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Gullah-English, Sea Island Creole English
Native toUnited States
RegionCoastal low country region of South Carolina and Georgia including the Sea Islands
Ethnicity200,000 (Wolfram, 2021)[1]
Native speakers
300 fluent (2021)[1]
5,000 semi-fluent[1]
English Creole
  • Atlantic
    • Eastern
Language codes
ISO 639-3gul – inclusive code Sea Island Creole English
Individual code:
afs – Afro-Seminole Creole
Glottologgull1241  Sea Island Creole English
A woman speaking Gullah and English

Gullah (also called Gullah-English,[2] Sea Island Creole English,[3] and Geechee[4]) is a creole language spoken by the Gullah people (also called "Geechees" within the community), an African-American population living in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia (including urban Charleston and Savannah) as well as extreme northeastern Florida and the extreme southeast of North Carolina.[5][6]


Gullah is based on different varieties of English and languages of Central Africa and West Africa. Scholars have proposed a number of theories about the origins of Gullah and its development:

  1. Gullah developed independently on the Sea Islands off the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by enslaved Africans. They developed a language that combined grammatical, phonological, and lexical features of the nonstandard English varieties spoken by that region's white slaveholders and farmers, along with those from numerous Western and Central African languages. According to this view, Gullah developed separately or distinctly from African American Vernacular English and varieties of English spoken in the South.[7][8]
  2. Some enslaved Africans spoke a Guinea Coast Creole English, also called West African Pidgin English, before they were forcibly relocated to the Americas. Guinea Coast Creole English was one of many languages spoken along the West African coast in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries as a language of trade between Europeans and Africans and among multilingual Africans. It seems to have been prevalent in British coastal slave trading centers such as James Island, Bunce Island, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle and Anomabu. This theory of Gullah's origins and development follows the monogenetic theory of creole development and the domestic origin hypothesis of English-based creoles.[7][8]


The Gullah people have several words of Niger-Congo and Bantu origin in their language that have survived to the present day, despite over four hundred years of slavery when African Americans were forced to speak English.[9]

The vocabulary of Gullah comes primarily from English, but there are numerous Africanisms that exist in their language for which scholars have yet to produce detailed etymologies. Some of the African loanwords include: cootuh ("turtle"), oonuh ("you [plural]"), nyam ("eat"), buckruh ("white man"), pojo ("heron"), swonguh ("proud") and benne ("sesame").[10]

The Gullahs’ English-based creole language is strikingly similar to Sierra Leone Krio of West Africa and contains such identical expressions as bigyai ("greedy"), pantap ("on top of"), ohltu ("both"), tif ("steal"), yeys ("ear"), and swit ("delicious").[11] Linguists observe that 25% of the Gullah language's vocabulary originated from Sierra Leone. Songs and fragments of stories were traced to the Mende and Vai people, and simple counting in the Guinea/Sierra Leone dialect of the Fula people was also observed.[12][11]

Turner's research

In the 1930s and 1940s, the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner did a seminal study of the language based on field research in rural communities in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.[13] Turner found that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages in its phonology, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and semantics. Turner identified over 300 loanwords from various languages of Africa in Gullah and almost 4,000 African personal names used by Gullah people. He also found Gullahs living in remote seaside settlements who could recite songs and story fragments and do simple counting in the Mende, Vai, and Fulani languages of West Africa.[14]

In 1949, Turner published his findings in a classic work called Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (ISBN 9781570034527). The fourth edition of the book was reprinted with a new introduction in 2002.[15]

Before Turner's work, mainstream scholars viewed Gullah speech as substandard English, a hodgepodge of mispronounced words and corrupted grammar, which uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish and French Huguenot slave owners.[16]

Turner's study was so well researched and detailed in its evidence of African influences in Gullah that some academics soon changed their minds. But his book primarily "elicited praise but not emulation."[17] Over time, other scholars began to take interest in the language and culture and start developing further research on Gullah language and culture.[18]


Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Post-alveolar Palatal Velar Labial-velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop/Affricate Voiceless p t c k kp ʔ
Voiced b d ɟ g gb
Ejective p’ t’ k’
Fricative Voiceless ɸ f θ s ʃ ɕ h
Voiced β v ð z ʒ
Ejective ʃ’
Trill r
Approximant Central ɹ j w
Lateral l

Gullah sounds that do not fit into the consonant table include:

