What do you really need on this earth?

Natural conversations are a great source of data for all sorts of linguistic research. Linguists and conversation analysts usually study them primarily for their structure, not their content. This is not out of disinterest, but out of empirical prudence. Talk tends to support a wide range of interpretations. It is empirically safest to stick to observable structures and practices, or at most to interpretations furnished by the interlocutors themselves.

The excerpt below is translated from a corpus of natural conversations in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. Two elderly men are sitting in front of their house and chatting. They’ve just been talking about a fellow villager whose children are “giving him problems”. The long silence before Adom’s “So now.” signifies, among other things, that what comes now is likely a new topic. The exchange that follows is beautifully poetic both in terms of structure and topic.

Adom So now.
You have a keyboard.
Ben Mm.
A You have an uh. (1.5) this thing
B Mm.
A You have uh (0.8) radio.
B Mm.
A You have electricity.
B Mm.
A You have water.
B Mm.
A So then what really- what do you really need on this earth?
B What I need?
As for me, I don’t need anything except-
Except my bodily health.
A Just your bodily health.
B Mm.

One is tempted to talk about Maslow’s pyramid, material culture, and a whole lot of other things — but it is probably best to let the exchange speak for itself. (Translated from Siwu.)

Morning clouds in Akpafu-Mempeasem, 2009


A poster on ideophones

No matter how large or complex a PhD thesis, it should be possible to present an outline of the main argument on a simple poster. On that note, here’s a 1-page summary of some of the key findings from my thesis on the meaning and use of ideophones.

The occassion is a festive one: I’ve been awarded the Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society at their Annual Meeting in Potsdam. After receiving the medal, laureates were given the opportunity to present a poster summarising their research.

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (poster)

Poster: The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu (click to enlarge)

Is this really a 1-page summary of a 300+-page thesis? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the basic argument for ideophones as depictive words, and depiction as a significant strategy in language use, is key to the thesis. No in the sense that the poster makes no mention of the sketch grammar of Siwu or of the chapters on ideophones and iconicity, folk definitions, the language of perception tasks, the use of ideophones in special genres, the creation of ideophones, and the relation between ideophones and gesture.

For this poster I’ve picked the sorting task (diagrams visualise well) and the qualitative corpus analysis. It would be easy to make four different posters all making a similar kind of argument but using different empirical evidence. That is precisely the approach I’ve taken in the thesis: looking at ideophones from different perspectives and using different methods to arrive at a holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Preview: a 1913 map of the Togo Hills

With the help of the Radboud University and MPI Nijmegen librarians I’ve been tracking down an obscure but historically important map of the Togo Hills area in eastern Ghana. It’s a pretty large map, originally made available as an Appendix to a 1913 issue of the Mitteilungen aus den deutschen Schutzgebieten. I plan to make the whole thing available to the broader public in May on the occasion of a workshop celebrating 10 years of research on the GTM languages in Leiden.

But I can’t resist offering a sneak preview to show the amazing level of detail on this map. Here is a cut out showing part of Akpafu, with today’s Akpafu-Todzi on the extreme right (click the map to enlarge).

Part of Akpafu on a 1913 German map

Part of Akpafu on a 1913 German map

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A Mawu community in Sefwi, Western Region, Ghana

In Kawu on the very final day of my 2012 fieldtrip, I heard something unusual. Some people talked about a community of Mawu people, speakers of Siwu, living in Sefwi. Now Kawu, as you know, is in the east of Ghana, close to the border with Togo. Sefwi on the other hand is all the way in Western Region, some 500 kilometres away from Kawu as the crow flies. How did they get there?  Continue reading


Welkom Quest-lezers! Je komt hier misschien via het stukje in de Quest van januari 2013. Als taalwetenschapper bestudeer ik het Siwu (spreek uit: “Siwoe”), gesproken in het zuidoosten van Ghana. Eén van de dingen die ik onderzocht heb zijn de vele klankwoorden van het Siwu.

