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What It Was, Was Gullah

What It Was, Was Gullah

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Published by Thomas A. Williams
A child is fascinated by words he does not quite understand and is led to discover the Gullah people, language, and culture.
A child is fascinated by words he does not quite understand and is led to discover the Gullah people, language, and culture.

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Published by: Thomas A. Williams on Jul 30, 2009
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11/01/2010

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What it Was, Was Gullah!Thomas A. WilliamsI grew up in a two-story house at the corner of 33rd and Bull Streets in Savannah.This was in he late 1930s and early 1940s. My neighborhood was its own littleuniverse, an unlikely cosmopolitan oasis in a deep Southern world. Across thestreet was the Irish-Catholic stronghold of Sacred Heart Church. A block furthersouth was Gottlieb’s Delicatessen and a block to the north Gottlieb’s Bakery.Around the corner was Tony Rousakis’ Italian Confectionery, where I did a thrivingbusiness selling bundles fat pine “kindlin' wood” and where I met my first pinballmachine. A couple more blocks took you to the imposing columns and roman porticoof the Bull Street Baptist Church and, directly opposite, the ornately-domed GreekOrthodox church. I accepted this amazing diversity without a thought—it was justthe way things were. All this I took for granted.,What caused real wonder to me were the regular Saturday incursions into myneighborhood of the stately, proud Black women who walked our streets, lange hand-woven baskets perched securely on their heads (how did they do this, I wondered?).They announced themselves in the very early morning with the sing-song cry of“Butty bean Oh, yeh’ fiel’ pea! . . . Butty bean, Oh, yeh’ fiel’ Pea!” Truth beknown, I never quite understood the words between “Butty bean” and fiel’ pea.”There was usually more than one of these “vegetable ladies,” as I thought of them,and I loved to hear them talk to one another. The words, sounds and rhythms oftheir speech were of an essence with the place where I lived, yet it wasdifferent, somehow more elemental that the schoolbook English I had been taught touse.What it was, was GullahWhat I was listening to was Gullah, the language spoken by the African-Americaninhabitants of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Therelationship between the people of Daufuskie Island—just down and across theSavannah River and off the South Carolina coast—and Savannah was particularlyclose. There was a regular traffic of boats, large and small, between Bloody Pointon the south end of Daufuskie and River Street in Savannah. Some islanders tookpowerboats; some had small sail boats sailed; others even rowed. They all came toSavannah to sell the goods they produced and to buy the supplies they needed. Andon Saturday mornings they reached my house at 33rd and Bull, bringing their Gullahlanguage with them.How languages developWhere did this language come from, and why was it different from the English Ispoke? Languages develop in several ways. Sometimes isolation alone can allowsounds to drift and slowly change until a brand new language is formed. This, forinstance, is what happened to Latin. Latin never “died,” contrary to what we mayhave learned in school. It just became something else. The Alps separated Italyfrom France, and the Pyrenees separated France from Spain. In the resultingisolation, the old Latin became French, Spanish and Italian.Languages can also result from a mingling of large numbers of individuals fromdifferent linguistic groups who, by necessity, must find a way to communicate.Gullah originated in this way, as a mix of original African languages as a baseand an overlay of English and other languages from colonizing European countrieslike France and Portugal. Gullah had both these elements going for it. CapturedAfricans from many West African tribes were gathered at places like the infamousBunce Island, off the coast of Sierra Leon. There they were imprisoned togetheruntil they could be sold into slavery and transported to the American colonies.Their desperate need to communicate with each other as well as with their captorsliterally forced the development of a new language.When those lucky enough to survive the horrendous crossing of the Atlantic got tot his country, they found themselves relatively isolated. The rice plantations on
 
