Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Fa de fus time, God taak to me de way I taak.
June 13, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

De Nyew Testament. Gullah [also, previously] is a creole language spoken by about a quarter-million people in the Eastern United States. For decades, Bible translators worked to translate the Bible into the Gullah language. The full, HTML New Testament is available online, but a print copy can be ordered online.
So den, oona mus go ta all de people all oba de wol an laan um fa be me ciple dem. Oona mus bactize um een de name ob de Fada God, an de name ob de Son, an de name ob de Holy Sperit. 20Oona mus laan um fa do all wa A done chaage oona fa do. An fa sho, A gwine be dey wid oona all de time til de time end.
--De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Matthew Write, 28:19-20
This post was inspired by recently reading that Clarence Thomas grew up speaking Gullah, and thinking about the implications of growing up with very little written tradition in your own language.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike (88 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
For Jar Jar Binks so loved the world?

I know it seems insensitive, but read the passage out loud and tell me it doesn't come to mind just a bit.
posted by parliboy at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


parliboy, you're not the only one...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:57 PM on June 13, 2011


Reminds me of Da Jesus Book, albeit from a very different part of the world.
posted by theodolite at 1:00 PM on June 13, 2011


I, for one would rather not every language have the curse of the Bible being translated into it.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:01 PM on June 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


Decades? Heck, it only took 4 years to translate the Bible into LOLcatspeak!
posted by briank at 1:01 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was reminded of Da Jesus Book myself. Here is the same quotation for comparison:

19. So you guys, go all ova da world an teach all da diffren peopos, so dey can learn bout me an come my guys. Baptize dem, an dey goin come tight wit my Fadda, an me his Boy, an God's Good an Spesho Spirit. 20. Teach um how fo do everyting dat I wen tell you guys fo do. An you know wat? I goin stick wit you guys all da way, till da world goin pau.
posted by malocchio at 1:03 PM on June 13, 2011


Why do I feel like they could have designed a script to do this?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 1:03 PM on June 13, 2011


Since I can read this, despite never having learned Gullah, by "compensating" for a heavy accent, it seems that a Gullah speaker could as easily read an English Bible.
posted by orthogonality at 1:04 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


> I, for one would rather not every language have the curse of the Bible being translated into it.

Aren't you cute?

I remember picking up a copy of a Hacreole Bible in a waiting room somewhere and having my mind blown. It's a doorway to literacy for many.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:04 PM on June 13, 2011 [14 favorites]


Actually, I'm really super cute.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:05 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


You haven't really read the Bible until you've read it in the original Klingon.
posted by entropicamericana at 1:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


> Hacreole Bible

Er, Haitian Creole.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 1:06 PM on June 13, 2011


...always, even to the end of the world. (KJV)

... all de time til de time end. (Gullah Version)

At least on this line, the GV is a better translation than the KJV -- more tender and evocative. That's an achievement, since the KJV has a reputation for being the only English translation of the Bible that isn't tone deaf.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:06 PM on June 13, 2011 [12 favorites]


Why do I feel like they could have designed a script to do this?

I think this would be roughly equivalent to tossing the Bible into Google Translate for, say, English to Japanese and saying "Look, we translated it into Japanese!" It might be recognizable, but it wouldn't convey the same meaning. IANATranslator/linguist/what have you, however.
posted by dismas at 1:09 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Since I can read this, despite never having learned Gullah, by "compensating" for a heavy accent, it seems that a Gullah speaker could as easily read an English Bible.

If people can get some literacy in their own dialect though, they will have a better time learning English IMO.

It's hard to know where to draw the line and I don't know Gullah, but in rural Jamaica as a thought experiment say it's going to be a real barrier if kids have grown up with the local language and then trying to learn standard English to read and write.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:10 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Since I can read this, despite never having learned Gullah, by "compensating" for a heavy accent, it seems that a Gullah speaker could as easily read an English Bible.

Surely this is mostly due to 1) familiarity with the text, and 2) the fact that you are only reading small snippets at a time (long, unfamiliar passages would be a lot of work for you, probably), and 3) that you don't need to extract any nuances from the text.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:11 PM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Bible translation is a really interesting segment of the linguistic/religious world. On the one hand, bible translators are responsible for codifying a lot of languages which were never written down or were originally written in non-Latin scripts (Swahili, for instance, was always written in Arabic script prior to missionaries from Germany and England arriving and deciding that it should be written in a Latin script). They're responsible for a lot of the only English-language X dictionaries. They're a really wonderful tool for people who are interested in more obscure languages. On the other hand, they're the ones codifying a language that they probably have only a rudimentary understanding of, and they're going at it with a very specific purpose that has very little to do with what the people using the language do on a day to day basis.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:12 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think this would be roughly equivalent to tossing the Bible into Google Translate for, say, English to Japanese and saying "Look, we translated it into Japanese!" It might be recognizable, but it wouldn't convey the same meaning. IANATranslator/linguist/what have you, however.


