Akan Teleteaching Course

4.5: Notes on pronunciation 1

Tone chat 1

Student 1: Did you notice that Akan is a tone language?
Student 2: Yeah, I like that. You know, when I started College, I did some Chinese, and Chinese is like that. You take a word, you pronounce it with a certain melody, it means, say, mother, and you change the melody and it means horse. First, I almost never got it right. When I wanted to say: May I introduce you to my mother - the teacher used to say to me something like: What you just said was: May I introduce you to my horse. Then I thought I had got the difference, and I wanted to say I like horses. I insisted a bit because I wanted to make it quite clear that it was horses I liked, not mother.But then she chided me, saying that I better be careful, because if you say in the wrong place what you just said, they will put you into prison or worse! What have I said, I asked? You just said I like hemp. So we all had a good laugh. But after a while, we got it right most of the time and it was a lot of fun. Hearing the difference was more difficult than pronouncing it.
Student 3: Well, if Akan is like this, I'm sure I won't be able to make it. I just don't have the musical ear for fancies like this.
Student 2: A friend of mine who speaks Chinese fluently says she doesn't have a musical ear at all. It seems it doesn't have anything to do with being musical or not.
Student 4: I've read about some experiments comparing the way music and language are treated in the human brain. They say that speech melodies, that is the tones of words and sentences, are processed in the left hemisphere of the human brain, exactly like words themselves and normal sounds of language, but that the part of the brain which deals with real music is in the right hemisphere.
Student 5: Thank you. To me, this sounds as if this whole tone business is something for specialists. What I am interested in, is just to learn to get along alright in Ghana, and I don't think I need to worry about tone for that. By the way, I have noticed that tone is never written in Akan books, and that tells me that it is much less important than the other stuff, consonants and vowels, which are written.
Student 1: Yeah, I don't think it can be that important. It's best to concentrate on the words and the sentences. If you get the words right, you can make yourself understood, the tones the Ghanaian people know by themselves. And Akan is not Chinese, after all!
Teacher: (joining the group) You are right. It is not so easy in Akan to find many groups of words like the Chinese words for 'mother', 'horse' and 'hemp' which differ just by their tonal melody. Still, if you want to learn Akan you also need to to produce the right melody if you are going to sound right. You MUST learn on which syllable or vowel to put a high tone, and on which to put a low tone. Putting the wrong tone at the wrong place is just as offensive to Akan ears as mixing up the consonants or missing the vowel harmony. Perhaps it is even worse because tones in language cannot be identified by how they sound but only by comparing them with preceding or following tones. E.g. High tone refers to a tone which is higher than some of the surrounding tones, Low tone means that this tone is consistently lower than some surrounding tones. And by the way, there are a number of cases where you have the same thing in Akan as you have in Chinese.

Listen to this: 
1. Papa nie. This is goodness.
2. Papa nie. This is (my) father.
3. Papa nie. This is a fan.
4. Papa nie. This is a palm branch. [nasalisation]
5. Papa nie. This is the 'papa' festival.

Now, listen again, and this time try to hear and describe what is particular about each of the papa words. 1. goodness, 2. father, 3. fan, 4. palm branch, 5. festival papa. Note that they have two syllables, each of them. So let us listen first if the two syllables are the same, or if the first is higher than the second, or the second higher than the first. 

  1. syllable 2. syllable
1. papa same 
2. papa lower  higher 
3. papa same 
4. pp lower  higher 
5. papa higher  lower 

Now let us hear the same series of words again, and in the same order, but this time, let us try to hear them together with nie (x nie means "This is a X"). For each word we will determine whether the last tone of pa is higher, or equal in height, or lower than nie.
  last tone of pa
1. Papa nie. same
2. Papa nie. same
3. Papa nie. lower
4. Papa nie. same
5. Papa nie. same

Just for fun, let us practise a bit. First, we will change the order and just listen to them. Try to find out what our Ghanaian friend is saying in each case.

And now, try yourself to say: "It is a fan …" After each item listen for control how it's pronounced. Then repeat it again.

Student 5: I can see that one should be aware of it if one learns Akan. But I think the context will always tell my dialogue partner what I mean even if I miss the tone, isn't it? For instance, she will know that I am talking about my family, and will understand that when I say papa I am talking about my father, and not about a fan, in whichever way I put the tones.
Student 2: No, from what I know from Chinese…
Teacher: Let's leave Chinese aside. Akan is not Chinese. It is quite different from Chinese, even as a tone language. But take a few other examples where you can immediately see that things are not so simple:
Me nana yare. My grand-parent is sick.
Me nana yare. My grand-child is sick.
Student 2: You see, that is what my Chinese friend told me. There are situations where you really can get it totally wrong if you miss the tones, and context does not always help. It's like that in Akan, too.
Teacher: (to a Ghanaian friend). Can you tell us something about money. Money matters, doesn't it, in Ghana, too.
Ghanaian friend: (to another Ghanaian). Well, you ask me for money.
Another Ghanaian: (Begging voice). Mepa wo kyw, ma me sika!
Student 1: No problem, he is asking him for money.
Student 3: You just have to look at his face, and at his gestures. You can't miss it, even if you miss the tones, you see!
Ghanaian friend: (to students). I could say several things. Listen carefully! (To the other Ghanaian):
  1. Mema wo sika. "I give you money."
  2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money." 
  3. Mma wo sika. "I'll give you money."
  4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."
  5. Memma wo sika. "I should give you money." (-> optative)
  6. Memaa wo sika. "I gave you money."
What did I tell him?
Student 3: Well, I think, you promised to give him money.
Student 4: No, I think, you refused.
Student 5: He said different things. But in the last example, I heard the ma a bit longer, so I think, he said he had given him money before.
Teacher: (to Student 5) Very good. You got that one correct. The past tense you can hear very clearly, because it's not just a matter of the tone, but also, the vowel is pronounced longer. Listen again:
Mema wo sika. This is present. "I give you money all the time."
Memaa wo sika. This is past. "I gave you money in the past."
Student 2: Now I am confused. You said mema wo sika is present, but then you said "all the time". But assuming he is giving him money right now, and tells me that he is doing it. Isn't that different again?
Teacher: Oh, sorry, you're right! This would be meema wo sika. This is quite correct but hardly anyone would say it, because then you would simply give him the money, and you might say gye! which means "take it!" But someone else observing the scene, he would say: ''ma no sika, and if he tells his wife the story afterwards he would say…
Student 5: maa no sika.
Teacher: Exactly! Because he looks back and tells her what happened in the past. And if he wants to critise the person who gave the money to that guy, because he thinks it is a habit, he may say: ma no sika. So we have three cases:
7. ma no sika. "He is giving him money (right now)."
8. ma no sika. "He gives him money (always)."
9. maa no sika. "He gave him money."
Student 3: (defiantly) So, where is the tone?

Part 2 to be continued in unit 5

-> Notes on pronunciation 2

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