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The Place of Gullah in the African American Linguistic Continuum

Abstract and Keywords

Gullah (also known as Geechee or Sea Island Creole) is an African American Language (AAL) variety spoken along the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. However, the nature of the relationship between Gullah and other AAL varieties has remained a topic of contention. The earliest statements of the Creolist Hypothesis postulated that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) derived from a Gullah-like plantation creole that decreolized following the breakdown of the plantation system. This theory challenged earlier statements of the Dialectologist (or Anglicist) Hypothesis, which contended that AAVE derived from British English sources, like other English dialects. While most linguistic attention to the Gullah-AAVE connection has been directed at the past, some recent work has also considered the contemporary relationship between these varieties. In this chapter, we reflect on theories about Gullah’s origins and its role in the emergence and continuing development of AAVE.

Keywords: Gullah, Geechee, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Creolist Hypothesis, Dialectologist (Anglicist) Hypothesis, African American Language (AAL)

8.1 Introduction

Gullah (also known as Geechee or Sea Island Creole) is an African American variety spoken primarily along the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.1 Early, non-linguistic accounts of Gullah attributed its distinctive features (relative to other varieties of American English) to “intellectual indolence or laziness, physical or mental” (Bennett 1908; see also Gonzales 1922). Such racist, linguistically unfounded myths, were later challenged by dialectologists, who contended that Gullah was an English dialect, whose “grammar and phonology [were] directly descended from the midland and southern English dialects” (Johnson 1930a, 17; see also Crum 1940). Related to this hypothesis, some proposed that it was the “baby talk” or “foreigner talk” of slave masters and the “rustic” speech of poor White indentured servants during the plantation era, which early Gullah speakers approximated in their efforts to learn English (Johnson 1930b, 49).2 However, it was Lorenzo Dow Turner’s seminal work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) that drew attention to the unique cultural and linguistic heritage of the variety. As observed in Mufwene (2001), Turner’s work “[did] not preclude British influence beyond the vocabulary, nor [did] it claim that African linguistic influence was primary” (313). However, several scholars interpreted Turner’s work as evidence that “Gullah’s system [was] essentially African,” thus subscribing to the strongest statement of the African Substrate Hypothesis (Mufwene 2001, 313; see also Dalby 1971; Dunn 1976; VanSertima 1976.)

(p. 164) A more intermediate perspective, and the most commonly accepted theory today, is that Gullah is a creole (or contact variety) that emerged in the context of the Atlantic slave trade as massive numbers of Africans,3 many speaking non-mutually intelligible languages, were brought together under extreme conditions that would likely have necessitated the formation of a variety to serve as a common form of communication between them and the English speakers who enslaved them. The resulting variety would have drawn its vocabulary primarily from English, while the grammatical structure and pronunciation would have been heavily influenced by a number of West African languages. From this perspective, Gullah would have emerged under conditions of contact similar to those that led to the formation of creole varieties spoken in the Caribbean (e.g., Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, etc.). Grammatical features in modern-day Gullah, such as preverbal tense marking (e.g., I been work ‘I worked’); pronominal leveling (e.g., ee for ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘it’); and variable absence of the copula, or the verb be (e.g., Anna_the teacher), as well as African-influenced traditions such as the assigning of “basket” names (or nicknames), are reflective of the linguistic contact that contributed to Gullah’s development.

Contention remains, however, over the nature of the relationship between Gullah and other African American language (AAL) varieties. For years, linguists have speculated over whether Gullah represented the remnant of an earlier stage in the development of African American Vernacular English (AAVE).4 This question dates back to the earliest statements of the Creolist Hypothesis (see Stewart 1967, 1968; Dillard 1972), which postulated that AAVE derived from a widespread plantation creole that underwent a process of decreolization5 following the breakdown of the plantation system.6 This position was intended to challenge early statements of the Dialectologist (or Anglicist) Hypothesis, which contended that AAVE derived from British English sources, like other English dialects (see Kurath 1949; McDavid and McDavid 1951). Though some aspects of these positions have changed over the years, the Creolist and Dialectologist Hypotheses remain two of the main competing theories regarding the origins of AAVE.

While most of the attention to this question has been directed at the past, some recent work has also considered the contemporary relationship between Gullah and other AAL varieties. In this chapter, we reflect on theories about Gullah’s origins and its role in the emergence and continuing development of AAVE.

