Akan Teleteaching Course


5.4: Notes on pronunciation

Tone chat 2 (-> part 1)

Teacher The only thing to notice is that in the past, maa becomes low. Otherwise the difference is not a matter of tone but of lengthening, as you noticed. Lengthening the subject prefix to get the present progressive, lengthening the verb stem to get the past (-> tone patterns of verbal stems).

Now, let's leave aside those answers with lengthening, and let's get back to the other cases. You remember what our friend could have answered the person who wanted money? Please tell us again, but without the past form.
1. Mema wo sika. "I give you money."
2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money."
3. M˝ma wo sika. "I will give you money."
4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."
5. Memma wo sika. "I should give you money." (-> optative)

Student 1 To me, it's all the same.
Teacher Let's take them two by two.
1. Mema wo sika. "I give you money."
2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money."

In the first utterance, he says that as a matter of principle, s/he gives him money.

The observer would say
1a. ¤ma no sika. "S/he gives him money (always)."

In the second he asserts the contrary - as a matter of principle, I don't give money to that person.
2a. ¤mma no sika. "S/he doesn't give him money (as a rule)."

The difference is simply the negative prefix -nÓ which comes in between the subject prefix and the stem ma. Since before m or b or any other sound articulated with the lips, n becomes m as a general rule, the end effect is simply that the m sounds longer, and this is how the hearer knows that is a meant to be a refusal and not an approval.

Listen again:
1. Mema wo sika. "I give you money."
2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money."

Student 3 (almost triumphantly: I can hear this - but where is the tone?
Teacher Tw˝n kakra! Just a moment! Wait and you will see.
3. M˝ma wo sika. "I will give you money."
4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."

Again, the first of these two tells us that he will give the person money in the future. The second of the two utterances tells him that he won't do so now, and won't to it in the future.

Student 4 How do I know that it's in the future? I can't hear the difference from what he said before when he talked about the principle.
Teacher Oh, thank you, I almost forgot. Yes, of course. Let's listen to the positive answer in the present habitual first, and then in the future. Listen carefully to the pronunciation of the first syllable.
1. Mema wo sika.
3. M˝ma wo sika.
Student 1 Well yes, again, you see, it's the vowel that changes, nothing to do with tone.
Teacher You are perfectly right. And it becomes even clearer if we let the observer talk:
¤ma no sika. "S/he (habitually) gives him money."
¤b˝ma no sika. "S/he will give him money."
It's the which is also in the m˝ma… future and distinguishes it from the present mema.
Student 5 Yes, because in the first person singular future, meb˝ is contracted and becomes a single syllable m˝.
Teacher You are marvellous. Now let's compare the two negative forms:
2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money."
4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."
Student 2 To be sure, here it is the tone and nothing else. I hear the first syllable Low in the habitual negative, and High in the future negative.
Teacher You all heard it. These two meanings you can only know what it is if you hear the tone correctly.
Student 1 Never mind. It doesn't make any real difference which tone I use. In any case, the other person will know that he or she won't get any money.
Teacher Okay, then you tell me the difference between the two you just heard and the following which tells him I know my obligations towards him:
5. Memma wo sika. "I should give you money."
Student 1 I am not sure I hear the difference.
Teacher Let's take the one which says I won't give him any money, and the one which says I should give him money, and let's compare the two:
4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."
5. Memma wo sika. "I should give you money."

To make it clearer, let's listen to the observer as well:
4. ¤mma no sika. "S/he won't give him/her money."
5. ¤mma no sika. "S/he should give him/her money."

Student 2 Clear. The m is lengthened in both cases but where it goes down in the negative, it remains High throughout if it is an obligation.
Teacher Yes, this is called the optative. It is expressed in the same way as the negation by inserting a syllabic nasal after the subject prefix, but the difference is that this n or m is always High, not Low as it is in the negation. So in order to distinguish between something which should be the case and something which does not take place, the only way to know is the difference of one. There is just no other way.
Student 3 (clever): And if I want to say that he shouldn't give you any money?
Teacher Well, let's try to combine the two. We'll have a negative optative then, why not? Ghanaian friend, how would you say this?
Ghanaian friend 6a. ¤mmma no sika. "S/he shouldn't give him money."
Teacher Let us compare it with the other negatives which we already heard before. We'll look at it from the observer's side, just for a change:
(2a) ¤mma no sika. "S/he doesn't give him money (as a rule)."
(4a) ¤mma no sika. "He/She won't give him/her money."
(6a) ¤mmma no sika. "S/he shouldn't give him money."
Student 2 I can't hear a difference between the first and the last.
Teacher You may be right.
Ghanaian friend takes his pencil and writes something down: We distinguish it in writing, you can see we add another m if it is something which is undesirable: 6a. ¤mmma no sika. "S/he shouldn't give him money."
Teacher Now, you see, this is important. Remember we said that vowel harmony distinctions are not always represented in the writing. So it is with tone. But in this case, it is very important that the reader should know when something is not wanted. Whenever you see three nnn or three mmm in the written Akan, you know that it has to be pronounced on a certain tone and that this is something which the speaker considers ought not to happen. This is what we might call orthographic overdifferentiation. Something which is not different in the spoken language but is made distinct in writing.

