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Gospel According to Gullah

In the Sea Islands off South Carolina, descendants of slaves help translate the Bible into the rich language of their ancestors.

December 29, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. HELENA ISLAND, S.C. — The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

No matter how often he read Psalm 23, Emory Campbell never could understand that line. "I shall not want: What does that mean?" he'd ask himself.

Then he joined a project to translate the Bible into the language of his ancestors -- the language of slaves who toiled for centuries in rice paddies off the Carolina coast.

That first line became: "De Lawd me shephud. A hab ebryting wa A need." I have everything I need.

It reminded Campbell, 64, of his grandmother's way of talking, earthy and frank and deep-down resonant. "Yes, indeed," Campbell said. " 'I have everything I need.' That made sense to me."

Campbell had always considered himself above the slave language, known as Gullah. As a boy, he giggled at his grandma's speech. In college, he considered her "dem" and "dat" and "dey" a brand of ignorance. Psalm 23 opened his eyes to Gullah's riches.

He would spend the next two decades struggling to make the word of God sound like his grandmother.

The result -- De Nyew Testament -- was unveiled here last month at an annual festival to celebrate Gullah culture. Twenty-six years in the making, the Gullah gospel was written by descendants of slaves under the direction of traveling missionaries.

As a tool for evangelizing, it's not that efficient. No more than 10,000 people speak Gullah as their primary language; most are elderly and isolated on the Sea Islands, a chain off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Perhaps another 250,000 coastal residents lapse into Gullah now and then among friends.

The small market doesn't trouble the missionaries who devote their lives to such projects. They consider it their calling to bring the Scripture to every tongue around the globe: to the 4,000 Africans who speak Igo, to the 3,000 South Americans who speak Chachi, to the 1,200 Pacific Islanders who speak Angaatiya.

"It's my vocation. It's my passion," said David Frank, a linguist who helped finish the Gullah project.

When the Bible is not available in their "heart language," even the most devout Christians see it "more as an icon" than a meaningful message from God, Frank said. "They know the Scripture is something you have to have, but they have given up on the idea of understanding it."

Before coming here, Frank and his wife, Lynn, spent 17 years translating the Bible into a Creole spoken only on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Like other Bible translators who travel the globe, the Franks do not draw a salary; instead, they solicit support from churches and individuals.

They've built a core group of 15 donors who pledge $10 to $500 a month. Two Bible translation firms collect funds on the Franks' behalf: the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas and Wycliffe Bible Translators in Orlando, Fla. Both organizations are nonprofit and donor-driven.

Over the last 70 years, Wycliffe and the Summer Institute have translated the Bible into 611 languages. Their linguists launch a new translation every four days, on average. Some jump in not knowing a word of the language they've committed to translating. They rely on faith, and on the goodwill of locals. If they can find publishers, they may print portions of the Bible as they complete them; a full New Testament translation takes 15 to 20 years.

The Gullah project started inauspiciously.

Veteran Bible translators Pat and Claude Sharpe arrived in the Sea Islands in 1979. After years abroad, their health had forced them home, but they weren't ready to retire. They loved the beguiling slips of land in the Sea Islands, with their glinting marshes and moss-draped oaks and tangy ocean breezes to cut the humid air.

The Sharpes were also fascinated with Gullah culture, which is rooted in the fishing and farming communities of 17th-century West Africa.

Plantation owners began importing slaves about 400 years ago to work in the cotton fields, rice paddies and oyster beds of these lush islands.

Because they arrived speaking many different African languages, the slaves had to develop a way of communicating with one another. The islands were so isolated that Gullah never evolved toward standard English.

Some scholars speculate Gullah (also called Geechee) was a language of defiance -- a way for slaves to talk without their masters understanding. Others see it as a purely practical tool for communication.

At once lyrical and guttural, Gullah is a fast-paced, animated tongue. It sounds a bit like the modern African American vernacular known as Ebonics, but scholars say Gullah is a distinct language. (That determination rests on several factors, including the simple fact that most English speakers couldn't understand a native Gullah speaker in conversation.)

By the time the Sharpes arrived, Gullah speakers had learned to be ashamed of their native tongue. Teachers rapped their knuckles when they let slip a "dey." Outsiders, even fellow African Americans, mocked them.

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