A visit to Akpafu by David Asante, 1887

map depicting some of David Asante’s travels (Ravenstein 1886)

This is the first ever published account of a visit to Akpafu. It was written down by David Asante, a Twi pastor who travelled throughout today’s Volta Region in the company of some white missionaries. The journey took place in January 1887; the date of the visit to Akpafu was January 25th, 1887. The account was originally written in Twi, and translated in German in 1889 by the eminent linguist J.G. Christaller, who published it in a German geographical journal. The English translation below was produced from the German by Mark Dingemanse in 2009.

The full reference to the original account is as follows:

  • Asante, David. 1889. Eine Reise in den Hinterländern von Togo, beschrieben von einem christlichten Neger und aus der Asante-Sprache übersetzt von J. G. Christaller. Geographische Gesellschaft für Thüringen zu Jena7/8: 106-133. 

A map depicting two of the journeys undertaken by David Asante in this period (though not, perhaps, the particular one described below, which is dated a few years later), can be found in Ravenstein 1886:

  • Ravenstein, E. G. 1886. Recent Explorations in the Basin of the Volta (Gold Coast) by Missionaries of the Basel Missionary Society. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography (2) 8(4). 246–256.
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Aduerbia sonus: Ideophones in two 17th century grammars of Japanese

One of my projects here at The Ideophone has been to track down early sources on ideophonic phenomena. For example, I have suggested that we may call the 1850’s the decade of the discovery of ideophones in African linguistics. But we can push back the linguistic discovery of ideophones a little further by looking to other traditions. Today we look at Japanese, for which I have found some early 17th century grammatical treatises that offer information on ideophones (nowadays called ‘mimetics’ in Japanese linguistics).1 Continue reading

  1. I’m pretty sure there will be Japanese sources that go back even further, and offer more detail. Let me know if you have any! []

Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

It is high time for a continuation of our series honouring the ancestors of ideophone studies. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle is one of the founding fathers of African linguistics, and 1854 was one of his more productive years. In the same year, besides his Kanuri grammar (from which the excerpt below is taken), he issued what may be called a corpus of Kanuri folklore, a grammar of Vai, and the first large-scale comparison of some 200 African languages, the famed Polyglotta Africana. Here is what he has to write about ideophones in Kanuri:

§289. The Kanuri language has a peculiar kind of adverbs, which we may call specific or confined adverbs, each being confined in its use to one or a few particular adjectives or their denominative verbs, as illustrated in the following examples. These singular adverbs which seem to be common in African languages, as they exist also in the Aku and Vei, have something in their nature which may be compared to the onomatopoetica, or something in which the immediate, instinctive sense of language particularly manifests itself. They are eminently expressions of feelings (German, Gefühlsworte), or manifestations of vague impressions rather than of clearly defined ideas. (p. 283)

As might be expected from someone who handled so many different languages, Koelle rightly hypothesized that ideophones would be a feature shared by many African languages. Note that Aku is an old term for Yoruba, the language for which Vidal had claimed independently that “This singular feature of the Yoruba language is unique, and therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages.”

As it happens, this singular feature of Yoruba would turn out to be not so unique among African languages. With Kanuri joining Yoruba (Vidal 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857), we now have three independent claims from the 1850’s on the significance of ideophones in three major African languages. Although I do not exclude the possibility of finding yet earlier sources, things are starting to look like we may justifiably call this period the decade of the discovery of ideophones in Africa.


  1. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London: Church Missionary House.
  2. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Grammar of the Bórnu or Kānurī language. London: Church Missionary House.
  3. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. African native literature, or Proverbs, tales, fables, & historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language. London: Church Missionary House.
  4. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854b. Polyglotta Africana London: Church Missionary House.
  5. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  6. Vidal, Owen Emeric. 1852. Introductory Remarks. In A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, ed. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. London: Seeleys.

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: Continue reading

  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. []

Scandalised missionaries and quite a new class of priests: some unforeseen effects of early missionary efforts in the Gold Coast

In pursuit of early written sources about Kawu I came across a useful summary of explorations in the Volta Basin in the 1870s and 1880s. The document is clearly based on some dead serious German reports from around the same time, but it is written in a dry tone with barely submerged irony as only the British can do it.

