The question of agency in the thoughts and actions of displaced and transplanted African populations has been a significant focus in humanistic postcolonial studies. This paper addresses the agency issue in the African diaspora from a linguistic point of view. It focuses on the Creole population known as Gullah or Geechee in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina in the United States. New evidence from the Lorenzo Dow Turner corpus of historical audio recordings from the 1930s is presented to demonstrate linguistic acts of identity and self-determination with American ex-slaves. It is argued that linguistic agency may take place consciously and subconsciously.
Material from the Turner collection and Lydia Parrish’s work show significantly different versions of the lyrics to the slave song ‘Hard Law in Ol’ Virginia’. Each version is irreverent to white Southern practices and critical of the institution of slavery. Diasporic Africans were not afraid to sing this song for white or black outsiders in the segregated South of the 1930s. The Turner materials contain additional evidence of linguistic agency. One striking example is the compound ‘rebel time’ to mean slavery. This is found with several Gullah and Geechee individuals. This item is the result of the productive word formation process of compounding in Gullah and Geechee and adds new meaning to the period of slavery as a time of rebellion by people of African descent.
Results from the author’s comparative investigation of the phonology of Gullah and Geechee from the 1930s to the 1980s show that the language is in a dynamic relation to English. Gullah and Geechee people use their language typically only with members of their own community, thus deliberately excluding mainstream intruders. This has prevented English monolingualism in the traditional communities. The diphthong /aw/ in words such as about, house, and ground is sometimes monophthongized to ‘open o’ in the 1930s, but very commonly so in the 1980s. Furthermore, etymological /n/ is pronounced as a velar nasal near categorically in words such as down, around, and ground. These processes are unknown in U.S. dialects of English elsewhere, but they are very common in Caribbean Creole varieties. The dominance of these patterns in the 1980s provides evidence for subconscious agency in part because they developed without the benefit of direct interaction with Caribbean populations in the applicable time period.
The evidence in this paper strongly suggests that a distinction between conscious and subconscious agency is necessary to fully understand overt linguistic transformations and subtle phonological changes that are being initiated and embraced by Creole populations such as the Gullah and Geechee.