Bingo! Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu

The oldest written fragments of Siwu found so far come from Rudolph Plehn (1898). 1 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 Princeton 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:

“Wie die Henne die Küchlein beschützt, so beschützen die Apafu-Leute die umwohnenden Stämme. Es bezieht sich dies auf die Schmelz- und Schmiedekunst der Apafu-Leute, die sie in Stand setzt, die umliegenden Stämme mit eisernen Waffen und Werkzeugen zu versehen. Sie thun sich auf ihre Berühmtheit als Schmiede viel zu Gute.”

“Just as the hen shelters the chicks, the Akpafu people shelter the surrounding peoples. This refers to the iron smelting and forging craft of the Akpafu people, which puts them in the position of providing the surrounding tribes with weapons and tools. They are very proud of their renown as blacksmiths.”

From Plehn 1898 to Agudze 1991

Fast forward a century. We’re still in Akpafu-Todzi, the mountain citadel of the Mawu people. Francis S. K. Agudze, the son of the then paramount chief (ìgara kpakpa) Oyete Akuamoah II, has access to the elaborate musical traditions connected to the worship of the deity Tokpaikɔ and decides to write on this topic for his diploma in Music at the University of Ghana. The thesis is essentially a description of Tokpaikɔ music, instruments, and texts. It is worthwile to quote Agudze’s motivation for his work:

Two categories of readers have been kept in mind in the writing of this thesis. Firstly, it is meant for citizens of Akpafu who should see it as a great relief to have a written document, on the religious music of their ancestors, which they can easily lay hands on for reference.

Secondly, it is meant to disabuse religious fanatics of prejudices against traditional religion. It is also hoped that this thesis will help the general reader by broadening his scope on matters concerning traditional religious music. An attempt has been made, through the exposure of Tokpaikor music, to show that African traditional religion is based on the worship of God.”

Agudze’s concern about prejudices against traditional religion links back to my previous discussion of the decline of funeral dirges in Kawu.

Apart from a wealth of very valuable ethnographic and ethnomusicological information, this thesis contains over 40 transcribed songs. 2 And one of these happens to be the song of which Rudolph Plehn wrote down a fragment in the 1890s. How cool is that? Now we have not only the full version of the song (admittedly short though it is), but also its translation, a transcription of its melody, and background information on its ethnographic context: the worship of Tokpaikɔ. 3 From the fact that it was the first song written down by Plehn, we may infer that it was relatively well known in the community at that time.

The song

Below is Agudze’s flagstaff transcription of the song, followed by a glossed translation.

(Agudze 1991:101)

Couplet 1

Ɔ̀-ɖe kɔkɔ́ nɛ ɔ-fu mà-bi iso
3SG-be hen TP 3SG-cover Cma:PL-child on
‘Like a hen covering the chicks’

Couplet 2

Ɔ̀-lɛbɛlɛbɛ ɔ-fu mà-bi iso 3SG-cover Cma:PL-child on
‘Hovering, covering the chicks’

The first stanza consists of repetitions of this one line, which, as Plehn correctly noted, conveys the image of a hen providing shelter for its chicks. 4 Plehn applies the image to the Mawu people themselves (it is not clear on whose authority), but according to Agudze it actually refers to the deity Tokpaikɔ.

The second stanza, not recorded by Plehn, changes the first half of the line into ɔ-lɛbɛlɛbɛ, which Agudze translates as ‘He [sic] hovers’. Now lɛbɛlɛbɛ, a reduplicated monovocalic disyllable, is clearly an ideophone. And this song is not alone in featuring ideophones — 9 out of 37 songs (or a good 25%) in this collection 5 prominently feature one or more ideophones. Is it surprising to find ideophones in traditional worship songs? Perhaps no more than it is to find them in funeral dirges or greeting routines. (Check out my paper “Ideophones in unexpected places” to learn more about this.)

Refinding something that was never lost

On reflection, one may wonder what’s so special about finding a piece of text written down by a German colonial in the 1890’s back in an obscure thesis a century later. Of course, it’s gratifying for me as a linguist and lover of early sources to connect the pieces of the puzzle and thereby place this ‘lost’ fragment back in its proper context. But that’s not the only reason I’m happy with the finding.