Bilabial: /mb/, /mp/, /mw/

Alveolar: /nt/, /nd/, /ns/

Velar: /ŋd/, /ŋg/, /ŋk/

Front Central Back
lax tense lax tense
High ɪ i ɚ ʊ u
High-mid e ə o
Low-mid ɛ ʌ ɔ
Low æ

a, ã

ɒ ɑ



The following sentences illustrate the basic verb tense and aspect system in Gullah:

Uh he'p dem — "I help them/I helped them" (present/past tense)
Uh bin he'p dem — "I helped them" (past tense) [I've been helping them]
Uh gwine he'p dem — "I will help them" (future tense) [I'm going to help them]
Uh done he'p dem — "I have helped them" (perfect aspect) [I've done helped them]
Uh duh he'p dem — "I am helping them" (present continuous) [I do help them]
Uh binnuh he'p dem — "I was helping them" (past continuous) [I've been helping them]


These sentences illustrate 19th-century Gullah speech:

Da' big dog, 'e bite'um — "That big dog, it bit him" (topicalization)
Duh him da' cry out so — "It is he (who) cried out that way" (fronting)
Uh tell'um say da' dog fuh bite'um — "I told him, said that dog would bite him" (dependent clauses with "say")
De dog run, gone, bite'um — "The dog ran, went, bit him" (serial verb construction)
Da' duh big big dog — "That is a big, big dog" (reduplication)


The Gullah people have a rich storytelling tradition that is strongly influenced by African oral traditions but also by their historical experience in America. Their stories include animal trickster tales about the antics of "Brer Rabbit", "Brer Fox" and "Brer Bear", "Brer Wolf", etc.; human trickster tales about clever and self-assertive slaves; and morality tales designed to impart moral teaching to children.[citation needed]

Several white American writers collected Gullah stories in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The best collections were made by Charles Colcock Jones Jr. from Georgia and Albert Henry Stoddard from South Carolina. Jones, a Confederate officer during the Civil War, and Stoddard were both whites of the planter class who grew up speaking Gullah with the slaves (and later freedmen) on their families' plantations. Another collection was made by Abigail Christensen, a Northern woman whose parents came to the Low Country after the Civil War to assist the newly-freed slaves. Ambrose E. Gonzales, another writer of South Carolina planter-class background, also wrote original stories in 19th-century Gullah, based on Gullah literary forms; his works are well remembered in South Carolina today.[citation needed]

The linguistic accuracy of those writings has been questioned because of the authors' social backgrounds. Nonetheless, those works provide the best available information on Gullah, as it was spoken in its more conservative form in the 19th century.[citation needed]


Gullah is spoken by about 5,000 people in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.[20] As of 2021, an estimated 300 people are native speakers.[20] Although some scholars argue that Gullah has changed little since the 19th century and that most speakers have always been bilingual, it is likely that at least some decreolization has taken place. In other words, some African-influenced grammatical structures in Gullah a century ago are less common in the language today. Nonetheless, Gullah is still understood as a creole language and is certainly distinct from Standard American English.

For generations, outsiders stigmatized Gullah-speakers by regarding their language as a mark of ignorance and low social status. As a result, Gullah people developed the habit of speaking their language only within the confines of their own homes and local communities. That causes difficulty in enumerating speakers and assessing decreolization. It was not used in public situations outside the safety of their home areas, and many speakers experienced discrimination even within the Gullah community. Some speculate that the prejudice of outsiders may have helped to maintain the language.[citation needed] Others suggest that a kind of valorization or "covert prestige"[21] remained for many community members and that the complex pride has insulated the language from obliteration.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah-speaker in coastal Pin Point, Georgia. When asked why he has little to say during hearings of the court, he told a high school student that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech, as a young man, caused him to develop the habit of listening, rather than speaking, in public.[22] Thomas's English-speaking grandfather raised him after the age of six in Savannah.[23]

In recent years educated Gullah people have begun promoting use of Gullah openly as a symbol of cultural pride. In 2005, Gullah community leaders announced the completion of a translation of the New Testament into modern Gullah, a project that took more than 20 years to complete.[24]

In 2017, Harvard University began offering Gullah/Geechee as a language class in its African Language Program. It is taught by Sunn m'Cheaux, a native speaker from South Carolina.[25]


These sentences are examples of how Gullah was spoken in the 19th century:[citation needed]

Uh gwine gone dey tomorruh. "I will go there tomorrow."
We blan ketch 'nuf cootuh dey. "We always catch a lot of turtles there."
Dem yent yeddy wuh oonuh say. "They did not hear what you said."
Dem chillun binnuh nyam all we rice. "Those children were eating all our rice."
'E tell'um say 'e haffuh do'um. "He told him that he had to do it."
Duh him tell we say dem duh faa'muh. "He's the one who told us that they are farmers."
De buckruh dey duh 'ood duh hunt tuckrey. "The white man is in the woods hunting turkeys."
Alltwo dem 'ooman done fuh smaa't. "Both those women are really smart."
Enty duh dem shum dey? "Aren't they the ones who saw him there?"

