I thought I had company (a Mawu dirge)

Women performing a funeral dirge in Akpafu-Mempeasem

Funeral dirges (sìnɔ in Siwu) are a special genre of songs to be sung during the period of public mourning preceding a burial. The musical structures of these dirges, the performances, and their place in the larger context of the funeral have been described in some detail by Agawu (1988) and before him by the German missionary Friedrich Kruse (1911); however, the linguistic aspects of the genre have not received any attention so far.

The funeral dirge below was recorded August 17, 2007 in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana (along with six other dirges). It was transcribed and translated with the gentle help of Reverend A.Y. Wurapa.

Siwu English gloss
mɛ̀ sɔ màturi pia mɛ̀
      sêgbe kàku kaɖè
      sêgbe nnɔmɛ miɖè
      sêgbe ìsoma iɖè
      sêgbe àsekpe aɖè
I said, ‘people are with me’
      not knowing it meant mourning
      not knowing it meant tears
      not knowing it meant sadness
      not knowing it meant graves

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The Siwu is beautifully economic in expression. It contains only two verbs: pia ‘be (with)’ and ɖe ‘be (existential)’. The that is translated as ‘said’ is actually a quotative complementizer. An English translation cannot do without marking tense, but in Siwu, the poem does not contain any tense or aspect markers, being set in an aorist-like default that can be interpreted as recent past or present.

Some of the poetic devices at work here are lost in translation. One is the focus construction which emphasizes the content words in the last four Siwu lines (‘mourning it is; tears it is; sadness it is; graves it is’). Another is the fact that these content words belong to four different grammatical genders in Siwu: the first is an noun in KA with locative connotation, the second a liquid/mass noun in MI, the third a singular noun in I, the fourth a plural noun in A. I’m not sure whether this pattern is as striking to native speakers as it is to me, but note that the gender is reinforced by the agreement morphology on the ‘be’-verb (ka-, mi-, i-, a-). One could think of it as a case of ‘subliminal verbal patterning in poetry’ (Jakobson 1980).
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Finalist in the AAA Photo contest

The results of the AAA photo contest have just been announced. Congratulations to the winner, Peter Biella! Of my four submissions, one made it to the finals (best 20) and one to the semifinals (best 54). All 294 submissions will appear in the AAA Flickr gallery in due course; mine follow below.

My finalist was the following photo, titled “Kããã“:

Kyeei Yao, an age group leader, oversees a festival in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. The expensive draped cloth, the Ashanti-inspired wreath, the strings of beads which are handed down through the generations, and the digital wristwatch work together to remind us that culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself.
Kããã is a Siwu ideophone for ‘looking attentively’.

This picture was taken by my wife, Gijske de Boo, while I was busy videotaping the same events that Kyeei Yao is attending to. Together with the other 19 finalists it will be featured in the upcoming issue of Anthropology News; the finalists will also be hung as prints in the AAA office.

The photo that made the semifinals is called “The drum makers“:

Two artisans repair an atumpani drum in preparation for the funeral of a chief in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. A newly prepared antelope skin is fastened to the hard wood frame of the drum using a nylon cord and wooden pegs.

This picture was taken on the compound of Joseph (the man to the right), very close to my own home in Akpafu-Mempeasem. The earthen wall behind the men is Joe’s house, built of sun-hardened puddled mud like most houses in the village.

Bad Death

A submission which I thought was perhaps the most interesting even though it didn’t make it to the semifinals was “Bad Death ritual“:

A ‘bad death’ ritual in Ghana’s Volta Region. On the village cemetery, relatives of a man who died in a hunting accident listen anxiously to a woman who is possessed by the spirit of the deceased. The hunters, who have just brought the spirit home from the place of the accident deep in the jungle, keep their distance. Red is the colour of danger, black that of death.

This event took place right after a long and tiring march into the jungle and back, to pacify the spirit of a hunter killed in a tragic accident. I was able to take the picture from this perspective because I was dragged right in front of the possessed woman by Foster, one of my assistants, who had been my guide on the expedition. I also have an audio recording of her speech, which turned out to be a very interesting mix of prophesy and admonition. I’ll have to write more about that some time.

