Akan Teleteaching Course

Unit 3.6: Notes on grammar 4

The simple sentence in Akan : An introduction to Akan syntax

Nucleus and periphery - overview

As in most Niger-Congo languages the basic word order of Akan is SVO: The subject (S, position 1) precedes the verb (V, position 2) and the object follows it (O, position 3). This basic sentence structure is called the nuclear predication.

The nuclear predication may in turn be modified by one or more peripheral elements, mostly adverbial adjuncts. These occupy position 4. For instance:
(1) A!mma fr Kof nnora. "Amma called Kofi yesterday."
(2) hene no nom nsfufuo dodo. "The chief drinks palm wine too much."

If both the subject and the object occur, the nuclear predication is transitive:

Nuclear predication (transitive) Periphery
Pos. 1
Pos. 2
Pos. 3
Pos. 4
(1) A!mma fr Kof nnora
(2) hene no nom nsfufuo dodo
(3) fr no nnora
(4) nom b dodo
  more on subjects more on verbs more on objects more on adjuncts
Table 1

In Akan, this word order is strictly invariable. It applies to statements, questions and injunctions (cf. -> Imperative, -> Optative) alike. However, for frontshifting see -> Focus.

A nuclear predication with a subject but no object is called intransitive.

The following example also illustrates the co-occurrence of several adjuncts in the simple sentence.

Nuclear predication (intransitive) Periphery
Pos. 1
Pos. 2
Pos. 4a Pos. 4b Pos. 4c
(5a) Sukuufo b ka aky kakra !daa
  Students some remain late a little always
  "Some students are always a bit late."
(5b) W ka aky kakra !daa
  "They are always a bit late."
Table 2

Nominal vs. pronominal constituents

As shown in the preceding examples (1-5), the subject and object positions may be occupied by nominal constituents, i.e. nouns or nominal phrases, or by pronominal elements:
  • Subject prefixes replace the nominal subject: (1->3: A!mma -> ; 2->4: hene no -> ; 5->6: sukuufo b -> w)
  • Object pronouns or indefinites may stand for the nominal in the object slot (1->3: Kof -> no; 2->4: nsfufuo -> b 'some').
As in English (he vs. him, they vs. them), the pronominal elements take a slightly different form in the subject and object slots respectively. Compare the various forms in the pronoun chart.

Orthographic note: -> notes on orthography

A nominal subject is written separately from the verb (6), i.e. positions 1 and 2 are separated by a space.
(6) A!mma fr Kof. "Amma called Kofi."

The subject prefix, followed by aspect markers if there are any (-> structure of the verb), forms one single graphic word with the verb stem (7):
(7) Mefr Kof. "I called Kofi."

(8) me si!ka "My money"

As can be seen by comparing (7) and (8), the absence vs. presence of a space between the constituents shows that the person marker me functions as subject in (7), but as possessor in (8).

The valency of the verb

The subject of the simple sentence is obligatory. It must always be expressed, except in the imperative singular:
(9) A!mma fr Kof. / Mefr Kof. "Amma called Kofi / I called Kofi."
(10) Fr Kof! "Call Kofi!"

See example (20) below for another case where the subject may or must be omitted.

Whether the object is expressed or not, depends on the valency of the verb:

  • Monovalent verbs do not usually take an object (except so-called cognate objects: 'dance a certain dance'). Example: sa 'dance' . Many stative verbs are of this type: swa 'be small' (written sua ), ware 'be long', yare 'be sick', etc.
  • Bivalent verbs are always constructed with an object. Example: t 'buy'.
  • Ambivalent verbs may be constructed with or without an object. Example: ware 'marry'.
  • There are also a number of trivalent verbs. These verbs - also called ditransitive verbs - are characterised by the fact that in addition to the subject, they can or even must take two objects under certain conditions. We shall assign these respectively to positions 3a and 3b. Here is a sample of trivalent verbs (from Osam, 1994a: 169):
ma 'give'
mane 'send'
br 'bring'
kyer 'show, teach'
bsa 'ask'
fm 'lend'

Ditransitive verbs have to do with transferring physical objects or ideas between people.

However, the conditions under which this class of verbs is used differ greatly from the use of comparable constructions e.g. in English. Let us look at the verb ma 'give' for illustrating Akan usage. The following list of sentences contains variations on Kofi's going to give money to some other person (his friend or a child) tomorrow.

-> Those sentences which are not acceptable to Akan speakers are starred (*).

Try to find out the rules which govern the occurrence of two objects with this verb!
Pos. 1 Pos. 2 Pos. 3a Pos. 3b Pos. 4
(11) Kof bma n'adamfo ska kyena
(12) Kof bma no ska kyena
(13) *Kof bma n'adamfo ska no kyena
(14) #?#Kof bma no ska no kyena
(15) *Kof bma n'adamfo ne s!ka kyena
(16) *  bma no ne s!ka kyena
(17) Kof bma abfra b ska kyena
(18) #?#Kof bma abfra b ska no kyena
(19) *Kof bma ska abfra no/b kyena

What distinguishes the starred sentences from those which are not starred and hence are grammatical?

The following observations should be helpful in trying to answer this question:

Position 3a - the object position closer to the verb - accommodates the mostly human and personal target of the transaction implied by verbs such as ma,whereas the object of the transaction (its position 3b corresponds to position 3 in bivalent constructions) is placed in the final position of the nuclear predication.