the sea islands had no bridges to the mainland, and even the plantation ownersthemselves were often not in residence, preferring the comforts of Charleston andSavannah to the rigors and social isolation of island life. In this environment,the Africans talked mainly to one another, without outside influence, and theirlanguage thrived and became the vessel of the cultural traditions of a people.Whence “Gullah’It is not known when the island people began to be called “Gullah” nor where thename itself came from. The most likely origin comes from the shortened form of theplace name “Angola,” a country from which many Africans were indeed shipped. Thereis another possible source in the tribal name “Gola” found in Sierra Leone andLiberia. Some suggest that the name “Ogeechee” and “Gullah” may have had a commonorigin in an Indian name. It is also said—in fact, often said—that Gullah andGeechee refer to the same language, especially as used by the Gullah speakersthemselves.As a boy shaped by the languages of the Southern tidewater in the 1930s and40s, I do not believe this to be wholly accurate. My friends and I all knew whatGeechee was: a peculiar way of pronouncing vowel sounds indigenous to the coast,but strictly an English phenomenon. Gullah to us was something quite different. Itwas the language of the street vendors and the sellers of produce and seafood atthe old City Market and on the streets. Still, no less an authority than supremecourt justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up in the Georgia tidewater, calls thislanguage “Geechee”: “When I was 16,” Thomas remembers, “I was sitting as the onlyblack kid in my class, and I had grown up speaking a kind of a dialect. It'scalled Geechee. Some people call it Gullah now, and people praise it now. But theyused to make fun of us back then. It's not standard English. When I transferred toan all-white school, I was self-conscious, like we all are. It's like if we getpimples at sixteen, or we grow six inches and we’re taller than everybody else, orour feet grow or something; we get self-conscious. And the problem was that Iwould correct myself mid-sentence. I was trying to speak standard English. I wasthinking in standard English but speaking another language.”It is clear that the language Clarence Thomas learned in his mother’s arms hadstrong and definite roots and that those roots reached back to West Africa.Though influenced by English traders in Africa and later in this country by whiteplantation owners and overseers, Gullah retained many African words, phrases, andsentence structures. Any lingering doubts about the African origin of Gullah wereovercome in 1940 when the linguist Alonzo Turner published the results of twodecades of painstaking research in his book, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect.Turner catalogued over three thousand words and names of African origin inrecordings he had made of Gullah speakers. Examples included food names like okra,yam, benne, cush, goober, cala (a rice-based sweet) buckra, (white man), hoodoo,(sorcery), and cooter, (turtle).A fishing tripI remember once going fishing in the Ogeechee River my Uncle Edward. We had caughta mess of Red Breast perfect for pan-frying and, for temporary storage, had strungthem on a line tied to a tree branch so that they would dangle in the cool,running water. When we got ready to leave and pulled our string line up, we foundthat the lower half of each fish had been eaten away.“What happened,” I asked my uncle“Cooter got ‘em,” he replied. He was a man of few words, my uncle.Neither he nor I realized that he was using a Gullah word.Other Gullah words have entered general use in Southern speech. I remember on daystanding in the barnyard of my grandfather’s farm. I was puzzled by the many nameswe gave to the chickens scratching there for food. There were hens, laying hens,roosters, pullets, fryers and, in the spring, my favorites, the tiny, yellow“biddies” that we were raising to keep our supply of drum sticks constant in spiteof the chicken-yard slaughter occasioned by our traditional Sunday dinners.I pointed at the little, yellow chicks. “Why do we call them biddies?” I asked.
 
“Because they are just little, biddy things,” my grandfather replied.His explanation did not satisfy me. I wanted to know where the word came from.Well, now I know. The word bidi means small bird or chicken in the Kongo (orKigongo) language in south central Africa and was brought to this country byAfricans who were sold as slaves and who incorporated the word into their Gullahdialect. A very useful word, it was quickly passed on to their white captors. Notonly my uncle, but my grandpa, too, was speaking Gullah.The infamous “juke joint”If you grew up in the South you know what a juke joint is. It is a dive on theedge of town with motorcycles, hot rods and pickup trucks outside, where one goesof a Saturday night for beer, music, companionship and a fist fight or two.I knew what a juke joint was, having frequented more than one of them in myyounger days. But where did the word “juke” come from? It’s easy to say that itreferred to the jukeboxes found in such spots. But that begs the question. Why arethe music machines called “jukeboxes?”Turns out that the juke joint was not named after the machine, but the machineafter the joint. Lorenzo Turner points out that the word “juke” has its roots inthe Gullah word “juk,” which means "infamous" or "disorderly. The Gullah worditself, Turner says, goes back to the West African Wolof tribe word “jug,” meaningto lead a disorderly life and “jugu," meaning a “wicked, violent, or naughtyperson.”Another mystery solved.The Rice Coast and the Sea IslandsIf there was a Gullah homeland, it was probably in present-day Sierra Leone. Itwas only natural for plantation owners interested in growing rice, the chief cropof the islands until the time of emancipation, to seek workers who were familiarwith its cultivation. Africans who were natives of Sierra Leone and adjoiningregions in West Africa, an area known as the “rice coast,” supplied this needprecisely, and many were brought to the Lowcountry islands, where rice constitutedthe main cash crop.The African rice coast stretches from Senegal, through Sierra Leone to Liberia,but the Gullah peoples seem to have come predominantly from tribes in SierraLeone. It is known that speakers of the Kris language in Sierra Leone, whichalready incorporated many borrowings from English, and Gullah speakers of oldergenerations would have been intelligible to one another, much as modern Portuguesespeakers can understand Spanish. Many words illustrate this close relationship. InGullah the plural pronoun “una” has a meaning close to the ubiquitous Southern“you all” The word comes from West Africa and forms of it are common in theCaribbean. Area. Another instance of this survival of African expressions is theword “duh,” which indicates continuing action. In Gullah there is usually one formof a verb, and that form is made do for all used. To make, for instance, gives Imek, you mek, he mek, etc. To indicate that something is actually happening in thepresent moment, as in “he is making,” the Gullah speaker inserts the word duhbefore the verb. Thus “He is making” becomes “he duhmek.” And “we are going,”becomes “we duhgo.”In their isolated environment on the islands, the languages the Africans broughtto America continued to change, borrowing more and more from the English-speakingbosses, and becoming more and more diluted. Nevertheless, we know that in the1950s Justice Thomas was still having problems making himself understood.A Southernism that has always interested me is our way of adding “and them”after a name to indicate a person and those you normally think of as being in thesame group. Thus, when we say “Marcie and them” we are referring to Marcie andher habitual groups of friends and associates. (Sometimes we prefer the expression“and that crowd,” but this has slightly pejorative overtones.)A similar usage exists in Gullah, where “dem” is attached directly to a nameto mean that person and those usually associated with him. In Gullah Marcie andthem becomes Marciedem. Whether the expression went from Gullah to English or

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