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How to Speak the Gullah Language

“Gullah is not just English with some different pronunciations and words borrowed from African languages,” Dr. David Frank , a senior linguistics consultant says. “What makes Gullah a distinctive language is the fact that it is structurally distinctive, with its own grammatical rules and linguistic categories.”

Gullah is the secondary native tongue of slave descendants to Hilton Head Island and other sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Though I can’t teach you (or myself) to speak the lilting patterned words and phrases, here’s a fun smidgen of Gullah vocabulary.

It’s a language developed among the enslaved Africans as a way to communicate with other Africans and the Europeans. In the 1930’s African-American scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner studied the Sea Island Gullah. English and over 4,000 words from many different African Languages make up Gullah, he determined.

Gullah is a spoken language and written the way it sounds. Gullah speakers now use various Black American English dialects when speaking with non-Islanders, though Gullah remains the language of home, family and community.

There is one term listed below that originated in the Lowcountry, made famous in an old negro spiritual song prior to 1930s. See if you can find it!

Gullah vocabulary examples:

gwin – going

ooman – woman

de – the

oonuh – you

nyam – eat, eats, eating

bilin – boiling

bumbye – bye and bye

binnuh – been, was, was a

bittle – food

cootah – turtle

buckruh – white man

kumbayah – come by here

crik – creek, creeks

da’dey – that there

dey dey – there, there; a repetition for greater emphasis

g’em – give, gives, gave, giving him, giving her, it, them

gyaa’d’n – garden, gardens

jinnywerry – january

jisso- just so

mek ansuh – make, makes, making, made reply

redduh or rudduh- rather

warruh – what, what is that

yez – ears

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