Comparing Akan to English, one could say that the Dative always precedes the Accusative in Akan. Whereas English allows "Kofi gave (the) money to a child/to him" AND "Kofi gave the child/him money", Akan permits only the latter sequence. This accounts for the ungrammaticality of (19).

Moreover, definite referents (including pronouns) are not normally tolerated in position 3b. This accounts for the unacceptability of (13-16). Note that possessive constructions where the possessor is definite (16-17) count as definite in this respect.

We conclude that double object (or ditransitive)constructions are constrained by information structure, more precisely by the obligation to put 'old information' in position 3a and 'new information' in position 3b.

These restrictions are not exactly the same for all verbs belonging to the class of trivalent verbs. See Osam (1994a: 161 ff.), and the chart on p. 169, which summarises the rules for various sub-groups of trivalent verbs.

Research note 

Osam (1994a: 161-179) provides an excellent discussion of the syntactic properties of ditransitive verbs. This may be used as a starting point for doing your own experimentation and making your own observations on this matter which is by no means definitively settled in every respect.

Valency extension by means of verb serialisation

How then do Akan speakers express complex transactions involving both an object/patient and a recipient if the information structural conditions are not fulfilled? In other words, how can the English counterpart of a sentence such as (13) be expressed in Akan if (13) is not permitted?
Subject 1 Pos. 1-1 Verb 1
Pos. 1-2
Object 1
Pos. 1-3
Verb 2
Pos. 2-2
Object 2
Pos. 2-3
Pos. 4
(20) Kof  de ska no bma n'adamfo kyena
Kofi take money the FUT-give his friend tomorrow
"Kofi will give the money to his friend tomorrow."

The strategy available to the Akan speaker for extending the valency of a verb consists in adding another verb. In the case of (20), this is the verb de 'hold, take'. It allows the distribution of the complements over more than one verb: The definite object ska no 'the money' becomes the object of de 'take', whereas the beneficiary n'adamfo 'his friend' remains attached to the main verb ma 'give'.

This ingenuous strategy of extending verb valency will be dealt with in more detail under the heading of Verb serialisation.

(20) illustrates a major difference between European languages on the one hand and Akan and many other West African languages on the other. Understanding this difference means a giant leap forward in learning to speak and understand Akan. European languages resort preferentially to case markers or prepositions (for, to, with, by etc.) for accommodating additional complements. In Akan, additional positions are opened by adding more predicates and combining them into a single sentence structure. This type of sentence is known as serial verb construction.

Serial verb constructions will be dealt with in detail in later sections. At this point, we will simply observe that the subject typically occurs only once, namely preceding the first verb of the series. In (20), the subject Kof occurs only before de 'take' and is not repeated before bma 'will give'.

Locational complements as objects

In contrast to temporal adverbs such as nn 'today' or adverbs of manner such as dodo 'much', indications of place are not treated as adjuncts in Akan but as complements, in a way comparable to objects. In other words, locative complements are not part of the periphery but of the nuclear predication.

For practical purposes, it is important to distinguish between locational complements of verbs of motion and position on the one hand and locational complements of other verbs. Locational complements of verbs of motion such as 'go, come, pass through' indicate the source, the goal or the path of a movement; they may be said to denote an inherent aspect of the process described by the verb. Similarly, locational complements of positional verbs such as 'lay, stand' or of verbs of movement to a position such as 'put' also carry an inherent locational complement. Inherent locational complements are inserted in position 3 next to the verb of location or position to which they belong.
Pos. 1 Pos. 2 Pos. 3 Pos. 4
A!mma k/ba/fr Nkran  
"Amma goes to/comes to/comes from Accra."
k/ba/fr ha/h  
"She goes/comes/comes from here/there."
kraman da pono no ase anadwo
Dog lies table the under night
"The dog lies under the table during the night."

While locational complements behave like objects in certain respects, they differ from objects by the fact that they are not replaced by pronouns but for instance by deictic locational nouns, e.g. ha 'here' or h 'there'. 

For verbs expressing "movement to a position", see -> Verb serialisation (in Unit 11)

Locational complements of other verbs

Locational complements occurring with non-motional verbs are added through valency extension by means of the stative verb w 'be in a place' -> 'to be'
Pos. 1
Verb 1
Pos. 1-2
Pos. 3
Verb 2
Pos. 2-2
Locational compl.
Pos. 2-3
(21) Kof y adwuma  w Nkran
Kofi does work to-be-at Accra
"Kofi works in Accra."

Inanimate pronominal objects - when are they expressed and when not?

Pronouns replacing inanimate nouns are only expressed in position 3 if a complement occurs in position 4:
Position 1 Position 2 Position 3 Position 4
(22) hene no nom nsfufuo anwummer
(23) hene no nom no anwummer
(24) hene no nom - -
"The chief drinks palm wine in the evening (22)/drinks it in the evening (23)/drinks it (24)."

Position 1 Position 2 Position 3 Position 4
(25) A!mma fr Kof anwummer
(26) A!mma fr no anwummer
(27) A!mma fr no
"Amma called Kofi (25) in the evening/called him in the evening (26)/called him (27)."

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