Can You Speak Gullah?

Living off the Sea Islands, by the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida, is the Gullah Nation - a community of African descendants who were once enslaved. The area is relatively isolated, which has meant that the language and culture of the Gullah people has survived almost intact since slaves were brought to America from Africa hundreds of years ago. James Daniels, who grew up in South Carolina, reports.

See if you can understand these common expressions in Gullah.

“Tie yuh mout”   Hush, stop talking! (literally: tie your mouth)
“Mah hed leab me”   I forgot (literally: my head has left me)
“Krak teet” to speak (literally: crack teeth)
“Wah side e is”   Where is he? 

These and other expressions can still be heard in their lilting cadence along the Atlantic Coast from South Carolina to the north of Florida.  Unless you grew up on the Sea Islands or the Low Country near the coast, you would have never heard of Gullah and Geechee languages.  The novelist Pat Conroy brought this culture to world attention with his first best seller, The Water Is Wide.  Conroy, whose other novels include, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, tells of the experiences of a white teacher who goes to work on Daufuskie Island to teach in the only school. Although primarily fictional, the novel is based on Conroy’s actual experience of encountering a totally different way of life and a communication barrier only a short boat ride away from mainland America.

Gullah, and its linguistic relative Geechee, are said to be a combination of African languages and Elizabethan English .  The language was created to meet the needs of African slaves who had difficulty communicating with other African tribes and their white English-speaking owners.  So the language was actually born on the Slave Coast of West Africa where the slaves were held before the Middle Passage to America.  The majority of the slaves came from what is now Angola and included members from the Bantu, Mende, Kisi, and Malinke tribes.  Not only the rich vocabulary, but also the cadence and intonation of the language, play an important role in understanding it.

So, why has the language survived to this present day?  Slavery ended some 140 years ago; however, many African-Americans lived on these remote islands which were only accessible by boat until about thirty years ago.  Many of the whites left the Sea Islands in the wake of the demise of the plantation culture and years of financial hardships in the South.  Many communities were and are entirely African-American, the land being given to them or bought in common.

Unfortunately for Gullah culture, the developers are coming to their precious islands and coastal communities.  Media tycoon, CNN’s Ted Turner, bought several acres on one of the islands several years ago and became embroiled in a dispute over a parcel of land that islanders said belonged to them.  Because there are so many heirs to the property and oftentimes the islanders didn’t worry with legal documents, it’s difficult to determine property lines.  However, the press expressed disgust over Ted Turner’s greed at fighting these poverty-stricken people who have lived on this land for generations, and finally Turner acquiesced by giving up his claim.

Tradition and heritage

Geechee cadence can be heard spoken by not only African-Americans, but also whites who have lived in close proximity with African-Americans all their lives.  African-Americans account for eighty or more percent of the population of some low country.

Geechee can be very rapid-fire speech, which makes it difficult to understand. Sometimes. Native Charlestonians still retain the vowel sounds of Elizabethan English and their speech is quite distinctive (e.g. “Thank Gawhd fur Chahstun” - meaning - “Thank God for Charleston.” 

Gullah and Geechee are not just languages but a culture as well. In the market in Charleston, an aristocratic city of Old World charm with a semi-tropical climate, you can see the sweetgrass basket weavers at work. Baskets of all sizes and shapes for various purposes can be bought if you have a fat billfold. Prices can be in the hundreds of dollars, but these wares will last a lifetime and maybe your children’s, as well.

There are several websites devoted to Gullah Tales where you can read and even listen to a Gullah storyteller.  Every year, there is a festival on St. Helena’s island near Beaufort, South Carolina to celebrate Gullah/Geechee heritage.

Gullah is like something from another world living in the modern world.  Of course, many people of Gullah background have left their native low country and have found success in other places (Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, came from near Savannah, Georgia). But the traces of the language and culture will always be with them and linger in this ethereal region of saltwater marshes, and massive oak trees lining the old avenues of plantations.

For more about Gullah go to


lilting - cheerful, lively manner of speaking in which the voice varies in pitch pleasingly (śpiewny, melodyjny)

cadence - inflection on modulation in the voice when speaking (rytm, kadencja)

Middle Passage - First Passage was when ships set sail for Afgrica to collect slaves. Middle Passage was taking the slaves to America. Return Passage was sailing back to Britain again.
in the wake of - following in the path of sth (w ślad za czymś, w następstwie czegoś)
demise - end of existence or death of sth (koniec, upadek)
in common - collectively (wspólnie)
tycoon - a businessperson of great wealth and power,  magnate (potentat,  magnat)
(to) embroil in sth -  involve in argument (wplątać się w coś)
parcel of land - portion or defined area of land (parcela, działka)
heir - sb who inherits property (spadkobierca)
(to) determine - settle, resolve (ustalić, określić)
property line - describes exactly who inherits sth (linia dziedziczenia)
(to) acquiesce -  consent without protest (ulec, zgodzić się)
proximity - being near or next to sth (bezpośrednie sąsiedztwo, bliskość)
rapid-fire  - quick, in rapid succession (szybki, z szybkością karabinu maszynowego)
sweetgrass - used by native Americvans and others ethnic groups as incense, or as a material for weaving
weaver - a person who weaves (ten, który wyplata, tka)
billfold - amount of cash (portfel)
(to) linger -  pass a period of time in a leisurely way (pozostać, utrzymywać się)
ethereal - not of this world: spiritual (eteryczny)
marshes  - an area of soft wetland (bagna, moczary)