My final submission was the photo of Akpafu-Todzi which is also featured on this blog.

It’s a sunny day in Akpafu-Todzi, the old mountain citadel of the Mawu people in the central Volta Region of Ghana. The town, which has endured numerous sieges and which was the site of an ancient iron industry, is tranquil because this is the time for most people to engage in collaborative rice farming.

Unlocking the potential of the spoken word?

An intriguing article in Science two months ago suggests that advances in speech processing ‘may soon place speech and writing on a more equal footing, with broad implications for many aspects of society’. It reminds us that most of humanity’s approximately 50,000 years with language was dominated by the spoken word, and that the balance was upset only some few thousands of years ago by the invention of writing. But was it?

"It'll never catch on." (by Joe Sutliff)

An example of  a multi-modal speech event (by Joe Sutliff)

The author, information retrieval specialist Douglas Oard, starts by reviewing how writing caused a landslide in humanity’s cultural landscape, in large part due to the fact that it provided its users with solid permanence and findability — properties that the spoken word, due to its ephemeral nature, did not possess to any great extent. The argument is a familiar one, and although I think that the relative permanence of orally transmitted information in non-literate societies is often underestimated, the basic thrust of the argument strikes me as plausible.

This leads to Oard’s key observation: writing has been hugely succesful due to providing these advantages — but with todays’ (and tomorrows’) speech recognition technologies these advantages are no longer exclusive to writing. Why? Continue reading

Claude Lévi-Strauss on Arte

28-11-2008
Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 100th birthday

German television channel Arte devotes much of today’s programme to Claude Lévi-Strauss to celebrate his 100th birthday on the 28th of November 2008. It seems the broadcasts are not being streamed to the web.

However, the programme web pages do contain a number of items viewable online, including some excerpts from Lévi-Strauss interviews on French television, and an interesting interview with Jean-François Zygel on the relation between music and anthropologists, Ravel’s Bolero and Lévi-Strauss: Mythos und Musik. Continue reading

Four Stone Hearth

The 51st installment of Four Stone Hearth is up at Clashing Culture, featuring an interesting mishmash of anthropological topics. For those of you who don’t know it, Four Stone Hearth is a blog carnival that brings together the four fields of anthropology (archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology) — each of which is a stone in the hearth.

Pfisterer on Akpafu, 1904 (part II)

Today’s posting brings you the second part of Pfisterer’s 1904 article (see the previous posting for details on the context and provenance of this piece of missionary writing). This part gives us information on religious beliefs; myths of origin; the afterlife and reincarnation; so-called ‘fetishes’ (kùɣɔ/àɣɔ in Siwu) and how they are to be served (the indigenous upland rice plays an important role); functions of priests and their servants; the mabia cult of priestesses; amulets and other objects wielding spiritual power; and funeral customs, including an all too brief bit on the funeral dirges Agawu (1988) has written about. All of this is brought in a characteristically dismissive tone, clearly designed for a specific audience: the loyal and pious supporters of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft in Germany.

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

In the future, I want to talk about some of the issues this text raises. To mention just one thing, Pfisterer narrates how he destroyed a powerful object (left in someone’s home by a witch doctor) by burning it on the public forum for all to see. The significance of this event cannot be overestimated. Pfisterer simply wanted to demonstrate the irrationality of the beliefs of the Mawu. But in the eyes of those present, he was participating in a rather dangerous type of spiritual power play. The fact that he could destroy the bewitched object without being harmed himself established his own spiritual power over that of the witch doctor, providing the Mawu with excellent reasons to align with Pfisterer and the superior power he apparently represented. More on this later; now, let’s see what Pfisterer has to say. Continue reading

Pfisterer on Akpafu, 1904 (part I)

One of the goals of The Ideophone, besides functioning as a sounding board for ideas on expressivity and sound symbolism in African languages, is to make available sources on Siwu and other GTM languages which are otherwise hard to come by. This posting is the first in a series furthering that goal. Below you will find the full text (in German) of an early account by Pfisterer, the first missionary to live in Akpafu. Ignoring the colonial tone of voice and the inevitable racial prejudices, we get valuable information on sociolinguistics, oral history, housing, smithing, socio-economical conditions, polygamy, and slavery.

