Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Eric A. Anchimbe (University of Munich)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Consciousness and linguistic agency in Creole: Evidence from Gullah and Geechee

Thomas B. Klein (Georgia Southern University)



This paper addresses the issue of agency in the diaspora of Africans generated by the transatlantic slave trade from a linguistic point of view. It focuses on the Creole population known as Gullah or Geechee in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina in the United States. New evidence from the Lorenzo Dow Turner corpus of historical audio recordings from the 1930s is presented to demonstrate linguistic acts of identity and self-determination among American ex-slaves. It is argued that linguistic agency may take place consciously and subconsciously.


1. Introduction

The question of agency in the lives of displaced and transplanted African populations has been a significant focus in humanistic studies at least since the pioneering work by Herskovits (1941). He demonstrated that knowledge of ancestral cultures could be maintained despite the trauma of deportation and slavery and that enslaved populations could be creators of Creolized cultures in the New World. This question is especially important in postcolonial studies, for example to understand the struggle of the populations of relatively new nation states in the Caribbean for an identity distinct from the erstwhile colonizers. Lorenzo Dow Turner's (1949) work showed that significant retentions from West African languages could be found among ex-slaves in America. Later work has emphasized the idea that African diasporic populations actively shape their linguistic landscapes. Via linguistic acts of identity, for example, speakers locate themselves in social space and in relation to their interlocutors. This is particularly salient in Creole societies as they create and develop new language varieties in the place of ancestral and colonial languages (Le Page & Tabouret-Keller 1985, Winford 2003).

The issue of agency is related to the question of how consciously aware people are of actively creating their linguistic world. Given Labov's (1972) classic study of microvariation on the island of Martha's Vineyard, for example, one may reasonably presume that speakers of that particular variety of English are aware that they employ a distinct pronunciation of the diphthongs /ay/ and /aw/. Although Vineyarders might not start a conversation about this topic themselves, they would likely recognize something of their own speech in distinct locales such as Ocracoke Island or in book titles such as Hoi Toide on the Outer Banks (Wolfram and Shilling-Estes 1997) because the diphthongs there are distinct from mainstream English as well. On the other hand, quantitative results of microvariation studies may reflect linguistic constellations that operate entirely below the level of consciousness. It seems unlikely, for instance, that native Vineyarders were aware of Labov's finding that individuals significantly centralize the diphthongs /ay/ and /aw/ if they hold more positive attitudes towards the traditional lifestyle on the island. However, code-switching and possibly other discourse phenomena can easily be the subject of conscious reflection. One only needs to look at self-reports by speakers of Spanglish, for example, to find evidence for people's awareness of switching between different languages under certain circumstances. So it seems certain that linguistic phenomena operate at different levels of consciousness.

The objective of this paper is to bring the idea of linguistic agency and self-determination by diasporic minority populations into focus and to provide evidence for it from my work on Gullah and Geechee. The evidence suggests that different levels of consciousness are involved in creating the linguistic terrain of this particular Creole language. By extension, we may hypothesize that the full range of consciousness is employed when postcolonial languages in general are crafted by their speakers. Language users are very likely not aware of microlinguistic variation and change across generations, yet these phenomena contribute to the linguistic identity of the population. On the other hand, people are certainly aware of linguistic acts such as lyrics to traditional songs and linguistic labels for outsiders and insiders to the community. Recent work in psychology and philosophy may provide guideposts in pursuing this enterprise. Lethin, for example, writes that "the sense of self as a covert agent is a key component to the sense of self" (2005: 157). Covert agency clearly operates in tandem with overt, goal-directed agency in everyday experience (cf. Ellis & Newton 2005). The present paper takes some steps to sketch linguistic phenomena that appear grounded in overt and covert agency.


2. Gullah and Geechee and the Lorenzo Dow Turner collection

Gullah and Geechee may be defined as the only true-blue English-lexified Creole language spoken indigenously in the continental United States, namely, the coastal areas of the states of Georgia and South Carolina. It is thus distinct from Hawaiian Pidgin, the French-lexified Creole of Louisiana, and African American Vernacular English. The names Gullah and Geechee highlight endonymic practice by fusing two current local designations: Geechee in Georgia and in Charleston, South Carolina, and Gullah in the rest of South Carolina. Using the two names is preferable to previous scholarly practice of referring to the language in question exclusively as Gullah or even as Sea Island Creole, a label no speaker uses. The designation Sea Island Creole is also of limited accuracy given that Gullah and Geechee is spoken in the Georgia Coastal Empire and the South Carolina Low Country, in addition to the Sea Islands. The inclusiveness suggested by the term Gullah and Geechee is also important to community organizations such as the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition and the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society (SICARS). In contrast, the exclusive application of the term Gullah alienates members of the Geechee community (Bailey 2000). Gullah and Geechee people are the descendants of Africans that worked the lands of the former Plantation South. This population has retained more African elements in language and culture than any other indigenous group in North America. This is in part because these islands were fairly isolated from mainstream culture until about the 1950s when bridges were built to connect them to the mainland.

