Akan Teleteaching Course


Unit 3.5: Notes on pronunciation 1

Vowel harmony chat

Student:

Don't bother me with vowel harmony. I am not a perfectionist, I just want the necessary minimum - what I need to get along.

Ghanaian friend:

You are not a perfectionist, alright. But why shouldn't it sound right, my friend? Why don't you try at least?

Student:

Forget it. I'll never make it. It's just too difficult.

Ghanaian friend:

Let's take easy stuff, just greetings and so on. Just for fun let's have a try. After that if you wish we can forget it.

Student:

Okay.

Ghanaian friend:

Say an§pa. Please say it after me. An§pa (bis). Fine. You did very well. Now look at the word how it is written. What is the first letter?

Student:

The first letter is a.

Ghanaian friend:

Right. And how is it pronounced?

Student:

Well, just like a.

Ghanaian friend:

Correct. Now say anwummer˝. Please say it after me. Anwummer˝ (bis). Fine. Now look - how is this word written. What is the first letter?

Student:

It is again a.

Ghanaian friend:

Right. And how is it pronounced?

Student:

Well, to me the beginning sounds like apple!

Ghanaian friend:

You got it! Let's look at some other words - greetings and a few very common words: agoo , adwuma, aduane, agya , ad˝n, ab˝, as§, ap§m, aba, Amma. How do you hear the first letter when it is pronounced?

Student:

Well, it does not sound the same in all of these words - although it is written the same way.

Ghanaian friend:

What is the difference?

Student:

I think the difference is the same as between an§pa and anwummer˝.

Ghanaian friend:

Let's listen again. And if you will, mark the words (go to the list of words) which begin with a sound resembling the a in anwummer˝. Those whose beginning sounds like that of an§pa just leave as they are. - Done?

Student:

Yes.

Ghanaian friend:

Let's see. Yes, right, you heard it very well. So why do you say it is too difficult? You can hear it alright, so don't tell me you can't make it sound right to Ghanaian ears. Now what's the problem?

Student:

(thinks) Well, I would say, there is no problem. But how do I know when I see an a which of the two it is? How do I know which way to pronounce the letter a?

Teacher:

That's what vowel harmony is all about. It helps you to pronounce the a correctly!

Student:

How that?

Teacher:

Look at the next vowel. What is it? Look at the vowels that follow the a which sounds like the a in apple. Don't listen, just look at the vowel symbol written in each case.

Student:

Just the next following vowel?

Teacher:

Yes.

Student:

I think it is o, u ,i, a.

Teacher:

And now the other words? What do you find there? Can you make a list of the vowels which come next after the 'dark' a?

Student:

Of course. I see ˝, § and a.

Teacher:

Very good. So what?

Student:

The way the a is pronounced is different depending on the vowel which follows. But why does the pronunciation of a change before a?

Teacher:

Excellent question. But let's first address another question. We will come back to this one later. You see these words? Listen how they are pronounced. Watch the first letter a how it sounds: afe, afei, ade˝, agye, akok§, ako, agor§, ago, agofo§, agoo.

Student:

Yes, you're right. They are not the same.

Teacher:

Remember that most writing systems do not correspond exactly to the pronunciation. English and French are extreme examples of this. For instance, two sounds which are perceived as distinct and which also sometimes serve to distinguish word meaning are represented by the same symbol in writing. In such a case, we may speak of underdifferentiation. The Akan letters e and o are instances of underdifferentiation; each of them represents two different sounds:
'e' may stand for [e] OR for [˛]
'o' may stand for [o] OR for [÷].
Now
listen carefully to the same words again. Do you hear a difference in the pronunciation of the firste ando of the vowel which follows the consonant (i.e. the first stem vowel)?
afe, afei, ade˝, agye, akok§, ako, agor§, ago, agofo§, agoo

Student:

In some words, what is written as an e sounds more like an i. No - I should say, perhaps, like a more open variety of i as we have it in English grid. The o, on the other hand, is sometimes a 'clear' o, but sometimes it sounds rather a bit like u, a bit like in English put.

Teacher:

Why don't you mark the words with the 'clear' e and the 'clear' o? (They are less frequent in the words of the language than the varieties which sound a bit more i- ish or u- ish.)

Student:

Okay, I have done it. And now?

Teacher:

Now, listen again to the same words but observe carefully the a in those words were it occurs at the beginning. If you like, you could try to mark again, as we did before, the apple-like a.

Student:

It's funny. All the words which have the underlining have it for both vowels, the preceding and the following. All the words which begin with the 'dark' a, which is not underlined, do not have underlining under their second vowel either.

Teacher:

You got it all wrong - this is not funny! This is vowel harmony! So you can now see how vowel harmony helps you hear and pronounce consistently.

Student:

Yes, but we still got the change of pronunciation of word-initial a when it occurs before a second a. There seems to be no explanation for that case, since the second vowel is always the same.

Teacher:

Okay, let's look at a few more examples: aha, ah˙Š, aba, abia, aware, awia, aka, akuafo§, ada, adua.

Student:

What do you mean? Of course, I hear the difference. But haven't we said already that this difference is due to the nature of the first vowel of the stem? 'Clear' voice before i and u, 'dark' or 'hollow' voice before the other vowels?

Teacher:

Perfect! M'ani agye! - I am glad. Your ears have already began to become tuned to the original sound. But now observe the following words: agya, atwa, adwane.

Student:

Yes, y and w following the first stem consonant seem to cause the a which precedes them to become like the a of the apple type. This is probably because y is a bit like i, and w like u in the preceding examples: agya, atwa, adwane (compare aduane)

Teacher:

Excellent. Here is another list of words, all of them beginning with a. No underlining is provided. Now, instead of listening to these words, you are going to pronounce each of them, paying particular attention to the way the a at the beginning changes. We may also call this the 'chameleon' effect because it affects the word as a whole.

Student:

(reads aloud)

Ghanaian friend:

This sounds like real good Twi. This is the way we speak our language, this is the way we expect foreigners to pronounce our words. Congratulations.

Lecturer:

(has been listening to the discussion for a short while, now speaking to Teacher and Ghanaian friend) But you have told him only half the story. It is not only a which shows the vowel harmony. And then you should have explained him the harmony system and how it works in the word and even across word limits. Look at this chart …

Teacher:

Enough for today. Tomorrow we will look at your chart and you can give the explanation and show how it works.

Student:

Please tell me about the tones. I want to learn them, too.

Ghanaian friend:

Seeseßi, merek§ß fńe. ¤kyeßna y˝b˝ßhyia bńoÓ.

Student:

Yoo, nante yńe.


-> Notes on pronunciation 2

Unit-3 Next