Here is the other reason. Significantly, this fragment has always been embedded in the continuity of Tokpaikɔ worship, which Agudze happened to have better access to than Plehn a hundred years before. So the two pieces of written text that I have connected here are mere decontextualized artefacts of a living and breathing cultural heritage, kept alive and well by generations of Siwu speakers.

In a time of severe language loss all over the world, that is not a given — especially seeing Plehn’s prediction, in the 1890’s, that it was only a matter of time before these ‘little islets of tribal languages’ would disappear. Yet as I have learned, on the whole, the Mawu turn out to have strong and positive attitudes to their language and culture. The really cool thing, then, is not so much the refinding of this mangled fragment recorded by Plehn. It’s that in some sense, this fragment was never actually lost.


  1. Agudze, Francis Symon Komla. 1991. The music of Tokpaikor shrine in Akpafu: a case study of the role of Tokpaikor music in Akpafu traditional worship. University of Ghana.  
  2. Christaller, J. G. 1888. Die Volta-Sprachen-Gruppe, drei altbekannte und zwei Neubekannte Negersprachen vergleichend besprochen. Zeitschrift für Afrikanische Sprachen 1: 161-188.
  3. Dorvlo, Kofi. 2008. A Grammar of Logba (Ikpana). PhD thesis, Leiden University.
  4. Plehn, Rudolf. 1898. Beiträge zur Völkerkunde des Togo-Gebietes. Mittheilungen des Seminars für Orientalische Sprachen 2, no. part III: 87-124.  
  5. Seidel, August. 1899. Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Sprachen in Togo. Zeitschrift für Afrikanische und Ozeanische Sprachen 4: 201-286.  


  1. Actually, I suspect that we may find a few numerals in an article from the 1880s, based on this allusion from Christaller 1888: “Im Norden des westlichen, jetzt englischen Ewhe-Gebiets kommen noch einige unbedeutende, kaum bekannte Sprachen vor, wie Boe, Akabu, Adele, Tribu, deren Zahlwörter von 1-10 zu finden sind in den Mitteilungen der Geografischen Gesellschaft zu Jena Bd. IV, S. 40, am Schlusse der Beschreibung einer Reise durch jene Gegenden.” I believe his reference is to an 1884 article.[]
  2. Texts on pp. 56-86 and flagstaff-style notations on pp. 87-119. Apparently, there should also be audio recordings of these somewhere. In the preface, Agudze writes, “I am also thankful to my brother Vincent Osei for recording all the songs of this project on cassette for me.” Next time I’m in Akpafu-Todzi I may try and ask around for these recordings, to see if I can be of any help in transferring them to a digital medium and giving them a wider distribution.[]
  3. One folk etymology I heard of the name of that god, by the way, is a Siwu sentence: ɔ̀to ɔ̀kpa ikɔ̀ ‘s/he is gathering the years’. The implication is that year after year, Tokpaikɔ faithfully looks after the Mawu people.[]
  4. I’m leaving the third person pronoun from the Siwu untranslated because neither the gendered pronouns of English nor the neuter ‘it’ strike me as good equivalents (in Siwu, ɔ- ‘3SG‘ is gender neutral).[]
  5. The total number of songs transcribed by Agudze is 42; however, five of those are not in Siwu but in Akan, Lɛlɛmi, or Sɛlɛɛ.[]

5 thoughts on “Bingo! Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu”

  1. i just want to congratulate you for the great work done .i am also a citizen of Akpafu and hope to contact you for more information about KAWU.Please i will be happy if you could provide information on syntax or grammar on SIWU.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for all the great work you have done.
    I am a citizen of Apkafu and I hope you enjoyed your stay there.
    I will sincerely appreciate a copy of the book, and any info you have of my people,
    The funeral song made me shed a tear or two given that I lost my parents recently.
    I will really appreciate more songs.
    The lead singer sounds very much like my aunts.

  3. I fe me )mere ke k) lo nya so a kyer) I siwu am3. Mm)n ngb) ta lo bra I un diary (leye n3 siwu iyere 😅)am3. Tela du3 n3 si boa wo deka Ido ng3.

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