Tone in Akan: A Basic Introduction

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Before we begin this very important lesson, let me quickly say this: I cannot teach you, a language learner, how to vary your sound levels when speaking, at least not in a text lesson. That’s disappointing; I know. But the truth is, it’ll take practice over time to master what this lesson seeks to briefly introduce to you.

Think about it: what the present lesson is about presents one of the surest ways of distinguishing between native and non-native Ghanaian speakers of Twi. So, if you’re not a Ghanaian, or you are a Ghanaian but a beginner at learning Twi, don’t be disappointed if you can’t get it right immediately. You’re not alone. That said, tone is, perhaps, one of the most important features of the Akan language that you could ever learn to master. I will try to simplify the concept and make it as easy to grasp as I possibly can.

If you’ve listened to native speakers of Twi over time, you’d notice how high and low they raise and drop respectively various sounds (pitch). Now, this is no different in many languages of the world. I’m sure you employ such high/low sound variations in your language as well.

But, what may be different in this regard is what these sound level variations seek to achieve. In most instances, variations in pitch levels are used to express emotions and convey such features as contrast and emphasis. There are cases, however, where the differences in pitch levels are used to distinguish lexical and grammatical meaning, i.e. where the meanings of certain words and different grammatical properties are dependent on pitch. This is where the term tone sets in. In simple definition, tone is the use of pitch in a language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning. I hope it’s clear so far.

Not all languages of the world make lexical/grammatical distinctions against pitch variations. According to Hyman (2007, p. 483), tone systems are found in approximately 50% of the languages of the world, with the greatest concentrations of “tone languages” found in Sub-Saharan Africa, East and Southeast Asia, Southcentral Mexico, and parts of Amazonia and New Guinea.

Akan is one such tone languages. This means the difference in meaning between two or more Akan (Twi) words may not only be determined by the vowels and consonants that constitute them, but also the pitch with which their syllables are produced.  For instance, what if I told you “papa”, “papa”, and “papa” are completely separate words with different meanings? Crazy, right? Yet they are!

–> pàpá (low-high) = father

–> pápá (high-high) = good

–> pàpà (low-low) = fan

In text, you can only tell the tonal variations with which such words are produced if the high/low diacritics are introduced.

Twi makes use of three phonemic tones: high, mid, and low. We will focus on the high and low tones since most lexical/grammatical meaning distinctions are borne out of these two tonal variations in Twi. Also, mid tones do not apply to initial syllables in Twi.

Let’s look at other examples of word sets with pretty much the same spellings but different lexical meanings influenced by differences in tone.

–> kóókó (high-high) = porridge

–> kòòkó (low-high) = haemorrhoid

–> há = disturb

–> hà = light (weight)

–> dádá = old

–> dàdà = already

–> sú = cry

–> sù = character (behaviour)

Like we indicated earlier, tone variations may also be used to make grammatical distinctions. In Akan (Twi), for example, tone is used to distinguish certain grammatical categories, notable amongst which being between the habitual and stative forms of verbs.

The habitual form of a verb is used to indicate an action that occurs regularly or repeatedly, whereas a verb in its stative form primarily describes a state or situation. You’ll know more about these when we tackle grammatical aspect later. Let’s continue.

We just said tone can be used to distinguish between the habitual and stative forms of Twi verbs. Let’s look at some examples:

–> Yaw gyíná hɔ = Yaw stands there (HABITUAL)

–> Yaw gyìnà hɔ = Yaw is standing there (STATIVE)

–> Ama dá ha = Ama sleeps/lies here (HABITUAL)

–> Ama dà ha = Ama is sleeping/lying here (STATIVE)

–> Adwoa kótó dua no ase = Adwoa squats under the tree (HABITUAL)

–> Adwoa kòtò dua no ase = Adwoa is squatting under the tree (STATIVE)

The best way to practise and master your tonal variations when speaking is to have regular conversations with native/competent speakers of Twi. By practising before a competent Twi speaker, you expose yourself to native speech, receive notes/guidelines on how you can vary your tone levels at different points, and receive corrections on your speech. So, if you have any Twi-speaking friend or relation, get talking with them on regular basis.

If you have any question, suggestion, or feedback, please contact me or leave it in the comments section below. Thank you for reading.

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Tikya Yaw
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8 thoughts on “Tone in Akan: A Basic Introduction”

  1. As usual your Lessons are excellent and well appreciated. I pray you will eventual have more Youtube videos or audio to go with the lessons. Thanks!

  2. This Is kinda hard to explain – but I can hear the usage of tone even when a native Twi speaker is speaking English. I never paid attention to it until reading this lesson.

    1. Interesting observation. But wouldn’t that be pitch accent then? Do their “tone” variations when speaking English cause meaning changes to words with same spellings?

  3. have you done any video lessons about tone in Akan? also, when writing in Akan, do people typically use diacritics to connote which tone to use?

    1. not yet, please. But it’s in the curriculum and will be out soon. In standard writing, we do not put the tonal diacritics on the characters. The context mostly gives away the intended meaning and consequent tone of a word.

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