Charleston, Gullah, and the Language of Hospitality

When I arrived in Charleston, I headed straight for some WiFi and a beer, so I lighted in The Kickin Chicken on historic King Street downtown. It was about 2 in the afternoon and I asked the waitress if it was too early to order a beer, to which she replied, “We’re in Charleston, it’s never too early to order a beer.”

Charleston is known as a hub of southern charm and hospitality, so I went into the city expecting the streets and pubs to sing with the voices of elegant southern belles and friendly farmers. But the traditional Deep South isn’t the only cultural narrative in the story of Charleston: the West African and English creole Gullah language and its speakers are also found in Charleston and the surrounding Sea Islands. The mainstream American South and the Gullah community are just two of the many colors in Charleston’s cultural and linguistic mural, one that paints a convivial city with a welcoming atmosphere and delectable cooking.

I went to Charleston searching for proud Gullah speakers and friendly southerners drawling enthusiastically about their city. I sort of got both of these things, but not how I’d expected. What I did find was a city full of intriguing American transplants, lots of youths, a hipster population disproportionate to the petite city, and yes, lots of Southern hospitality.

Historic King Street Charleston

Historic King Street

Charleston’s Southern charm

‘Charming’ is always the word I come to for Southern cities like Charleston. It’s tiny, quaint, and friendly. People say hello on the streets when they walk by, and they normally do it with a smile and eye contact. No one seems annoyed if you ask them for directions. It’s easy to make small talk with strangers in the park. These are the things I love about the South of the US.

Marion Square Market Charleston

The entrance to the farmers’ market on Marion Square

Apparently these are things that a lot of travelers love about Charleston in particular. For years Charleston has been named America’s friendliest city by Condé Nast and other travel publications, and when it doesn’t take the number one spot it’s always in the top three or so. Once you go there, it’s easy to see why.

I arrived in Charleston seeking the sweet Southern drawl that I assumed would be the conveyor of friendliness and hospitality in the city, but instead of the melodious non-rhotic “welcome to Chaaahlston y’all” what I encountered was a lot of very standard, college-educated sounding folks. It’s probably no coincidence then that the people I met were very frequently American transplants, from elsewhere in South Carolina or along the East Coast, most of whom had relocated to Charleston to study at one of the colleges or universities in and around the city and had just ended up staying.

One such unintentional emigrant was a woman I met selling pasta sauce at the Marion Square Farmers Market. She introduced herself as Sarah and told me that her sauce was homemade according to her great great grandfather’s recipe. Great Great Granddad had emigrated from Naples, Italy and had brought the recipe with him, and Sarah made it entirely with ingredients she grew in her own garden right there in Charleston. She gave me a little free sample, and I could definitely tell it hadn’t been sitting in a cesspit of preservatives on a grocery store shelf; if I’d had a kitchen to cook in, I’d have bought it.

Sugah Scrub

‘Sugah Scrub’, one of the many peculiarities sold at the Farmers Market

I asked Sarah a bit about herself and about Charleston, and she told me that she was originally from Savannah, Georgia and had moved to Charleston to study. She had immediately fallen in love with the city’s charm and had ended up staying there for it. I asked her what she thought of it being voted ‘America’s friendliest city’ the last few years in a row, and she gave the same odd response I got from most Charlestonians: light surprise and vague indifference, followed by a brief thoughtful look and an approving nod of the head: “Oh, really? I’ve never heard that. Well… yeah I guess it makes sense. Sure.”

What I had expected when I arrived was lots of Paula Deens and Honey Boo Boos running around with permed hair and smoking jackets (I don’t know what a smoking jacket is) grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me and shouting how friendly their town was and had I tried the cornbread yet??? Instead what I got was lots of Sarahs: sincere conversations with lightly Southern-tinted vowel sounds and a pragmatic humility toward and appreciation of the city.

I was growing disappointed by the lack of y’alls and missing post-vocalic r‘s, but right after my conversation with Sarah I met the first Charlestonian who could give me a glimpse into the city’s somewhat hidden linguistic diversity.

