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Gullah, also called Gullah-English, Sea Island Creole English[1][2] and Geechee, is a creole language spoken by the Gullah people (also called "Geechees" within the community), an African-American population living in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia (including urban Charleston and Savannah), as well as northeasternmost Florida and the extreme southeast of North Carolina.[3] Closely related varieties are spoken in the Bahamas, namely Bahamian Creole.[2]

Gullah-English, Sea Island Creole English
Native toUnited States
RegionCoastal low country region of South Carolina and Georgia including the Sea Islands
Native speakers
(350 cited 1990–2010)[1]
English Creole
  • Atlantic
    • Eastern
Language codes
ISO 639-3gul – inclusive code Sea Island Creole English
Individual code:
afs – Afro-Seminole Creole
Glottologgull1241  Sea Island Creole English[2]

The Gullah language is based on different varieties of English and languages of West and Central Africa.


Scholars have proposed a number of theories about the origins of Gullah and its development:

  1. Gullah developed independently on the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida throughout the 18th and 19th centuries among enslaved Africans. They developed a language that combined grammatical, phonological, and lexical features of the non-standard English varieties spoken by white slaveholders and farmers in that region of the United States along with those from numerous Western and Central African languages. According to this view, Gullah developed separately, or distinctly, from African American English and varieties of English spoken in the South.
  2. Some enslaved Africans spoke a Guinea Coast Creole English (also called West African Pidgin English) before being forcibly relocated to the Americas. Guinea Coast Creole English was one of many languages spoken along the West African coast during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries as a language of trade between Europeans and Africans and among multilingual Africans. It seems to have been prevalent in British coastal slave trading centers such as James Island, Bunce Island, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle and Anomabu. This theory of Gullah's origins and development follows the monogenetic theory of creole development and the domestic origin hypothesis of English-based creoles.

The vocabulary of Gullah comes primarily from English, but there are numerous words of African origin for which scholars have yet to produce detailed etymologies. Some of these African loanwords are: cootuh ("turtle"), oonuh ("you [plural]"), nyam ("eat"), buckruh ("white man"), pojo ("heron"), swonguh ("proud") and benne ("sesame").

Related languagesEdit

Gullah resembles other English-based creole languages spoken in West Africa and the Caribbean Basin. These include the Krio language of Sierra Leone, Jamaican Patois, Bajan Creole, Trinidadian Creole, Tobagonian Creole, Sranan Tongo, Guyanese Creole, and Belizean Kriol. It is speculated[citation needed] that these languages use English as a lexifier (i.e., their vocabularies are derived largely from English), and that their syntax (sentence structure) is strongly influenced by African languages; but research by Salikoko Mufwene and others suggests that non-standard Englishes may have also influenced Gullah's (and other creoles') syntactical features.

Gullah is most closely related to Afro-Seminole Creole, spoken in scattered Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, and Northern Mexico. The Black Seminoles' ancestors were Gullahs who escaped from slavery in coastal South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries and fled into the Florida wilderness. They emigrated from Florida after the Second Seminole War (1835–42). Their modern descendants in the West speak a conservative form of Gullah resembling the language of 19th-century plantation slaves.

There is debate amongst linguists concerning the relationship between Gullah and African-American English (AAE). There are some that postulate a Gullah-like "plantation creole" as having been the origin of AAE. Others cite different British dialects of English as having had greater influence on the structure of AAE.[4]

Turner's researchEdit

In the 1930s and 1940s the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner did a seminal study of the Gullah language based on field research in rural communities in coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Turner found that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages in its sound system, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantics. Turner identified over 300 loanwords from various African languages in Gullah and almost 4,000 African personal names used by Gullah people. He also found Gullahs living in remote seaside settlements who could recite songs and story fragments and do simple counting in the Mende, Vai and Fulani languages of West Africa.

In 1949, Turner published his findings in a classic work called Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (ISBN 9781570034527). The fourth edition of this book was reprinted with a new introduction in 2002.

Before Turner's work, mainstream scholars viewed Gullah speech as substandard English, a hodgepodge of mispronounced words and corrupted grammar, which uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish and French Huguenot slave owners.[5]

Turner's study was so well researched and detailed in its evidence of African influences in Gullah that academics soon changed their minds. After Turner's book was published in 1949, scholars began coming to the Gullah region regularly to study African influences in Gullah language and culture.