This story, called Brer Lion an Brer Goat, was first published in 1888 by story collector Charles Colcock Jones Jr.:

Brer Lion bin a hunt, an eh spy Brer Goat duh leddown topper er big rock duh wuk eh mout an der chaw. Eh creep up fuh ketch um. Wen eh git close ter um eh notus um good. Brer Goat keep on chaw. Brer Lion try fuh fine out wuh Brer Goat duh eat. Eh yent see nuttne nigh um ceptin de nekked rock wuh eh duh leddown on. Brer Lion stonish. Eh wait topper Brer Goat. Brer Goat keep on chaw, an chaw, an chaw. Brer Lion cant mek de ting out, an eh come close, an eh say: "Hay! Brer Goat, wuh you duh eat?" Brer Goat skade wen Brer Lion rise up befo um, but eh keep er bole harte, an eh mek ansur: "Me duh chaw dis rock, an ef you dont leff, wen me done long um me guine eat you". Dis big wud sabe Brer Goat. Bole man git outer diffikelty way coward man lose eh life.

This is a literal translation into English following Gullah grammar, including verb tense and aspect, exactly as in the original:

Brer Lion was hunting, and he spied Brer Goat lying down on top of a big rock working his mouth and chewing. He crept up to catch him. When he got close to him, he watched him good. Brer Goat kept on chewing. Brer Lion tried to find out what Brer Goat was eating. He didn't see anything near him except the naked rock which he was lying down on. Brer Lion was astonished. He waited for Brer Goat. Brer Goat kept on chewing, and chewing, and chewing. Brer Lion couldn't make the thing out, and he came close, and he said: "Hey! Brer Goat, what are you eating?" Brer Goat was scared when Brer Lion rose up before him, but he kept a bold heart, and he made (his) answer: "I am chewing this rock, and if you don't leave me (alone), when I am done with it I will eat you". This big word saved Brer Goat. A bold man gets out of difficulty where a cowardly man loses his life.

The Bible in Gullah

This passage is from the New Testament in Gullah:

Now Jedus been bon een Betlem town, een Judea, jurin de same time wen Herod been king. Atta Jedus been bon, some wise man dem dat study bout de staa dem come ta Jerusalem fom weh dey been een de east. 2An dey aks say, "Weh de chile da, wa bon fa be de Jew people king? We beena see de staa wa tell bout um een de east, an we come fa woshup um op." Wen King Herod yeh dat, e been opsot fa true. An ebrybody een Jerusalem been opsot too. He call togeda all de leada dem ob de Jew priest dem an de Jew Law teacha dem. E aks um say. "Weh de Messiah gwine be bon at?" Dey tell King Herod say, "E gwine be bon een Betlem town een Judea. Cause de prophet write say [...][26]

Therefore when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of king Herod, lo! astronomers,, came from the east to Jerusalem, and said, Where is he, that is born [the] king of Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and we have come to worship him. But king Herod heard, and was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And he gathered together all the princes of priests, and scribes of the people, and inquired of them, where Christ should be born. And they said to him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by a prophet [...]


The phrase Kumbaya ("Come by Here"), taken from the song of the same name, is likely of Gullah origin.[27]

Related languages

Gullah resembles other English-based creole languages spoken in West Africa and the Caribbean Basin, including Krio of Sierra Leone, Bahamian Creole, Jamaican Patois, Bajan Creole, Trinidadian Creole, Tobagonian Creole, Sranan Tongo, Guyanese Creole, and Belizean Creole. Those languages are speculated[28] to use English as a lexifier (most of their vocabularies are derived from English) and that their syntax (sentence structure) is strongly influenced by African languages, but research by Salikoko Mufwene and others suggests that nonstandard Englishes may have also influenced the syntactical features of Gullah (and other creoles).

