A language, a culture, and a people with a shared history, Gullah is more than that — it’s also a state of mind.
Simply put, the Gullah are African Americans of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. (In Georgia, the term “Geechee,” from the nearby Ogeechee River, is more or less interchangeable.) Protected from outside influence by the isolation of this coastal region after the Civil War, Gullah culture is the closest living cousin to the West African traditions of their ancestors imported as slaves.
While you might hear that “Gullah” is a corruption of “Angola,” some linguists think it simply means “people” in a West African language. In any case, the Gullah speak what’s known as a “creole” language, i.e., one derived from several sources. Gullah combines elements of Elizabethan English, Jamaican patois, and several West African dialects; for example “goober” (peanut) comes from the Congo n’guba.
Another creole element is a word with multiple uses, for example Gullah’s shum could mean “see them,” “see him,” “see her,” or “see it,” in either past or present tense, depending on context.
Though several white writers in the 1900s published collections of Gullah folk tales, for the most part the Gullah tongue was simply considered broken English. That changed with the publication of Lorenzo Dow Turner’s groundbreaking Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949. Turner traced elements of the language to Sierra Leone in West Africa and more than 300 Gullah words directly to Africa.
Gullah is typically spoken very rapidly, which of course only adds to its impenetrability to the outsider. Gullah also relies on colorful turns of phrase. “E tru mout” (“He true mouth”) means the speaker is referring to someone who doesn’t lie. “Ie een crack muh teet” (“I didn’t even crack my teeth”) means “I kept quiet.” A forgetful Gullah speaker might say, “Mah head leab me” (“My head left me”).
Gullah music, as practiced by the world-famous Hallelujah Singers of St. Helena Island, also uses many distinctly African techniques, such as call and response (the folk hymn “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” is a good example).
The most famous Americans with Gullah roots are boxer Joe Frazier (Beaufort), hip-hop star Jazzy Jay (Beaufort), NFL great Jim Brown (St. Simons Island, Georgia), and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (Pin Point, Georgia, near Savannah).
Upscale development continues to claim more and more traditional Gullah areas, generally by pricing them out through rapidly increasing property values. Today, the major pockets of living Gullah culture in South Carolina are in Beaufort , St. Helena Island , Daufuskie Island , Edisto Island , and a northern section of Hilton Head Island .
The old ways are not as prevalent as they were, but two key educational and outreach institutions are keeping alive the spirit of Gullah: the Penn Center  on St. Helena Island, near Beaufort, and the Avery Research Center  at the College of Charleston.