8.2 Origins and Sociohistorical Development

8.2.1 The Sociohistorical Context

In 1627, British colonists settled on the island of Barbados, which, because of its easterly location, became a prime dispersal point for slaves being transported from Africa to other locations (Cassidy 1980; Hancock 1980). These colonists brought with them (p. 165) African slaves to assist in preparing the island for habitation. The first two years of settlement saw a rapid influx of Whites to the island, with only a small number of African slaves (Wood 1974). But the growth of the sugar industry in Barbados led to an increased demand for slave importations directly from Africa, such that, by 1700, Africans in Barbados outnumbered Europeans five to two (Hancock 1980, 22). This shift in proportions was due not only to an increase in slave importations but also to European migration away from the island during the second half of the seventeenth century, caused by increased competition for land and a number of natural disasters (Wood 1974).

From 1651 to 1670, Europeans left Barbados to set up colonies in Surinam, Jamaica, and Carolina. The Carolina settlement, known as the Charles Town colony, was established in May of 1670 by British colonists, accompanied by a small number of African slaves. For the first thirty to fifty years of this settlement, Africans and Europeans could have interacted regularly with one another on small homestead dwellings, where they participated in farming and trade activity with local Native Americans (Mufwene 1993). During this time, Europeans constituted a majority, with about 800 English to 300 Africans in the colony in 1672 (Wood 1974, 25). The African population increased only gradually during these years, through natural reproduction as well as newcomers who arrived mostly from the West Indies (Mufwene 1993).

In the 1690s, a rice seed from Madagascar was introduced into the swamplands of the Charles Town colony, sparking a booming new rice industry that became the primary source of export for the colony for the next one hundred years.7 With the introduction of this new industry came the need for an increase in labor, resulting in importations of slaves directly from Africa by the end of the seventeenth century. By 1708, there was a slight Black majority in the colony, with 4,100 Africans and 4,080 Europeans (Mufwene 1993, 10). In 1720, racial segregation was institutionalized, and the number of Africans in the colony had reached a sizeable majority, with 11,828 Africans compared to 6,525 Europeans (10‒11).

By 1740, Africans made up about two-thirds of South Carolina’s settler population (Joyner 1984, 15).8 According to Wood (1974, 39), there were 20,000 Whites and 40,600 Blacks in the colony in 1745. During this decade, a second industry, involving the growth and exportation of indigo, was introduced into the colony from the French islands of the Caribbean. The popularity of indigo, used as a dye by clothiers in Great Britain, further contributed to the increase of African slave importations into the colony (Rawley 1981, 309).

The interaction between Blacks and Whites that characterized the first fifty years of settlement was drastically altered by this shift to a plantation economy. House servants still had some amount of contact with Whites. But the majority of slaves were field hands who interacted only with White uneducated small farmers, primarily of Scotch-Irish descent, who worked as overseers (Montgomery and Fuller 1996). And even among the field hands, it was the drivers (i.e., slaves charged with the task of managing the labor gangs and slave quarters) who functioned as the primary liaisons between the overseers and the other slaves (Crum 1940; Clifton 1981).

The threat of malaria and yellow fever in the moist, swampy rice plantations along the Sea Islands also contributed to increasing isolation between Blacks and Whites during these years. While many of the Africans had developed some immunity to these (p. 166) diseases, European planters and their families had no such resistance and were thus forced to leave the plantation sites during the summer and fall months when the diseases were at their peak. As a result, Blacks on the South Carolina rice plantations spent at least half of each year in almost total isolation from Whites, with the exception of a few White overseers, assisted by drivers (Opala 1986).

Living conditions among slaves became much harsher in the transition to the plantation system in South Carolina. Infant and adult mortality rates among Africans increased, and the African population on the plantations grew primarily through slave importations (Rawley 1981; Mufwene 1993). In 1776, Congress voted to discontinue the importation of slaves into any of the thirteen United Colonies. However, in South Carolina, additional labor was needed to support a growing cotton industry, which had developed inland. South Carolina, therefore, reopened the African slave trade in 1803 and continued to engage in the trade until the legal ban of 1808 (Rawley 1981).

In 1732, Georgia was established as the thirteenth and last of the original American colonies. Although slavery was originally prohibited in Georgia, White planters from coastal South Carolina clandestinely moved their enslaved Black labor force to coastal Georgia to expand their rice-based plantations, a practice that continued until the ban on slavery was overturned in 1751 (Nelson 2005). The mid-1700s thus saw the beginning of large-scale importation of enslaved Africans into coastal Georgia via the Caribbean and directly from Africa (Littlefield 1981).

