Language

European settlers in South Carolina were speakers of six lan- guages belonging to the Indo-European language family: Spanish, French, German, English, Welsh, and Scots. French-speaking Huguenots arrived early, after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685.

South Carolina has been multilingual since 1526 when the Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Allyón attempted the first European settlement in the land called “Chicora,” perhaps near present-day Georgetown. From that first contact until statehood in 1776, more than fifty languages of Europe, Africa, and North America were spoken in its towns and villages.

Four major language families, which included numerous languages and dialects, were represented in the speech of indigenous peoples at the time of their early contact with Europeans and Africans. Between the coast and present-day Rock Hill, a common language or dialect of the Muskogean language family was spoken in the 1500s. Indian life on the coastal plain was so disrupted by the Spanish, French, and English incursions, however, that by the 1700s villages only ten or twenty miles apart could no longer understand each other. Catawbas from the north had moved into the state, and their language (related to the Siouan family) was used in the northeastern area around Rock Hill, site of their present-day reservation. Cherokee, belonging to the Iroquoian language family, was spoken in the northwest and was separated from Catawba by a wide boundary formed by the Broad and Catawba Rivers. The Muskogean languages along the coast, also spoken by the Creeks throughout Georgia and Alabama, disappeared from South Carolina around the mid-1700s, leaving traces only in place names such as Waccamaw, Winyah, Sewee, Wando, Kiawah, Stono, Edisto, and Combahee. Latecomers speaking Algonquian languages came down from the mountains to the north and settled for brief time periods along the Savannah and Saluda Rivers that still bear their names. The native languages that lasted longest were Cherokee and Catawba, which were spoken in the upcountry until well into the nineteenth century. The last native speaker of Catawba died early in the twentieth century, while Cherokee is still spoken in the mountains of western North Carolina, as well as among some Cherokees living in Oklahoma. Many Cherokees became literate in their own language, using a syllabary devised by Sequoya in the early 1800s.

European settlers in South Carolina were speakers of six lan- guages belonging to the Indo-European language family: Spanish, French, German, English, Welsh, and Scots. French-speaking Huguenots arrived early, after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. In the ten years that followed, more than fifteen hundred of these Protestants entered the Carolina colony, founding five churches in Charleston and outlying areas. Huguenots became Anglicans when preachers of their own faith became difficult to obtain, hastening their transition to English by the mid-1700s. Smaller French-speaking groups settled in frontier areas of the colony. Individual Spanish-speaking Jews entered the colony as early as 1697, with a large group settling in Charleston in the mid-1700s. Descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Catholic Inquisition of 1492, most had previously lived in London or the West Indies and used a variety of Spanish (Ladino) as their home language. Their synagogue in Charleston became one of the largest in the colonies, with a congregation of one hundred families by 1800. Another group of German Protestants experiencing persecution in Europe came in small groups beginning in 1732, settling on what was then the outskirts of the colony: Purrysburg, Orangeburg, Saxe-Gotha, and New Windsor. Additional German speakers came to South Carolina from northern colonies via the Great Wagon Road, and by 1752 they numbered some three thousand. A large group settled in lower Dutch Fork in the middle of the state, between the Broad and Saluda Rivers, a place name that is an Anglicized version of deutsch (German).