So, would it be more efficient to go word for word for "...decades", or would it be more efficient to create a script, translate, and have a handful of people proofread and edit it?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 1:14 PM on June 13, 2011


For me the more interesting thing about today's NPR piece on the Supreme Court was learning of the individual justices literary inspirations.

Breyer: Proust, Stendhal, Montesquieu.
Kennedy: Hemingway, Solzhenitsyn, Dickens, Trollope.
Ginsberg: Nabokov.
Thomas: 24.
posted by Naberius at 1:16 PM on June 13, 2011 [13 favorites]


So, would it be more efficient to go word for word for "...decades", or would it be more efficient to create a script, translate, and have a handful of people proofread and edit it?

Again, I know next to nothing about this, but my guess is efficiency is only one of many goals here. I suspect even coming up with a script would take a great deal of time; my guess is the translators were probably making a lot of decisions about how Gullah maps onto English as they go along. I should probably stop speculating and read the damn links, though.
posted by dismas at 1:19 PM on June 13, 2011


I lost interest in Christianity at about age 12, but I'd be much more interested in reading the Bible in pidgin/creole. The link to Da Jesus Book is fascinating. I mean, it has chapters titled Outa Egypt, Da Rules Second Time, and Jesus Guys. That seems way cooler than the KJV.
posted by desjardins at 1:22 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not Supplied: "If people can get some literacy in their own dialect though, they will have a better time learning English IMO."

Is this true? I'd never thought about that before.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:22 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, dismas has the right idea. This is absolutely not a Swedish-Chef-filtered version of the standard English text. It's a genuine literary translation.

The thing to remember, reading this as a speaker of some more-or-less standard variety of English, is that Gullah isn't just a heavy accent or a 'disguised' version of the standard dialect. It's a language with its own grammar. There are things marked in Gullah syntax, and turns of phrase that Gullah makes available, that aren't marked or made available in standard English syntax. Anything you can express in standard English can be expressed in Gullah and vice versa — but you can't do the translation in a purely mechanical way, you need an ear for the language and an understanding of the story you're trying to translate.

Also, perhaps more importantly, when you or I read this (I'm assuming we have no fluent Gullah speakers in the thread so far, though I may be wrong there) we're missing out on a big chunk of the meaning.

Saying a Perl script coulda done this is like saying a Perl script coulda written any given work of Middle English literature — I mean, you just take a modern American novel and tack on a buncha "eth" and "est" all over the place, right?
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:25 PM on June 13, 2011 [20 favorites]


Before Lorenzo Turner's work, mainstream scholars viewed Gullah speech as substandard English, a hodgepodge of mispronounced words and corrupted grammar which uneducated black people developed in their efforts to copy the speech of their English, Irish, Scottish and French Huguenot slave owners.

And apparently it's viewed that way after Turner's work here on metafilter.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:26 PM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Seems like everybody would be better off with a translation of the 4th Amendment.
posted by atbash at 1:27 PM on June 13, 2011


So, would it be more efficient to go word for word for "...decades", or would it be more efficient to create a script, translate, and have a handful of people proofread and edit it?

From the LA Times article: "'Grace' caused particular problems. In Gullah, the word is used in a narrow context to mean the prayer before a meal. No one knew how to render its broader meaning of an undeserved favor from God."

These problems would crop up everywhere, and no script could help that. Also, Keep in mind that this project was started 30 years ago. There was no machine translation to speak of until recently (and do you remember how well, say, Altavista Babblefish worked in the early 2000s? We routinely used it for fun just to see the incomprehensible translations.)
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:28 PM on June 13, 2011


Thomas: 24.
posted by Naberius at 4:16 PM on June 13


I thought you were joking. Thomas Jefferson would be spinning in his grave, if he hadn't been pinned in place by the bar Republicans keep lowering.
posted by stavrogin at 1:28 PM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


Seems like everybody would be better off with a translation of the 4th Amendment.

Or the First.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:29 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gullah is a pretty separate language. It's largely English, of course, but there's a fair amount of vocabulary from other languages. I also can swear I read an argument that Gullah has a verb tense (mode?) that's not present in English. Some alternate form of present, I think, but I can't find it now.

Time ain gwine waste no mo!
posted by Nelson at 1:29 PM on June 13, 2011


Creole languages are really interesting. Did you know, for example, that in Tok Pisin (New Guinean creole) "Bagarap" means "to break down"- from British "Bugger up".

Example from a royal speech
posted by dunkadunc at 1:33 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


>"If people can get some literacy in their own dialect though, they will have a better time learning English IMO."

Is this true? I'd never thought about that before.


