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Wednesday, Nov 23, 2005
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Posted on Tue, Oct. 25, 2005
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   Want to Go to the Celebration?
   Online Extra | Hear the Bible in Gullah

Scripture translation brings old tongue alive

Staff Writer

Mary Ravenell reads the Book of Luke, and an amazing thing happens here beneath a schoolyard oak: The voice of another woman comes out of her lips.

"Deah Theopolis, plenty people beena try fa write down all de ting wa we beliebe fa true, wa done happen mongst us."

"It's my grandmother's voice clear as if she was standing beside me," said the schoolteacher, who speaks Gullah, a Creole language born on Afraica's west coast and still spoken by some slave descendants along the coastal islands of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Gullah is known as Geechee from Savannah southward.

"My grandmother only had a third-grade education, but she could read and held her head high. She was a proud American, but Gullah was her native tongue."

Now this language, which has existed mostly as spoken words, is a book -- a thing she can put on the family mantle.

A Gullah New Testament, 25 years in the making, is about to be unveiled.

It will be the centerpiece Nov. 5 of a daylong celebration at the JAARS center, a Waxhaw, N.C.-based organization that helps translate Bibles around the world.

There are 6,912 languages worldwide, and they are currently working on 1,376 translations. They have written New Testaments into 611 languages spoken by more than 76 million people. The process to translate the New Testament into Gullah was a particularly long one that was championed by several individuals and groups.

Pat and Claude Sharpe began working with a Gullah translation team in 1979 at the Penn Center, the foremost school for Lowcountry African Americans from the Civil War through the 1950s. It's on St. Helena Island, S.C.

Gullah native and translator Ardell Greene said the team was not welcomed enthusiastically.

"At first, when the Sharpes wanted to help us translate the Bible into Gullah, we said, `No,' " Greene said. "At that time people were often told not to speak Gullah."

Translator David Frank has led the Gullah translation team for the last 2 1/2 years. Frank said that a Bible translation typically takes 15 to 20 years.

"I know it sounds like a long time, but when there is no dictionary, you have to work from scratch," said Frank, who has a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Frank says he is considering a Gullah dictionary next.

He had previously spent 17 years translating the New Testament into St. Lucian Creole. "The thing that takes so long is testing your translation in the field with the people who actually speak it. If they can't understand it, all your translation is for naught."

About 250,000 Gullahs live in the Southeast, and an estimated 10,000 speak the language fluently. Prominent Gullahs include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Congressman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

A bill is working its way through Congress to preserve Gullah-Geechee culture by saving historic sites and establishing study centers from the Florida line to near Wilmington.

Gullah culture is at a high point of interest these days, but it wasn't always that way.

Gullahs tell stories about having their hands smacked with rulers for speaking Gullah at public schools. For many years, Gullah or Geechee was a derisive term within the black community for a rural, uneducated black.

Even at the Penn Center, Gullah was forbidden.

"Commanding the English language was considered the ticket to success," said Emory Campbell, former Penn director and a member of the Gullah Bible translation team since the mid-1980s. His maternal grandmother and grandfather were fluent in Gullah.

Campbell says a Gullah New Testament is much more than a gilt-edged book.

"It's validation for a community that for many years was mostly illiterate and much of their history lost," he said. "A Bible in your language is gold."

Romans 1:7 in Gullah

"So A da write ta all ob oona een Rome, oona wa God lob an wa e call fa be e own people. A da pray dat God we Fada an de Lawd Jedus Christ bless oona an gii oona peace een oona haat."

"To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints; Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ." Hear the Bible in Gullah for yourself at

Dan Huntley: (803)327-8508;

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