ORANGEBURG, S.C. - 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
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
"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
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
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,
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,
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
"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