8.2.2 Theories Regarding Gullah’s Emergence

Within this general sociohistorical framework, linguists have attempted to reconstruct the course of events that led to the emergence of Gullah. One theory linked the origins of all Atlantic creoles to a sixteenth-century Portuguese-based proto-pidgin that was subsequently relexified by pidgin speakers in contact with other European traders along the coast of West Africa.9 Thus, a seventeenth-century English-based maritime pidgin, referred to by Stewart (1968) and Dillard (1972) as West African Pidgin English (WAPE), was said to have emerged out of the English trade, as speakers of the English superstrate came into contact with speakers of various West African substrate languages.10

Many contend that British slave traders made a practice of separating Africans speaking the same languages, in order to prevent them from communicating with one another and organizing uprisings (see Dillard 1972). Such practices would have contributed to the need for a pidgin to serve as the vehicle of communication both among Africans whose native languages were not mutually intelligible and between Africans and their European overseers.11 According to Bickerton (1981, 4), the prototypical setting for creole development is one in which superstrate speakers make up no more than 20 percent of the contact population, while the remaining 80 percent consist of a linguistically diverse substrate. In such contexts, the pidgin would likely undergo a process of “nativization” as children adopt the contact variety as their primary means of communication, ultimately resulting in the formation of a full-fledged creole.

(p. 167) While Stewart (1967, 1968) and Dillard (1972) traced the period of creolization to the North American plantations themselves, others argued that the slaves arrived on the plantations already speaking a creole. According to Frederick Cassidy (1980, 1994), it was a seventeenth-century Barbadian creole that served as the predecessor to Gullah, as well as Jamaican Creole and Sranan.12 Cassidy argued that the three Creoles, despite undergoing separate linguistic developments and/or inputs, exhibited a remarkable number of lexical similarities that could only be explained by this common source. His theory was challenged, however, by Ian Hancock (1980, 22), who questioned the likelihood that a Barbadian creole developed prior to the colonization of Surinam, Jamaica, and Carolina (in 1651, 1655, and 1670, respectively), given that Blacks did not outnumber Whites on the island of Barbados until about 1665.13

Instead, Hancock traced the period of creolization back to sixteenth-century Africa, arguing that Gullah (as well as the Caribbean English Creoles) derived from a Guinea Coast Creole English (GCCE) spoken along the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa (cf. WAPE). Hancock argued that this creole developed during the second half of the sixteenth century, as English-speaking traders settled along the Senegambia littoral, intermarrying with the locals and creating a racially mixed population. The language that emerged from this contact might have been, at first, a “means of local, domestic communication” between the Africans and Europeans (Hancock 1980, 18). However, as trade expanded southward, the creole would have spread to other slaves in the West African depots, reaching the Gulf of Guinea by the mid-seventeenth century (29).

With regard to Gullah, specifically, Hancock (1980) argued that the speech of the first slaves transported from Barbados to Carolina most likely approximated a “metropolitan” variety of English, given the high percentage of native English speakers who could have served as models both in Barbados and in Carolina during the early years. By 1720, however, “Blacks in South Carolina had come to outnumber Whites, the foreign-born to outnumber the native-born, and those from Africa to outnumber those from the Caribbean” (Hancock 1980, 24). It was at this time, Hancock argued, that creolization (or “demetropolitanization”) would have begun in South Carolina, with GCCE contributing significantly to its formation, as “creole-speaking slaves were brought in from GCCE-speaking areas of West Africa and came to constitute a majority” (27).14

Questioning the plausibility of either GCCE or WAPE playing a determinative role in Gullah’s origins, Salikoko Mufwene (1993, 1997) proposed, instead, three phases of development corresponding to three periods of colonization in the Carolina region.15 Phase One consisted of the first thirty to fifty years of settlement—from 1670 to around 1700 or 1720. Mufwene, like Hancock, maintained that conditions during this phase were not conducive to the creation of a creole and that Africans in the area probably spoke a second language variety of English. The speech of this group of slaves, which included a racially “mixed” population, would have been the “model and lexifier” for the creole that would later develop (Mufwene 1993, 11).

