Queen's Chronicle: Gullah/Geechee Linguistic Misrepresentation and Maintaining Indigenous Languages

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com)

“In 1996 when the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition was formed, a search on the world wide web turned up no items for “Gullah/Geechee,” less than one search page for “Geechee,” and possibly a page or two for the term “Gullah.”  Due to the grassroots efforts of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to shed light on the continued existence of this cultural group and the need to advocate for their rights, the linguistic elements of these people of African and indigenous descent that live on the Sea Islands off the coast of Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL is the consistent reference that is encountered.  Numerous scholars have studied the linguistic structure of the Gullah/Geechee language and debated its legitimacy as a recognized language or a dialect of African American English (Labov, 1982, 179; Labov 1969; Rickford, 1998, 173; Stewart, 1969).  To aid in the progression toward Gullah as a legitimized language many scholars looked to the seminal work of Lorenzo Dow Turner in the1930 and 1940s.  His book titled Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) analyzed recorded folk stories, prayers, songs, and recollections of slavery in the 1930s from Gullah residents of Edisto Island, Johns Island, and Wadamalaw Island, SC.  These phonetically transcribed recordings, provided the first linguistic transcription of the Gullah language.  Since then, linguistic scholars have used his transcriptions to describe, examine and legitimize Gullah as a language rather than a dialect (e.g., Klein, 2007; Klein, 2013a, 2013b; Winford, 1992).  From these studies, significant connections have been found between the syntactic, morphologic, semantic, and phonologic patterns of Gullah and of African languages like Yoruba, Ewe, Kimbundu and Kongo. 

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Turner’s work is now celebrated and he is referred to as the “Father of Gullah Studies.”

Subsequent to his published work being disseminated in academic circles, countless researchers have used it to embark on discovery missions to the Sea Islands.  Across the decades this list has included linguists, historians, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, sociologists, and in more recent times, news reporters and filmmakers.  Significant work has been done to elevate the Gullah/Geechee community’s standing on the world stage from being viewed as the “subject” and “object” of discussion and exploitation perpetuating continuous inaccurate representations of the language by performing artists that are categorized as “storytellers.”  Current work moves the conversation to a description of Gullah/Geechee as a culturally rich nation of people who are duly respected and recognized for their significant contributions historical landscape of modern cultural and linguistic studies.

excerpt from De Gullah/Geechee Crak E Teet Likka Disya: 

Preventing the World’s Search for a Language from Eroding a Culture

by Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation and Founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Gullah/Geechee Nation Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins, and Dr. Jessica Berry, Assistant Professor of Speech Pathology and Audiology at South Carolina State University

During the International Year of Indigenous Languages, I had the outstanding opportunity of co-authoring a paper to be submitted to a global organization that wanted to publish the works and words from those working to insure the continued existence of indigenous languages around the world. Unfortunately, the year came and went without much fanfare just as has been happening with the celebration and commemoration of the International Decade of People of African Descent. The United Nations declared these timeframes in order to shed light on issues that are necessary to the continued movement to insure that all people of the world are acknowledged for who they are and that they continue their cultural heritages including languages as an outcome of protecting their human rights.

Also unfortunately, social media has allowed the rise in further misrepresentation of the Gullah language and its dialect, Geechee by allowing individuals to post videos of slang and what is considered “twang” and present it as the actual language. Due to the lack of indepth research that has been vetted by people that actually speak Gullah or Gullah/Geechee coupled with people’s fetish with seeking to find the cultural heritage treasures that traditionalists of the Gullah/Geechee Nation hold sacred, we find ourselves in a situation where linguistic destructionment is taking place. This is being celebrated by non-Gullah/Geechee media people and the younger generation that is consistently seeking information on that which they see as “other,” especially if they can identify with the behavior and words that are being spoken by their peers. The reality of this will no doubt have massive negative impacts on the actual continuation of the language of the Gullah/Geechee people. As Julius Lester wrote, “Language serves to insulate a group and protect it from outsiders.”  Given the continued assaults against Gullah/Geechees uniting to insure their human and land rights in the midst of the rise of xenophobia and racism, we cannot afford to lose any of the things that have served to protect us.

The acceptance of falsehood and misrepresentations of Gullah/Geechee language and culture on stages and via videos is in some way reminiscent of Anasi and Brer Rabbit in the sense that something is being presented to the non-Gullah/Geechee community and to those that seek to be cultural parasites and exploiters as a tangible and real thing when it is actually what one could deem “fool’s gold.” Gawd willin de one wha ain da gwine fa slabe fa de madaba kno Black gold frum disya fa tru.

Fortunately, the shine of the Black gold that actually still speaks the language fluently is shining even more brightly beneath the Spanish moss strewn oak trees down the long dirt roads and on the porches of the elders of the community. These living repositories of our language who only fully express the living traditions in circles of native Gullah/Geechees that reside on the Sea Islands are the ones with whom I celebrated last year and celebrate our language consistently every day no matter whether the world does or not. It is sad that many missed the opportunity to celebrate our mother tongue as others of the world celebrated theirs in an effort to insure that these languages do not get scorched from the earth as we see is happening with rain forests and lands as people attempt to exploit the sacred things that indigenous people seek to hold onto.

“As Rita Mae Brown put it ‘Language is the road map of a culture.  It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.’

A Gullah/Geechee proverbs says:

Ef hunnuh ain kno whey hunnuh dey frum, hunnuh ain gwine kno whey hunnuh gwine.

Wilhelm von Humboldt stated:

‘Absolutely nothing is so important for a nation’s culture as its language.’

Language is verbal behavior in which a culture’s system of meanings and its ways of thinking and reasoning are conveyed.”

• excerpt from De Gullah/Geechee Crak E Teet Likka Disya by Queen Quet, Representative Simmons-Jenkins, and Dr. Berry

In spite of what others may do, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition will continue to work to insure that our language and other aspects of our culture are presented accurately. We do a disservice to our elders and our ancestors when we do not do so and we attempt to “sell” new concepts in order to make our culture accessible to others that seek to “standardize” i.e. make it something that they can define and control. We continue to work with other indigenous people of the world to insure that our communities realize the value of their languages. We need not wait for the United Nations or any others to declare a celebration of this. We celebrate our strength as we speak in our mother tongues each day. So, hunnuh Gullah/Geechee chillun, crak hunnuh teet ya and sho oda res wha hunnuh standin fa!

Dr. Jessica Berry and Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) continue to collaborate and to educate people about their native Gullah/Geechee tongue.
Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Committee of Northeast Florida and Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) and Founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition stand untied in insuring that their culture is accurately represented around the world.

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Ef hunnuh wan yeddi mo bout how we crak we teet een de Gullah/Geechee Nation, watch disya frum de Gullah/Geechee TV station:

Tune in to this panel about the Gullah/Geechee language.
This is an excerpt from the British Documentary entitled “The Adventure of English.”

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