From Academic Kids

Gullah is the name of both an ethnic group and its English-African creole language.



The Gullah people, who are of African slave ancestry, live in the Sea Islands and the coastal regions of nearby South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. In Georgia, they are commonly referred to as Geechees. A newer term is Native Islanders, but its appropriateness has been debated because it implies that the people are native to The Americas and not to Africa.

The origin of the name Gullah may be Angola, a country in SouthWest Africa where many of the Gullahs' ancestors came from. However, some believe it comes from Gola, a tribe near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border in West Africa. Regardless of the origin of the name, the Gullah language and culture have clear African roots.


In the late 1600s, the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida were covered by thousands of acres (many km²) of indigo, rice, and cotton plantations. While there were many Native American and Chinese slaves working on the plantations, as well as European indentured servants, the majority of the workforce consisted of African slaves. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, the slaves were freed and the plantations closed. Penn Center on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina is a modern institution engaged in research and preservation of Gullah culture.

The rich cultural heritage of the Gullah people deserves special attention. Viewed as a whole, numerous forces impacted the African diaspora, leading to an intermingling of language, culture, and tradition among slaves. Slave traders captured slaves from tribes in disparate regions and sold them when and where they could. Once in America, commerce and market forces caused even families to become separated. Though their owners certainly viewed them as a homogenous group, in truth very few slaves shared common languages, customs, or traditions with others on the same plantation.

The Gullah slaves represent a startling exception to the status quo. A large concentration of slaves from the same African tribe became concentrated on the coastal plantations of South Carolina. They were able to interact culturally in a manner reminiscent of their lives in Africa, preserving a wide range of customs and traditions. When the Civil War began, Union forces rushed to blockade the Confederate shipping lanes. The white land owners, fearing the turmoil of war, fled for the high country with plantations abandoned. When Union forces arrived in the Sea Islands, they found the Gullah working the plantations of their former masters, living in a thriving community steeped in African cultural tradition.

There is an ongoing debate about the status of the plantations after they closed. One side claims that the slaves purchased the land from the plantation owners when they left. The other side claims that the owners abandoned the plantations, slaves and all. The issue is the true ownership of the land, which has been under heavy development since the 1980s.


The Gullah language is an English-based creole, strongly influenced by West African languages such as Vai, Mende, Twi, Ewe, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Kikongo. Like other Atlantic creoles, it developed as a way for slaves to communicate with both Europeans and members of other African tribes than their own. It strongly resembles the Krio language of Sierra Leone, a major West African English-based creole. The name and chorus of the Christian hymn "Kum Ba Yah" is said to be Gullah for come by here. Other English words attributed to Gullah are juke (jukebox), goober (Southern term for peanut) and voodoo.

In a 1930s study by Lorenzo Dow Turner, over 4,000 words from many different African languages were discovered in Gullah. Other words, such as yez for ears, are so distant from standard English that Gullah becomes more than just a dialect.

See also: Lorenzo Dow Turner's Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (ISBN 1-57003-452-4)
See also: Languages in the United States and List of dialects of the English language

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