Akan Teleteaching Course


Unit 3.5: Notes on pronunciation 2

Akan vowels: Vowel harmony

Akan pronunciation distinguishes ten vowel qualities. These ten vowels are grouped into two complementary sets, called harmony sets. Each harmony set comprises five vowels.
Harmony set A: i, e, , o, u +ATR
Harmony set B: , , a, , -ATR

The vowels of harmony set A are pronounced with the tongue root being pushed forward (+ATR [= advanced tongue root position]). By contrast, vowels of harmony set B are pronounced with the tongue root in normal, relaxed position (-ATR).
As a corollary of this articulatory gesture, the tube leading from the back part of the mouth to the larynx is widened when pronouncing a vowel of set A, and is reduced to normal size when pronouncing a corresponding vowel of set B. This accounts for the clear quality of set A vowels against the somewhat hollow quality of set B vowels. At the same time, vowels of set B tend to be noticeably more open than the corresponding vowels of set A.

The difference in articulating the two sets of vowels can be seen by comparing cine-radiographic tracings of corresponding vowels of the two sets (from Lindau, 1978: 551-552)

It is essential that the learner understands and masters the vowel harmony difference right from the beginning:

One reason for this is what may be called the 'chameleon' effect. With a few exceptions (some of which will be explained later), all Akan words belong either to one or to the other harmony set. That is, all vowels of a given word stem belong either to harmony set A or to harmony set B. Vowels of the two sets do not usually co-occur in the same word.

Prefixes and suffixes which are added to the stem take the 'colour' of the stem. The same prefix when preceding an 'A vowel' takes A quality, when preceding a 'B vowel' takes the quality of the corresponding B vowel. Thus the 3rd person animate singular prefix is o- before the verb stem -di 'eat' but - before the verb stem -d 'be called':
O-d m. "He eats rice." -d Kof. "He is called Kofi."

In a similar way, the open front vowel nominal prefix - (which is identical in form to the 3rd person inanimate singular prefix -)is e- before a stem consisting of A vowels but - before a stem consisting of B vowels.
e-tuo [etuo] 'gun' -to [t] 'buttocks'

For a comprehensive list of examples, see Clements (1985), etc.

In a similar way, the vowel of the 1st person plural y- is affected by the harmony set of the following verb stem. Compare:
Ye-d m. "We eat rice." Y-d Kof ne A!mma. "We are called Kofi and Amma."

Vowel harmony in person markers
The examples seen so far all illustrate the effects of vowel harmony on open vowels (alternations /e and /o). Closed vowels are affected by alternation due to vowel harmony (/i, /u) only in the case of certain person marking prefixes. Those prefixes concerned are the first person singularme- (m-/mi-), the second person singularwo- (w-/wu-) and the second person pluralmo- (m-/mu-):
Wu-fr h? "Where do you come from?" M-fr Kumas.
W-f den? "What do you suck (habitually)?" M-f ankaa.
Mu-f(r) h? "Where do you (pl.) come from?" Ye-f(r) Kumas.
M-f den? "What do you (pl.) suck?" Y-f ankaa.

Below,  the pronunciation of these prefixes is compared with their orthographic representation according to the new orthography (Akan Language Committee 1995):
Pronunciation (New) orthography
1. Wu-f(r) h? Wo-fi(ri) he?
2. M-f(r) Kumas. Me-fi(ri) Kumase.
3. W-f den? Wo-fe den?
4. M-f ankaa. Me-fe ankaa.
5. Wo-f(r) h? W-fi(ri) he?
6. Wo-f(r) Kumas. W-fi(ri) Kumase.
7. Mu-f(r) h? Mo-fi(ri) he?
8. Ye-f(r) Kumas. Y-fi(ri) Kumase.
9. M-f den? Mo-fe den?
10. Y-f ankaa. Y-fe ankaa.

It will be noted that, in the orthography of person prefixes, orthographic 'e' represents phonological /i/(ex. 2)and //(ex. 4),and orthographic /o/ represents phonological /u/(ex. 1, 7) and // (ex. 3, 9). On the other hand, phonological /e/is represented by orthographic''(ex. 8), and phonological /o/ by orthographic ''(ex. 5, 6).

By contrast, the older dialect-based orthographies tend to represent for instance phonological // and /o/in the same way, i.e. by 'o'. As a result, 2nd person singular and 3rd person plural prefixes could both in some cases be written 'wo', which makes their distinction sometimes difficult.

