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.
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.
Still, Mr. Greene is not particularly worried that Gullah will one day disappear. ``If it has withstood what has happened over the past 200 years, then, of course, development is not going to change it,'' he says. Instead, he pushes for ``a raising of the awareness'' of Gullah's distinction as a language, and its potential use for teaching standard English.
Many natives now ``can speak Gullah, and they can speak a fairly good portion of English, but when they come to what we call `where the river meets the road' - writing it down - they can't make the switch,'' Mr. Greene says.
Although the Sharpes avoid the issue, Mr. Greene says he hopes to approach legislators in the next few years with proposals for bilingual education in schools. Many parents correct children as they speak Gullah, he says, unknowingly contributing to the elimination of ``a beautiful part of the child's life.''
Instead, he says he believes parents should help their children draw a sharp distinction between Gullah and standard English. ``Students need to get a firm grasp of Gullah,'' he says, not only so they can speak it properly, but also to cultivate the respect it deserves.
``Without a respect and appreciation for one's language, one feels there is nothing there of real respect,'' Mr. Greene says.
And as he studies and promotes the study of Gullah, Mr. Greene continues to marvel at the language's interrelationships. He tells the story of a trip to Jamaica when a cabdriver offered him some advice.
``I said, `Sir, you sound just like someone from home,''' Mr. Greene recalls. ``He said, `Oh yeah, mon, we came on de same boat, you gis got off at a different port.'''
Parable of the lost sheep
Luke 15: 1-7
GULLAH TRANSLATION BY THE SEA ISLAND TRANSLATION TEAM: 1.One time a heap a tax collecta en odda sinna come fa yer Jesus. 2.En de Pharisee en de law-teesha dem staat fa mek cumplain, say, ``Dis man sociate wid (be wid) sinna en ebn eat mong am. 3.Now den Jesus done know dem binna mek cumplain bout am. So e tell am one parryubble, say, 4.``Supposin a hondad sheep blonks ta one a oona. Ef one a dem sheep done loss een de wood, wa you fa do? Sho nof, you gwain lef de ninety-nine oddares safe een de pasta. You gwain saach fa de one wa loss tel you fin am, eni? 5.Wen you done fin am, you be too heppy, so you put am cross you shoulda, cyar am ta you yaad. 6.Den wen you git tal you yaad, you gwain hail you fren en you neba, say, `A done bin loss one a me sheep. En a saach far am tel now a done fin am. Com to me yaad en les we make merry.' Dat wa oona gwain do. 7.Now sho nof (fa true true) e stan jus lokka dis. Wen one a oona fin you loss sheep, oona fa make merry. Same feshion, all dem wa een Hebn gwain rejaice weneba ebn jis one sinna yar pon dis arth ton fom e sin en staat fa waak wid Jesus. Fa true, all dem gwain be rejaicin tummoch now fa dat one wa done waak wid Jesus. Dem gwain rejaice far am mor den fa ninety-nine oddares who tink, say, `A yent need fa ractify me way. Bery well den.'''
REVISED STANDARD VERSION OF THE BIBLE 1.Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2.And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ``This man receives sinners and eats with them.'' 3.So he told them this parable: 4.``What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 5.And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6.And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' 7.Even so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.''