The Place of Gullah in the African American Linguistic ContinuumClick to view larger

Figure 8.1 Estimated population percentages for South Carolina (east of the mountains) from 1685 to 1790.

Source: Adapted from Wood, Waselkov, and Hatley. 1989, 38.

The period from 1720 to 1750 was characterized by the growth of the rice industry, institutionalized segregation, and an African majority on the plantations. It was during this time, Mufwene contends, that the creole would have developed via a process of (p. 168) “basilectalization” of the vernaculars spoken during the first phase (cf. Hancock’s “demetropolitanization”).16 Between 1745 and 1760, there was a reversal in population growth in favor of the European population, resulting in part from an effort by White colonists to counterbalance the African majority with the importation of European indentured labor (Mufwene 1993, 10). Mufwene, therefore, estimates that the creole emerged by 1750 but continued to develop and stabilize throughout the remainder of the second phase of colonization (roughly from 1750 to 1862). The third phase of colonization began with the abolition of slavery, which was likely marked by some cross-plantation leveling of the creole as interactions among Blacks became more regular (Mufwene 1993, 5).

Figure 8.1 summarizes the demographic statistics for South Carolina during the presumed formative period.

Compared to South Carolina, the demographic statistics for Georgia, shown in figure 8.2, suggest that the independent development of a creole in this area was unlikely.

What these figures fail to show, however, is that most of the White population in Georgia was concentrated inland, while the coast was primarily populated by Blacks, particularly in later years. According to Rickford:

The Place of Gullah in the African American Linguistic ContinuumClick to view larger

Figure 8.2 Estimated population percentages for Creeks/Georgia/Alabama from 1685 to 1790.

Source: Adapted from Wood et al. 1989, 38.

The Sea Islands and coastal rice-growing regions of Georgia rapidly became similar to those of South Carolina in many respects, including their high proportions of Blacks. By 1790, Blacks constituted 76 percent and 77 percent of the population in coastal Liberty and Chatham counties, respectively. … What is more striking than the Sea Island situation is the fact that the combined total of 12,226 Blacks in Liberty (p. 169) and Chatham counties in 1790 represented 42 percent of the colony’s Black population of 29,264 (Smith 1985: 216, Table A-4), suggesting that nearly half of the colony’s Blacks in this critical founding period may have been creole speakers. (1997, 327)

There was also a significant amount of creole speech imported into Georgia from South Carolina and the West Indies. According to Hancock (1980), the majority of Blacks in Georgia prior to 1770 were from the Caribbean. Thus, it appears that linguistic input from South Carolina Blacks and others of African descent together with the vernacular English spoken by Whites in this region shaped the development of the varieties of Gullah spoken in coastal Georgia (Turner 1949; Hancock 1980; Cassidy 1980; Rickford 1997; Winford 1997).

8.3 The Relationship between Gullah and Other AAL Varieties

8.3.1 Historical Relationship

As noted earlier, speculation about the AAVE-Gullah connection dates back to the earliest statements of the Creolist Hypothesis and the contention that Gullah represented a fairly direct descendant of the creole spoken on the North American plantations, which (p. 170) was preserved by the geographical and social isolation of the Sea Islands. Varieties spoken by African Americans further inland, however, were said to have undergone a process of decreolization under more direct contact with other English varieties. Stewart (1968, 18 n. 26) described AAVE on the South Carolina mainland as a “slightly decreolized” form of Gullah and suggested that by observing the process of decreolization in Gullah, researchers might see a “continuation of the same process which earlier gave rise to the contemporary forms of other American Negro dialects.”

According to the life cycle hypothesis, first proposed by Robert Hall (1966) and adopted in seminal studies such as DeCamp (1971) and Bickerton (1975), continuum formation resulted from “post-emancipation decreolization” by which a radical creole (i.e., the basilect) in contact with a superstrate variety (i.e., the acrolect) yielded intermediate mesolectal varieties. Both Stewart (1967) and Dillard (1972) acknowledged that the hierarchical division of slaves into house servants and field hands most likely laid the foundation for a linguistic continuum by which house servants would have spoken varieties closer to the English superstrate, while field hands would have spoken more basilectal varieties. They maintained, however, that the process of decreolization that resulted in the emergence of AAVE did not take place until the breakdown of the plantation system, following the end of the Civil War. It was at this time that the continuum would have been fully realized, owing to increased opportunities for African Americans to acquire English, both through education and more regular contact with other English speakers.

