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November 20, 2005

'De Nyew Testament' — God speaks in Gullah


Gullah is the Creole language spoken by slaves and their descendants for generations along the the sea islands of the Southeast coast.

Since 1979 a team of Gullah speakers has worked with Pat and Claude Sharpe, translation consultants with Wycliffe Bible Translators.

The New Testament in Gullah (above) is now finished.

Published by the American Bible Society, it went on sale this month.

The three photos below were taken at a November 5 celebration of the translation's completion.


Here is a sample from John's Gospel 1.1 from De Nyew Testament, compared with the same verse from the King James Version:

    Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, and de Wod been God.

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Here's Bruce Smith's story for the Associated Press on the undertaking.

    After 26 Years of Work, Gullah Bible is Finally Finished

    More than a quarter century after the laborious work began, the New Testament has finally been translated into Gullah, the creole language spoken by slaves and their descendants for generations along the sea islands of the Southeast coast.

    Gullah is an oral language, so the translation was painstaking, beginning in 1979 with a team of Gullah speakers who worked with Pat and Claude Sharpe, translation consultants with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


    Many efforts have been made over the years to preserve Gullah, which mixed West African languages with English, and experts believe the translated Bible will be a major contribution toward that goal.

    "I think this makes the language universal," said Ervena Faulkner, co-manager of history and culture at the Penn Center, on South Carolina's St. Helena Island.

    The center is dedicated to preserving the threatened sea island culture.

    "People have done Gullah cookbooks, they have done African-American sayings, they have done proverbs," Faulkner said.

    "But for the Bible to go out with the Gullah sends a message. It means we can speak the Word."

    The culture - called Gullah in the Carolinas and Geechee in Florida and Georgia - remained intact with descendants of slaves because of the isolation of the region's sea islands.

    Now, about 250,000 Gullahs live in the four-state coastal area and about 10,000 of them speak Gullah as their main language.

    "De Nyew Testament," published by the American Bible Society, went on sale this month.

    As an example, the verse John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God," was translated to read, "Fo God mek de wol, de Wod been dey. De Wod been dey wid God, an de Wod been God. - De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa John Write 1:1."

    The Bible is written with the English translation in the margins.

    "That's the beauty of the way it's written," said Emory Campbell, who retired three years ago after 22 years as executive director at the Penn Center.

    "The non-Gullah speakers can easily translate what the written Gullah is about. In a way, we are going to be training other people how to speak Gullah."


    For generations, the language was something native speakers tried to abandon, because they feared it would hurt their chances of getting ahead in the wider world.

    "It was a put-down," Campbell recalled.

    "You were looked on as being ignorant and at a low intelligence level if that's the language you spoke. We tried at all costs to avoid speaking it."

    For that reason, Campbell at first would not help with the translation, until he spoke with a professor from the University of California who told him Gullah is indeed a language.

    "I thought then it was a legitimate project," he said.

    Creole languages develop when speakers of two languages who can't understand each other remain in long contact, as the African slaves did with their masters.

    David Frank, a translation consultant who joined the project after Pat Sharpe died in 2002, said Gullah was frequently dismissed as "broken English," not a language in its own right.

    "But that is the standard perception of creole languages that doesn't reflect the understanding of those languages and what they are," said Frank, a creole expert.

    There are structural differences between Gullah and English which justify Gullah being recognized as a separate language, Frank said.

    With the New Testament finished, talk has started of translating the Old Testament into Gullah - a task that could also take many more years.

    "It would not be beyond us," Campbell said.

    "We would be glad to make sure that the Word is in our language throughout," he said.

    "I hope that more younger people will join the team and move forward."


Here's a link to a story about the festivities on November 5 marking the translation's completion.


You can learn more about Gullah culture here.

November 20, 2005 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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I think this is great. I am in a History and Structure of English course and viewed a film two weeks ago on the Gullah population and the concerns of the language living. I saw the write up in the Jet magazine with Jamie Foxx on cover and was amazed!! Thank you for such an enlightening report on the Gullah Bible. I am a Black American and possibly a product of Gullah decendancy because my father's dad was believed to be a Geechee. I am very happy to see the dreams of the team writers and those holding on to their Gullah home language come true. This is truly a blessing. To God Be the Glory, for the inspiration that He has given!

Posted by: Iris | Dec 10, 2005 6:20:49 PM

wow.... can't wait for the SILMARILLION to be in Gullah.

Posted by: Hugo | Nov 20, 2005 10:27:47 PM

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