Dolf JansenWil je meer weten over mijn taalonderzoek in Ghana? Beluister dan het volgende korte interview door Dolf Jansen. Daarin vertel ik over mijn veldwerk in Ghana en hoor je ook geluidsopnames van ideofonen in het Siwu. (Ideofonen, zo noemen we “klankwoorden” in de taalkunde.)

Het stukje in de Quest is gebaseerd op een interview in NRC Handelsblad. Als je wilt kun je dat hier nalezen.

Een taal vol klankwoorden?

In een kort stukje over “rare taal” is het belangrijk om te laten zien hoe anders het Siwu is dan het Nederlands. En Quest heeft volkomen gelijk: het Siwu is een taal die heel mooi klinkt en die hardstikke interessant is om te onderzoeken. De klankwoorden van het Siwu zijn zo interessant dat ik er een heel proefschrift aan gewijd heb.

Bij het artikel in de Quest staat een plaatje van een auto met een kapotte motor waarbij iemand “bedoembedoembedoem… kgggg” zegt. Een Siwu-spreker zou gewoon zeggen: Kaa ɔ kpì. ‘De auto is kapot.’ De monteur zou zeggen: Aa, tã mɛ lo nyɔ. Lo bu sɔ ìyèbi ìitere kukaakɔ. ‘Oh, even kijken. Ik denk dat de motor niet goed loopt.’ Heel misschien, als er een raar tikje in de motor zou zitten of als de motor tijdens het rijden schokkerig loopt, zouden ze een ideofoon gebruiken. Net zoals wij misschien een gebaar zouden gebruiken om het uit te beelden.

Communiceren de Mawu —de sprekers van het Siwu— alleen in klankwoorden? Natuurlijk niet. Het Siwu heeft ook heel veel gewone woorden. Naamwoorden zoals ɔ̀bi ‘kind’, ndu ‘water’, kàmɔ ‘rijst’, en kàsukutu ‘werktuig om palmolie mee te maken’. Werkwoorden zoals we ‘kauwen’, tere ‘rennen’,  ‘zeggen’, fudza ‘wit zijn’. Bijvoeglijke naamwoorden zoals yɛtɛ ‘nieuw’ en siarè ‘groot’. Bijwoorden zoals gbidii ‘heel erg’,  kukaakɔ ‘supergoed’.

Waarvoor gebruik je ideofonen in het Siwu?

Waarom heeft het Siwu dan zoveel ideofonen? Dat is precies wat ik in mijn proefschrift onderzocht heb. Niet om alle communicatie mee te doen. Maar om heel precies te communiceren op momenten dat het er echt toe doet. Als ik wil laten zien dat ik kan bogen op persoonlijke ervaring bijvoorbeeld. (Eigenwijze klant: ‘Maar is het niet gewoon de afstelling van de kleppen? De monteur: ‘Moet u horen meneer. Als de zuiger aanloopt doet ‘ie ketetoeng ketetoeng; maar als het de klepstoters zijn klinkt het meer van gnn-tata-gnn-tata-gnn. Ik hoor het eerste.’) Of als ik samen met iemand een ervaring wil herbeleven. (Weet je nog toen we met die kapotte knalpijp door de Gotthardtunnel reden?) Dán gebruik ik ideofonen. Met gewone woorden kan ik praten, maar met ideofonen kan ik een gebeurtenis tot leven brengen. Continue reading

H.B.K. Ogbete, A history of the Akpafus

One of the most interesting sources on the history and customs of the Mawu people of eastern Ghana (also known as the Akpafu) is a little book written in 1998 by Rev. H.B.K. Ogbete. This book contains a wealth of material: it records oral traditions, names of ancestors and chiefs, and a lot of background information on the culture of the Mawu. However, it is very difficult to find. Therefore, by popular demand, and with the permission of Prof. Kofi Agawu of Princeton University (who was involved in the publication of the book), I am making available a digital copy of it here.