Notice however that in all other cases where the n/m is lengthened, whether negativ e or positive, the lengthening is expressed by doubling the nasal letter. No tone is indicated, so there is a gross under-differentiation here which may cause the reader some difficulty. In the spoken language these differences are always perfectly clear because of the tone. Listen again and try to tell what he communicates to the one who asks for money:

  1. Mema wo sika. "I give you money."
  2. Memma wo sika. "I don't give you money."
  3. M˝ma wo sika. "I will give you money."
  4. Memma wo sika. "I won't give you money."
  5. Memma wo sika. "I should give you money."
Student 1 To me, it's all the same.
Student 2 Then you can be sure to lose money.
Student 3 As for me, I will watch the tone when it comes to talking about money.
Teacher If money matters, tone matters. But don't allow you to be deceived by this example. Tone matters not just when you talk about money, it matters always and everywhere.
Ghanaian friend (doesn't seem to understand the problem) You know, before you just give away your money, it's always good to ask someone's advice. For instance I could have asked him (pointing to Teacher, then turning to him)
Memma no sika? " Should I give him money?" or:
M˝ma no sika? "Shall I give him money?"

Or maybe I think the other person doesn't like me to give that person money, but I want to give him/her money. So I might ask: Memmma no sika? "Shouldn't I give him/her money?"

Teacher What would you say? (Use 3rd person to answer the question)
¤mma no sika. "S/he should give him money."
¤mmma no sika. "S/he shouldn't give him money."
Student 4 But how do I know that I have been asked? Question and answers sounds all alike to me.
Teacher Very good. Listen again to the question, then to the answer. Let's take the observer's view for both cases.
¤mma no sika? "Should s/he give him money?"
Aane, §mma no sika. "Yes, s/he should give him money."
¤mmma no sika? "Shouldn't s/he give him money?"
Aane, §mmma no sika. " No, s/he shouldn't give him money."
Daabi, §mma no sika. "Yes, s/he should give him money."

You hear the difference now?

Student 2 I think it's the last tone on sika which changes.
Teacher Indeed, the yes/no question is expressed by a sharp fall on the last syllable. We'll see some more of this next time. Let's summarise?
Student 5 I think you got the 'Yes' and 'No' the wrong way in the last examples.
Teacher explains the way Yes and No are used following a negative question.

Note: Tone plays a very crucial role in the grammar. We will show this in the sections where we introduce these grammar points. A few other typical examples of lexical tone to complete the picture.

Student 1 If the correct tone makes such a difference for the meaning of what I say, why then are tones not written in the Akan orthography?
Teacher Orthographic tradition. There are other reasons as well. One is that dialects tend to differ in tone just as much or even more than in regard to other sounds and to the meaning of words. Another reason is that tones of words tend to change in the sentence according to certain rules.
Student 2 (to Ghanaian friend): When you read a text without tone marks do you always automatically know which word is intended when there are several possibilities as with the different §mma?
Ghanaian friend Sometimes we have to start reading the sentence all over again, sometimes twice or three times before we understand what its meaning is. There is a problem here, even for us. But not when we talk. When we talk we don't even think about tones. It's only when playing drum languages that one speaks and thinks about tone.
Student 1 Isn't this what I just said? Tone is no problem for them, so why should it be one for us?
Student 3 (with a sigh) If tone is difficult for you, how can we ever hope to have even the slightest success?
Teacher Let me say it again. Tone is part of the words, the sentence, everything in the language. So why not respect this and do what every Akan child does: learn the small tones with the words, and then learn the big tones while listening to and repeating sentences? There is only one difference: the child learns it normally without effort, we need to get used to it, and learn, what they intuitively know, by a conscient effort. But, then, this is what we do anyway - no one questions that we have to learn the vocabulary and the grammar before we can hope to speak the language. The only difference is that we must do it consciously. So if we do it for words, sentences, some of the consonants and for vowel harmony, why shouldn't we do it for tones as well?

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