Sea Island Creole EnglishPrint
questions about the population of Gullah speakers
As an authority on Gullah, also known as Sea Island Creole, I have been asked a number of times what the population of Gullah speakers is. My first instinct is always to refer to the Ethnologue, but this is somewhat circular since the Ethnologue depends on research done by specialists. The problem is that I don't think there is any good answer available. How many monolingual speakers of Gullah are there? The Ethnologue cites the 2010 Census to come up with a figure of 350. I don't know the details, but I am quite skeptical that the 2010 Census could come up with any kind of reliable information about the number of monolingual Gullah speakers. But what else to we have to go with? In his contribution to the “Survey of Pidgin and Creole Languages” (2013), Thomas Klein writes that Gullah "is not part of any official census and functions primarily in a close-knit community so that it is difficult to come up with precise speaker numbers. There are quite certainly no more than 10,000 monolinguals, but perhaps as many as a couple hundred thousand persons with some competency in the language in addition to varieties of English." See http://apics-online.info/contributions/13. There is no indication that the figure of "no more than 10,000" is anything other than an impression, not based on any kind of systematic study. Is that answer closer to what the Ethnologue is looking for? I am afraid that there has been no serious research into this question, and even if a number is proposed somewhere such as in an official census or in publication about creole languages, that number is just a wild guess. What makes this particularly difficult to answer in this case is that Gullah is a creole language and there is an indeterminate boundary between Gullah and English. Some people who think they speak English might be speaking Gullah. But a related problem is how you identify Gullah. If we are talking about a pure, basilectal variety, that might not be spoken any more at all, and knowledge about its use in the past is sketchy. But languages can evolve, in the case of creole languages, we speak in terms of decreolization and a post-creole continuum. At what point do we say that an evolved form of the language is no longer Gullah? Well, actually, I could think of a few tests for when someone is speaking Gullah, but as far as I know, no surveys have been conducted using proper methods. A third, related problem when researching a stigmatized language variety is what we call the observer's paradox. Sometimes it is hard to know people's linguistic behavior when they are not being researched. The bottom line is that I want to be able to cite the Ethnologue on the question of the number of speakers of Sea Island Creole, but I can't do so without giving a disclaimer about its reliability. Perhaps the most honest answer would be to say "We don't know."