'New Testament' Translated into Gullah

The New Testament has recently been translated into Gullah, a language of slaves and their descendants that's still spoken by a few people along the southeast coast of the United States. Steve Inskeep talks about the project with Emory Campbell, a native Gullah speaker and one of the members of the translation team.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

African languages have influenced the dialects spoken by some Americans. The New Testament of the Bible has now been translated into that dialect. Consider the story of the Good Samaritan, who happens upon a man who's been robbed and left by the road. Here's how that story sounds in Gullah.

Ms. VERNETTA CANTEEN (Gullah Reader): But one stranger were come from Samarita had been a' traveled 'long dat road. When he get there, and he see the man wh' the robber beat up, he feel too sorry for him. He goin' on over to the man, he pour medicine, oil and wine in the cut where the robber done beat him up. Then he pit(put) the man upon his own mule, cam' to a bordin' house, and he stayed der w' him and nurse him.

INSKEEP: What you're hearing there is the language of some slaves and their descendents. It's a mixture of English with the African languages the slaves once spoke. It is still spoken in isolated places, like the islands along the coast of the Carolinas. And it's being preserved by people who think the dialect tells an important story.

Joining us from Hilton Head, South Carolina is Emory Campbell, who was a member of the translation team.

Mr. Campbell, welcome to the program.

Mr. EMORY CAMPBELL (Translation Team, Gullah Bible): Thank you very much, Steve. It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: I gather that you grew up hearing Gullah in your household in South Carolina, right?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes. Gullah was my first language. Particularly, my grandmother was my first babysitter, so I heard it all the time. And when I went to school, it was my first language.

INSKEEP: Your first babysitter. How did she tell you how to stay out of trouble, say?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Hona(ph), sit down and be quiet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, okay. That' not just...

Mr. CAMPBELL: And hona...

INSKEEP: What's that?

Mr. CAMPBELL: That word hona that I just used is the word you. "Hona, sit down and be quiet," she would say.

INSKEEP: And this was developed by the slaves. Is there a reason why it was developed?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, according to the historians, in the summer months, the masters and all of his family would go away into the uplands, where it was cooler. And so, they were left alone almost entirely during the summer months, between April and October. And it seems that that's when the language got developed.

INSKEEP: Now, how did you get involved in a project to take this dialect and translate the Bible into it?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, you know, that's a funny story because I denied Gullah for so many years, particularly after I moved away and came back to the islands. I didn't want to admit that I knew or spoke Gullah. These two linguists who came into the area to translate the Bible into Gullah pretty much worked alone for the first year or two, before any Gullah speakers would assist them.

INSKEEP: Why did you not want to admit that you knew it?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, when we spoke Gullah, we were put down. But they convinced me that it was a language and that we should be proud of it. And that's why I joined it. And that's why others joined the team, as well.

INSKEEP: Is there a line that you would draw between Gullah speech and just bad English? Which is what some people will hear when they hear this language.

Mr. CAMPBELL: The pure Gullah language should not be confused with English, because it does have its own structure. If you said, I'm going to suade him. Well, that's broken English, because you didn't say persuade. But if I said if I have a suade'em(ph), that's perfect Gullah.

INSKEEP: That second sentence--it's so musical.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, yeah. It has its intonation that is, that is always natural.

INSKEEP: We've been speaking to Emory Campbell. He's part of a team that translated the Bible into Gullah. Our reader of the Gullah passage was Vernetta Canteen.

Ms. CANTEEN: This is the "Lord's Prayer."

We Fada wa dey een heaben, leh everybody honor your name. We pray that soon ya gwine rule over de world. Wasoneba ting ya wahn, leh um be so in dis world, same like dey in heaven. Give we the food what we need dis day, yah, an eb'ry(every)day. Forgive we for we sin, cause we da' forgive dey what do bad to we. Let we don't hard tests wen Satan try we. Keep we from evil.

That's the Lord's Prayer in Gullah.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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