Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Roots of Gullah Language

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The language of the Gullah is a defining part of both their present day culture and their rich history. Though the core of the Gullah-Geechee language is based on English, there is a profound influence from the African vernacular.

[caption id="attachment_259" align="alignright" width="300"]Peanuts The word "goober" comes from the Kimbundu word "Nguba".[/caption]

The Gullah speak what is known as a “Creole Language”, which the Cambridge dictionary defines as, “an American or Caribbean language, which is a combination of a European language and another language and which is a main language in parts of the southern US and in the Caribbean.” Due to the vast amount of diverse types of people and languages that are a part of commerce and slavery, Creole languages, like Gullah, developed as a universal way of communication.

In the 18th century, the Gullah language really began taking form. The English were considered to be the dominant influence when it came to the slave trade during this period. Creole languages began borrowing from English because the Africans that were trading slaves to the English needed to form a means of correspondence.

The language forged during the slave trade spread to different tribes and regions of Africa, and it is even believed that some slaves were speaking the Creole language before touching American soil. Many of the Creole languages that exist today are very similar due to the English’s influence.

Over the years the Creole languages have grown, shifted, adapted, and developed through migration and tradition. The Gullah language of today is most similar to the language used in Sierra Leone. The Gullah’s dialect has been directly influenced from the Creole spoken in the Sierra Leone region. The word “Gullah” is said to be derived from a small tribe from Sierra Leone named the Gola, and it is clear that there is a strong connection with both cultures.

Here are some roots of Gullah words from the exhibit "Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language" at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum:

  • In Wolof: Bene = Sesame; In Gullah: Bene = Sesame; In English: Benne = Sesame

  • In Yoruba: Jiga = Insect; In Gullah: Jiga = Insect; In English: Flea jigger = Mite

  • In Kimbundu: Kingombo = Okra; In Gullah: Gambo = Okra; In English: Gumbo = Okra stew

  • In KiKongo: Ngoma = Drum; In Gullah: Goma = Drum; In Candomblé Portuguese: Ingoma = Drum

  • In KiKongo: Tota = To pick up; In Gullah: Tot = To carry; In English: Tote = To carry

  • In Kimbundu: Nguba = Peanut; In Gullah: Guba = Peanut; In English: Goober = Peanut

  • In Fon: Dada = Elder sister; In Gullah: Dada = Elderly woman; In Candomblé Portuguese: Dadá = Female deity

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