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.