This actually sounds a bit fishy to me. If a Dutch speaker can read Dutch, will he have an easier time learning English? Do literate Mandarin speakers have an easier time picking up Cantonese than illiterate ones? Literacy correlates with all sorts of other measures of educational attainment, perhaps including bilingualism, but that doesn't mean that learning to read causes or even facilitates bilingualism. But I'd be happy to be proven wrong here....

But there's another possibility here for a big educational win. People who feel invested in what they're reading, and feel like the written word isn't just "for other people" who speak and live differently, are more likely to become readers. And if you're already literate in Gullah, and can follow spoken standard English, then learning to read it is a much shorter step.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:34 PM on June 13, 2011


Five Fun Facts About Clarence Thomas!

1. Has not asked a question at oral arguments in several years.
2. Attended college at a small Catholic liberal arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts.
3. Was second black Justice, replacing Thurgood Marshall.
4. Grew up speaking Gullah.
5. Hates black people.
posted by flarbuse at 1:36 PM on June 13, 2011 [9 favorites]


but that doesn't mean that learning to read causes or even facilitates bilingualism.

I'd wager that it does facilitate bilinguilism, at least for languages that are very closely related. Dutch/English perhaps not so much, but Portuguese/Spanish, or Scots/English, or in this case Gullah/English, I think literacy in one would facilitate the learning of the other.
posted by chimaera at 1:38 PM on June 13, 2011


Now go. And don't you dare look back.
posted by scalefree at 1:40 PM on June 13, 2011


Hmm. To the extent that your first language's writing system has some hidden information about etymology in it, yeah, I could see how learning to read could end up as a sneaky way to learn about cognates in related languages.

But the way they're writing Gullah looks straight-up phonemic, and I doubt it's got the same hidden information about etymology that English spelling has.

Anyway, now we're both just speculating, so I'm gonna drop it. It's an interesting possibility, even if I'm still inclined to be skeptical.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:43 PM on June 13, 2011


nebulawindphone

I agree with your point, but for the record I am pretty sure that written Mandarin and Cantonese are identical as strictly speaking the characters are not dependent on the language, so a literate Mandarin speaker ought to be able to read a Cantonese newspaper (amusing it was not written using traditional characters, which is a whole different ball of wax). Then again Cantonese has 3 extra tones, so I don't know if that would play into this and completely invalidate my assertion.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:45 PM on June 13, 2011


I'd wager that it does facilitate bilinguilism, at least for languages that are very closely related.

Exactly this. For "cousin" languages that share roots and/or cultural history, knowing one language (and especially etymologies of words in that language, which I'd be willing to bet you're more likely to know if you can read that language) facilitates learning the other because some words you "just get" -- those words are called cognates. There are such things as "false cognates" where a word in language B looks just like a word in language A but they don't mean the same thing. For example, in Spanish, libreria means bookstore, not library. The word for library in Spanish is biblioteca.
posted by axiom at 1:47 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of these questions are answered by the linked articles. Gullah coexists with English and this wasn't planned particularly as a gateway to English literacy. Part of the challenge by translators was understanding the Bible as a literary text, but also the project apparently involved a fair bit of field research as well.

The bilingual vs. English-focused education debate is a hot and messy one, and I'm not certain there's good data favoring either method.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2011


Five Fun Facts About Clarence Thomas!

1. Has not asked a question at oral arguments in several years.
2. Attended college at a small Catholic liberal arts school in Worcester, Massachusetts.
3. Was second black Justice, replacing Thurgood Marshall.
4. Grew up speaking Gullah.
5. Hates black people.


6. Prefers his soda/pop/coke in cans.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:09 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Am I wrong in assuming that almost every speaker of Gullah is also a fluent speaker of (some dialect of) English?

Does this translation serve a need that wasn't already being served by the hundreds of English translations already available?

(I'm fascinated by pidgins and creoles, though. Will have to spend some more time reading the links when I'm not at work.)
posted by ixohoxi at 2:12 PM on June 13, 2011


I guess the plan is to convert Vol'jin?
posted by kavasa at 2:13 PM on June 13, 2011


Does this translation serve a need that wasn't already being served by the hundreds of English translations already available?

I would guess that it's more about preserving the language that anything else. Gullah is considered very special because it is an authentic slave language that can't be found anywhere else in the world and the number of people who speak it are dwindling. My understanding is that it's rarely published. I've seen handwritten gullah-english dictionaries from way back when, but you don't often see legitimately published books in Gullah.

My great-aunt used to read us a Gullah copy of "The Night Before Christmas" every Christmas Eve, so I have a soft spot for it. So everybody shut up and think it's awesome too, OK?

OK!?!?!
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 2:20 PM on June 13, 2011 [16 favorites]


Does this translation serve a need that wasn't already being served by the hundreds of English translations already available?

