The American Bible Society, publishers of Scripture in many tongues, has added another language to its list of Holy Writs, releasing a New Testament gospel in Gullah, a historic African-English language spoken mainly in coastal South Carolina.
The Gospel According to Luke is rendered in Gullah as De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write.
The New York-based society has published it as a bilingual, 144-page paperback, with the Gullah translation appearing in bold type on each page, beside a fine-print King James English version.
The publication is a milestone in the work of a team of 14 volunteers in South Carolina's Gullah-speaking region.
"What we are trying to do is, No. 1, hear the word of God in the language of the Sea Islands of South Carolina," said the Rev. Ervin Greene, the head of the translating team, which began its efforts in 1979. "Secondly, we are just trying to give a language respect."
Greene, a native Gullah speaker and pastor of Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, S.C., described the translation work with some emotion. He recounted how, as a child, he had been discouraged in school from speaking Gullah, which his teachers derided as "broken English."
When he picked up his first completed copy of the Gullah translation of Luke recently, he said, "I broke down in tears."
A characteristic of Gullah is that a given concept may be "either explained a lot more, or it's straight to the point," Greene said. As an example, he said, "You don't go on a diet, you "fall off.'
As a language, Gullah holds a distinctive place in American history. It was developed by African slaves who blended English with the languages of West Africa. Eventually, it came into use among slaveholders and overseers as well, Greene said.
These days, Gullah is spoken by an estimated 250,000 people living along the Atlantic coast between Jacksonville, Fla., and Jacksonville, N.C.
Another translator, Pat Sharpe, a Bible consultant with Wycliffe who also lives on St. Helena, said Gullah was closely related to the English-based Creole languages spoken in the Caribbean.
Gullah's vocabulary is mostly derived from English words, but its grammatical structure comes from West Africa, she said.
Greene said he became convinced that Gullah was much more than a regional dialect, that it was an important language in its own right, when a cab driver in Kingston, Jamaica, spoke to him in words highly similar to Gullah.
When Greene expressed surprise that they shared this distinctive speech, the cab driver remarked that it was a case of similar roots. "He said, "You came on the same boat, you just got off in a different port.' "