These travel reports are probably of greater value to anthropologists than to geographers. Here are two fascinating bits on some of the unforeseen effects of the diligent missionary efforts of the Basel Mission:

On the 17th, much to our surprise, we reached the pleasant village of Nkaneku after a march of only an hour and a half. It is inhabited by fifty or sixty Asante, who are hunters, and were busy smoking the meat of the buffaloes which they had killed the day before. We here met with another caravan coming from Salaga. Its guides were two Fante Christians from Cape Coast Castle, who much scandalised us by alternately calling upon Allah and Christ. (p. 250)

The fetishes have quite recently come into discredit, for rumours have reached Adele and Akabu from Efe, affirming that a son had been born to God, who had forbidden all work on the Sabbath-day. At the same time quite a new class of priests, male and female, has arisen, who claim to prophesy by inspiration of God, and not of a fetish, and who have built themselves huts at the outskirts of the villages, where the credulous may consult them. One of this new order of priests claimed fellowship with David Asante. (p. 256)

(David Asante, you will remember, was an indigenous pastor educated by the Basel Mission. It is not difficult to imagine how inwardly torn he must have been at times.)

Excerpts from:

  1. N.N. 1886. Recent Explorations in the Basin of the Volta (Gold Coast) by Missionaries of the Basel Missionary Society. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography 8, no. 4. 2 (April): 246-256.

Early sources on African ideophones, part III: ‘Onomatopoeia as a formative principle’, 1886

The steady influx of vocabularies of ‘exotic’ languages during the nineteenth century caused a veritable flowering of comparative philology in Western Europe. It became en vogue to be looking at languages from outside Europe, and the late nineteenth century especially seems to have been a time in which every gent in academia (and yes, they were mostly gents) had to have dabbled in African philology.

One such gent was Harry Thurston Peck (1856-1914). A classicist who would later become known for such works as Latin Pronunciation (1890), an edition of the Suetonius (1889), and most importantly the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, he apparently had access to some dictionaries of West African languages in the 1880’s and could not, of course, resist the temptation to do something with it. The results were published in the American Journal of Philology in 1886.

Peck’s article is both disappointing and interesting. Disappointing for its dubious methodology, interesting because of the sheer amount of ideophones it presents in a time when the pervasiveness of ideophony in African languages was not widely recognized. Continue reading

Early sources on African ideophones, part II: Vidal on Yoruba, 1852

Part two of our series on early sources (part one is here) is dedicated to Reverend O. E. Vidal, M.A.1 who as early as 1852 made a number of very insightful comments on ideophones in Yoruba in the preface to Samuel Crowther’s Yoruba dictionary:

There is another very striking feature in the Yoruba language, which I feel unwilling to pass over in this memoir, although, at the present stage of our knowledge on the subject of African philology, it will not afford any help in assigning to this language its proper position on the ethnological chart. The adverb is a part of speech in which we do not commonly recognise any characteristic sufficiently prominent to become a distinctive mark of any language, either generic or specific. But in the case of the Yoruba there is a most observable peculiarity in the use of this part of speech, which must, I think, eventually prove to be such a distinctive mark. Speaking in general terms, we may say, that each individual adverb of qualification possesses an idiosyncrasy of its own which altogether incapacitates it from supplying the place of another. It contains within itself the idea of the word which it is employed to qualify, although, as to form and derivation, totally unconnected with that word. In this way “almost every adjective and verb has its own peculiar adverb to express its quality” or rather its degree. This peculiarity must certainly greatly increase the expressiveness of the language. (Vidal, p. 15-16)

Vidal’s reserved tone shows just how little known the phenomenon of ideophony was at the time of his writing. Yet his comments are incisive and to the point; he sums up pretty much of what is significant about ideophones. He continues: Continue reading

  1. I cannot do much research on this man in the field, but here I found a highly intriguing document by the same man, whose linguistic curiosity seemed to parallel his godliness. His full name was Owen Emeric Vidal. []

