Introducing Siwu

Siwu is a minority language spoken in the mountainous central part of the Volta Region, Ghana. The language and the people have received only the scarcest attention from linguists and ethnographers alike, and one of the purposes of this website will be to report on research that is currently being carried out to rectify this omission.

Siwu has traditionally been grouped with some twelve other geographically isolated languages in the area under the heading Togorestsprachen (Togo Remnant Languages), but this grouping is based on a few broad typological and demographical considerations more than on thorough comparative research. It has never been disputed however that the language is part of the Kwa branch of Volta-Congo, a subphylum which itself belongs to the Niger-Congo phylum, Africa’s biggest language family.

The land and its people

Siwu is spoken in a total of eight villages scattered about in the mountains north of Hohoe. Estimates of the total number of speakers range between 10,000 and 23,000, though based on visits to all of these towns my own guess would be on the lower side of that continuum.1 The Siwu-speaking area (Kawu in Siwu) is divided into Akpafu (Northwest) and Lolobi (Northeast), corresponding to a dialectal division. The five Akpafu towns are Tɔdzi, Ɔdɔmi, Mempeasem, Sɔkpoo, and Adɔkɔ.2 They are all within some 8 kilometres from each other as the bird flies, with the former three clustering on the Western side of the Akpafu range, and the latter two on the opposite side of that range. The three Lolobi towns Kumasi, Ashiambi, and Huyeasem are much closer to each other; they are located in the less mountainous area northeast of Hohoe.

The speakers of Siwu call themselves the Mawu. They are peasant farmers, with most of them having several small plots of land at walking distance (30 minutes – 2 hours) where they grow hilly rice, cocoa, corn, cassava, yam, plantain, and some other crops. Corn and cassava are relatively recent introductions (some elderly people still recall the time these being introduced), whereas rice has been grown from time immemorial. The local type of brown hilly rice, indeed, is very close to Mawu identity and integrated into the culture in intricate ways. The men sometimes have day-jobs in neighbouring towns, while the women sell in the markets what little remains from the produce after their family has been fed.

The Mawu take pride in having been involved in an indigenous iron industry, which collapsed toward the end of the nineteenth century due to the influx of cheaply produced European steel products. Remains of iron digging, smelting, and forging activities can still be seen in Tɔdzi, the oldest Mawu town and the only one that is still atop the mountain (as all Mawu towns once were).

The language

The first published traces of Siwu (Akpafu) date back to only 110 years ago, when German missionaries and colonial officials started exploring the Hinterland of their protectorate Togoland. In an ethnographic study of the wider area (Plehn 1898, in some secondary sources incorrectly dated 1895) we find what is probably the first Siwu to appear in print: two songs and a bit of vocabulary related to houses and buildings. Since then, fragments have been published here and there, but by and large Siwu remains undescribed.

Early German sources besides Plehn are Seidel (1899), Funke (1920), and Westermann (1922). Siwu vocabulary has been collected on at least five comparative wordlists since the 1950’s (N.N. n.d., Bertho 1952, Kropp 1976, Egblewogbe 1992, Ring et al. 200x). Kevin Ford did important work with Robert Iddah, a Lolobi speaker, in the 1970’s, but most of this remains unpublished (Ford & Iddah 1973). In recent years, a sketch of phonology and morphosyntax has been prepared at GILLBT by Andy Ring and associates. Some interesting material can furthermore be found in various recent publications by Kofi Agawu on Northern Ewe and Akpafu ethnomusicology.

Siwu has seven oral and five nasal vowels. Several languages of the region have 8- or 9-vowel systems with some form of vowel harmony. In Siwu, noun class prefixes do not harmonize, but root-internally there are some constraints on vowel co-occurrences, attesting to the earlier presence of a system of cross-height vowel harmony (Ford 1973a). Siwu is a tonal language with three level tones on the surface: High, Mid, Low. Functional load of tone is high in the lexicon (minimal pairs) as well as in the grammar (tenses marked by tone).

Basic constituent order in Siwu is Subject Verb Object. The language has an elaborate system of noun classification, with about 9 singular/plural pairings of prefixes and a class for mass nouns. Concord with these noun classes usually shows up on the verb and on the numerals 1-7, relatives, and demonstratives.

There’s lots more to say on the language and the people, but that will have to wait for another occasion!


Note that this list is not exhaustive.

  • Plehn, Rudolph. 1898. ‘Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes’, Mittheilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen, 2, part III, 87—124.
  • Seidel, A., (1899) ‘Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Sprachen in Togo. Aufgrund der von Dr. Rudolf Plehn und anderen gesammelten Materialien bearbeitet’, Zeitschrift für Afrikanische und Oceanische Sprachen, 4, 201-286.
  • Ford, Kevin C. 1973. ‘On the loss of cross-height vowel harmony’, Research Review (IAS, University of Ghana), 4:50-80.
  • Ford, Kevin C. and Robert K. Iddah. 1973. A Grammar of Siwu. Unpublished Ms.
  • Funke, Emil. 1920. ‘Original-Texte aus den Klassensprachen in Mittel-Togo’, Zeitschrift für Eingeborenen-Sprachen, X, 261-313.
  • Iddah, R.K. 1980[1975]. ‘Siwu’, in Kropp Dakubu (ed.) West African Language Data Sheets, vol 2.
  • Kropp Dakubu, M.E., and Kevin Ford. 1988. ‘The Central Togo Languages’, in Kropp Dakubu (ed.) The Languages of Ghana, London: Kegan Paul International, 119-154.
  • Ladefoged, Peter. 2005 [1962]. Siwu. The UCLA Phonetics Lab Archive.
  • Obeng, Samuel Gyasi. 1998. ‘Aspects of Negation in Siwu’, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere, 56, 193-201.
  • Ring, J.A. (ed.) 2002. Language Structures of Siwu (Akpafu-Lolobi). Tamale: GILLBT.
  • Ring. J.A., Stephen Bosco Addae & John Atsu 2002. The Sounds of Siwu: a Phonological Description. Tamale: GILLBT.
  • Westermann, Diedrich H. 1922. ‘Vier Sprachen aus Mitteltogo: Likpe, Bowili, Akpafu und Adele, nebst einigen Resten der Borosprache’. Mitteilungen des Seminars für orientalische Sprachen, 25:1-59.


  1. A Siwu transition primer published by Buem Rural Press in 2005 says: ‘Based on the consensus [sic] taken in 1984 and with an average growth rate of 2.6%, we should be about 40,000 people both home and abroad. According to statistics of MOH (2002) 13,422 people live in villages of Akpafu and Lolobi.’
  2. Adɔkɔ is usually written Adokor; the final r is just the orthographic means to make clear that the final vowel is [ɔ], not [o]. Similarly, someone called Ɔɖimɛ will spell it Ordimeh in an English context.

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