I don't know that many literary translations are "necessary" in terms of some utilitarian value. The effort taken to understand another language--especially one with a history of oppression like Gullah--to a degree necessary to tackle a translation is a wonderful and beautiful thing in the world.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:32 PM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've recently started working in Papua New Guinea, where most people speak Tok Pisin, a pidgin language that is very much like Gullah. I can read most signs, and if people speak slowly I can understand pieces of what they're saying. I too intially took this to mean that the same should be able to work in reverse - they're so similar, right?

The difference is that English, with a much longer history and much larger vocabulary, has dozens of ways you can express even very simple statements - compare 'I want to eat' with 'I'm hungry' with 'I'd like to have dinner' and so forth. In Tok Pisin, the only phrase you can use is 'me likim kai kai'. 'Me' means 'I', 'likim' means 'like', or 'want', or 'love', and 'kai kai' means both 'eat' and 'food'. If you know what 'kai kai' is, then you could guess that 'me likim kai kai' is something about wanting food. If you're a native Tok Pisin speaker, knowing that phrase would be no help at all to interpreting 'I want to eat' or 'I'm hungry' or 'Let's have some dinner' or any of the English alternatives.

So no, an English translation isn't sufficient.
posted by twirlypen at 2:46 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


(Disclaimer: I'm in and from Charleston, smack dab (as it were) in the middle of it.)

Hearing Gullah spoken by a native speaker is an astonishingly elegant thing. The Avery Center at the College of Charleston is a good resource.

As it is largely an oral tradition, the efforts to preserve it (including the publication of the Bible) can only help.
posted by it must be bunnies at 2:56 PM on June 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


Remember that gullah is a creole, not a pidgin. So it has the same complexity and nuance as Haitian creole, Jamaican patios, Sierra Leonian krio, etc. So yes, it is worthy of a biblical translation, and I'm glad to see this happen.
posted by Forktine at 2:58 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't have the time to find the study, but I've also heard that people tend to respond to spiritual texts and worship in their first language/dialect more than that of a second language even when they are perfectly fluent in both.

This was certainly true of a lady I knew who attended a Samoan service for years even though the rest of her family went to an English language one. She said that she didn't feel God in the English words in the way that she did in the Samoan.
posted by nangua at 2:58 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jamaican patios

Pull up a wicker chair, bottle of rum, blunt the size of a football. That does sound pretty awesome, and I hear its beautiful there.

What language do they speak on Jamaican patios?
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:37 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


To me, Gullah seems closer to current American English (which is also a bit of a patois) than that King James thou/ye/eth/est jibberjabber.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:45 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's a study about the acquisition of a second language being facilitated by literacy in a first language... this is something that's been talked about in bilingual education for a long time, especially in California and other states with lots of Spanish-speaking folks who might not be literate in their first languages.

Of course, we went ahead and made teaching in anything but English illegal anyway, so...

From the abstract:

The results indicated that the Hong Kong students (with non-alphabetic first language literacy) had limited phonological awareness compared to those students with alphabetic first language literacy. The reading and spelling tasks showed no differences between the groups on real word processing. However, the students from Hong Kong had difficulty processing nonwords because of their poor phonological awareness. The results supported the hypothesis that people learning English as a second language (ESL) transfer their literacy processing skills from their first language to English. When the phonological awareness required in English had not been developed in the first language, ESL students were limited to a whole-word, visual strategy.
posted by Huck500 at 3:45 PM on June 13, 2011


Metafilter: till da world goin pau.
posted by symbioid at 3:47 PM on June 13, 2011


My great-aunt used to read us a Gullah copy of "The Night Before Christmas" every Christmas Eve

Could you have your great-aunt read it to us? Maybe via the magic of Youtube?
posted by Nelson at 4:08 PM on June 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


>"If people can get some literacy in their own dialect though, they will have a better time learning English IMO."

Is this true? I'd never thought about that before.

This actually sounds a bit fishy to me. If a Dutch speaker can read Dutch, will he have an easier time learning English? Do literate Mandarin speakers have an easier time picking up Cantonese than illiterate ones?


This is dead true, especially for reading. The reason is that, while learning spoken language is largely innate, learning to read is taught by acquiring print conventions (like which direction print goes in your language; the fact that printed symbols represent sounds of language, etc) in your surroundings. If your parents are illiterate, you will be too, until you get to school (and even then you'll be behind). A six-year-old English language learner with literate parents will learn to speak and read English faster than a six-year-old native English speaker with illiterate parents.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:10 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


. What language do they speak on Jamaican patios

Damn phone. Patios, patois, patties, same diff.
posted by Forktine at 4:19 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is this the same as ebonics? Serious question.
posted by Renoroc at 5:10 PM on June 13, 2011


Having just watched all five seasons of The Wire again recently, I would love to see the Bible translated into the Baltimore dialect.

Or better yet: Omarese.
posted by bwg at 5:38 PM on June 13, 2011



Am I wrong in assuming that almost every speaker of Gullah is also a fluent speaker of (some dialect of) English?