Over the last two centuries, the proportion of American Negroes who speak a perfectly standard variety of English has risen from a small group of privileged house slaves and free Negroes to persons numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions. Yet there is still a sizable number of American Negroes—undoubtedly larger than the number of standard-speaking Negroes—whose speech may be radically nonstandard. The nonstandard features in the speech of such persons may be due in part to the influence of the nonstandard dialects of Whites with whom they or their ancestors have come in contact, but they also may be due to the survival of creolisms from the older Negro field hand speech of the plantations.

(Stewart 1967, 26)

Other researchers have argued that the occupational stratification of the slaves on the plantations would have necessitated the formation of a linguistic continuum from the very beginning of stable contact (see Alleyne 1971, 1980; LePage 1960, 1977). In other words, domestics, who were in close contact with Europeans, would have acquired the regional superstrate (i.e., the acrolect), while field hands, having virtually no personal contact with their European masters, would have developed a more basilectal creole variety. In between these two extremes would have been the more mesolectal varieties spoken by artisans and drivers, who communicated with both domestics and field hands (Alleyne 1980). From this perspective, the continuum would have already been in place on the plantations, and decreolization would simply have involved the shifting of speakers from one level of the continuum to another as they came into greater contact with speakers of different lects. Following emancipation, some mesolectal speakers would have acquired more acrolectal (p. 171) speech, while some basilectal speakers would have acquired mesolectal varieties. Alleyne (1980) described this view of decreolization as follows:

This speech modification was not so much a mixing of creole forms with standard forms as it was: (1) the rejection of a number of features perceived as being of greatest deviancy from English, and (2) the general adoption by each sector of the population of some of the speech characteristics of the social group above it. This meant first of all a constant erosion of features … until they became obsolete, residual, or extinct. Secondarily, it meant that the most deviant forms of speech would be represented by fewer and fewer persons, while the intermediate varieties, of highly restricted demographic importance during slavery, now become prominent. (194)

Rickford (1987) supported this view of the continuum, referring to the “constant erosion of features” in the basilect as “qualitative decreolization” and the use of the basilect “by fewer and fewer persons” as “quantitative decreolization.” Rickford took issue, however, with Alleyne’s contention that basilectal speakers passively adopted the mesolect, arguing instead that intermediate varieties were constantly restructured, with basilectal speakers “actively creating [the mesolects] anew” as they moved toward the acrolect (1987, 34‒35).

Going a step further, Winford (1997) proposed that AAVE probably never existed as a creole in and of itself, but instead emerged through a process of language shift as Africans, speaking either a creole or African languages or both transferred features from these varieties into their newly acquired English.17 Winford’s theory took into account the sociohistorical evidence discussed earlier, which cast doubt on the likelihood that US plantations ever met the necessary conditions for creolization (as defined by Bickerton) anywhere other than in the southeast region, where Gullah developed18 (see also Schneider 1989; Mufwene 1993, 1997; Rickford 1997; Winford 1992).

Similar to Mufwene, Winford argued that Gullah most likely emerged in South Carolina between 1720 and 1775, as conditions in South Carolina prior to this time would have favored Africans learning an approximation to the settler dialects.19 With the introduction of the creole, the linguistic situation among Africans in South Carolina would have come to resemble a continuum:

Africans in closer contact with Whites must have continued to learn closer approximations to their dialects. By the mid-eighteenth century, the linguistic situation on the South Carolina coast would have been similar to that in other Caribbean colonies—a creole continuum within the African population, complicated by continuing input from White dialects on the one hand, and the African languages of newly-arrived slaves on the other.

(Winford 1997, 315)

Within this framework, Winford saw the period from 1780 to 1860 as one of consolidation and leveling across both creole and dialectal English varieties, as creole-speaking Africans and those speaking approximations to the settler dialects came into contact with one another. (p. 172)

We can assume that there was a sizeable body of Africans throughout the southern states in this period whose primary vernacular was a creole English, and many of whom shifted over the years to AAVE as their primary vernacular, ‘transferring’ or preserving in the process certain elements of the creole grammar. I also assume that there was a sizeable body of Africans whose primary vernacular was an earlier form of AAVE which was fashioned after the settler dialects, and which provided the target of the shift. Contact between these groups of Africans on the plantations is likely to have contributed to the development of AAVE.