One city, multiple cultures

Just a few stalls down from Sarah’s pasta sauce was a table with a woman selling hand-woven baskets. I had read that these baskets — sweetgrass baskets — were typically associated with Gullah culture, so I ambled over and began idly looking at them, hoping to strike up a conversation with their maker and vendor. After a minute or so, a middle-aged black woman with dark sunglasses and a colorful head scarf called to me from her chair that I could her know if I needed help with anything. So I did.

Marion Square Charleston

The field behind Marion Square. Mrs. Sanderson’s booth is off in the periphery on the right, and children are playing football and throwing frisbees behind me.

I asked her some really clumsy questions about the baskets and the traditions behind their making, trying to steer the conversation toward anything Gullah-adjacent without giving the impression that I had come just to put her under a microscope. Finally, at some point, the G-word finally came out of her mouth, and I pounced on it awkwardly, telling her that I was actually in Charleston hoping to do some research on “endangered languages” and was very interested in hearing about the Gullah language.

In my excitement I had lost twenty or so years of human socialization knowledge, so I didn’t notice right away that she had become a bit prickly when I used the term ‘endangered’ to describe her language. She immediately told me that Gullah was not at all endangered, that it was alive and well and spoken by millions in the Sea Islands along the east coast from North Carolina to Florida. I sort of bulldozed through her words with a quick “oh okay, great to hear” and proceeded to ask her if I could hear a few words in Gullah, which prompted her eyebrows to climb up out from behind her sunglasses.

“No,” she told me curtly. I asked why and her face got tighter, and she said “We don’t do that with other people. You wouldn’t understand anything anyways.”

Gullah Art Charleston City Market

A Gullah art booth at the Charleston City Market

Finally it registered that I wasn’t being the most charmingly courteous fake journalist ever, so I set to work trying to regain lost ground, listening and showing interest in everything the woman said and stressing my concern for raising understanding of the Gullah language and culture. I don’t think I ever made her like me, but eventually I think she understood that my abrasive rudeness was more of a god-given gift than anything I was doing on purpose, and she introduced herself as Mrs. Georgette Sanderson.

Mrs. Sanderson told me two or three times that her husband would love to talk to a young man like me who was interested, that he’d even probably speak a few words of Gullah to me, but he wasn’t around that day. Mr. Sanderson was a proud Gullah speaker and he spent a lot of time in New York City, where apparently he was frequently asked if he was Jamaican, to which he mostly answered ‘yes’ because it was just easier. Most people had simply never heard of the Gullah language or culture.

My overwhelming impression from Mrs. Sanderson was that she was extremely proud of the Gullah culture and her heritage. She told me several times that the language was still spoken by “millions” of people in the Sea Islands and that any black people in the area who told me they didn’t speak it were plain lying.

I eventually understood that Mrs. Sanderson was annoyed with people’s lack of awareness of another culture that was selling hand-woven baskets three tables down from where they were selling homemade pasta sauce.

The Charleston City Market, where I met Corey Alston and his non-relative colleague Ashley Alston.

The Charleston City Market, where I met Corey Alston

The Gullah language

Most people reading this have probably never heard of a people called Gullah (sometimes ‘Geechee’) or the language that they speak. In fact, even many locals I met in the Carolinas hadn’t heard of it, and most of those who were somewhat familiar thought it was a long-extinct piece of local history. In reality, Gullah is an important tile in the cultural and linguistic mosaic of the US East Coast.

A Gullah sweetgrass basket maker at the Charleston City Market, 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Gullah woman weaving a sweetgrass basket at the Charleston City Market, 2012.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Most properly referred to as ‘Sea Island Creole English‘, Gullah finds its beginnings in the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century. Slaves imported from Western Africa brought their Niger-Congo languages with them, which creolized with American English and gave rise to what would become Gullah. It’s closely related to Bahamian Creole and Jamaican Creole, both mixes with similar ingredient languages and cultural influences, which is why Mr. Sanderson’s accent gets mistaken for the much more familiar Jamaican in New York City. While the language is unfortunately not as vibrant as Mrs. Sanderson would hope, the culture is still very alive in and around the Sea Islands of the American East Coast.