As a data point, my grandmother-in-law only speaks Gullah (or Geechee as I grew up calling it). I have a hard time understanding her sometimes and often have to ask my wife later for clarification.
posted by anansi at 5:42 PM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've spent some time in Jamaica, and most natives I've spent time with speak the King's English quite well. But conversing among themselves they speak a mesmerizing, extremely lyrical sounding patois that is impossible for an English speaker to follow without lots of experience. Being a lifelong reggae fan helps, but it's only a start.

It's awesome, even without ganja.(And even better with.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:43 PM on June 13, 2011


The center for the study of slavery, resistance and abolition at Yale has an informative article about Gullah and the Gullah people's connection to Sierra Leone.

Also, "linguists today view Gullah, and other creoles, as full and complete languages with their own systematic grammatical structures."
posted by ChuraChura at 5:55 PM on June 13, 2011


Ebonics is a controversial term for African American Vernacular English while Gullah is generally recognized as a full creole. Geographically Gullah appears to be mostly spoken in the rural southeast coastal "low country" and islands (folk history says that the area was geographically and economically isolated after the Civil War) while AAVE is widely distributed across the U.S..
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:59 PM on June 13, 2011


I just spent twenty minutes reading this Bible and I think it's easier to read than the KJV.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:12 PM on June 13, 2011


Is this the same as ebonics? Serious question.
For Fox News, this is the same as Ebonics, i.e., "a subculture ... of poor language skills." This post led to my first encounter with the Thomas anecdote (Wikipedia: "... he told a high school student that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech as a young man caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public.") The NPR article hardly even hints at this.

I believe the difference between pidgin and creole is this: a pidgin is a language constructed to facilitate transactions between speakers of different languages; a creole is the language the interacting children of those people eventually teach their parents.
posted by fredludd at 6:13 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Having just watched all five seasons of The Wire again recently, I would love to see the Bible translated into the Baltimore dialect.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, Hon."
posted by 4ster at 6:36 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dey bless fa true, dem wa hongry an tosty fa wa right, cause dey gwine git sattify

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

Beati quelli che hanno fame e sete della giustizia, perché saranno saziati

Three versions of the same verse in three different languages convey three different meanings. The Gullah version has the people who hunger for what is right be a blessing to others, the NIV has them being blessed, and the Italian version has them being peacefully happy.

(I get a kick comparing literature passages in different translations and languages.)
posted by francesca too at 6:51 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is this the same as ebonics? Serious question.

Yes and no, but mostly no.

According to the original coinage of the word "ebonics", Gullah would have been included.

In modern usage, though, "Ebonics" refers specifically to African-American Vernacular English, one of many dialects of North American English (and one of hundreds worldwide).

AAVE is a dialect of American English; Gullah is more properly classified as a creole.

Between "Ebonics" and "African-American Vernacular English", the latter is the preferred linguistic term. "Ebonics", as far as I've seen, has been so thoroughly co-opted as a term of mockery that it's best avoided.

Mocking a socioeconomic underclass of people because they don't speak "proper English" (and I don't mean to suggest you would do that; I'm just voicing a pet peeve) only reveals the linguistic ignorance of the mocker. Any first-year linguistics student (as opposed to a tongue-clucking prescriptivist schoolmarm) will tell you that there's nothing proper (or improper) about any specific dialect of a language.

It just happens to be that Standard American English is the prestige dialect in the 21st century United States, and other dialects (especially AAVE, Southern American English, and other working-class dialects, such as those of the urban Northeast and rural Midwest) are stigmatized as "improper" or "low-class".

And, remember:

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. —James Nicoll
posted by ixohoxi at 7:22 PM on June 13, 2011 [10 favorites]


The Gullah version has the people who hunger for what is right be a blessing to others

Really? I'm not fluent in Gullah, though I can speak fairly well in another creole, and I'd read it as:

"They are truly blessed, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, because they are going to be satisfied/rewarded."

That's a crude and fast translation, and again I'm no Gullah expert, but I don't think it's as different from the English version as you are suggesting.

Part of what makes creoles and pidgins so interesting is that they function on a spectrum. In other words, a particular speaker might be able to move seamlessly along a range from standard English (in the cases of Gullah, Patois, and Krio) or French (for Haitian Kreyol) through various registers of the creole into pure creole. Not every speaker can do this -- perhaps they never went to school and can't speak the standard English/French, or they spent years abroad and never learned pure creole. But any given speaker can shift at least some distance along that register, and people use those shifts for great effect.

It's similar to other code switchings people do, whether from Hindi to Hinglish to English and back, or simply switching between regional or ethnic vernacular and standard English. I wish I knew enough Gullah to be able to read this and know where the translation sat on the spectrum, and how consistent the translator's voice is.
posted by Forktine at 7:27 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think language and the intersections between language and culture are fascinating. I'm glad that this documentation of Gullah exists. We as a sociery tie a lot of value judgements to language, which has a deadening effect on people as well as the dialects or patois they speak, which saddens me.