Gullah Consonant Table
Bilabial Labio-dental Inter-dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Labial-velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop p b t d c ɟ k ɡ kp gb ʔ
Glottalized Stop/Affricate p’ t’ k’
Fricative ɸ β f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ ɕ h
Trill/Approximant r
Liquid/Approximant l


Glide/Approximant w j

Gullah sounds that don't fit into the consonant table include:

Labial: /mb/, /mp/, /mw/

Alveolar: /nt/, /nd/, /ns/

Palatal: /ʃ’/

Velar: /ŋd/, /ŋg/, /ŋk/

Gullah Vowel Table
Front Central Back
lax tense lax tense
High ɪ i ɚ ʊ u
High-mid e ə


Low-mid ɛ ɔ
Low æ

a, ã

ɒ ɑ

Sources used:[6]



The following sentences illustrate the basic verb tense and aspect system in Gullah:

Uh he'p dem — "I help them/I helped them" (Present/Past Tense)
Uh bin he'p dem — "I helped them" (past tense) [I've been helping them]
Uh gwine he'p dem — "I will help them" (future tense) [I'm going to help them]
Uh done he'p dem — "I have helped them" (perfect tense) [I've done helped them]
Uh duh he'p dem — "I am helping them" (present continuous) [I do help them]
Uh binnuh he'p dem — "I was helping them" (past continuous) [I've been helping them]


These sentences illustrate 19th-century Gullah speech:

Da' big dog, 'e bite'um — "That big dog, it bit him" (topicalization)
Duh him da' cry out so — "It is he who cried out that way" (front focusing)
Uh tell'um say da' dog fuh bite'um — "I told him, said that dog would bite him" (dependent clauses with "say")
De dog run, gone, bite'um — "The dog ran, went, bit him" (serial verb construction)
Da' duh big big dog — "That is a big, big dog" (reduplication)


The Gullah people have a rich storytelling tradition strongly influenced by African oral traditions but also by their historical experience in America. Their stories include animal trickster tales about the antics of "Brer Rabbit", "Brer Fox" and "Brer Bear", "Brer Wolf", etc.; human trickster tales about clever and self-assertive slaves; and morality tales designed to impart moral teaching to children.

Several white American writers collected Gullah stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The best collections were made by Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. from Georgia and Albert Henry Stoddard from South Carolina. Jones (a Confederate officer during the Civil War) and Stoddard were both planter-class whites who grew up speaking Gullah with the slaves (and later, freedmen) on their families' plantations. Another collection was made by Abigail Christensen, a Northern woman whose parents came to the Lowcountry after the Civil War to assist the newly freed slaves. Ambrose E. Gonzales, another writer of South Carolina planter-class background, also wrote original stories in 19th-century Gullah, based on Gullah literary forms. Gonzales' works are well remembered in South Carolina today.

The linguistic accuracy of these writings has been questioned because of the authors' social backgrounds. Nonetheless, these works provide the best available information on the Gullah language as it was spoken in its more conservative form during the 19th century.


Gullah is spoken by about 5,000 people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.[citation needed] Although some scholars argue that Gullah has changed little since the 19th century and that most speakers have always been bilingual, it is likely that at least some decreolization has taken place. In other words, some African-influenced grammatical structures that were present a century ago are less prevalent in the language today. Nonetheless, Gullah is still understood as a creole language and is certainly distinct from Standard American English.

For generations, outsiders stigmatized Gullah speakers by regarding their language as a mark of ignorance and low social status. As a result, Gullah people developed the habit of speaking their language only within the confines of their own homes and local communities. That causes difficulty in enumerating speakers and assessing decreolization. It was not used in public situations outside the safety of their home areas, and many speakers experienced discrimination even within the Gullah community. Some speculate that the prejudice of outsiders may have helped to maintain the language.[citation needed] Others suggest that a kind of valorization or "covert prestige"[7] remained for many community members and that the complex pride has insulated the language from obliteration.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah speaker in coastal Georgia. When asked why he has little to say during hearings of the court, he told a high school student that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech, as a young man, caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public.[8] Thomas's English-speaking grandfather raised him after the age of six in Savannah.[9]

In recent years educated Gullah people have begun promoting use of Gullah openly as a symbol of cultural pride. In 2005, Gullah community leaders announced the completion of a translation of the New Testament into modern Gullah, a project that took more than 20 years to complete.[10]

In 2017, Harvard University began offering Gullah/Geechee as a language class in its African Language Program. It is taught by Sunn m'Cheaux, a native-speaker from South Carolina.[11]


These sentences are examples of how Gullah was spoken in the 19th century:

Uh gwine gone dey tomorruh. "I will go there tomorrow." [I'm going to 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." [Those(Them) children been 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?"

