Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity

‘If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!’

One day in Accra, my daughter came home from school and talked to me in English. I said, “I no be hear English.1 In my home, we speak Siwu.” My daughter said, “But the teacher has said that we should not speak Vernacular at home!”

Vernacular! Vernacular! By that he means any local language other than English. So I said to her: “Siwu is my language. In my home we speak Siwu! At school you can speak English!” She started shivering and crying, because the teacher had threatened children who spoke Vernacular. So he had put her in fear. But I said to her: “If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!” Now that she is grown up, she boasts that she can speak Siwu fluently even though she grew up in Accra. Many of her cousins don’t hear2 Siwu at all.

This quote is from T.T., a very proud speaker of Siwu. Not all Mawu people raising children outside of Kawu are quite so insistent on maintaining Siwu, but his words do highlight the prevailing attitude among Mawu speakers, namely that it is good to speak Siwu besides many other languages. Teachers, meanwhile, are steadfastly convinced that speaking ‘Vernacular’ is about the worst thing a student can do, despite evidence that being allowed to learn in (and speak) your own language(s) improves education rather than hampering it.

In the same conversation, which took place some months ago in his home in Akpafu-Tɔdzi, T.T. continued:

I cannot pray in English. I cannot pray in Ewe. I talk to my God in my own language. When someone outside Kawu asks me to pray, I will pray in my own language. They may not understand, but they will hear ‘Amen’. They will know alright that I have prayed, and they will say ‘Amen’ to it.


  1. Note the fine imitation of Ghanaian Pidgin English here, and the attendant suggestion of the superior expressive power of Siwu. For the speaker, this is one of several reasons to stick to Siwu (see also the prayer quote further on). []
  2. In Ghanaian English, the word ‘hear’ has taken on broader meanings under influence of local language structures. In many Ghanain (and indeed West-African) languages, the verb ‘hear’ extends to ‘understanding’, especially a language. []

5 responses to “‘If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!’”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Mark. It is a real shame when educators (and even some parents) subscribe to the zero-sum notion of language, which ends up in attempts to “subtract” languages of lower status from educational, social and even family life (!). Glad that the parents are standing up for the maternal / community language.

    Teachers like the one in the story should be taught not to instruct students to ignore their linguistic heritage – in fact, there are some basics of learning in multilingual contexts that are probably not even touched on in most teacher education in Africa (and most of the world too?).

  2. \hello,
    very proud of sir
    i wish i was writing these in siwu.
    lawson wurapa is my name. ogodi wurapa is our original name

  3. I will continue to admire the way you are proud of we speaking our language, but i also think we need to encourage our clans to stop adopting the Akan names. Obrinpong, ababio, Akoto, Opari, Owurapa, Asari, etc… these names are not our original names.
    names like Ogodi, Otruku, Obi, are getting lost. these are names of our fathers.
    our chiefs and must be addressed as Igra noNana. our Identy need to be clear. can we stop hiding our selves. Mawu. thank you

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