Akan Teleteaching Course

Unit 2.6: Notes on grammar 1

"To be" is not "to be"

Peter Kalchofner/Thomas Bearth

(In this article, all tones are marked
even though Christaller's notational system is
followed elsewhere in this language course)

In English as well as in other Indo-European languages, one and the same verb is used for expressing either locational states of the type "I am at home" or classificatory meanings as in the sentence "Our teacher is a Ghanaian", as well as for the purpose of identification as in "John is the boss".

By contrast, in many (though not all) African languages, these different modes of 'being' are lexically differentiated.
Akan uses several different lexical forms to express the idea of "being" all of which will normally be translated by the English verb to be. Below, we will show how the Akan verbs w and y and the copula ne are used for expressing different types of relationships which are normally rendered in English by the verb to be.

In English, and also predominantly in other Indo-European languages, possession is predicated by a separate verb, distinct from the verb of being, e.g. English "to have". By contrast, in many African languages, the possessive relationship falls within the scope of meaning of one of the lexemes used for expressing the idea of being.
Akan uses the same lexeme w for both location and possession.
The predication of location, existence and possession
Example (1) illustrates the LOCATIONAL MEANING of the verb w:
(1) w sukuu- m.
s/he-be school- in
"S/he is in school"

Apart from this locational use, w also occurs in EXISTENTIAL expressions. 
(2) Sukuu w kuro-m.
school be town-in
"There is a school in town."
(3) Onyame w h.
God be there
"God exists."

Between the concepts of location and existence, there is evidently a close connection (cf. Lyons1967) which explains the use of the verb w for both types of expression. 
Possession is also conceptually related to location (Lyons 1967). This conceptual similarity is reflected in the use of the basically locational verb w for expressing POSSESSION, as shown in examples (4) and (5): 
(4) W- w ska p.
they be(-with) money much
"They are rich."
(5) Me- w fe b.
I- be(-with) house a
"I have a house." (Redden/Owusu 1963: 29)

All the above sentences may be negated by replacing the positive locational verb w by its negative counterpart nn "not-to-be(-somewhere)".
(6) nn sukuu- m.
s/he-not-be school- in
"S/he is not in school."
(7) Sukuu nn kuro- m.
school not-be town- in
"There is no school in town."
(8) Onyanko!pn b nn h.
God some not-be there
"There is no God." (Psalm 14:2)
(9) W- nn ska p.
they- not-be(-with) money much
"They are not rich."
(10) Me- nn fe b.
I- not-be(-with) house a
"I do not have a house."

Table 1 sums up our findings so far from a comparative viewpoint: LOCATION may be taken to be the basic meaning of w (and its negative counterpart nn). The range of application of this basic locational meaning extends over location, existence and possession. Compared to this, English possessive meaning is mainly expressed by the verb "to have":

Basic meaning
to be
to be
to have
Table 1

The predication of class membership, description and identification

The stative verb y indicates that the subject belongs to a certain class of things or persons expressed by the complement. In other words, it is used as an equivalent of "to be" in its use as a verb of CLASSIFICATION. Thus, in the following sentence, the owl is classified as a member of the class of birds:
(11) Opatuo y anomaa.
owl be bird
"The owl is a bird." (Christaller, 1875: 111)

We might also have said that the sentence attributes to the owl the properties of a bird. 
In an analogous way, the verb y is used for the purpose of DESCRIBING A PROPERTY or an inherent QUALITY of a person or a thing:
(12) Ataade fofor no y f.
dress new the be beautiful
"The new dress is beautiful."

-> Exercises

Akan is careful to distinguish classification and description on the one hand, and IDENTIFICATION on the other. For understanding the way in which identification is expressed in daily conversation, several cases must be kept apart:

1. Establishing a relationship of EXCLUSIVE IDENTITY between two terms. This is expressed through the copula ne:
(13) Kof ne me nua.
Kofi be my brother
"Kofi is my brother." (Christaller, 1875: 110)

The point of interest here is the question as to who Kofi is, or, alternatively, who the speaker's brother is. The use of ne implies a symmetric relationship between the two terms connected by the copula. This means that if the terms are exchanged, the meaning of the sentence remains unchanged:
(14) Me nua ne Kof.
my brother is brother
"Kofi is my brother." (Christaller, 1875: 110)

2. Various means of expression may be used for identifying a person appearing on the scene, or a thing or a phenomenon becoming manifest in the situation of speech.

3. The final particle ne may be used both for identification and for classification:
(15) Kof ne. "It's Kofi."
(This expression will be used, for instance, as a comment referring to the noise of someone entering the house.)
(16) Anomaa ne. "It is a bird."
(This could be said in a discussion about whether a certain thing is to be considered a plant or an animal.)

4. For identifying a newly arrived person, one uses the final particle a:
(17)  Hwan a (a) Me a. (b) Kof a.
"Who is it?" "It is me." "It is Kofi."

Alternatively, it is also possible to use the verb y construed with an impersonal subject: 
(18)  (a) -y me. (b) -y me Kof. (c) -y Kof.
"It is me." "It is me, Kofi." "It is Kofi."

The question has often been asked whether behind this puzzling diversity of expression in the domain of 'being' in African languages, there is a generic and unified concept of 'being'. Akan provides partial evidence that there is. All the various expressions of non-locational being are negated in the same way, namely by using the negative form of the verb y, i.e. n-y "not to be". 
(19) Ataade fofor no n-y f.
dress new the not-be beautiful
"The new dress is not beautiful."
(Negates example 12)
(20) Kof n-y me nua.
Kofi not-be my brother
"Kofi is not my brother."
(Negates example 13)
(21) -n-y Kof.
It-not-be Kofi
"It is not Kofi."
(Negates example 15, 17b, 18c)

Table 2 summarises the different ways in which Akan expresses non-locational equivalents of the English verb 'to be':
Basic meaning
A y + 



A y + 


A ne B 

A = B 

B = A

A a
(not-)to be
Table 2

-> Bibliographic references for further reading

-> Notes on grammar 2

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