(Winford 1997, 317)

According to Winford (1997), the distinctive features that emerged during this period of contact would have spread to other areas of the country during the post-emancipation period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as increased mobility led to increased contact among African Americans of different regional and social backgrounds.20

From this perspective, AAVE would have preceded Gullah in its emergence, rather than descending from it, as maintained by early supporters of the Creolist Hypothesis. According to Mufwene:

Virginia was colonized [in 1607] more than a half century before South Carolina [in 1670] and the first Africans arrived [in Jamestown, Va., in 1619] about half a century before the colonization of the second territory to work in tobacco plantations. Moreover, Gullah, like other creoles, must have developed in the direction of basilectalization. (1991) Since so far it has not been associated with Virginia, one would assume that AAVE, or a variety less different from colonial White varieties of English, is likely to have started earlier. (1993, 8)

This is not to say, however, that creole influence was restricted to South Carolina and Georgia alone. As observed in Rickford (1997), creole speakers (imported primarily from the West Indies) were present during the presumed formative stages of AAVE in most regions of the South and in many northern territories as well.

Most striking in the historical record is the evidence that slaves brought in from Caribbean colonies where creole English is spoken were the predominant segments of the early Black population in so many American colonies, including Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland in particular. … Moreover, if Mufwene (1996), Chaudenson (1992) and others are right about the importance of the early, founding populations, these Caribbean imports may have had an important creolizing influence on the colonies to which they came. (331)

Furthermore, it is argued that in several pockets of North Carolina and Virginia (as in South Carolina and Georgia) some creoles are likely to have emerged alongside AAVE in areas where access to the superstrate was more restricted, thus yielding a continuum of varieties spoken by Africans throughout the South in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

(p. 173) 8.3.2 Contemporary Relationship

While growing numbers of scholars have begun to explore linguistic diversity within African American communities, showing that the language of African Americans varies both regionally and socially, much of this work has excluded Gullah. However, Mufwene’s (2001) categorization of Gullah as a regional variety of AAVE reframes this discussion, allowing a more accurate picture to emerge with regard to the contemporary relationship between Gullah and other AAL varieties.

In coastal Georgia, for example, Gullah speakers live and work side by side with other African Americans, and intermarriage between members of these groups is common. This long-standing social contact, spanning at least two centuries, has affected the linguistic structure of African American varieties spoken in the region. Although historically, Gullah and AAVE share many linguistic similarities, findings from Moody (2011) reveal that the varieties spoken in southeast Georgia show an even greater degree of linguistic continuity than has previously been documented. Below, we highlight some of the present-day linguistic outcomes of contact between speakers of AAVE and Gullah in coastal Georgia by providing an overview of several grammatical features.21

Previous descriptions of Gullah (Cunningham 1970; Nichols 1976; Jones-Jackson 1978, 1983) have reported that speakers do not inflect or mark regular verbs with third person singular ‒s in the present tense (e.g., she work hard ‘she works hard’) or with ‒ed in the past tense (e.g., she work hard yesterday ‘she worked hard yesterday’). And temporal properties of situations are marked pre-verbally, rather than directly on the verb (e.g., she da work ‘she is working’ or I bin pick ’em ‘I picked them’). In coastal Georgia, however, Gullah speakers in greater contact with speakers of other English varieties show variation in their use of these grammatical constructions depending on the social and/or linguistic context.

While early studies of AAVE revealed near categorical presence of the plural ‒s ending on regular nouns (see Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 1969), Gullah has been characterized by high rates of plural ‒s absence (or zero plural) (Mufwene 1986; Rickford 1986).22 Gullah speakers also mark plurality with dem (e.g., sister dem ‘sisters,’ light dem ‘lights’) or by using quantifiers with an unmarked noun (e.g., plenty plum ‘plenty of plums,’ three time a day ‘three times a day’). In coastal Georgia, zero plural is found at higher rates among African American speakers than has been reported for most other regions in the United States, particularly in the speech of people aged 65 and over. In Moody (2011), for example, speakers exhibited rates of plural –s absence ranging from 7 to 40 percent, with some showing rates as high as 60‒70 percent. Moreover, both AAVE speakers and Gullah speakers alike use dem in coastal Georgia to denote plurality (e.g., people dem ‘people’).