In Table 2 below, the full set of subject prefixes is given. Be careful to remember that the orthography uses the vowel symbol which according to Table 1 serves to represent the B vowel set, that is and for the open vowels, and o and e for the closed vowels. The learner has therefore to be careful to pronounce wo as wu (and not as wo) if the stem, as in di, carries an A vowel, and as w, if the stem, as in de, carries a B vowel.
Subject person markers Examples
Person of subject prefix Orthography Pronunciation Orthography Pronunciation
1st person sg. 'I' me- m- Mede Kofi. md Kof
mi- Medi agor. md agor
2nd person sg. 'you' wo- w- Wode Kofi. wd Kof
wu- Wodi mo. wud m
3rd person sg. 'he/she' - - de Kofi. d Kof
o- di mo. od m
3rd person inanimate 'it' - - te saa. t saa
e- fi me. ef me
1st person pl. 'we'  y- y- Yde Kofi ne Abenaa. yd Kof ne Abenaa
ye- Ydi mo.  yed m
2nd person pl. 'you' mo- m- Mode Kofi ne Abenaa. md Kof ne Abenaa
mu- Modi mo. mud m
3rd person pl. 'they' w- w- Wde Kofi ne Abenaa. wd Kof ne Abenaa
wo- Wdi mo. wod m
Table 2

Vowel harmony affecting stem vowels
The chameleon effect is, however not limited to prefixes and suffixes. Under certain circumstances, the stem of a noun or a verb may itself take the 'colour' of the following word:
baa bi ob b "a certain woman"
baa no baa n "the woman"
Bra mu! br mu "Come in!"
Bra ha! bra ha "Come here!"

The audible difference between the two forms of baa 'woman' is remarkable: to non-native ears the vowel of -baa in the first case sounds much more like or even e (almost as in English 'bet') whereas in the second example it is a plain a (as in English grass). The adjustment of the vowel quality to the harmony feature of the environment is a highly typical feature of the Akan language which contributes to shape the form of almost every spoken utterance. Without understanding the reason behind the changing pronunciation of words, understanding of the spoken language will be severely hampered. On the other hand, if one gets it right it makes a big difference in 'sounding right' to Akan ears. And with just a little practice it is not too difficult to learn to produce the 'chameleon' effect which, apart from being essential to efficient communication, also adds to the beauty of the language.

In our audio-scriptural approach, it is important to draw attention to a further difficulty which has to do with the orthography. From the following table it can be seen that the orthography only represents seven vowels not ten. What this means is that three of the vowel symbols each represent to different vowels in pronunciation:

- The orthographisymbol 'e' represents both the vowel e which belongs to the A harmony set, and the vowel which belongs to the B harmony set.

- The orthographisymbol 'o' represents both the vowel o which belongs to the A harmony set, and the vowel which belongs to the B harmony set.

- The orthographisymbol 'a' represents both the vowel which belongs to the A harmony set, and the vowel a which belongs to the B harmony set.

It must be said that there are very few sentences in the language whose only difference of pronunciation is that between one of those pairs of vowels which are represented by a single vowel in the orthography. There is therefore some justification for the underrepresentation of the some of the vowel differences in the orthography. Nevertheless it must be stressed again that all the harmony differences are very important for speaking correctly.

The table below shows first the vowel symbols which you find in the standard orthography. Then, on the next lines, it shows you the corresponding vowels as they are pronounced. The third and fourth lines show, respectively, the A harmony set of vowels and the B harmony set of vowels. These are the vowel symbols which will be used whenever it is deemed necessary, in the following lessons and in the lexicon, to give the phonetic transcription in addition to the standard orthography.

The 'chameleon' effect - examples
Orthography Pronunciation Meaning
Set A Adu du name of a male
Set B ad ad farming activity
Set A Madidi. mddi I have eaten.
Set B Mate ase. mat as I have understood.
Set A baa bi ob b a certain woman
Set B baa no obaa n the woman
Table 3

In the old orthographies, some of the changes due to harmony tend to be represented. For instance, the 3rd person prefix would be written according to its pronunciation in the above two examples
O-d m "He eats rice." O-d Kof "He is called Kofi."

The new common Akan orthography which will be followed in this book does no longer imitate the 'chameleon' effect. This means that, for instance, the prefix o-/- is always written , and the prefix -/e- is always written . In fact, the adjustment to the colour of the stem is made automatically.
-di mo. "He eats rice." -de Kofi. "He is called Kofi."

-> Proceed to the pronunciation exercise (Notes on pronunciation 3


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