Settlers from the British Isles made up the bulk of the European settlers, with English speakers in the majority. Immigrants from England were in the minority but constituted the elite of the colony. Some of them were younger sons of English gentry, half of whom came from the exhausted lands of the Caribbean colony of Barba- dos. They spoke a prestige dialect centered around London, were literate, and were active in the colonial government. The South- Carolina Gazette, a weekly newspaper that began publication in Charleston in 1732, was distributed widely throughout the colony and lent cohesion to this elite group. A small group of Welsh speakers came down the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia into the Pee Dee area of South Carolina in 1736 to settle what is still known as Welsh Neck. Their Welsh Neck Baptist Church mothered some thirty-eight more, bringing contact with non-Welsh speakers who hastened the shift to English. Scots and Scots-Irish settlers constituted the majority of Europeans by the latter part of the 1700s. Lowland Scots were often bilingual in Lowland Scots and a dialect of English that the aristocratic English considered “uncouth.” The Scots-Irish from Ulster had lived in Ireland for several generations and spoke a distinctive dialect of English. They were often able to read the Bible in English, using a translation authorized in 1611 during the reign of the Protestant King James VI of Scotland, who had become James I of England. After the Act of Union in 1707 between the two countries, immigrants of Scots heritage could enter the colony on equal terms with the English. Attracted by the colony’s offer of land free from rent for ten years, more than four thousand came directly from northern Ireland and Scotland or down the Great Wagon Road from other colonies, doubling the European population in South Carolina between 1763 and 1775 and settling mostly in the upcountry. With their arrival, English became the dominant language in European households during the colonial era. English was not, however, the language spoken by most Carolinians.

Up until the Yamassee War of 1715, Indian languages were the most frequently spoken, but by 1730 the majority of people in South Carolina spoke African languages or an African-English creole language called Gullah or Geechee. At the beginning of the colonial era Africans numbered only a few hundred, but by 1775 their numbers had increased to 107,300. Europeans numbered only 71,300 by that date, and Indians had dwindled from 10,000 to 500.

Africans were brought to Carolina in bondage, and any children born to them were also considered property. Concentrated along coastal rice and indigo plantations, Africans sometimes outnumbered Europeans by a ratio of nine to one. Sullivan’s Island, where new slaves were quarantined before auction, has been called the “Ellis Island of black Americans.” In the latter half of the colonial era, they spoke more than twenty different languages of the large African language family of Niger-Kordofanian. Their homelands were West Africa between present-day Senegal and southern Nigeria and the Angola-Congo region further to the south. The earliest Africans to arrive in the colony with the planters from Barbados probably had learned English as a second language, and those who came during the first fifty years of the colony would also have had opportunity to become bilingual in English. After the 1720s, however, newcomers had little contact with English speakers, and Gullah developed as a common language among Africans. Its grammatical structure was formed from a combination of abstract selections chosen from the early African languages (probably Senegambia and the Gold Coast) spoken in the colony and through principles of language universals, while its vocabulary was primarily English with some African words used for personal names, numbers, and days of the week. Its pronunciation and intonation patterns reflect those of the original African languages. Later arrivals from Africa, many of whom came from the Angola-Congo region that may be the source of the name Gullah as well as many personal names, came until well into the nineteenth century. Gullah is a unique language created in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia for mutual communication between peoples who shared no other common one. European children on large plantations often learned it as a second language from their caretakers and playmates in the slave quarters.

By the late twentieth century, the primary language of South Carolina was English. Gullah had become a language used in the home and in private community exchanges; many outsiders do not realize that it is still spoken. The structural influence of this creole language can be seen in African American varieties of English through the state, as well as the nation, in such features as absence of copulas or the be-verbs (You better throw that [tea] out because it too weak), absence of -s for third-person singular verbs (He work in the stable right now), absence of possessive -s before nouns (We go in our cousin car ), and consonant cluster reduction before vowels (bes’ apple ).

By the early twenty-first century preschool children and the elderly who often cared for them continued to speak South Carolina’s unique creole language in coastal African American homes. Commonly heard creole constructions in the verb phrase were a preverbal duh for habitual action (She duh hit me = She’s always hitting me); a preverbal fuh for obligation (I fuh clean the house = I have to clean the house); a preverbal done for completed action (Teria dog done get hit = Teria’s dog got hit); and been for simple past (And then a big bruise been right there). In a noun phrase, ee and um can be used as the third-personal pronoun in subject and object positions respectively (Ee hard? [referring to a football] versus And the snake was dead; we throw rock on um [referring to the snake]); ee can also be used to indicate possession (So that been on her floor, in ee house); and yuna is sometimes used for the second-personal plural pronoun (Ee say, “This how yuna talk?” = He said, “Is this how you all talk?”).

