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Terms of a culture: How 'come yahs' can understand 'bin yahs'

By CAROLYN GRANT
Packet columnist

There is no real way to become acquainted with Lowcountry culture, except to live it, be a part of it and talk it.

I know it takes a little while for newcomers -- and even those who've made this home for years -- to be in the know about some aspects of Lowcountry culture, such as Gullah.

But if you're aware of some of the terms that are interchanged regularly among folks, you can speak intelligently of the culture. There is no need for anyone to be totally clueless as to what's going on. Language connects us and enlightens us, if we grasp it.

I'm sure there are some people who have no idea what Gullah is. One island visitor recently bombarded me with questions about what Gullah is and where the Gullah people live. "Take me to them. I want to see true Gullah people," he said.

"A fish what?" That's a response I've heard many times from new residents and visitors when they're invited to a fish fry. That's an outing where locally caught fish such as whiting, mullet and spot are fried outdoors in a large, iron pot. Attending such an affair is one of the best experiences of Lowcountry living.

Here are some terms that are prevalent in discussions of Gullah culture and even Lowcountry culture in general. With knowledge of some of these terms, you can perhaps understand and better engage in Lowcountry conversations.

  • Gullah: A language sometimes referred to as "Sea Island Creole," Gullah is a hybrid of English and West African expressions brought over by slaves. The language once dominated the speaking patterns of African-Americans on the Sea Islands.

    It's still spoken by some African-Americans. The term also is used to describe the lifestyle of some Lowcountry African-Americans, including distinctive arts and crafts, religious practices, foods, storytelling and music.

  • Heirs property: Described in a Town of Hilton Head Island report as "a sign of ancient culture," heirs property is land that has been passed down through successive generations. The failure of individuals to write wills or use other legal means to pass on real estate makes it difficult for families to develop their property or keep it from being lost in tax sales.

  • Intracoastal Waterway: This channel of water along the East Coast hugs the banks of Hilton Head Island. African-Americans survived off this expansive waterway through fishing and shrimping. With their homemade sailboats and other vessels, they traveled the waterway to the mainland and to Savannah to sell their catches and the crops they grew. The waterway still provides a bounty for commercial fishermen and exciting adventures for recreational boaters.

  • Lowcountry: Lowcountry refers to the flat region of the state that borders the Atlantic Ocean and includes Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.

  • Mitchelville: Mitchelville, located along the present day Beach City Road area, was the first freedman's village in the United States. The village was organized in 1862.

  • Native islander: Many African-Americans whose families have been here for four or five generations or longer refer to themselves as native islanders. There also are a few white families whose roots span several generations. A Gullah phrase that is sometimes used to distinguish between longtime islanders and new islanders is "we bin ya. They come ya." It translates to "we've been here for many generations."

  • Oyster roasts and fish fries: Both of these gatherings are common Lowcountry affairs that bring together family and friends to feast on bread and locally caught fish, fried and doused with mustard, hot sauce and spices.

    Likewise, local oysters are gathered from oyster beds and roasted over an outside fire. After roasting, oysters are plucked from their shells and eaten with a bit of hot sauce, warm butter or cocktail sauce.

  • Sea Islands: Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, including Hilton Head, where a distinctive African-American culture developed, namely the Gullah culture.

  • Sweet-grass baskets: Coiled baskets made from grasses such as bull rush or sweet grass, and strips of Palmetto leaves. Basket-making was once a thriving craft on Hilton Head and other Sea Islands. The craft is now practiced primarily in the Mt. Pleasant area, just north of Charleston. There, basket-makers still pass on the tradition to younger generations. Their baskets are sold by island merchants. Occasionally, a basket-maker or two will demonstrate the process and sell their wares at The Gullah Flea Market on the island's north end.

  • Ward 1: The Town of Hilton Head Island is divided into six wards. Ward 1 includes all of the predominately black neighborhoods: Chaplin, Gardner/Marshland, Spanish Wells, Squire Pope/Gumtree/Wildhorse, Jonesville and Bay Gall. It has been represented by African-Americans since the town incorporated in 1983.

  • William Hilton Parkway: The island's main road is named after the man who is said to have first claimed the island in 1663. William Hilton was an English sea captain. However, artifacts indicate Indians lived here as far back as the 1500s.

    Carolyn Grant, a free lance writer, is a native of Hilton Head Island.

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