Correction to This Article
This article about the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Community Museum misstated the university from which the late scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner received his master's degree. It was Harvard, not Yale.
Art preview

Anacostia museum exhibit details how Lorenzo Dow Turner traced Gullah language

"Word, Shout and Song" opens at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum on Aug. 9. The exhibit displays the work of linguist and scholar Lorenzo Dow Turner, who discovered that the people of the Gullah/Geechee communities in South Carolina and Georgia spoke a distinctive language.
By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company