Lorenzo Dow Turner was the first African American professional language scientist. He uncovered a number of significant elements of West African languages in Gullah and Geechee (Turner 1949). He and an unidentified female associate conducted and recorded extensive semi-structured interviews with Gullah and Geechee speakers along the South Carolina and Georgia coast in 1932 and 1933. These historical audio recordings had long been forgotten, but they are now being rediscovered as rare and priceless documents of oral history. They are also of immeasurable value as data sources to linguistics, Africana studies, anthropology, folklore, history, and post-colonial studies. The originals are now housed as the Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection at the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music. Only a fraction of this corpus is publicly available at present. Some narratives were transcribed by Turner and published in the chapter Texts in Africanisms. A few others are available as audio plus transcripts on web pages of the Library of Congress. Evidence in this paper is drawn in part from unpublished interviews in the Turner Collection.


3. Overt agency and linguistic self-determination

People subjected to slavery despise it, even though they may not always say so in the presence of outsiders or whites. Researchers working with the ex-slave recordings produced under the auspices of the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s, for instance, have argued that the comments by ex-slaves on the institution often seem subdued in large part because the interviewers were usually white and frequently Southerners (Bailey, Maynor, and Cukor-Avila 1991). In this context it is remarkable to find that the Gullah and Geechee forged the term 'rebel time' as an alternative for 'slavery'. This term was used by Diana Brown of Edisto Island, South Carolina, in the early 1930s. Turner himself notes in the translation of Gullah and Geechee sentences that 'rebel time' means 'slavery' (see Turner 1949: 218 and 221). The transcription in English spelling in the Texts chapter, however, uses only the word 'slavery'. One has to look to the phonetic transcriptions or the audio recordings of the interviews to find 'rebel time'. Thus, Gullah and Geechee phrases spoken by Diana Brown and preserved in Turner's texts can be transcribed in English as follows:

Ain't rebel time coming back? (p. 262)

Diana done been through so much thing in rebel time [.] (p. 264)

Rebel time, what it give you? (p. 266)

Emory Campbell of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, reports that his grandmother used the expression 'rebel time people' to refer to slaves (personal communication, November 2005). This observation is important because it confirms that the term was used in locations beyond Edisto Island. We seem to be dealing with more than a simple renaming of the period of slavery. Eric Anchimbe (personal communication, March 2006) has asked why the Gullah and Geechee would use such a suggestive English word which could land them in more trouble with their white masters or overseers. First, it could be that this word was not usually shared with white outsiders to avoid negative repercussions. Furthermore, many whites may have misinterpreted it as naming the time of the Confederate soldiers who were referred to as rebels in the South. Thus, beginning in 1861 or thereabouts, it may have been mistaken as an alternative term for the Civil War. The item 'rebel time' is listed in the 'Gullah glossary' in Gonzales (1922):

Rebel time - the freedmen's offensive characterization of the period before freedom when their former masters controlled the government of their own states. (p. 322)

Gonzales' writings embody the racist views often held about Gullah and Geechee in his time. He bluntly declares: "with characteristic laziness, these Negroes took short cuts to the ears of their auditors, using as few words as possible" (p. 10). The sting of the term 'rebel time', however, did not escape white observers such as Gonzales, who interprets it as an 'offensive characterization'.

The term 'rebel time' represents a novel meaning created by using English stems through the use of the productive word formation process of compounding. Newly formed compounds are generally transparent in meaning, so most of them are not noted in dictionaries. Lexicographers tend to record compounds when their sense is opaque or when their referent is unique. Given that the meaning of the compound 'rebel time' is obvious to the Gullah and Geechee population, but not transparent to all white observers, it seems somewhat surprising that the term has escaped the attention of lexicographers of the English language to date. It is not listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example.

It is important to point out that the vocabulary item 'rebel time' must have been forged in the New World. Words of English have been used to coin it, but this particular configuration is possible only in conjunction with the linguistic skills of the enslaved populations. It seems unlikely that a linguistic model for the term existed in the languages of West Africa. Instead, this compound invokes a depiction of transplanted African communities not as docile and happy slaves, but as fighters in the spirit of the Stono Rebellion, which took place near Edisto Island in 1739 (Wood 1974), or in the spirit of Caribbean communities of maroons or runaway slaves. The resistance to slavery could be seen in the conscious creation and use of this alternate word. It seems inescapable to conclude that overt agency was essential in its design.

