The Gullah Language: An African American Language
Written by Courteney Leinonen, Chair, Human Rights Committee
On February 21, the United Nations honored International Mother Language Day. In the United States, February is Black History Month.
International Mother Language Day was proclaimed in November 1999 by UNESCO, and through a UN resolution it was established in 2002. The United Nations reported that every two weeks a language disappears. Forty-three percent of 6,000 languages are endangered and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Languages are not solely forms of communication, they are an expression of heritage, history, and identity. When these languages disappear, the linguistic history and cultural self-expression fade along with them.
Black History Month in the United States is in February. It first started as Negro History Week. Historian Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves and the second African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. (“ASALH”) in 1915. They, among many other African Americans who played a role in its founding, recognized the lack of information on African American history. They decided to center the ASALH on educating the public on the contributions, accomplishments, and stories of African Americans in the United States. Fast forward to 1976, one week became a month-long celebration and has been acknowledged by all presidents since the 1970s.
This Black History Month, we would like to combine International Mother Language Day with this month-long celebration of Black history to honor and celebrate Gullah language and Gullah/Geechee culture. The Gullah/Geechee nation are descendants of enslaved West Africans who have lived along the Carolinas’ coasts and islands down to northern Florida prior to 1865. Given the climate, many of the slave owners in this region did not live on the land on which they forced slaves to labor. This isolation helped them, who were of diverse ethnic backgrounds, to interact and fuse their mother languages (primarily Bambara, Ewe, Fon, Fante, Fulani, Hausa, Kongo, Kimbundu, Vai, and Mende) with languages spoken by indigenous peoples and European languages (predominantly English) to develop a new, distinctly West African-based creole language: Gullah. The vocabulary and grammar are deeply intertwined with all of these languages. This isolation for centuries has helped the communities maintain some West African ancestral knowledge and cultures while also distinctly being an American culture. After the abolishment of slavery, the communities started growing and practicing self-sustaining measures of livelihood.
The United States officially recognized the nation in July 2000 upon which the Gullah/Geechee people elected Queen Quet, Chieftess and Head-of-State for the Gullah/Geechee nation (“head pun de boddee”) and an official Declaration outlining their devotion to the culture, language, and history. The Declaration also highlights their roles as the keepers of the community and that “upon [them] falls the responsibility to promote in an accurate and positive manner all aspects of Gullah/ Geechee culture by emanating knowledge and healing souls.”
Linguistically, many scholars in the past (and even still some today) regarded the Gullah language as broken English, not understanding that the language is actually heavily based on the many different West African languages their ancestors spoke. As Gullah people are African Americans, some have held the opinion that the only first language African Americans speak is English. Not only is this not true, but also, there are dialects within the Gullah language, such as the Geechee dialect in Georgia and different dialects throughout the Gullah/Geechee Nation. In the video hosted by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, “Zooming in On Sustaining Cultural Heritage Linguistically,” Queen Quet discusses her experience of being placed in speech therapy as a child because those outside of her community considered the Gullah language an improper and broken form of English that needed to be corrected and that those who spoke it were unintelligent. However, during speech therapy, the instructor made Queen Quet tutor English to other students in her class who spoke languages such as Russian—not realizing that English was also her second language, and she was able to code-switch. Fortunately, Queen Quet sustained her language throughout this forced attempt to remove it. However, for some, this resulted in erasing this deeply rich culture from individuals and instilling shame in some who spoke Gullah. This led some to fear speaking Gullah in public and preventing their children from speaking it outside of the home.
The United Nations states, “[w]hen languages fade, so does the world's rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future.” In 2004, the Gullah/Geechee coast along South Carolina and Georgia was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered historic places. However, through Gullah/Geechee communities’ efforts, the language and culture are being strengthened, preserved, and embraced. The Gullah/Geechee Nation official website has many resources for non-Gullah/Geechee individuals to learn about the culture and language and to support Gullah/Geechee individuals in preserving ancestral knowledge. There are also podcasts, some hosted by Queen Quet in the Gullah language. Since 2018, the Gullah language has been taught at Harvard University by an instructor of Gullah/Geechee background. At the public level, former First Lady Michelle Obama has Gullah/Geechee heritage, and it was proudly displayed at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural parade through the presentation of a traditional Gullah/Geechee story quilt.
The internet, public, and academia are becoming richer by embracing this part of African American culture, learning Gullah/Geechee stories, and acknowledging this distinct language, and in doing so, supporting preservation of the Gullah/Geechee culture. There is much more that can be written on the history, language, cultural preservation, and land, but it is our hope that this Black History Month and International Mother Language Day, we all learn more about the complex history and cultures of African Americans in the United States, particularly in relation to mother languages.
To learn more about the Gullah language and dialects and the Gullah/Geechee nation, see below: