What do you really need on this earth?

Natural conversations are a great source of data for all sorts of linguistic research. Linguists and conversation analysts usually study them primarily for their structure, not their content. This is not out of disinterest, but out of empirical prudence. Talk tends to support a wide range of interpretations. It is empirically safest to stick to observable structures and practices, or at most to interpretations furnished by the interlocutors themselves.

The excerpt below is translated from a corpus of natural conversations in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. Two elderly men are sitting in front of their house and chatting. They’ve just been talking about a fellow villager whose children are “giving him problems”. The long silence before Adom’s “So now.” signifies, among other things, that what comes now is likely a new topic. The exchange that follows is beautifully poetic both in terms of structure and topic.

Adom So now.
You have a keyboard.
Ben Mm.
A You have an uh. (1.5) this thing
B Mm.
A You have uh (0.8) radio.
B Mm.
A You have electricity.
B Mm.
A You have water.
B Mm.
A So then what really- what do you really need on this earth?
B What I need?
As for me, I don’t need anything except-
Except my bodily health.
A Just your bodily health.
B Mm.

One is tempted to talk about Maslow’s pyramid, material culture, and a whole lot of other things — but it is probably best to let the exchange speak for itself. (Translated from Siwu.)

Morning clouds in Akpafu-Mempeasem, 2009


On “unwritten” and “oral” languages

The world’s many endangered languages are often characterized as “unwritten” and “oral” languages. Both of these terms reveal the language ideologies still implicit in many academic approaches to language: “unwritten” defines by negation, revealing a bias towards stable, standardized abstractions of communicative behaviour (away from a dynamic conception of situated talk-in-interaction); and “oral” defines by exclusion, revealing a bias towards the vocal-auditory channel (away from the multi-modal, fully embodied nature of face to face interaction). How much of our research today is unwittingly shaped by these implicit biases?

A Mawu community in Sefwi, Western Region, Ghana

In Kawu on the very final day of my 2012 fieldtrip, I heard something unusual. Some people talked about a community of Mawu people, speakers of Siwu, living in Sefwi. Now Kawu, as you know, is in the east of Ghana, close to the border with Togo. Sefwi on the other hand is all the way in Western Region, some 500 kilometres away from Kawu as the crow flies. How did they get there?  Continue reading

Bourdieu’s food space, updated

Food writer Molly Watson from Gastronomica provides us with an update of Bourdieu’s food space, where different types of food are arranged spatially along two dimensions: economic and cultural capital. The beautiful illustration is by Leigh Wells .

Note the four versions of “homemade pickles” appearing in all four regions of the chart. Molly Watson observes:

What I found rather glorious was how, when I thought through any single food item (i.e. yogurt), it couldn’t really be placed in one specific location. Rather, specific versions of it would belong in different places. Such are the choices and range of our foodstuffs. Such is the ever-widening world of human taste.

The original chart appeared in Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction (translated 1984 as Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste).

    Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

H.B.K. Ogbete, A history of the Akpafus

One of the most interesting sources on the history and customs of the Mawu people of eastern Ghana (also known as the Akpafu) is a little book written in 1998 by Rev. H.B.K. Ogbete. This book contains a wealth of material: it records oral traditions, names of ancestors and chiefs, and a lot of background information on the culture of the Mawu. However, it is very difficult to find. Therefore, by popular demand, and with the permission of Prof. Kofi Agawu of Princeton University (who was involved in the publication of the book), I am making available a digital copy of it here.

Download it here: A history of the Akpafus (PDF, 2.5Mb)


  1. Ogbete, H. B. K. 1998. A history of the Akpafus. Onyase Press Limited.  

Bingo! Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu

The oldest written fragments of Siwu found so far come from Rudolph Plehn (1898). Besides some words and phrases (edited and published in 1899 by his friend Seidel), Plehn took down two lines of songs. To one of them I devoted a post some time ago. Now I’ve found a full transcription of the other, buried in a somewhat obscure thesis titled The music of Tokpaikor shrine in Akpafu: a case study of the role of Tokpaikor music in Akpafu traditional worship. How that thesis came to be in my possession is a story of its own, involving an utterly unhelpful secretary at the University of Ghana’s Music Dept, a forged letter, and a surprise parcel from professor Kofi Agawu in my pigeon hole back home — but let me not waste any more time on that.


(Gesänge der Apafu-leute, Plehn 1898:119)

So what do we have? First Plehn’s transcription. Rendered as mekoko lofomadisu, it’s a bad case of garbled transmission at multiple levels. Word boundaries and the contrast between open and close vowels didn’t make it; even the verb is lost in translation, leaving us with a simple apposition of ‘Die Henne, die Küchlein’ (‘the hen, the chicks’). Plehn does have quite an interesting interpretation of the song: Continue reading

AAA Meeting Abstracts online? Only viable if it’s Open Access

The AAA is currently conducting a survey on how to implement a website that would be hosting AAA Meeting Abstracts. As they write,

Specifically, we’re investigating posting the 2007 and 2008 AAA annual meeting paper abstracts, which would be posted exactly as they were submitted to AAA and would not be interactive, although they would be searchable. Posting these two years is a substantial project, because the combined total is nearly 7,000 specific abstracts.

Obviously, this would be an interesting resource. With a fulltext search you could track down previous research on your topic of interest, find potential collaborators, or just look up specific abstracts to refresh your memory of a talk. Besides, these abstracts are a record of the collective effort of AAA members; it is somewhat of a letdown that hitherto they have only been available in a bulky printed booklet obtainable at the meeting. Continue reading

Some miracle of cloning

See what I just did? Made another me.

“See what I just did? Made another me.”
Darwin (Marvel Comics), panel from X-Factor issue 37.

There is a very quirky sentence right in the first chapter of Richerson & Boyd’s (2005) Not By Genes Alone that unintentionally defeats the very point they are making. After explaining why ‘culture is essential’ (the chapter title) and noting the influence of Darwin’s population thinking on biology, there is the following remarkable aside:

[I]f through some miracle of cloning Darwin were to be resurrected from his grave in Westminster Abbey, we think that he would be quite happy with the state of the science he launched. (p. 5)

Note how that statement in one breath essentializes biology (Darwin = his genes alone) and totally ignores culture (Darwin’s clone = Darwin now as then).

It would be a great miracle indeed if the encultured product of a cloning operation on Darwin’s remains would view Darwinism as ‘the science he launched’ and be happy with it!


  1. Richerson, Peter J., and Robert Boyd. 2005. Not by genes alone. How culture transformed human evolution. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.

AAA Photo Contest galleries now online

The Winners and Finalists of the 2008 AAA Photo Contest are now available in a Flickr gallery. The photos are really beautiful — I’m honoured that one of my submissions is featured among them (and happy that Siwu ideophones are getting some press!).

Click on a photo in the slideshow below to show the author and the caption; or go directly to the slideshow on Flickr.

Edit: The semifinalists are now online, too: Flickr gallery.