Download it here: A history of the Akpafus (PDF, 2.5Mb)


  1. Ogbete, H. B. K. 1998. A history of the Akpafus. Onyase Press Limited.  

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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The Basque word for their language is Euskara or Euskera, earlier Heuskara. The first part of this word is the Togo R. word for “Akpafu”, Likpe be-fu “Akpafu”, Bowili o-vu-ne “Akpafumann”, Santrokofi o-fu “Akpafumann”, Akpafu ka-wu, ka-‘u “Akpafu”. The early initial Basque h is from k, as can be seen from ka-wu, ka’u. The a has changed to e in this lexeme. The consonant between e and u has been lost. Basque lacks the semivowel w, which drops out here in Akpafu ka’u. See Lafon (1960 : 92) for confirmation from placenames etc.: Ausci, Aoiz, Auch.

The second part of the word, ka or ke is a word for “speak”, Niger-Congo gue “voice, language”, Ewe, Ga gbe “voice”, Agni guere “language, speech”, Yoruba i-gbe “loud cry”, Gbari e-gwe, e-gbe “mouth”. The e is for original a in this word. Niger-Congo e is secondary. Compare Niger-Congo ka, ke, k’e “to speak”, which is related. The final sylable -ra is the Niger-Congo article. No clearer proof could be found that the Basques were originally the Akpafu!

Thus says mr. GJK Campbell-Dunn “M.A. (NZ), M.A. (Camb.) Ph.D.” in a most interesting document titled “Basque as Niger-Congo“. (Just to remind you, Akpafu is another name for Siwu, the language I’ve been doing fieldwork on over the last three years.) I mentioned this story over a year ago in the comments of an excellent post over at Glossographia titled Debunking and de-Basque-ing, but I never got around to posting about it here. In his post, Stephen Chrisomalis notes that “There is probably no culture or language that has attracted more pseudoscientific attention than Basque.”

I’m not intent on debunking Campbell-Dunn’s story here; I think the quotation above speaks for itself just fine.1 But I do want to draw attention to the irony of this particular case. There you are, author of such groundbreaking works as The African Origins of Classical Civilisation, Maori: The African Evidence, and Who were the Minoans?: an African answer. The natural next step in your illustrious career is to solve the Basque enigma once and for all. Since the general thrust of your work is to link everything to Africa one way or another, you set out to discover that Basque is in fact a Niger-Congo language. A look at the rich lexical material in Westermann (1927) provides ample inspiration. Let’s pick one of the Togo Remnant Languages, you think — after all, Basque is sort of remnant too. Akpafu. Euskara. Hey, why not. Let’s just see what we can do… no-one’s going to notice, right?

Well, I noticed. And I just want to say it loud and clear: Graham Campbell-Dunn’s work is crackpot science. Don’t believe it; don’t even read it. Siwu and Euskara are fascinating languages that deserve of serious research. But they are most certainly not related. Although… come closer, I have to tell you a secret…
[spoiler show=”show secret” hide=”hide secret”]Both Basque and Siwu have lots of ideophones! (See Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2006.) Sssshhhh, don’t tell mister GJK Campbell-Dunn!



  1. Ibarretxe-Antuñano, Iraide. 2006. Sound Symbolism and Motion in Basque. Lincom Europa.
  2. Westermann, Diedrich. 1927. Die Westlichen Sudansprachen Und Ihre Beziehungen Zum Bantu. Berlin: In kommission bei W. de Gruyter & co.
  1. See the comments below for some of the problems in the reasoning. []

Good press for ideophones!

Dutch national quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad featured an extensive interview on ideophones and my research this weekend in their Science section, written by Berthold van Maris. There’s no online version of the article, but here is a PDF version if you read Dutch (or even if you just want to appreciate the look of Siwu ideophones in Dutch orthography!).

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