Thomas B. Klein

Georgia Southern University


Divergent Processes in Gullah/Geechee: Evidence from Sound Structure

The state of health of the Gullah/Geechee language is a central and controversial issue in the American South. Some linguists (e.g., Jones-Jackson 1978, 1987) have argued that Gullah/Geechee shows signs of converging with vernacular English. Others have presented evidence to suggest that the linguistic structure of Gullah/Geechee is being maintained over time (e.g., Mufwene 1991, 1994, 1997). Still others have shown that Gullah/Geechee is developing new patterns that diverge from English (Hopkins 1994). Prior research on this question has focused almost exclusively on syntax, whereas the investigation of phonological structures has been neglected. The present study is designed to redress this imbalance and, hence, it presents data from phonological change to bear on the question of the development of Gullah/Geechee.

The prime sources of data for the phonological comparison are the phonetically transcribed narratives in Turner (1949) and Jones-Jackson (1978, 1987), augmented with some data from the author’s recent linguistic field research with Geechee native speakers on Sapelo Island, Georgia.

The variable absence vs. presence of word-initial unstressed syllables preceding stressed syllables in English etyma may result in 'bout, 'side, and 'zamin, versus about, beside and examine, respectively, in Gullah/Geechee. Note that Vaughn-Cooke (1976, 1986) has found an increase in the presence of these syllables over three generations of AAVE speakers, showing convergence with WVE in this dimension. In this paper, the trajectory of change in Gullah/Geechee is shown to be the opposite. There are significantly more initial pre-stress syllables absent in Jones-Jackson’s later narratives (70%) than in Turner’s earlier ones (47%; p << 0.026), suggesting basilectization along the creole continuum. There is a noteworthy distinction along gender lines in Turner’s narratives. Females omit significantly more etymological syllables (56%) than males (27%) in Turner’s narratives (p << 0.0005), echoing earlier findings in Nichols (1983) and Weldon (1996) that the speech of Gullah/Geechee women tends to be more creole-like than the speech of men. However, the difference in the omission rate of men and women is not statistically significant in the Jones-Jackson narratives. It appears that the men have caught up with the women by using basilectal syllable patterns in the later narratives, whereas earlier only the women did. Nasal velarization is the production of an etymological alveolar nasal as a velar nasal next to the correlate of the diphthong /aw/, as in Gullah/Geechee [dɒʊŋ] and [rɒʊŋ] for down and around. This creole feature (cf. Hancock 1969) is salient in Turner’s and Jones-Jackson’s narratives and also today on Sapelo Island.

Etymological /aw/ in Turner’s narratives (e.g., [dɒʊŋ] 'down’ and [hɒʊs] 'house’) is becoming [ɔ] in Jones-Jackson’s narratives (e.g., [dɔŋ] 'down’ and [hɔs] 'house’). This clearly represents a qualitatively divergent change in comparison to (vernacular) English.

The data presented in this paper show not only that the distinctive phonology of Gullah/Geechee is alive and well, but that there is also a healthy divergence from English structures towards the basilectal end of the creole continuum in recent times.