The English of older Carolinians of European descent reflects original differences between the archaic Scots English introduced by the Scots-Irish farmers of the upcountry and the prestige English used in southeastern England near London, spoken by the planta- tion owners of the lowcountry. The lifelong association of the landed gentry with the African slaves also influenced their speech. None of the original African languages used –r in word-final position, and the prestige dialect surrounding London was an –r-less one. By contrast, the English spoken by the Scots-Irish was -r-ful. This presence or absence of -r after vowels that are followed by a consonant has long been one of the most noticeable differences between upcountry and lowcountry speech. Two former governors displayed this distinction into the twentieth century: Richard W. Riley of Greenville used r-ful speech, while Ernest F. Hollings of Charleston referred to the Board of Education as the Bode of Education. The small farmers of the Pee Dee region pronounced their– r’s more like the upcountry residents did. With World War II, many upcountry and Pee Dee residents moved to the Charleston area for work in defense-related industries, and younger speakers in the urban coastal areas began to use more r-ful speech.

The Scots-Irish have also left their mark on grammar. Older speakers in the Piedmont and in the Pee Dee use hit for the third-person pronoun (Hit looked all right ), double modals (I might can cut the grass this evening ), old verb forms (He holp me with tobacco last year ), and an a- prefix on active verbs (That man jumped up a- running ). Both black and rural white speakers use an unconjugated be-verb that probably has different sources, with black speakers restricting it to habitual or repetitive meaning (She usually be home in the evening ) and white speakers using it for a wider range (I be done told you about that ).

Distinctive words from many different sources include spider for a frying pan, loft for an attic room, granny for a midwife, passed for died, plunder for junk, cornpone in the Piedmont and cornbread in Charleston, pinders and goobers for peanuts (both of African origin, along with okra and yam), biddie for a young chicken, and pole cat for skunk. The common greeting is Hey, rather than Hi or Hello. Relatives are kinfolks, and a young child favors someone in the family (rather than looks like them).

As a core dialect area in the lower South, South Carolina contains older speech patterns that spread out to the west and south with the opening up of new plantation areas. It shares with other southerners a pronunciation of I without an upward glide, so that buy almost rhymes with baa (I like white rice can be a test sentence for most southerners). The vowels e and I collapse before a nasal (pen and pin sound the same, forcing speakers to specify a safety pin or a writing pen). Still other vowel distinctions are kept in the South, while they have been lost elsewhere in the country (Mary, merry, Marry, and Murray are distinctly different words, as are cot/caught and hawk/hock).

In the late twentieth century, non-English speakers once again began arriving in South Carolina, but they represented only a small portion of the overwhelmingly English-speaking population. At the 2000 census they numbered almost 200,000, representing five percent of a total population of just over 4 million. Most of these new residents spoke Spanish, French, or German in the home, but more than half of them used English in public. Smaller groups of new residents spoke Tagalog, Greek, Indic, Italian, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. Within a generation, children in these immigrant families would sound like their classmates in the public schools. However, like South Carolinians before them, they might also have been speaking an ancestral language in the home.

Carver, Craig M. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987.

Dickson, R. J. Ulster Emigration to Colonial America, 1718–1775. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

Elzas, Barnett A. The Jews of South Carolina from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. 1905. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1972. Hartmann, Edward George. Americans from Wales. Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1967.

Hirsch, Arthur Henry. The Huguenots of Colonial South Carolina. 1928.

Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Montgomery, Michael, ed. The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture. Athens: University of Georgia

Press, 1994. Pollitzer, William. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. 1949. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Voight, Gilbert P. The German and German-Swiss Element in South Carolina, 1732–1752. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1922.

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Wolfram, Walt, and Erik R. Thomas. The Development of African American English. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Language
  • Author
  • Keywords South Carolina has been multilingual since 1526, Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Allyón, Four major language families, Muskogean language family, French-speaking Huguenots, Descendants of Sephardic Jews, Dutch Fork, South-Carolina Gazette, Welsh Neck Baptist Church, Up until the Yamassee War of 1715, Indian languages were the most frequently spoken, Sullivan’s Island, Niger-Kordofanian, Gullah,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date April 12, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 1, 2017
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