Creole Languages & Candomblé History

by Iya Melissa


Credit: A Daily Dose

One of the strongest markers of resilience in the African diaspora is language.  As an undergraduate I studied linguistics. Although West African languages were not the focus of any classes that I took, it was impossible not to make connections between West African languages and the ways that African Americans, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians, Jamaicans, and Haitians speak. These are not the only connections to be made, but they’re the cultures that I had the most experience with at the time, and the similarities were glaring.

In the United States we often refer to AAVE – African American Vernacular English, and seldom see it as a creole (although it is recognized as a dialect). While AAVE isn’t a creole, the syntactical structure of the dialect is remarkably similar to West African language in general – Yoruba specifically, since that’s the West African language I’m familiar with. Many of us also have Carolinian and Georgian Gullah-Geechie or Louisianna Creole roots.  Gullah and Creole are easily recognized as creole languages due to obvious words that come from other languages.  English speakers often struggle to understand Gullah and Creole due to both the strong accent and unfamiliar vocabulary from other languages.

In the case of Gullah, the language remains a source of pride for African Americans with


credit: University of Chicago Magazine

roots on the Gullah-Geechie islands because it keeps them connected to their African past. The same can be said of Haitian Creole and Cuban Lukumi vocabulary. While the latter is used mostly in religious contexts, it nonetheless speaks to the pride that many Cubans have in being African descendants.

In Brazil, Central and West African languages live in the 21st Century mostly in the realm of religious worship – through songs, prayers and chants. There are also many Central and West African vocabulary words that have become part of Brazilian Portuguese Vernacular in addition to conversational words that are used in religious temples when not praying, singing or dancing. Similar to other places in the African diaspora, for African descendants these remnants of Africa are part and parcel of identity formation.

Lorenzo Turner was enthralled by these connections. His studies carried him from the American South where he focused on Gullah language to South America where he could take an up close and personal look at Africans and their children in Bahia during the 1940s.  He recorded people speaking and singing in Yoruba, and well as captured photographs of people in Bahia who could still fluently speak an African language.

A double CD was released at the end of October where you can listen to over 20 tracks of Lorenzo Turner’s recordings. Listen here