat Sharpe (and the Sea Island Translation Team), who helped translate the entire Bible into Gullah and countless others. Most stories, traditions, and mannerisms of the Gullah people have been passed down through oral history, which makes recording digital interviews of critical importance. The preservation of the Gullah language is a story of resistance. The language’s continued use is a story of victory. The story of the Gullah people’s return to Sierra Leone is one of joyous reunion. We hope to continue these reunions, victories, and resistance through this project.
The list of tribes that scholars believe the Gullah people descended from includes Mandingo, Bamana, Wolof, Fula, Temne, Mende, Vai, Akan, Ewe, Makongo, and Kimbundu. This list appears on page 15 of Gullah Culture in America, by Wilbur Cross. The language and grammar of these tribes undoubtedly influenced the Gullah language and culture of today.
Many people also use the word “Geechee” to describe the Gullah people and language. “Geechee” has a variety of meanings, depending on who says it. Although some use the term pejoratively, many people also use the words Gullah and Geechee interchangeably. Some people believe that Geechees live in Charleston and Gullahs live on the Sea Islands; others believe that Geechees live in Georgia and Gullahs live in South Carolina. However, many people also refer to the larger culture as “Gullah-Geechee.”
Understanding the Interviews
Although it sounds similar to English, Gullah can prove daunting to learn and understand. Most native speakers speak quickly and reference a few island-specific words. The language also has its own set of grammatical rules. It is important to remember that some of the older interviewees were taught to “speak proper” in elementary school (in other words, to hide their accents, as explained on page 5 of this interview). This means that some of the interviews are actually not in Gullah at all, although they have Gullah interviewees and still pertain to Gullah culture. Finally, many interviewees have also lived in other parts of the United States to work certain jobs, join the military, or to live with family members. Because of this, the Gullah language of St. Helena sometimes includes New York accents, Philadelphia accents, and a variety of southern accents.
Some of the main differences between Gullah and American English involve verb tense, naming, and singular and plural nouns. Many Gullah people use “e” as a gender neutral pronoun. When older community members refer to their “children,” they don’t always mean biological children; adoption practices on the island mean that many children were raised by family friends, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Many older Gullah people pronounce “children” as “chirren,” and children in the Gullah community often refer to elders and family friends as “auntie” or “uncle.” This term often betrays some truth, because almost everyone on the island is a cousin. Incidentally, this makes dating in the community extremely complicated, as explained in this interview.
Because of its West African roots, Gullah grammar sometimes deviates from English grammar. Many Gullah people use past tense sparingly, if at all. Some people repeat phrases within a sentence multiple times; although this sentence construction may seem “incorrect” at first, watching a few interviews will show that it actually belongs to the language’s grammar and is often used for emphasis. This construction also makes Gullah sentences unusually long, as seen in transcripts here and here. This interview also contains some common Gullah grammar: Ms. Alston uses a singular word instead of a plural word (“thing” for “things”), refers to a group of objects as “the [object]” (“peel the sweet potato” instead of “peel sweet potatoes”), and pronounces many words with a Gullah accent.
A few phrases occur frequently in the interviews: “the shout,” “praise house,” “binyahs” and “come yas,” “the bridge,” “Dr. Buzzard,” and “life everlasting.” The shout (or “ring shout”) is actually a famous dance descendant from West African religious and cultural rituals that Gullah people perform during worship services; they have also brought the shout on tour, as explained in this interview. Praise Houses are plantation-era wood framed structures where Gullah people came to worship during the week, sing hymns and have community meetings (explained here and here); three Praise Houses in St. Helena are also on the national register of historic places. Bin yas (Gullah for “been here”) are native islanders; come yas are everyone else. The bridge linked St. Helena to the mainland in the 1930s, changing their culture forever. Dr. Buzzard is the legendary healer and spell producer on the island, and Life Everlasting is a plant cure-all used by most families.
Although daunting at first, Gullah is a beautiful, fascinating language that becomes much more understandable with practice. Most interviews in this collection come with a companion transcription that works as a helpful guide. Additionally, Gullah people use a variety of gestures and body language cues to develop their meaning, adding dimension to many stories in the interviews. The best way to learn to understand Gullah is to listen to it yourself. Watch the interviews, documentary, and video footage; listen to Gullah songs. The rich cultural history and fascinating family stories will certainly reward your efforts.
http://anacostia.si.edu/resources/turnerexhibitionbrochure.pdf (Accessed August 2016)
http://newsreel.org/video/THELANGUAGEYOUCRYIN (Accessed August 2016)
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