NEW BIBLE TRANSLATION. Keeping ancestral language alive
St. Helena Island, S.C.
One day this month - as they have each month for the past six years - a group of slave descendants will gather at a former plantation on this sea island between Charleston and Hilton Head, bow their heads in prayer, and then resume a decade-long task of translating their ancestral tongue. Their work is unprecedented - an attempt to compile and publish a Bible in the language of Gullah, a lyrical medley of West African, Caribbean, and English elements still spoken by thousands in this region of salt marsh and oak groves.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But although the religious emphasis is primary, the Sea Island translation team, as its members are called, hopes its work will encompass still more.
The team's leader, the Rev. Ervin Greene, pastor to nearby Daufuskie Island, says that by formalizing the unwritten language, the work should eventually help natives assimilate into a tourism-based economy without losing touch with a rich past. ``When a person loses his language, he loses his entire culture,'' Mr. Greene says.
Once described as ``flutelike,'' Gullah is the American variety of a West African trade language that spread with slavery to the Caribbean and South America, according to William A. Stewart, a linguist at the City University of New York.
Combining elements of about 25 West African tribal dialects, English, and a Caribbean cadence, it became the common language of overseers, plantation owners, and slaves. Today Professor Stewart estimates almost 250,000 people, including about 10,000 in New York City, continue to speak Gullah, primarily on the thousands of small sea islands stretching from North Carolina to northern Florida.
Considered a creole language by linguists, Stewart says Gullah has its own grammar, sentence structure, and phonetics, and is frequently characterized by its use of colorful phrases.
For instance, ``dayclean'' is used for morning and ``dry long so,'' means simple and direct, he explains.
``It's one of the many languages which just haven't happened to be written down,'' says Pat Sharpe, a trained linguist working with the team.
Sponsored by the nondenominational Wycliffe Bible Translators and the related Summer Institute of Linguistics, Pat and Claude Sharpe came to the area in 1979 and have provided technical assistance to the team of eight natives. In addition, the Sharpes coordinate translation work with about 35 reviewers across the sea islands from North Carolina to Georgia.
The team has set three goals: the Bible's translation, the charting of Gullah's formal linguistics, and the development of teaching aids for eventual use in schools.
So far about 30 percent of the New Testament has been translated, and completion is expected in 1992.
With the linguistic groundwork then established, the Old Testament could be finished within five years, Mr. Greene estimates. As sections are completed, Mrs. Sharpe says, they are taken to the most effective testing laboratory available, nearby Daufuskie Island.
Though bulldozers and builders are beginning to mirror development on neighboring Hilton Head Island, Daufuskie for years has been the isolated home to a largely poor, black, and illiterate population speaking in Gullah.
Similar changes have already begun on St. Helena Island, the largest of some 15 sea islands off Beaufort, S.C. A 45-square-mile area of vast fields and flat-brown marshes, St. Helena was freed by Union troops shortly after the Civil War began, thereby earning a designation among some natives as a ``cradle of liberty'' for black people.
Descendants of slaves today travel oak-shaded roads past former plantations to work at Marine Corps bases on Parris Island and outside Beaufort, or perhaps to resorts on nearby Fripp, Dataw, or Hilton Head Islands.
Though blacks account for 70 percent of the islands' population, their number has remained steady, while the number of white residents grows an average of 8 to 11 percent every five years, according to the Beaufort Planning Commission.