Before giving the floor to Pfisterer, let me provide some context to his account (if you can’t wait, you can skip right to Pfisterer’s own words — don’t forget to look at the beautiful picture below, though!). A lot of material documenting the missionary history of Akpafu can be found in the archives of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft, which have been deposited at the Staatsarchiv Bremen. More often than not, these missionary documents consist of only marginally interesting chitchat about building projects, visitations of other mission posts, and the health of the missionaries, but every once in a while we get more ethnographic detail.

One source offering such detail is a 1904 piece by Andreas Pfisterer on Kawu and the Mawu in the periodical Monatsblatt der Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft. Pfisterer was the man who established the first mission post at ‘Akpafu’ (today’s Akpafu-Todzi) in 1897. He was originally with the Basel Mission, but was ‘dismissed in 1899’, upon which he changed to the Bremen Mission and stayed in Ghana until 1910. According to a brief history of the station by one of the later missionaries, Hermann Schosser (Schosser 1907), Pfisterer had abandoned the Akpafu station by 1902, leaving behind an unfinished house and the indigenous catechist Mensa with his Christian family.

Pfisterer’s account was published in two parts, and in an attempt to keep the postings here within reasonably length I will keep to that division, reproducing the first half of his account below and the second half in a second posting. I have marked a few obvious errors that were present in the source; any remaining typographical errors are probably mine.

Andreas Pfisterer with his pupils before the school in 1899. Note the 'chosen ones', especially the smartly dressed boy (in black) to his left, who is even wearing a pocket watch. No names are given. The chalk board says 'Schule in Akpafo, 1899' (BMPIX D-30.52.016)

Andreas Pfisterer with his pupils before the school in 1899. Note the ‘chosen ones’, especially the smartly dressed boy (in black) to his left, who is even wearing a pocket watch. No names are given. The chalk board says ‘Schule in Akpafo, 1899’ (BMPIX D-30.52.016)

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Remnants of some ancient tribal idiom: deciphering the oldest Siwu to appear in print

The Akpafus must immediately strike even the most casual observer as a people differing from the surrounding tribes. Their huts are flat roofed (with mud) instead of the conical grass-roofed houses of the Ewe race. Their language is not Ewe, but a remnant of some ancient tribal idiom. (Rattray 1916:431)

The town of Akpafu around 1905

The town of Akpafu one century ago

Having been a small and quite isolated language for centuries, Siwu was relatively late to attract attention from outsiders. Europeans in search for gold, slaves, and other goods for the most part stayed near the coast. Halfway the nineteenth century, German firms (looking for cheap land) and missionary organizations (looking for converts) started to explore the Hinterland and it is in this period that the name Akpafu turns up for the first time in the historical record. (If you wonder about the etymology, see here.) The earliest mention I found so far is a photo by the German missionary photographer Christian Hornberger, titled Fetischpriester in Akpafu and dated 1864 (see below). Still, it took some time before Akpafu became more generally known, due in part to its remoteness, but probably also because of the turmoil caused by the Asante-British wars.

Fetischpriester in Akpafu (Hornberger, 1864; sign. 529)

‘Fetischpriester in Akpafu’ (Christian Hornberger, 1864)
Bremen Mission Archives 7.1025-0529

Rudolph Plehn, Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes (1898)

Only when the area became part of the German colony of Togoland (1884-1914), more information became available. The earliest ethnographic source is a study by Rudolf Plehn, published as his dissertation in Halle in 1898 and titled Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes (Contributions to the ethnography of the Togo area). It is here that we find the oldest fragment of Siwu to appear in print, and in this posting I’ll report on an attempt to decipher it. Continue reading