Finally, while both Gullah and AAVE exhibit copula absence (e.g., you in the way ‘you’re in the way,’ he a nice old man ‘he’s a nice old man,’ they gone ‘they’re gone’), the use of zero copula in first person singular environments (e.g., I glad to see you ‘I’m glad to see you’ or I waitin on you ‘I’m waiting on you’) is associated primarily with Gullah. (p. 174) In coastal Georgia, however, AAVE speakers also exhibit am absence, as illustrated below:23

I the one bought that car

‘I’m the one who bought that car’

what I poseta do with that

‘what am I supposed to do with that?’

the kind of shape I in

‘the kind of shape I’m in’

I still not satisfied

‘I’m still not satisfied.’

Variation in the grammatical structure of the varieties described above reflects a long and varied history of social and linguistic contact among speakers of Gullah and other African American varieties, providing a new perspective on the place of Gullah in the African American linguistic continuum. While contemporary parallels such as those described above likely reflect some aspects of their origins and historical development, present-day contact between speakers of these varieties deserves more attention in the sociolinguistic literature for the insight that it provides into the regional and social diversity of African American varieties.

8.4 Conclusion

Assessing the linguistic vitality of Gullah, particularly among younger speakers, should be a key consideration in future studies. For years, linguists and non-linguists alike feared the demise of Gullah, resulting from increased mobility of its speakers and the growth of the tourism industry, both of which disrupted the earlier isolation of more remote Sea Island communities (see Jones-Jackson 1978, 1984). These effects have been compounded by the stigmatization and negative stereotyping of Gullah, which have discouraged many older speakers from passing on the variety to younger generations of speakers. Nevertheless, Gullah remains a significant marker of culture, history, and identity in the communities where it is spoken (see Mufwene 1991b). And there has been a concerted effort in recent years to preserve and promote Gullah language and culture through storytelling, Bible translations, heritage tours, music festivals, and other initiatives. More research is needed to determine the extent to which such factors have impacted the vitality of Gullah, particularly among younger speakers.24

Future research might also include attention to less well-documented varieties of Gullah, particularly along the coasts of North Carolina and Florida, to determine the degree to which linguistic uniformity exists across communities. Documenting these varieties will permit comparisons with existing descriptions of Gullah and help determine the extent to which they pattern typologically with varieties spoken in South Carolina and Georgia.

(p. 175) Finally, more research like Moody (2011) is needed to assess the linguistic consequences of sustained contact between Gullah and other AAL varieties. Such research is important not only for the ways in which it informs the current status and trajectory of these varieties but also for the ways in which it can inform our understanding of earlier patterns of contact that helped to situate Gullah on the AAL continuum.


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                                                                                                                                          (1.) While most linguistic attention has been directed at the use of Gullah in South Carolina, and to a lesser extent Georgia, the variety might have spread as far north as coastal North Carolina and as far south as coastal Florida.

                                                                                                                                          (2.) The terms “baby talk” and “foreigner talk” refer to the type of simplified speech that is sometimes used by native speakers when addressing speakers of other languages.

                                                                                                                                          (3.) In this chapter, the terms African, African American, and Black are all variably used to refer to American slaves and/or slave descendants of African origin. However, some effort is made to use the label that is appropriate for the time period under consideration. See Smitherman (1998, 210‒14) for more on “names for the race.”

                                                                                                                                          (4.) We use the term African American Vernacular English (AAVE) here to refer to the distinctive, nonstandard varieties of English used by and among many African Americans in the United States.

                                                                                                                                          (5.) In this context, the term decreolization refers to the process by which the plantation creole, described by early proponents of the Creolist Hypothesis as a fairly homogeneous basilectal variety (i.e., far removed from its English lexifier), became more acrolectal (i.e., more English-like) under increased contact with other English dialects. See Rickford (1987) and Mufwene (1991a) for more on the various ways that the term decreolization has been used in creole studies.

                                                                                                                                          (6.) Somewhat related to the Creolist Hypothesis is the African Substrate Hypothesis, mentioned earlier in the text, which posits a more direct historical connection between AAVE and West African languages than the Creolist Hypothesis, which posits this connection through one or more creole intermediaries (See Herskovits [1941] 1958; Turner 1949; Dalby 1971; Dunn 1976; VanSertima 1976; and Debose and Faraclas 1993).

                                                                                                                                          (7.) Rice plantations were later extended to the Georgia coast as well, as discussed later in this chapter.