Kawu in January 1887

The earliest description of Kawu (Akpafu) I have found so far is quite special in that it was written by an African in an African language. A German translation of it appeared in 1889 and can be found below. The original is a report of a travel made in early 1887 by David Asante. David Asante1 (1834-1892) was the son of a christianized chief in Akropong, and one of the first Africans to be trained in Basel. Together with a few unnamed white missionaries, Asante travelled throughout what is today the central Volta Region of Ghana, visiting Nkonya, Boem, Akpafu, and Santrokofi (amongst other places). He wrote down his experiences in Twi and sent the report to Basel, where it was subsequently translated into German by J.G. Christaller, one of the founding fathers of West African linguistics.2 The translation was published in 1889 in the transactions of the Geographische Gesellschaft für Thüringen zu Jena.


Akpafu-Todzi in the late nineteenth century (the picture is from a later date than David Asante’s expedition)
Source: Staatsarchiv Bremen #7.1025-0077

According to the account itself, this was the first time that Europeans set foot in Kawu. I hope to be able to provide a full English translation later, but here are a few nice excerpts to start with:

We arrived in Akpafu somewhere around nine; the town is big, its main street wide. When we arrived, all of the townspeople flocked together to see us — even the smiths stopped their work — because there had never been a European there before. Had it depended just on them, we would have stayed for several days. They first led us to a place where we could refresh ourselves; from there we went to salute the king, an old, powerfully built man.3 (…) Their giant king was very amiable and wanted us to stay for several days; however, our schedule did not permit us to do so.
Of the people of Boem, these are the brightest. (…) Because of their ironwork, everything is well-organized; for people from all places come here to buy iron tools. (…) The diligence of these people, their hospitality, and their tranquil behaviour pleased us so much that we really came to love them.
David Asante, 1889.

Continue reading

  1. David Asante in 1989

    David Asante and some fellow missionaries in 1889
    (BMPIX D-30.20.001)


  2. Christaller prefixed the following note to his translation: Er hat seinen Bericht in der Asante- oder Tschi- Sprache abgefaßt, an die Missionsleitung in Basel eingesandt (wo er natürlich übersetzt werden mußte), und derselbe wurde dann in einer Zeitschrift für die Eingeborenen (Christian Messenger for the Gold Coast, 1888, in 6 Nummern) abgedruckt. Wir lernen also aus dem Bericht die Auffassungs-, Anschauungs- und Darstellungsweise eines Negers kennen, welche der Ubersetzer möglichst treu in Deutsch wiederzugeben suchte. Wenn daher die Beschreibung bald zu umständlich, bald zu dürftig, oder der sprachliche Ausdruck fremdartig und ungewohnt erfunden werden sollte, so erinnere man sich, daß das Ganze von einem Neger verfasst und im Grunde auch für Neger, die Landsleute des Verfassers, bestimmt ist. Aber da der Deutsche sich gerne mit den schriftlichen Erzeugnissen und der Denkweise fremder Völker bekannt macht, so wird er auch solche Anfange negerischen Schriftlebens genießbar und erfreulich finden. (p. 107) []
  3. This must have been Tevo, a name which is still remembered among the Mawu today. People say he was the first to welcome whites to the village. []

The mysteries of Christian doctrine, or, How an African language was mistaken for an Amazonian one

In an excellent post over at Greater Blogazonia, Lev Michael unravels a spectacular error which led several eminent specialists of American languages to believe that a West African language named Arda was actually spoken on the Amazon between the Nanay and Marañon Rivers.

Lev’s post is recommended reading (as is his blog Greater Blogazonia in general), so in what follows, I will assume that you’ve at the very least glanced through his fascinating analysis of how this error came to be propagated in quite a few reference works on the indigenous languages of southern America.

It seems very fitting to me that Lev’s excellent piece of sleuthing comes at this point in time, exactly 350 years after the first appearance of José de Najera’s Doctrina Christiana y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda, the mysterious manuscript that is the pivot on which all of this hinges. So go read his exposé and after that, feel free to check back here for some more background information.

Doctrina Christiana - Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda

The first page of the 1658 Doctrina Christiana – Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda
(from Labouret & Rivet 1929)

Continue reading

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