Remus no Gullah

Cecil says that the Gullah dialect appears in the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Actually, the dialogue in the Uncle Remus stories is just rural Southern. To read the Gullah dialect, see the “Daddy Jack” stories by Harris.

Link here.

This isn’t related to the OP but I didn’t want to start another thread for a small point re: Cecil’s original column. In it, as linked by evilbeth, he says

I attended a Catholic church with a predominantly black congregation where the choir sang exactly that. I’ve never been to camp so didn’t know “Kumbaya”, but I realized that was the song being sung, but with “Come by here” rather than “Kumbaya”.
A beautiful movie portraying the Gullah people is Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”.

Lots more info on Gullah

which includes the following
" Whatever its fate as a living vernacular, Gullah will live on with the general public as the language of Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris’s Bre’r Rabbit tales and of the fiction of South Carolina’s Ambrose E. Gonzales."

As well as these Gullah constructions:

beat on ayun: “mechanic”; literally, “beat-on-iron”
troot ma-wt: “a truthful person”; literally, “truth mouth”
hush ma-wt: “hush mouth”; literally, “hush mouth”
sho ded: “cemetery”; literally, “sure dead”

And let’s not forget:

Ron and Natalie Daise were the “parents” on Nick, Jr.'s “Gullah Gullah Island” children’s show and have received awards in South Carolina for their work.

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Please include a link to Cecil’s column if it’s on the straight dope web site.
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Cecil’s column can be found on-line at the link provided by evilbeth.

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Some random facts about Gullah:

jukebox is probably the most common English word derived from Gullah. A juke or juke-joint is an establishment featuring liquor, music, and dancing. Juke is ultimately derived from a word meaning “wicked”.

cooter, an English word meaning a freshwater turtle, is possibly from Gullah

Supreme Court Justice Clarence “Pubic Hair” Thomas is a native speaker of Gullah.

Many of the people in the nonfiction book Praying for Sheetrock spoke Gullah.

I vote for the Gullah word of the century:

Mojo from the gullah moco.

…in the early 70’s in the public school system, we city folks has kids from the islands bussed in. I lived on an island myself, Port Royal Island, but that was not considered “the islands”. Many of my classmates were basically the first generation systematically exposed to the world outside theirs, and I grew up listening to honest Gullah. I could understand clearly and speak it some myself, for a while. My friends grew away from the language, it being considered “wrong”, and as I grew into Junior High, it was dying. I hear audio tapes of truly well known Gullah poets, but those sounds are watered down so most can understand the words. There is a Gullah Festival in Beaufort every year, a fairly recent incarnation, but I’m afraid I’ll never again hear it as purely as I did in Battery Creek Elementary School.

An interesting side note: In the book/movie about Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Minerva, the spooky black woman, takes John Cusack to the Sea Islands of Beaufort, into the cemetary containing her husband’s grave (the garden). Her hubby was the Doctor Buzzard mentioned in Papermache Prince’s Beaufort link, as written about in Sheriff McTeer’s book, High Sheriff of the Lowcountry.

As a language mechanic, I was pleased to see that His Cecilness’ explanation of the words “pidgin” and “creole” was short, simple, and absolutely correct. Just had to give a quick thumbs up. Back to Gullah…

So, is Uncle Remus Gullah or not?
(Uncle Bill, on an unrelated note . . . is one in SC “Byoo-fert” or “Bo-fert?” I have family in both, and I’m damned if I can keep 'em straight.)

Andros, SC is “Byoo-fert”, NC is “Bow-fert”. I’ve lived in both, but claim SC as home.

I don’t personally think Uncle Remus was Gullah (at least the Disney version), but I am not a “language mechanic”. Does that take metric or S.I. wrenches, flodnak? (just kidding, somebody had to say it) There was some old black Southern slang in there, but it didn’t approach what I heard. I saw Uncle Remus at the same time I was in school listening to the real thing.

That’s correct- Uncle Remus is just rural Southern. As Cecil points out, Gullah is native to the South Carolina/Georgia “low country” (coast). The author of the Uncle Remus tales, Joel Chandler Harris, was from Eatonton, Georgia. It’s the next town over from Madison, where I grew up-in the central Georgia Piedmont, a good 5 hours from the coast.

Thank you, Pinky,

Nice to have things backed up by facts. One grammatical thing, it is the SC “Lowcountry” (one word, capitalized), and while I lived in Savannah, GA (a good 200 yards from SC) that was the “Coastal Empire”, not the Lowcountry. Not sure if that is factual in origin, but I NEVER heard the region in GA called Lowcountry. Same geography, similar cultural backgrounds. But I never saw the sweetgrass baskets (the real ones hold water) in Georgia, either. As I recall, that skill was a direct import from Africa. I may be wrong.


I consulted with Salikoko Mufwene, professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago and one of the leading authorities on African-American dialects (“American” being broadly understood here to mean “having to do with the New World”). You’ll recall that Prof. Mufwene was very helpful in our discussion of HUD’s Creole brochure–see and His answer in the present case basically was that Uncle Remus’s dialect is Gullah, just not a very faithful rendition of it. Here’s what he had to say:

“Joel Chandler Harris was born near Eatonton, GA, but moved to Savannah at the age of 17 and lived there for 11 years. Then he moved to Atlanta at the age of 28 and it is there that he started publishing his Gullah stories. He wrote differently from other writers of the same period, especially Ambrose Gonzales (correct spelling) and Charles C. Jones, who grew up in Gullah-speaking communities (at least Gonzales was from a destitute planter family). These two wrote in authentic Gullah, which compares well with what is still spoken today. Harris’ Gullah is stereotypical, with constructions that are non-vernacular. Ironically, he seems to have been celebrated more than the real experts, perhaps because readers took more interest in the baroque quaintness of his Gullah representation.”

CA: “So you are saying Harris attempted to mimic Gullah, but did not do a very good job of it?”

SM: “I am simply saying that his representation of Gullah is not as accurate as that of Ambrose Gonzales or Charles Jones. The latter (Jones) represents Gullah as spoken in Georgia.”

CA: “Did Harris know that what he was hearing was Gullah? Did he have a tin ear, distort what he heard to please his audience, or was he simply hearing a watered-down version of Gullah in his inland community?”

SM: “I don’t see why he would not have recognized Gullah. There’s a difference between perceiving it and reproducing it. (It’s like several Americans other than African Americans who recognize African-American English but distort it beyond recognition when they “mimic” it, especially when they intend to deride it.) Writing is an aspect of language reproduction. His ability to reproduce Gullah is not as commendable as that the other authors. All those authors wanted to entertain their readers with a language variety that they thought was quaint. There is a certain amount of exaggeration in the representations, but I think Harris deviates farther from reality. Although he wrote while living in Atlanta, what he wrote is based on what he remembered from living in Savannah and having access to Gullah speakers of the area. He did not have to remain there in order to write better, not any more than a non-native speaker of English needs to stay in the USA or the UK in order to write well.”

I asked Prof. Mufwene to confirm that he was speaking specifically of Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, and will let you know what he says.
[Edited by Cecil Adams on 07-26-2001 at 05:28 PM]

I’m curious as to how he might know this definitively. I remember reading Mark Twain’s intro to Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn and he noted that there were numerous variants of the dialects he had used, and that he had taken great care to faithfully reproduce the various dialects that he had chosen to use. Presumably, there might be numerous variants of Gullah/rural Southern dialect as well. So on what basis can one declare that such-and-such cannot have been a legitimate dialect but must have been corrupted?