Nangua, Samoan is beautiful. I don't blame her.
posted by smirkette at 7:51 PM on June 13, 2011


Gullah Gullah Island was a popular TV show when my kids were little. It's still airing in reruns and there are several episodes on YouTube. The dad on the show, Ron Daise, is an expert on Gullah culture and he has a really interesting blog.
posted by amyms at 8:45 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just realized that Ron Daise's blog hasn't been updated for a few years, but it looks like he's been busy with other cool Gullah-related things. Here he is performing the the story of the birth of Christ in Gullah and English.
posted by amyms at 8:55 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tok Pisin fascinates me because it has in some sense the vocabulary of English and the grammar of Indonesian.

Even the name, Tok Pisin, is a meta-pidgin - it comes from Pidgin Talk.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:35 PM on June 13, 2011


Nice! I'd read about Gullah, but had never actually seen any examples of it.
Nelson, the verb tense you mention is called an 'aspect marker.' You find it in black English as well, and in various languages, for instance, Russian. It's the difference between 'he sick,' meaning 'he's sick today' versus 'he be sick,' meaning 'he is chronically sick.' It doesn't happen in standard English, hence the separate designation for the African languages.
posted by Gilbert at 11:03 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


From it must be bunnies' link (Avery Center at the College of Charleston), the (or a) Gullah term for "dawn" is day clean.
posted by Eyebeams at 5:03 AM on June 14, 2011


Could you have your great-aunt read it to us? Maybe via the magic of Youtube?

I wish. I guess this will have to do.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 8:09 AM on June 14, 2011


Maaaaan, I thought that link would be more than just a lame limited preview. My B.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 8:14 AM on June 14, 2011


BobbyDigital: I am pretty sure that written Mandarin and Cantonese are identical

Short answer: Nope. Not even after you account for the traditional/simplified switch.

Long answer: The different Chinese varieties ("dialects" for political purposes) have different grammars and different vocabularies. The reason people all across China use the same standard written Chinese is not that it is equally representative of all of them; it is that the speakers of non-Mandarin languages have been taught to read and write a second language. They may have a local pronunciation for every character they read, but that doesn't mean they'd spontaneously say it that way, and they can't necessarily write everything they can say (at least, not in a way that a stranger could confidently read back). If Napoleon had cemented and maintained his empire, the linguistic position of Spain and Italy might be something like that of southern China: The language they learn to read and write has a relationship to the one they speak, but plenty of differences too.

For the most part, the other Chinese varieties do not have a complete writing system of their own (and are prevented from developing one for political reasons). Written Cantonese is kind of an exception; it may not be government approved, but there is broad social consensus on it within Hong Kong. That consensus does include various characters not used in Mandarin. (Of course, you can be sure some government functionary has been busy discovering or inventing Mandarin readings for them, again for political reasons. All Chinese dialects are equal, even though some are more equal than others.)
posted by eritain at 5:47 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Any first-year linguistics student (as opposed to a tongue-clucking prescriptivist schoolmarm) will tell you that there's nothing proper (or improper) about any specific dialect of a language.

That was beaten into me in my one linguistics class, and the converse was beaten into me in English class. Who's right? I dunno.

It's certainly true that some languages have a whole lot more words and expressiveness than others, especially when talking about specific subjects. Some things are downright hard to express in one language, and easy in others. That's exactly the reason that some very worldly people prefer to express certain ideas in certain languages. I can't think of an example right now, but I know there have been things that I found expressed very neatly in Japanese or French that I just could not simply reproduce in English. Certainly I've found certain aspects of British English to disambiguate things that have resulted in confusion in my American English life. And, geez, LISP... I once tried to invent an English variant that had spoken grouping forms to allow better nesting of ideas, precisely because of my frustration trying to express technical ideas in my native language.

It's also possible that if one variant is seen as "correct", people might be more likely to continue understanding each other for longer than if everybody wants to speak his group's own way. So yeah, I can see reasons for establishing, cultivating, and teaching a prescriptive standard for language, even aside from just trying to make it harder to identify someone's class from their speech, which I thought was the traditional excuse.

But I don't really know. I'm just saying that a first-year linguistics student's opinion isn't all that convincing to me without further justification.
posted by Xezlec at 7:39 PM on June 14, 2011


1) Every culture, subculture, medium, and genre has its own linguistic conventions. The rules used for the NYT are not the same as the rules used for the AMA, and those are not the rules used for spontaneous conversation, formal speeches, or private correspondence. Language use is shaped by no less than a half-dozen different contextual variables.

