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The language of the Sea Islands


"Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree." - Gullah proverb [You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree.]

The origin of the Gullah language is as unique as the cadence and rhythm of its sound. Slaves from the Sea Islands of South Carolina and northern Georgia were brought to America largely from different communities on the Rice Coast of West Africa. Therefore many spoke similar but distinctive languages, and in order to communicate with each other and with their owners, they combined the similarities with the English they learned to form the unique Gullah language. This process of combining different languages is called "creolization."

For years, linguists referred to the Gullah, or Geechee, language 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. According to Turner, the most noted similarities between Gullah and the languages spoken in West Africa include the use of nouns, pronouns, verbs, and tense. Almost all Gullah nouns are singular, and no distinction is made between singular or plural verbs either. These charactertistics are the same in many African languages. Also, Gullah and various African languages rarely account for when something actually happened - the present verb tense is also often used to refer to the past.

Here are a few Gullah words with African origins. The language or country of origin is listed in parentheses whenever possible:

[Taken from "The Water Brought Us," by Muriel Miller Branch]

A'min - Amen (Wolof)
be - to cultivate, to clean, to remove debris (Temme)
bid', bidi - small bird, small chicken (Kongo)
buckra - white man (Ibidio)
da (dada) - mother, nurse, or elder woman (Ewe)
dash away - to get rid of a bad habit
dayclean - dawn
de - to be (Igbo)
differ - a quarrel
e - pronoun for he, she, it
eh - yes (Igbo)
fanner - a large shallow basket made of wild grass and palmetto, used to thresh rice from its hull.
hudu - to cause bad luck to someone (Via)
kuta - tortoise, turtle (Mende)
nyam, nam - to eat
nanse - spider (Temme)
nana - elderly woman, grandmother (Twi)
oona, hoona - you, singular or plural, from the word "ona," meaning one or a single person
plat-eye - a prowling ghost or evil spirit
shut mout' - secretive or withdrawn
tata - father (Kongo)
tote - to pick up (Kongo)
toti frog - frog (Via)
uni - you, your (Ibo)
yam - sweet potato (Mende)

Another striking similarity between Gullah and the languages of West Africa is the use of proverbs to teach and advise.
"Take no more on your heels than you can kick off with your toes."
"Every grin teeth don't mean laugh."
"Day is jes an arm long, you can reach clean across it."

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