The language that gave us the song "Kumbaya" and the words yam, nanny, and gumbo now has a Bible to call its own.

Though Bible translators have traversed the globe in the last century, no one had yet produced a translation for the 250,000 Americans who speak Gullah, an English Creole language spoken mainly in the Sea Islands of Georgia and the Carolinas. Wycliffe Bible Translators and JAARS celebrated in November after completing the first Gullah New Testament in the language's 300-year history.

For many years, not even Gullah speakers considered the language worthy of a translation. "It was like breaking the King's English when you spoke Gullah," remembers Mary Ravenell, a middle-school teacher and minister from South Carolina. "[Some] had an expression—that you were from 'Geecheetown.'"

But Gullah is not "broken English." It has a distinct grammar and vocabulary, and it originated with the slave trade that brought West Africans to the Sea Islands beginning in the 1700s. Traders wanted to thwart uprisings and escapes, so they mixed slaves who spoke different languages. Slaves developed Gullah to communicate with one another. Today, there are 250,000 Gullah speakers in America, says David Frank, who has headed the translation team since 2002. He estimates that 10,000 of these speak only Gullah.

The translation, called De Nyew Testament and published by the American Bible Society, has been a long time coming. Pat and Claude Sharpe started the project in 1979, but needed to convince potential assistants that Gullah is a real language. Pat Sharpe died in 2002, so the baton passed to Frank.

Most Gullah speakers know English, but reading the Bible in the language they first learned changes their experience. Ravenell says, "For ...

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The Word from Geecheetown
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January 2006

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