Twi Q&A 2: “Ɛnfa me ho” or “Ɛmfa me ho”: Which is correct?

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One of the sentential examples I used to explain the use of ‘no’ in The Use of ‘no’ in Twi was:

sɛ ɔda mpa no so oo, kɛtɛ no so oo, ɛmfa me ho (whether he/she sleeps on the bed, or on the mat, I don’t care).

This week, I had a learner asking if the “ɛmfa me ho” component is as a result of an orthographic error. He writes:

Is it a writing mistake or not? “ɛmfa me ho” – I thought it would be “ɛnfa me ho”. Thanks

Since this isn’t the first time I’m receiving a question relating to this, I thought it would help other learners if I feature it in our Q&A series. Thank you to the one who asked this question. To everyone, welcome to the second edition of the Twi Q&A series, where I feature and attempt to address one learner-question each week.

My response

The contention here is between ‘ɛnfa’ and ‘ɛmfa’. So let’s break it (them) down to gain a better understanding of how we arrived at either in the first place.

1. ɛ (comes from ‘ɛno’) = it (3rd person singular neutral pronoun)

2. n/m = negative marker. To negate a verb in Twi, you prefix the verb’s stem with either ‘n’ or ‘m’. The choice of either isn’t arbitrary: there are strict rules regarding which one to choose for particular sets of words. We’ll come to that.

3. fa = concern (verb). ‘fa’ has more than one meaning. Readily, ‘fa’ means ‘to take’. How you determine which meaning ‘fa’ denotes largely depends on the context within which it is used. In the case of “ɛnfa/ɛmfa me ho”‘fa’ basically means ‘to concern’.

Now, let’s develop further number 2 above. In Lesson 10: Negation in Akan (Asante Twi), we mentioned that, in Twi, a verb’s negative is formed by prefixing either n- or m- to its stem. And as we repeated in our breakdown above, Lesson 10 also cautions that settling on either of the prefixes (n- or m-) for a particular verb shouldn’t be borne arbitrarily. Between n- and m-, what you choose to attach to a verb to make it negative depends on the place of articulation of the first consonant of the verb’s stem.

In simple terms, the place of articulation of a consonant is the area of the mouth where two speech organs approach or come into contact with each other to produce a sound. For instance, you can draw your lips together to form speech sounds like /b/ and /m/. So, what we are saying is, the choice of either n- or m- as a prefix to a verb’s stem to form the negative depends on the area of your oral cavity (mouth) where the first consonant of the verb’s stem is produced. Let’s look at the rules:

if the first consonant of the verb’s stem is one that you produce by moving your tongue to touch the ridge behind your teeth or the roof of the mouth (alveolar sounds such as d, t, n, s), you need to use the n- prefix. Also, if the initial consonant of the verb’s stem is one that is produced with the back of the tongue against the soft palate (velar sounds such as k, g), you need to use the n- prefix. Again, if the initial consonant of the verb’s stem is one that is produced using your glottis (the glottal sound h), you need to use the n- prefix.

On the other hand, if the first consonant of the verb’s stem is one that is produced with both lips (bilabial sounds such as m, p, b), or with the bottom lip and the upper teeth (the labiodental sound f), then you negate it by prefixing it with m-.

Following from the above, Twi verbs beginning with m such as ma (give)p such as pra (sweep), b such as bo (beat/booze), and f such as fa (take/concern), fe (vomit), etc., form their negative by prefixing to them m-.

1. ma = m-ma

2. pra = m-pra

3. bo = m-bo (then, assimilation causes b to change into m, resulting in m-mo). Read about assimilation in Lesson 10.

4. fa = m-fa (this is our verb of interest for this post)

5. fe = m-fe.

So, to answer your question, “ɛmfa me ho” is the correct form; “ɛnfa me ho” isn’t. I understand why you thought it’d be “ɛnfa me ho” (because that’s how we seem to say it). However, you cannot write “ɛnfa me ho” because the verb’s stem begins with the labiodental and, per the negation rule, we negate such verbs by prefixing m- to them; not n-. It would’ve been n- if the verb began with an alveolar sound such as d, t, n, or s, a velar sound such as k or g, or a glottal sound such as h.

The place of articulation influence isn’t limited to negation only. We will delve deeper into this in a later lesson but to trigger your awareness, consider the following non-negation-related examples which take on m instead of n.

1. m-fonyin (photograph) NOT n-fonyin

2. m-paboa (footwear) NOT n-paboa

3. m-fatoho (example) NOT n-fatoho

4. m-fasoɔ (profit) NOT n-fasoɔ

5. m-futuro (dust) NOT n-futuro

6. m-feano (kiss-noun) NOT n-feano

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Tikya Yaw
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4 thoughts on “Twi Q&A 2: “Ɛnfa me ho” or “Ɛmfa me ho”: Which is correct?”

  1. Samuel Sarpong

    Wow, Thanks for the explanation of “ɛmfa me ho”. I love the way your syntax, the phonotactics, and the sementics are working together. A+++
    Stay Blessed.

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