On my second day in Charleston, I went to the Charleston City Market (not to be confused with the Farmers Market). There I met Corey Alston and his colleague Ashley, both of whom make and sell Gullah sweetgrass baskets at the market. Both are young (maybe 30), highly educated, and Gullah descendents. And both Corey and Ashley painted a different picture of the currency of the Gullah language in and around Charleston than the one depicted by Mrs. Sanderson.

Corey asserted that the Gullah culture is vibrant and active in Charleston and the Sea Islands; the number of authentic Gullah art booths and sweetgrass basket tables like his were fair proof of that. He told me that, indeed, there is a Gullah way of speaking that’s still alive and well: the Gullah community still speaks an identifiable dialect among its members, with a different accent and some unique vocabulary, but according to Corey most of us could easily eavesdrop on and understand such a conversation. But the actual language, the creole that is unintelligible to most English speakers, is nearly extinct these days.

NotSo Hostel Charleston

Gullah-inspired artwork in the common room at the NotSo Hostel, where I stayed.

Ashley, another basket weaver on the opposite end of the market, shared a similar perspective. She had never heard much of the language spoken, except for from a few older folks, mostly out on the islands. Moreover, she had been actively discouraged from speaking the Gullah dialect as a child: from an early age, school teachers had told her and her friends that it made them sound stupid, backwards, not like upstanding well-groomed participants in the majority culture, the culture that speaks Standard American English.

This had been Corey’s position as well, though from more of an intellectual than a first-hand personal perspective: it’s a truism that public education teaches away local minority cultures and pushes children toward conforming more and more to the dominant majority culture, not least of which includes societal expectations of how an intelligent or succesful person speaks.

The result is a city full of conversations like the one Corey and I were having: a homogenous-sounding exchange of Standard American accents and vocabulary, rather than the regional accents and slang we both grew up with. In my case, university squashed my Southern accent (not a loss I cry over), but in the case of Corey and Ashley and their generation, public education had squashed a minority language right out of the culture that spoke it.

Charleston Street Art

A mural painted on a wall in a park in a neighborhood on Charleston’s east side

The sound of friendliness

It’s not a sweet accent that charms Charleston’s many visitors, but rather simply its people and their multiple histories and traditions. Friendly southerners like Sarah or Corey strike up sincere conversation with you at the market and are happy to tell you about their town and their own heritage. Strangers on the street chat with you while waiting to cross, and if the light lasts long enough they’ll even recommend their favorite café (how I ended up in the cozy garden at Kudu Coffee).

I never succeeded in tracking down active Gullah speakers. Hannibal’s on Blake Street was the closest I got, where I had some fantastic cornbread and got to listen to the waitress’s nearly Carribean-sounding accent as she giggled dismissively and told me that no one talks like that anymore. She and her colleague laughed about how silly their grandparents sounded when they talked that way.

Even if the language isn’t as vibrant as it used to be, the Gullah culture still thrives in Charleston and the Sea Islands, alongside the other cultures and traditions that make the region and the city so worthwhile. The street art and graffiti in the East Side neighborhoods reflect parts of the Gullah heritage, and the cuisine still uses recipes passed down — orally, via the Gullah language — through generations of cooks and served delicious and cheap on your table in places like Hannibal’s. And whatever they sound like, the locals seem to always live up to the reputation of friendliness that most of them don’t even know exists.

Do you live in or have you traveled to a region with little-known minority languages? What are your impressions of what they contribute to the local culture? Share your thoughts and questions in a comment below or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!

4 comments

  1. Beachbums1 · December 27, 2014

    Having just recently returned from a short visit to Charleston, I’ve enjoyed reading your impressions of the Holy City.

  2. Mari Beth · December 27, 2014

    Great article. I had never heard of this language before. Great city & now even more interesting.

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