Gullah is most closely related to Afro-Seminole Creole, which is spoken in scattered Black Seminole communities in Oklahoma, Texas, and Northern Mexico. The Black Seminoles' ancestors were Gullahs who escaped from slavery in coastal South Carolina and Georgia in the 18th and 19th centuries and fled into the Florida wilderness. They emigrated from Florida after the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). Their modern descendants in the West speak a conservative form of Gullah that resembles the language of 19th-century plantation slaves.[citation needed]

There is debate among linguists on the relationship between Gullah and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). There are some that postulate a Gullah-like "plantation creole" that was the origin of AAVE. Others cite different British dialects of English as having had more influence on the structure of AAVE.[29]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Wolfram, 2021. "Gullah language speakers and population". Archived from the original on August 18, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ "Gullah-English, linguistics of African-American languages 101" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on March 22, 2022. Retrieved July 30, 2021.
  3. ^ "Glottolog 4.4 - Sea Island Creole English". Archived from the original on November 27, 2020. Retrieved July 30, 2021.
  4. ^ "Geechee", The Free Dictionary, archived from the original on July 30, 2021, retrieved July 30, 2021
  5. ^ [1][dead link]
  6. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forke, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2020). "Sea Island Creole English". Glottolog 4.3. Archived from the original on November 27, 2020. Retrieved December 1, 2020.
  7. ^ a b Pollitzer, William (2005). The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. University of Georgie Press. pp. 124–129. ISBN 9780820327839. Archived from the original on March 25, 2022. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  8. ^ a b Cross, Wilbur (2008). Gullah Culture in America. Praeger. pp. 4–6, 18, 128. ISBN 9780275994501. Archived from the original on March 25, 2022. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  9. ^ Pollitzer, William S. (2005). The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 9780820327839. Archived from the original on March 25, 2022. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  10. ^ "Africanisms in the Gullah dialect - Digital Library of Georgia". Archived from the original on July 27, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  11. ^ a b Opala, Joseph (March 10, 2015). "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection". Yale Macmillan Center Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Yale University. Archived from the original on October 19, 2021. Retrieved September 12, 2021.
  12. ^ National Park Service. Low Country Gullah Culture Special Resource Study and Final Environmental Impact Statement (PDF). p. 73. Archived (PDF) from the original on July 9, 2021. Retrieved September 14, 2021.
  13. ^ "The University of Chicago Magazine: Features". Archived from the original on November 8, 2021. Retrieved March 25, 2022.
  14. ^ "Photo: Language and Storytelling Southern Style". Smithsonian Journeys. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved November 30, 2023.
  15. ^ "Africanisms in the Gullah dialect / / Lorenzo D. Turner ; with a new introduction by Katherine Wyly Mille and Michael B. Montgomery". Retrieved December 25, 2023.
  16. ^ Mill and Montgomery, "Introduction to Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Turner", xix–xxiv, Gonzales, The Black Border: Gullah Stories of the Carolina Coast, p. 10.
  17. ^ Gullah. Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications. University of Hawai'i Press. 1975. pp. 468–480. ISSN 0078-3188. JSTOR 20006641.
  18. ^ Campbell, Emory S. (2011). "Gullah Geechee Culture: Respected, Understood and Striving: Sixty Years after Lorenzo Dow Turner's Masterpiece, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect". The Black Scholar. 41 (1): 77–84. doi:10.5816/blackscholar.41.1.0077. ISSN 0006-4246. JSTOR 10.5816/blackscholar.41.1.0077. S2CID 147596677.
  19. ^ a b Stevens, Jeff (May 3, 2005). "Gullah" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on September 17, 2006. Retrieved December 22, 2018.
  20. ^ a b Wolfram (2021). "Gullah language". Endangered Language Project.
  21. ^ Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C.
  22. ^ "In His Own Words: Justice Clarence Thomas". The New York Times. December 14, 2000. Archived from the original on April 3, 2012. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  23. ^ Jeffrey Toobin, The Nine, Doubleday 2007, at 106
  24. ^ Montagne, Renee (March 16, 2006). "'New Testament' Translated into Gullah". NPR. Archived from the original on December 15, 2018. Retrieved November 11, 2015.
  25. ^ "Sunn m'Cheaux". The African Language Program at Harvard. Harvard University. Archived from the original on October 31, 2018. Retrieved October 9, 2018.
  26. ^ "Matthew 2:1-3". The Gullah New Teastament. Wycliffe Bible Translators. 2005. Archived from the original on September 10, 2019.
  27. ^ Winick, Stephen (Summer–Fall 2010). "The World's First 'Kumbaya' Moment: New Evidence about an Old Song" (PDF). Folklife Center News, Library of Congress. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 5, 2014. Retrieved March 1, 2014.
  28. ^ "Gullah language". Archived from the original on July 27, 2021. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  29. ^ Weldon, Tracey L.; Moody, Simanique (July 2015). "The Place of Gullah in the African American Linguistic Continuum". The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199795390.013.27. ISBN 978-0-19-979539-0. Archived from the original on April 22, 2017. Retrieved April 21, 2017.


Further reading