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Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language

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Anacostia museum exhibit details how Lorenzo Dow Turner traced Gullah language

By DeNeen Brown
Friday, August 6, 2010

"Mus tek cyear a de root fa heal de tree," the Gullah women would say. "You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree."

At first, white people did not understand the words of the Gullah, descendants of African slaves who lived isolated by water in the Sea Islands, the chain of about 100 tidal and barrier islands off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

People on the mainland wondered: "What are these people talking about? Were they speaking a baby version of English, or broken English?"

The Gullah women were saying "nana" and "oona" and "plat-eye" and "shut mout' " and calling for "Tata."

The cadence and rhythm were confounding.

For years, linguists came to the Sea Islands and listened, trying to understand descendants of slaves who had been transported there mostly from the West Coast of Africa. They paid rapt attention to the slaves' fantastical stories, like those about women who could grab lightning in their bare hands and use the heat of the bolt to boil a pot of medicine.

They called a small bird "bidi." They called a white man "buckra." They said "dash away" to get rid of a bad habit. And used "de" instead of "to be." They used "e" as a pronoun for "he," "she" and "it." They said "eh" for "yes." And "fanner" was a basket used to thresh rice. They said "hudu" was something that brought bad luck. And whispered sweetly "nyam" while encouraging a child to eat.

The root of Gullah words are explained in the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum's exhibit "Word, Shout, Song," which opens Monday and runs through March 27. The exhibit presents the work of scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner, perhaps the first well-known African American linguist, who was called "the father of Gullah studies."

The exhibit -- which includes photographs from the African Diaspora, artifacts from the Sea Islands and rare audio recordings of spoken Gullah -- follows Turner's linguistic detective work into the Gullah and Geechee communities. It traces Turner's travels to Georgia, South Carolina, Brazil and Africa as he tried to get to the root of what these Gullah words meant and translated them for a wider audience, providing insight into isolated worlds.

Turner was "able to connect words from Portuguese, Gullah and English to their African origins," said Alcione Amos, the exhibit's curator.

Turner, a descendant of four generations of free black people and a brilliant scholar of languages who studied and later taught at Howard University and received his master's from Yale, announced in the 1930s that he had made the crucial connections.

"He revealed that people of African heritage, despite slavery, had retained and passed on their cultural identity through words, music and story wherever they landed," Amos says.

Turner found that the people of Gullah and Geechee communities in South Carolina and Georgia indeed spoke a distinctive language that "still possessed parts of the language and culture of their captive ancestors."

Native words, religion and song

"Language," reads one anonymous quotation, "is the steed that carries one into a far country." And back again.

The more than 645,000 Africans who were captured, enslaved and forced to travel to the Americas carried their languages with them. The tongues they spoke included Bambara, Ewe, Fon, Fante, Fulani, Hausa, Kongo, Kimbundu, Vai and Mende. Oppressors tried to beat these languages out of the captured people, believing that if they could strip them of their native words, religion and song, they could possess them.

In the 1977 television miniseries "Roots," the character Kunta Kinte clings to his name and language despite being beaten and his back being bloodied by whips. Each time the lash struck his back, he kept saying that his name was "Kunta Kinte," until he finally whispered that his name was "Toby."

But the viewer never believed that Kunta Kinte had surrendered completely. The viewer sensed that within, in that silent language that we all speak in our heads, he still called himself Kunta Kinte.

The "Word, Shout, Song" exhibit says that many of the slaves eventually lost fluency in their native languages. But some of the languages survived, broken in pieces. And people passed on words, which they carried with them as if they were diamonds, to their children. And they, in turn, passed the words on to their children.

We see a photo of Lizzie Grant, of Harris Neck, Ga., standing in the doorway of a house, her body framed in the wood slats. Her head is covered by a scarf. Her hands seem to be ready to move. She is about to say something -- this effort to speak captured in the photo.

We see photographs of Paris and Rosa Capers, of St. Helena Island, S.C., standing in their yard. She is wearing an apron. He is standing straight. He is holding a basket of fruit.

We see video of a descendant of Gullah people in South Carolina talking in the early 1930s about how his parents told him not to speak the language outside his house while on the mainland.

Turner first encountered the Gullah language in South Carolina in 1930 when he heard two students talking. He noticed that there were some words in English, but it seemed to be a different language. At that time, Amos says, the concept of a Creole language did not exist.

Turner visited the students' homes in the Sea Islands, carrying with him a recording device that weighed more than 100 pounds. He traveled by boat, relying on the rise and fall of the tides.

"Sometimes the row boat in which he sat could not reach the shore and he had to wade in," the exhibit says. "Most of the time there was no electricity in the locations where he was interviewing his informants and he had to ferry them to the mainland, where the recording machine could be connected to electricity."

Many of the interviews took place in Charleston and Beaufort in South Carolina and Savannah, Ga.

Turner delved into Gullah, finding that the grammatical constructions and words that had nothing to do with English originated in African languages. Turner, who would go on to publish "Africanism in the Gullah Dialect," studied African languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, arriving in London in 1936. He concentrated on the Ewe, Efik, Ga, Twi and Yoruba languages. He also studied Arabic, connecting some Gullah words to the language.

In 1936, Turner wrote from London to the president of Fisk University: "The resemblance between these [West African] languages and Gullah [is] much more striking than I had supposed."

"The cracking of the Gullah code had begun," the exhibit says.

The exhibit traces the full circle of the passage of language in one family.

Sometime in the 1700s, a Mende woman named Catherine was captured in what is today Sierra Leone. The woman was transported to a plantation in the Sea Islands of Georgia.

She brought with her a funeral song "for among the Mende," the exhibit says, "the women were the guardians of funeral traditions." Catherine taught the song to her daughter, Tawba, who passed the song to her daughter, Amelia Dawley, who was born a free woman in 1880. Dawley taught the song to her daughter, Mary Moran.

In 1933, Turner recorded Amelia Dawley in Harris Neck singing that song:

A wa ka, mu mone; kambei ya le'i; lii i lei tambee A wa ka, mu mone; kambei ya le'i; lii i lei ka Haa so wolingoh sia kpande wilei Haa so wolingoh, ndohoh lii, nde kee Haa so wolingoh sia kuhama ndee yia. (Sudden death commands everyone's attention like a firing gun. Sudden death commands everyone's attention, oh elders, oh heads of the family. Sudden death commands everyone's attention like a distant drum beat.)

Many years later, anthropologist Joseph Opala discovered the song among Turner's recordings. He and other scholars arranged a meeting among Mary Moran and the inhabitants of Senehun Ngola, a village in Sierra Leone. Moran said her grandmother had told her, "Some time in the future, if people who can sing it come back here to our village, you will know they are your own family."

In the exhibit, you see footage of Moran, of Georgia, getting off a plane in Sierre Leone and singing the Mende funeral song with women in the village.

And the women wept. One of the elders in the village said: "You can identify a person's tribe by the language they cry in."