                                                                                                                                          (8.) While there is no consensus on exactly when the split occurred, the Carolina colony appears to have split into North Carolina and South Carolina sometime between 1690 and 1730 (

                                                                                                                                          (9.) The Portuguese held a monopoly on the slave trade along the coast of West Africa until the end of the sixteenth century, when British, French, and later Dutch traders began to challenge the monopoly (Cassidy 1980, 9‒10).

                                                                                                                                          (10.) In situations of contact between speakers of different languages, the term superstrate refers to the variety or varieties spoken by those with more power and prestige, while the term substrate refers to those with less.

                                                                                                                                          (11.) Singler (1988, 28), however, cautions that the extent to which Africans speaking the same languages were separated from one another and the effects that were said to have resulted from this practice may have been somewhat overstated.

                                                                                                                                          (12.) Cassidy’s theory derives from the observation, noted earlier, that Carolina, Jamaica, and Surinam were all initially colonized by Barbadian settlers.

                                                                                                                                          (13.) In response to Hancock’s challenge, Cassidy conceded that creolization in Barbados was not likely before 1660 or 1670 but could have taken place in Barbados after this period, as the number of African importations in the area rose to support the needs of the growing sugar industry. It is not certain, however, whether the creole would have developed early enough to have had the formative influence on Sranan, Jamaican Creole, and Gullah posited by Cassidy. See also Rickford and Handler (1994).

                                                                                                                                          (14.) Noting a number of similarities between Gullah and modern-day Krio, Hancock contends that GCCE was also the ancestor to Krio, spoken today in Sierra Leone.

                                                                                                                                          (15.) Mufwene derived his model from one presented in Chaudenson (1992) and Baker (1993) for French colonies in the Indian Ocean and the New World. Several parallel observations were made in Winford (1997) with regard to the development of AAVE, to be discussed later in this chapter.

                                                                                                                                          (16.) As observed in Mufwene (1993, 21 n. 19), the ratios in South Carolina did not appear to have reached the proportions estimated by Bickerton (1981) to have been necessary for creole formation, though they might have been more closely approximated on larger plantations along the coast. Mufwene (1993, 12) also questioned, however, whether Bickerton’s numbers were too conservative to account for all instances of creolization that took place. See also Rickford (1997).

                                                                                                                                          (17.) Winford favored the language shift hypothesis over that of qualitative decreolization as it applied to the history of AAVE, arguing that the latter “assume[d]‌ too much about the speed of change and fail[ed] to take account of all the relevant sociohistorical and linguistic evidence” (1997, 311). A similar observation was made by Edgar Schneider, who noted that if AAVE had indeed developed from a creole origin, “then it would occupy a unique position as the only fully decreolized variety in the Central and North American region” (1989, 39).

                                                                                                                                          (18.) John Rickford observed that some creole features were, in fact, attested in the New England and Middle colonies of the United States. However, he argued that they were more likely to have been “imported” into these regions from already established creole-speaking communities than to have been “home-grown” (1997, 321).

                                                                                                                                          (19.) In Winford’s (1997, 326) estimation, Gullah would have spread to Georgia during the last few decades of the eighteenth century, as planters and slaves from South Carolina migrated to the Georgia coast.

                                                                                                                                          (20.) The “Great Black Migration” of southern Blacks moving to northern and western cities in the early to mid-twentieth century is said to have played a significant role in the regional spread of Southern AAVE.

                                                                                                                                          (21.) For an examination of the AAVE-Gullah connection in the Carolinas, see Weldon (1998, 2003a, and 2003b).

                                                                                                                                          (22.) At least a couple of studies have reported higher rates of plural ‒s absence in AAVE. For example, Kessler (1972) reported 19.6 percent ‒s absence in a socially stratified study of African Americans in Washington, DC. And Rowe (2005) observed 23.9 percent ‒s absence among the oldest generation in Princeville, North Carolina—a rural African American enclave community. From what is currently known, these findings do not appear to be generalizable to most AAVE varieties.

                                                                                                                                          (23.) It is possible that some varieties of AAVE spoken in other parts of the United States also permit first person zero copula; however, there is little to no published research documenting such usage.

                                                                                                                                          (24.) Anecdotally, it has been observed that many younger speakers from the South Carolina low country tend to associate the Gullah label with older varieties, while using Geechee to describe their own cultural and linguistic identities. This phenomenon is particularly noteworthy, given the stigma that has been historically linked to the Geechee label. However, the extent to which this shift in labeling is tied to actual linguistic differences between older and younger speakers remains unknown.