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

Having been a small and quite isolated language for centuries, Siwu was relatively late to attract attention from outsiders. Europeans in search for gold to buy and people to enslave 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.)

Fetischpriester in Akpafu (Hornberger, 1864; sign. 529)
‘Fetischpriester in Akpafu’ (Christian Hornberger, 1864)
Bremen Mission Archives 7.1025-0529

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).1 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. Rattray’s exoticizing statement, casting Siwu as an “ancient tribal idiom”, is typical for the period and reflects the general bewilderment about the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region.

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 (If you wonder about the low quality of the image: this is a scan from a photo found in a piece by missionary Herman Schosser published in 1907 as volume 21 of the Bremer Missionsschriften (Schosser 1907:6). I have not yet been able to track down this picture in the Bremen Mission Archives, so it seems this is the best we’ve got. The flatroofed houses were really remarkable; this or this was much more typical of this part of Ghana.)

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.2 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.

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  1. See Alsheimer (2004:160). Alsheimer cites from a letter by Hornberger: “Dass sich der Fetischpriester bewegen ließ, mir zu stehen, halte ich für einen großen Sieg, den hiermit die Photographie über den Aberglauben davon getragen. Ich stehe gegenwärtig in Unterhandlung mit etlichen Fetischweiben, und hoffe es auch bei Ihnen durch Geschenke dahin zu bringen, dass ich sie conterfeien kann.” []
  2. A wealth of information on the colonial history of the area can be found in the Deutsches Koloniallexikon, which first appeared 1920. It has been digitized recently at the University of Frankfurt. []

Gender-based folk etymologies for the name Akpafu

Akpafu is a term used by the Ewe of Ghana to refer to the Mawu people, their language (Siwu), and their land (Kawu). The Mawu also use it for themselves when talking to outsiders. So far, I have heard two Mawu folk etymologies explaining the origin of this name. The interesting thing is that one is advanced by women and the other by men. Let me take note of them in that order:

Female version: At the market in Hohoe, Mawu women would point at something they want to buy (e.g. rice, maize, peppers), and say kpa fu mɛ̀, ‘gather and heap it for me’. The Ewe women soon came to characterize them by this utterance, calling those women Akpafutɔwo, or shortened, Akpafu. I have heard this version from two women independently last summer when I was in the field.

7.1025-2244 ‘Ein in Akpafu gebrauchter alter Blasebalg’

Bellows (Siwu ìɖe/a-), ca. 1928
Bremen Mission Archives #7.1025-2244-1

Male version: The Mawu are well-known for their ironwork. According to most men I spoke to, the name Akpafu is an onomatopoeic rendering in Ewe of the sound produced by working the bellows (Siwu ìɖe/a-): kpafu, kpafu, kpafu, kpafu. This version of the etymology has even appeared in print (Agawu 1988:77n4). I have heard it from at least five men independently.

Going to the market is of course very much women’s business, just like much of the work in the iron industry was carried out exclusively by men (Pole 1982). Though they are quite different in their sociolinguistic implications, the two versions do share some similarities. First of all, both versions agree that the term is an exonym introduced by the Ewe. The exonymic status of the term makes perfect sense, because names for peoples in Siwu always get the animate plural noun class prefix ma- (as in Mawu). Secondly, related to the first point, neither of the versions accounts explicitly for the initial a- prefix. This piece of morphology actually renders an Ewe origin more plausible, as this is a very common nominal prefix in Ewe.

I have seen men shaking the head when confronted with the obvious folly of the female version, and I have heard women ridiculing the notion that kpafu would be a good rendition of the sound of working the bellows. Which version is right? As so often in linguistic fieldwork, it depends on who you ask.


  1. Agawu, Kofi. 1988. Music in the funeral traditions of the Akpafu. Ethnomusicology 32:75-105.
  2. Pole, L.M. 1982. ‘Decline or Survival? Iron production in West Africa from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries’. The Journal of African History 23:503-513.