This story, called Brer Lion an Brer Goat, was first published in 1888 by story collector Charles Colcock Jones Jr.:

Brer Lion bin a hunt, an eh spy Brer 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. Brer Goat keep on chaw. Brer Lion try fuh fine out wuh Brer Goat duh eat. Eh yent see nuttne nigh um ceptin de nekked rock wuh eh duh leddown on. Brer Lion stonish. Eh wait topper Brer Goat. Brer Goat keep on chaw, an chaw, an chaw. Brer Lion cant mek de ting out, an eh come close, an eh say: "Hay! Brer Goat, wuh you duh eat?" Brer Goat skade wen Brer 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 Brer Goat. Bole man git outer diffikelty way coward man lose eh life.

In modern English this is rendered as follows:

Brer Lion was hunting, and he spied Brer 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. Brer Goat kept on chewing. Brer Lion tried to find out what Brer Goat was eating. He didn't see anything near him except the naked rock which he was lying down on. Brer Lion was astonished. He waited for Brer Goat. Brer Goat kept on chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Brer Lion couldn't make the thing out, and he came close, and he said: "Hey! Brer Goat, what are you eating?" Brer Goat was scared when Brer Lion rose up before him, but he kept a bold heart, and he made (his) answer: "I am chewing this rock, and if you don't leave me (alone), when I am done with it I will eat you". This big word saved Brer Goat. A bold man gets out of difficulty where a cowardly man loses his life.


The phrase Kumbaya ("Come By Here"), taken from the song of the same name, is likely of Gullah origin.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Sea Island Creole English at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Afro-Seminole Creole at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ a b c Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Sea Island Creole English". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Weldon, Tracey L.; Moody, Simanique (July 2015). "The Place of Gullah in the African American Linguistic Continuum". The Oxford Handbook of African American Language.
  5. ^ Mill and Montgomery, "Introduction to Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Turner", xix–xxiv, Gonzales, The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast, p. 10.
  6. ^ Stevens, Jeff (May 3, 2005). "Gullah" (PDF). Retrieved December 22, 2018.
  7. ^ Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C.
  8. ^ "In His Own Words: Justice Clarence Thomas". The New York Times. December 14, 2000. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  9. ^ Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine, Doubleday 2007, at 106
  10. ^ Montagne, Renee (March 16, 2006). "'New Testament' Translated into Gullah". NPR. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  11. ^ url=
  12. ^ Winick, Stephen (Summer–Fall 2010). "The World's First 'Kumbaya' Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song" (PDF). Folklife Center News, Library of Congress. Retrieved March 1, 2014.

Further readingEdit

  • Carawan, Guy and Candie (1989), Ain't You Got a Right to the Tree of Life: The People of Johns Island, South Carolina, their Faces, their Words, and their Songs, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Conroy, Pat (1972), The Water Is Wide.
  • Geraty, Virginia Mixon (1997), Gulluh fuh Oonuh: A Guide to the Gullah Language, Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Company.
  • Goodwine, Marquetta L., and Clarity Press (Atlanta Ga.). Gullah Project. 1998. The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah roots of African American culture. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press.
  • Jones-Jackson, Patricia (1987), When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Joyner, Charles (1984), Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Mille, Katherine and Michael Montgomery (2002), Introduction to Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Dow Turner, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Montgomery, Michael (ed.) (1994), The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Mufwene, Salikoko (1991). "Some reasons why Gullah is not dying yet". English World-Wide 12: 215–243.
  • Mufwene, Salikoko (1997). "The ecology of Gullah's survival". American Speech 72: 69–83. doi:10.2307/455608.
  • Opala, Joseph A. 2000. The Gullah: rice, slavery and the Sierra Leone-American connection. 4th edition, Freetown, Sierra Leone: USIS.
  • Turner, Lorenzo Dow (2002), Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Wood, Peter (1974), Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, New York: Knopf.


  • Christensen, Abigail 1892 (1969), Afro-American Folk Lore Told Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, New York: Negro Universities Press.
  • Gonzales, Ambrose Elliott (1969), With Aesop Along the Black Border, New York: Negro Universities Press.
  • Gonzales, Ambrose Elliott (1998), The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast, Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company.
  • Jones, Charles Colcock (2000), Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast, Athens: University of Georgia Press.
  • Parsons, Elsie Clews (1923), Folk-Lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina, New York: American Folk-Lore Society.
  • Sea Island Translation Team (2005), De Nyew Testament (The New Testament in Gullah) Open access PDF, New York: American Bible Society.
  • Stoddard, Albert Henry (1995), Gullah Animal Tales from Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, Hilton Head Island, SC: Push Button Publishing Company.
  • Brown, Alphonso (2008), A Gullah Guide to Charleston, The History Press.
  • Chandler Harris, Joel (1879), The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus Atlanta Constitution.
  • John G. Williams: De Ole Plantation. Charleston, S. C., 1895 (Google-US)



External linksEdit