By Luana M. Graves Sellars

From the sound of it, because it is not familiar, it isn’t like perfect English. To the ear, the Gullah language sounds ignorant and like words that are shortened or maybe backwards. However, the Gullah language is actually a pure example of the intelligence and clever ability of the slaves to create a language all of their own, that they could speak amongst themselves and not be detected nor understood by slave owners. The language is almost like a code, spoken in a way that enables a conversation to be had without detection, to leave the non Gullah listener clueless as to what outsiders could be hearing. Consider this: a slave has something to hide or a runaway slave is being hidden, other slaves might know, but the slave handler is coming and they need to pass the message on. The conversation about what to do and who to tell could be had in a normal tone of voice and right in front of the very people that are searching! Imagine the coordination that it took to be able to communicate between slaves from several different African countries, each with languages all of their own. At first thought, the fact that they systematically established a way of using a combination of African words and the slave master’s English, and alternating it in a way to create a new version of a word. All of this was done, while making it indiscernible, is actually genius!

According to Louise Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum,

“The Gullah language was a way to talk in front of white people so that they couldn’t be understood. It demonstrates “a survival of the culture, regardless of the slave masters trying to destroy it.”

Melvin Campbell of the Gullah Heritage Tours agrees saying, “Gullah culture is a demonstration of the strength of the African people being able to withstand over 400 years of change and outside influences and our will to maintain our roots.” When the Gullah language is spoken, to the unknowing ear, it is often considered to sound as broken or a lazy way of speaking; however, its sound is similar to a variation of English that is a lot like the many Caribbean or Jamaican dialects. Today, people consider a Jamaican accent a cool and even fashionable way of talking, yet it was not the same for Gullah children in the past. It wasn’t fashionable nor cool. It was s source of shame. The Gullah language includes in whole or part, over 3,000 African words.

Gullah word examples
Pinpoint Heritage Museum
Photo Credit: LMGS

For a child growing up speaking Gullah, just like Spanish or Chinese, regardless of the language, it’s what you spoke. However, unfortunately, the language is not being spread, it is slowly dying out, because it has been made into something that people are ashamed of, children don’t want to learn language that to the unknown ear, it seems like the sound of ignorance.  It is not commonly spoken because there was a time when children were taught in school that talking like that should be considered shameful and as an embarrassment. Teachers would punish children for speaking in a way that at home was part of life and family. “Gullah was considered to be broken English and backwards talking. Teachers disciplined us for talking this way. Gullah’s talk fast. People laughed at us for how we sounded. You have to accept who you are. You have to love who God made you,” said Cohen. 

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