2) Pragmatically speaking, there's abundant back-channel information going on to help most people converge on common understanding. Simply put, "huh?" is usually sufficient in two-way conversation while written communities standardize by saying, "Your submission does not meet the standards of our publication."

3) Descriptivist linguists are not inherently opposed to mechanisms of linguistic standardization such as editors and style books. Many, in fact, wear the editor hat and wield the red pen with zealous glee when appropriate. The difference is that they don't pretend those rules are more than just the arbitrary convention of a community, or that deviations from those rules are more than a difference in style.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:50 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


That was beaten into me in my one linguistics class, and the converse was beaten into me in English class. Who's right? I dunno. … I'm just saying that a first-year linguistics student's opinion isn't all that convincing to me without further justification.

Let me ask you this: what would justify the idea that one dialect is the "right" way to talk, and another is "wrong"?

Is the English spoken in Scotland less correct than the English spoken in England? More broadly, is the English spoken in Australia or America or less correct than the English spoken in the UK?

Jamaican patois borrows heavily from English—but also borrows much of its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary from other languages. Does that make it an inferior version of English? (If so, what of the fact that English itself is a bastard melange of a hundred other languages, full of its own inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies?)

If you answered "yes" to any of these, then why is one dialect more correct than the other? What makes it more correct? That judgment would only make sense if there's some kind of standard to which we can compare the two dialects. What is that standard? (And who gets to define it?)

Language drifts and mutates over time. Whenever different groups of people are segregated—by geography, economic circumstance, class, political borders, whatever—their language drifts in different directions, and you end up with separate dialects. Given enough time, their language will become mutually unintelligible—in fact, you'll have two languages instead of one. Every language spoken today—every single one—is a product of this process.

Language is a tool. So long as a dialect serves the needs of those who use it (mainly communication, but a hundred other purposes, as well), it's as valid as any other.

This is not to say that standard grammatical conventions are without value—far from it. The conventions are what makes communication possible—without some kind of standardized vocabulary and syntax, we're just spewing random syllables at each other. But there's nothing that makes one set of standards inherently better than another.

(Sure, every language has its quirks, and some ideas are clumsier to express in some languages or dialects than others. But humans are amazingly good at working out conventions that satisfy our linguistic needs. We don't even have to think about it: it just happens naturally. Our brains are built for language.)

Your English professors, if they deserved the job, weren't trying to teach you that Standard American English is the "right" way to speak. The truth is a little subtler than that: SAE is the language of academia and business, and if you want to succeed in those areas, it's in your best interest to be fluent in SAE.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:27 PM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The difference is that they don't pretend those rules are more than just the arbitrary convention of a community, or that deviations from those rules are more than a difference in style.

So descriptivists are fine with enforcing prescriptive rules, they just see the rules as having no practical benefits over other sets of rules, whereas prescriptivists think they do? I don't think that's generally true.

Anyway, certainly there are practical considerations. The rules aren't purely arbitrary, they are tools, and some tools have advantages over others. For example, if we hadn't allowed American pronunciation to slide to the point where "pin" and "pen" are normally pronounced identically, I wouldn't have to circumlocute or enunciate in an exaggerated way when asking someone if they see a pin anywhere. This change was purely a bad thing. Nothing good came of it. The two situations are not equally good. Having more distinct pronunciation was just better.

But humans are amazingly good at working out conventions that satisfy our linguistic needs. We don't even have to think about it: it just happens naturally.

Sure, it comes naturally to you. We're on MetaFilter. Yes, most people here are "amazingly good" at it, but I'm not, and most people aren't, really. Sure, it's possible to say "stick pin" or "writing pen" to disambiguate, but that has never occurred to me whenever I have tried to say "pin" to someone. Not all of us are smart enough to work around our language's faults so fluently, and even those who can are burdened unnecessarily by that extra mental labor, which could be spent on substance instead.
posted by Xezlec at 1:53 PM on June 16, 2011


For example, if we hadn't allowed American pronunciation to slide to the point where "pin" and "pen" are normally pronounced identically

Huh? I'm in the Midwest and this certainly isn't true.
posted by desjardins at 2:11 PM on June 16, 2011


So descriptivists are fine with enforcing prescriptive rules, they just see the rules as having no practical benefits over other sets of rules, whereas prescriptivists think they do? I don't think that's generally true.

Of course it isn't because you just made it up. The active voice of the NYT certainly has a practical impact, as does the passive voice of the AMA. That doesn't mean that the style of either should be adopted as a universal for discourse on Twitter where people have invented yet another abbreviated style. (One of hundreds in history. Abbreviated styles of correspondence are reinvented each time people figure out how to transport words from one place to another.)

For example, if we hadn't allowed American pronunciation to slide to the point where "pin" and "pen" are normally pronounced identically, I wouldn't have to circumlocute or enunciate in an exaggerated way when asking someone if they see a pin anywhere.