Ex-slaves shared a good number of their songs and lyrics with researchers. One extensive collection was presented by Parrish (1942). The lyrics to some of the songs are critical of slavery and bear protest against it. Turner's respondents shared a large number of songs with him as well. Few lyrics, however, are published in Africanisms; most of the songs are contained in the as yet unpublished Turner Collection. Interestingly, when the collections by Parrish and Turner are examined closely, different versions of certain songs may be found in the same location, as shown for Sapelo Island in Table 1. Note that the transcription of Tom Lemon's version is slightly anglicized to make reading easier.

Table 1. Renditions of Hard Laws in Old Virginia on Sapelo Island in the early 1930s

Hard Time in Ole Virginny

Hard Laws in Old Virginia

Summer comin' again

Hard time in ole Virginny.

Comin' in the rainbow

Hard time in ole Virginny.

Comin' in the cloud

Hard time in ole Virginny.

My ole missus promise me

Hard time in ole Virginny.

When she die she set me free

Hard time in ole Virginny.

She live so long

Hard time in ole Virginny.

Her head got bald

Hard time in ole Virginny.

Oh, he knows Virginia

Hard laws in old Virginia.

Oh, he knows Virginia

Hard laws in old Virginia.

Virginia people never get tired, but

Hard laws in old Virginia.

My ole missus promise me, but

Hard laws in old Virginia.

When she die she'll set me free, but

Hard laws in old Virginia.

Oh, do look beyond her

Hard laws in old Virginia.

Oh, wonder what's the matter

Hard laws in old Virginia.

Sung by Emma Johnson (Parrish 1942: 234)

Sung by Tom Lemon; from Turner recording 681-2

Table 1 displays lyrics to the song which Parrish calls Hard Time in Ole Virginny. The song is performed by community elders in the early 1930s who resided on the same island in the state of Georgia. The version found in Turner's collection is a variant text, but it contains the same message. The theme in both versions is the unfulfilled promise of freedom by a white mistress. The existence of multiple adaptations also shows that rote memorization as a stock song was not intended by the performers. Each version openly disapproves of white Southern practices and criticizes the institution of slavery. Note that diasporic Africans were not afraid to sing this song for white (Parrish) or black (Turner) outsiders in the segregated South of the 1930s. We may only speculate why these Gullah and Geechee persons did not seem to fear retaliation. This song is not unique in its stance against slavery. In fact, other Gullah and Geechee songs contain 'pithy social commentary' as well (Rosenbaum 1992: xviii). Presentation and reception of song lyrics are clearly at the level of overt consciousness for performers and listeners. Given the improvised critical lyrics in the Gullah and Geechee songs, it is obvious that folk performance coupled with linguistic creativity was used to bring charges against slavery. The performance of music that is critical of slavery is a tradition that continues to date as is shown through the collection of songs in Rosenbaum (1998) and by the work of the Georgia Sea Island Singers.

Perhaps the most prominent issue threatening the survival of today's Gullah and Geechee community is the encroachment by outsiders and the danger of losing its ancestral lands to residential and commercial development. This has emerged as a major community concern after bridges to the islands were built and tourist resorts were put up there. Given the agency in the language of the community in the past, we would expect linguistic reactions to this contemporary development as well. The influx of white residents and summer tourists has indeed been accompanied by the creation of new words and semantic concepts. Gullah and Geechee persons on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for example, now distinguish between binyas and comyas.

binya 'island native with long island ancestry; elder lifelong island resident'

'immigrant to island without island ancestry; newcomer'

(Campbell 2002)

Binya and comya appear to have been created via compounding from the Gullah and Geechee pronunciations of 'been here' and 'come here', respectively. I have also heard the noun 'former' to refer to an island native who has island ancestry, but no longer lives there permanently. The noun 'former' appears to have been devised through the word formation process of conversion from the corresponding adjective.

A similar linguistic partition may be observed among the English Creole-speaking population of the Turks and Caicos Islands. 'Visitor' is the common term for a tourist, but 'resident' is reserved for an immigrant to the islands without island ancestry or anyone who spends extended periods of time there and who may own a home on the islands. 'Belonger', on the other hand, is the word reserved for an island native with long island ancestry. Eric Anchimbe (personal communication, March 2006) points out similar cases from West African English. 'Been-to' refers to people who have been abroad, especially for studies. People who migrate to Europe and North America are called 'bush fallers' in Cameroon. It appears obvious that societies in general are linguistically creative in response to significant shifts in socioeconomic conditions or societal restructuring. The important point is that we find this type of linguistic creativity in populations for which such agency was traditionally denied or not recognized by outsiders.

The cases from the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina and the Turks and Caicos Islands show that the reorganization of island life due to tourism and the influx of new, white residents makes necessary the linguistic negotiation of who belongs and who does not. Diasporic Africans take on this charge and consciously create new words and meanings through novel uses of word formation processes.


4. Covert agency through microlinguistic change and maintenance

Although speakers may not be consciously aware of the exact nature of microlinguistic processes and structures such as /t/-glottaling or the centralization of diphthongal nuclei, the work of Labov, Trudgill, and others after them has shown, however, that people can use microlinguistic variation to situate themselves in space and time. People may recognize and be able to talk about microstructures when they are pointed out to them and, therefore, are made conscious. Non-standard linguistic features are no exception to this. In fact, such features often enjoy covert prestige. In the words of Chambers and Trudgill,(1998), when speakers use stigmatized linguistic forms,

[t]hey must be favourably disposed to these forms, if only covertly, and to want to talk as they do, or they would not do so. This, then, is prestige in the sense of being favourably regarded by one's peers, and of signalling one's identity as a member of a group. (p. 85)

Covert agency, then, is the use of distinct microlinguistic features to situate oneself as a member of a linguistic community. Thus, segmental phonological processes such as nasal velarization (see below) play a significant role in maintaining the linguistic identity of speech communities. When I talk about nasal velarization with speakers of Gullah and Geechee, they not only recognize this structure as occurring in their own speech, but often come up with other examples of it. This means that the linguistic feature of nasal velarization is used subconsciously, but prompting can make speakers aware of it. The remainder of this section focuses first on aphesis and then on nasal velarization.

Aphesis is the variable omission of word-initial unstressed syllables. This process may be observed across three generations of Gullah and Geechee speakers in publicly available sources, to wit, Turner (1949) and Jones-Jackson (1978). Table 2. shows examples of aphesis as they occur in the transcribed texts in Turner (1949).

Table 2. Aphesis in Turner's Africanisms texts

























Aphesic forms may be used in sequence so that 'pen 'pon can be found in Gullah and Geechee as the equivalent of 'depend upon' in English. Any colloquial variety of English exhibits aphesic forms to some degree. However, the frequency of occurrence tends to be much higher in Gullah and Geechee. When the rate of aphesis is compared over time, a fundamental shift may be observed. Note that Turner's data were collected in the early 1930s, whereas Jones-Jackson's were collected in the mid 1970s.

Table 3. Aphesis rates across generations

Turner (1932/3; N=182)

Jones-Jackson (mid 1970s; N=33)


99 (54%)

10 (30%)


83 (46%)

23 (70%)

Table 3. shows that omission versus retention of word-initial unstressed syllables occurs roughly equally in Turner's data. Based on the phonetically transcribed texts presented in Jones-Jackson (1978), we find that word-initial unstressed syllables are omitted in more than two thirds of all cases. Turner and Jones-Jackson focused on community elders in their interviews, so the increase in aphesis happens two generations later. The difference in the distribution of Turner's versus Jones-Jackson's data is statistically significant (Yates' chi-square = 5.559; p < 0.019). Thus, Gullah and Geechee speech in the1970s is further away from mainstream English than in the 1930s as far as this feature is concerned. This is noteworthy because the Gullah described in Turner (1949) is often taken to be the form of the language that looks most like a Creole. In other words, the increase in aphesis points to an interesting linguistic dynamics in Gullah and Geechee as far as its status as a Creole language in relation to mainstream English is concerned. A more complete examination of this topic is beyond the scope of this paper, but see Klein (ms.) and Mufwene (1994) for further discussion.

The development of the frequency of aphesis across generations in Gullah and Geechee shows a divergence from mainstream English over time. This increase could be an instance of subconscious or covert linguistic agency in that speakers of Gullah and Geechee use this feature more over time to heighten the linguistic sense of community. We may speculate that this effect is a linguistic response to the influx of new, white residents and visitors to the Sea Islands analogous to the phenomena observed by Labov on Martha's Vineyard.

Nasal velarization in Gullah and Geechee occurs when an etymological /n/ is produced as a velar nasal immediately following a correlate of the diphthong /aw/. For typographical reasons, I refrain from using phonetic transcription in the following data. Instead, I use 'ng' to represent the velar nasal as in the final sound of the English word sing.

Nasal velarization in data from Turner (1949)

downg 'down' 'roung 'around'
drowng 'drown' sundowng 'sundown'

The data above show that English /n/ is rendered as 'ng' after vowel sounds corresponding to the spellings 'ow' or 'ou' in items such 'down' or 'around'. This is also found in Jones-Jackson's (1978) data even though the correlate of /aw/ is somewhat different; so English 'down' is dong and 'around' is rong in her data. Nasal velarization in Gullah and Geechee continues to the present day, as fieldwork by the author with speakers on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 2004 has shown.

Present-day nasal velarization (Klein 2004)

downg 'down' 'roung 'around'
towng 'town' soung 'sound'
gowng 'gown' groung 'ground'
clowng 'clown'    

The data above show that nasal velarization after /aw/ continues to occur even today. Note that it does not happen after any other vowel in Gullah and Geechee. This makes this appearance of the velar nasal distinct from non-peninsular varieties of Spanish where the velar nasal may occur in lieu of 'n' at the end of words after any vowel.

Taken together, the data from the various time periods of Gullah and Geechee speech show that nasal velarization has been maintained in the language for a significant period of time. This is noteworthy because this feature does not appear elsewhere in American English. It occurs in Creole Englishes across the Caribbean, however. In fact, it has been found that nasal velarization is "practically exclusive to Caribbean" varieties of English (Schneider 2004: 1124). Thus, it seems unlikely that non-Creole varieties of English offer a model for nasal velarization. On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that African languages could have served as a model for this process because diphthongs are rarely found in sub-Saharan African languages (Batibo 2000, Clements 2000). Given that nasal velarization in Gullah and Geechee and Caribbean English-lexified Creoles occurs only after the diphthong /aw/, it appears that nasal velarization could not be fashioned after West African languages because they do not have diphthongs in the first place. Consequently, it seems certain that nasal velarization represents an innovation within English-lexified Creole languages found around the Caribbean including the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina. It needs to be noted in this context, however, that Gullah and Geechee has not had any significant direct interaction with Caribbean speakers since1850 and possibly earlier. Thus, assuming that nasal velarization is originally a Caribbean feature, it must have been maintained in Gullah and Geechee from the days of the American colony, that is, from the18 th century. A more detailed investigation of the Caribbean connection of this feature is a worthwhile task for future research.

The maintenance of unique microlinguistic features over time in Gullah and Geechee does not just occur in the phonology, but also in the morphosyntax (see Mufwene 1994). The preservation of such features is interpreted in the present paper as an outcome of subconscious or covert agency. In sum, there is strong evidence that speakers of Gullah and Geechee maintain a singular profile in the American linguistic landscape.


5. Conclusion

This paper has delivered several types of evidence for linguistic creations and innovations that have occurred in the Gullah and Geechee language. The results from the present investigation show that Gullah and Geechee is and has been in a dynamic and multi-faceted relation to English. There seems to be no doubt that linguistic agency is a fundamental component of this language. In terms of the level of consciousness that the observed phenomena entail, I have proposed to group the linguistic evidence along an abstract cline of overt and covert agency. The formation of new lexical concepts and the creation of critical lyrics are situated at the conscious end, whereas phonological microvariation is placed towards the subconscious end. In other words, linguistic agency permeates speech in varying degrees of consciousness. There has not been room in this paper to present a comprehensive account of all the issues that arise from this hypothesis. Future research needs to be undertaken to achieve full understanding of the overt alterations and subtle changes that are being initiated and embraced by Creole populations such as the Gullah and Geechee to situate themselves in linguistic space and time.


Work on this contribution has been aided by Faculty Service Grants from the Faculty Service Committee, a Professional Travel Award from the Faculty Development Committee, and the Nichols Travel Endowment, all at Georgia Southern University, and a Global Partnerships Grant from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. This support is gratefully acknowledged. I thank the audiences at the Postcolonial Innovations and Transformations: Putting Language at the Forefront session of the December 2005 Innovations and Reproductions in Cultures and Societies (IRICS) Conference in Vienna, Austria, and at a colloquium at the University of Siegen, Germany, for useful comments on earlier versions of this paper. Thank you to Daniel Reed, Marilyn Graf, and Mike Casey from the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music for providing me with a digital duplicate of the Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection and to the Dean's Office of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University for acquiring it. A very special thank you to Cornelia Bailey of Sapelo Island, Georgia, and Emory Campbell of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, for their patient work in researching the history and structure of Gullah and Geechee with me. Special thanks also to Ray Crook, Ingo Plag, and, in particular, Eric Anchimbe for insightful comments along the way. All responsibility for errors of fact or interpretation lies with the author.

© Thomas B. Klein (Georgia Southern University)


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3.2. Postcolonial innovations and transformations: Putting language in the forefront

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