This is a stupid example for a couple of reasons. First of all, "pin" has perhaps a dozen different common meanings in the English language all of which use the same spelling and pronunciation. Do you mean a safety pin, a straight pin, a quilting pin, a diaper pin, a hat pin, a flat pin, a cotter pin, a floral pin, a tie pin, a wrestling pin, a chess pin, a pin as part of an electrical connector, or a personal-identification number?

The second issue is that languages are robust with differences between graphically and phonetically similar words distinguished by context and syntax. "Do you see a pin/pen?" is easily understood if we're at a quilting bee, a chess club meeting, a wrestling match, a conference table, or a pig farm.

And the third issue is one of pragmatics. Refusing to clarify a misunderstanding by adding an appropriate adjective (usually two syllables) doesn't make you efficient, it just makes you an asshole.

But as a general case, what do you miss out on when you insist on a given style and dialect. Sure pin/pen and aunt/ant are useful phonetic distinctions, but what about the emphatic double negative ("can't get no") of vernacular English? Or the compressed meta-linguistic and emotional signaling of emoticons? Which principles do you value? Standardization of pronunciation of Latin cognates would consolidate them, or do you separate them on the ground that they converged from French and Germanic sources? Or should we go back to the Middle English penne vs. pinna? Which accent do you value?

Sure, it comes naturally to you. We're on MetaFilter. Yes, most people here are "amazingly good" at it, but I'm not, and most people aren't, really.

It comes naturally to everyone. Toddlers use different linguistic modes with each other, teachers, and parents. You're using a different linguistic mode now from your spoken language. There's very few things we can argue is a hardwired instinct for human beings, this one is a strong candidate.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:16 PM on June 16, 2011


But of course, none of this applies to Gullah because Gullah isn't English, for the same reason that English isn't Old French.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:21 PM on June 16, 2011


For example, if we hadn't allowed American pronunciation to slide to the point where "pin" and "pen" are normally pronounced identically, I wouldn't have to circumlocute or enunciate in an exaggerated way when asking someone if they see a pin anywhere.

This is a stupid example for a couple of reasons. First of all, "pin" has perhaps a dozen different common meanings in the English language all of which use the same spelling and pronunciation. Do you mean a safety pin, a straight pin, a quilting pin, a diaper pin, a hat pin, a flat pin, a cotter pin, a floral pin, a tie pin, a wrestling pin, a chess pin, a pin as part of an electrical connector, or a personal-identification number?

No, not stupid - Steinbeck: "Our daughter, after a stretch in Austin, was visiting New York friends. She said, 'Do you have a pin?'
'Certainly, dear,' said her host. 'Do you want a straight pin or a safety pin?'
'Aont a fountain pin,' she said."

--Travels with Charley

posted by toodleydoodley at 1:07 PM on June 17, 2011


toodleydoodly: Your example demonstrates the problem that people have with prescriptivism: it's usually an excuse to be an asshole about regional variances in language.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:23 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


See, this is why language discussions should take place in person, with good food and wine. Otherwise I can't tell if you're spoiling for a fight or if you just talk like that.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:29 PM on June 17, 2011


Otherwise I can't tell if you're spoiling for a fight or if you just talk like that.

Of course I don't talk like that. Or like this. Not even Obama talks the same way he writes. Probably the only person who does is Stephen Hawking, and I'll betcha $5 he has an abbreviated mode for those times he's not given the questions in advance or the time to translate utterances into grammatically complete sentences.

But, I'm biased, I work in the deep South in an office with people from four different continents, and it's interesting that minor differences in vowels have never been a problem.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:00 PM on June 17, 2011


Yeah, me too (Deep South, continental variety of co-workers). In fact, when I was at the paper, I was always the one who got sent to interview the new (inevitably South Asian) Catholic parish priest, supposedly because I was the only one who could understand him.

And now I'm a middle school teacher, bilingual, with ESOL. I have a really good ear. I can talk to many of my immigrant kids in their own languages, and I crack them up with movie impressions. But a surprising number of people can't hear anything that doesn't sound just like they do. I just thought it was all racist crap, too, until I read the guidelines for teaching pre-reading in preschool, and learned that most schools want a teacher who speaks the dialect common to the area, on the grounds that their incoming kids won't be able to understand anything else.

I don't know what that means, and I know I don't like it, but it seems to be a thing. My guess is that most Americans speak not only one language, but only one dialect of one language, and their language brains got pruned down to sticks when they were teens. So they really can't hear anything else. And yet we keep not introducing foreign languages until high school.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:07 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, except if you're at a Title I school and the majority of incoming students speak primarily AAVE I doubt they'd be hot to get a preschool teacher who was strong in AAVE, so that part of it probably is racist crap.
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:16 PM on June 17, 2011


« Older A Doctor World: A beautiful mashup of Doctor Who a...  |  This machine destroys EVERYTHI... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments