Feature Article of Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Columnist: Owusu, Stephen Atta
The Twi language is undoubtedly the most widely spoken in Ghana. However, the influence of the colonial masters' language is gradually destroying the beauty of the Twi language. The language is fast losing its enviable store of vocabulary. I have the feeling the same is true for all Ghanaian languages. Yet our language experts and academicians look on helplessly and unconcerned. In Europe when a foreign word begins to be used by the youth or a section of the population, the experts of the country's Academy of language meet to find a local equivalent to the foreign word. The foreign word gradually goes out of the system as educational institutions and especially the media are encouraged to use the new word. When the Academy is unable to find a suitable local equivalent, the foreign word is accepted for use by the citizens. This is how words like "safari"(Swahili), "sauna"(Finnish), "Kwashiokor" (Ga) and many others gained international acceptance.
The British, who colonized our country for more than a hundred years, found it difficult to pronounce certain combination of letters like ky, tw, kw, and dw. "Kyebi" was pronounced by the colonialists as "Kibi", "Ntsema" was pronounced "Shama", "Nkonkoawu" became "Nkawkaw", "Nkoawu" became "Kwahu", and "Sondwaye" was mispronounced by the colonialist as "Sunyani". Very interesting enough, all the mispronunciations of the colonialists were accepted to replace the original spellings. The British did similar things in the countries they colonized. In some cases, the independent nations have tried to change the names back to their original forms. Thus Calcutta and Bombay are now rightly written and called by Indians as Kolkata and Mumbai. Should Ghana also do the same for some of our major towns?
When a language is not taken seriously, history also gets lost to the youth. How many of our youth know the source of the name Kumasi? A teacher once asked a boy in his class who Okomfo Anokye was. The boy responded, "He is the owner of the biggest hospital in Kumasi." In fact there are many who are ignorant of the history of their towns and villages and why certain names were given to them. I will illustrate this with Kwahu and Nkawkaw. During the war between the Ashantis and the British which became known as The Sagrenti War, the Ashantis went against the Bond of 1844 by refusing to pay a tax of one shilling which the Anglo-Irish Field Marshall and Governor, Sir Garnett Wolseley had asked them to pay. A war between the Ashantis and the British ensued after several years of refusal to pay the tax. All the royals fled and hid in the mountains when the war was going on.
The Ashantis defeated the Fantes who fought on the side of the British. Sir Garnet Wolseley, to avert the shame on him, committed suicide. A new treaty known as The Treaty of Fomena was signed to prevent the Ashantis from fighting the Fantes. The then Asantehene, Kofi Karikari who succeeded Kwaku Duah in the heat of the war, ordered his servants to go to the mountains and bring the royals home. The royals felt ashamed and afraid to return. They killed the servants and buried them in a mass grave. The place became known as "Nkoawu" (the slaves died). This is what has been misspelt as Kwahu. An Ashanti warrior led a group to go to Nkoawu to capture the royals and bring them back to Kumasi. When they got to the bottom of the mountain, a message came to the leader from the Asantehene ordering him, Nkonkoawu! (Don't go to Nkoawu). Today's Nkawkaw is a mispronunciation and misspelling of Nkonkoawu.
By the way, it was called "Sagrenti" War because our forefathers could not pronounce Sir Garnet, which came out as "sagrenti" in their mouths. So we too mispronounce English or foreign words. But that is another story...
There is, today, no single person who can speak the Twi without mixing it with English. Hear what a spectator said about a football match: "In fact Kotoko ne Hearts game no ye interesting paa". Check this one too: "Time a mefree Kwasi no, na ne phone no aye engaged". I will not be wrong to say the Twi language should be known as Twinglish. Indeed, Odwomtofohene Nana Kwame Ampadu, in the late 70s, made a whole song about this phenomenon: Oka Twi mienu, brofo baako... Even Twi speaking adults speak Twi wrongly without realising their mistakes. A parent told his child, "Kwasi, noa nsuohyie mame (Kwasi, boil hot water for me). The tautology in the sentence was not obvious to him. If the water is hot why should Kwasi boil it again?
There are more than a hundred Twi proverbs that are wrongly said even by native speakers. This article cannot cover all, but I am ready to send all to anyone who is interested. Here are a few of the proverbs that are said wrongly. We often say: Se yenhunuu obaa ho a yense kete, which translates as (One does not lay a mat/bed, when one has not seen the woman's nakedness). It is rather a wall (eban) not a woman (obaa). In the villages, the people normally fold their mats when they wake up in the morning, and place it against the wall. In the darkness of the evening, they feel the wall until they finally find where the mat is, spread it and sleep on it. We often say, "Se ahwenie te wo mpaninfo anim a ebi nyera." (When beads split off from a woman's waist to fall on the ground in front of elders, no bead is lost). This is a clear mistake which is often repeated even by adults!! The word is "mpa numu"(within the bed) and not "mpanimfo anim".
Let me consider two more proverbs: Penteng asaase nna ho kwa. (The plots of land at Penteng have owners) Penteng is a town in the Ashanti Region which has been used wrongly in the proverb. The word is "peteemu" (a land that has been cleared of weeds). In the following proverb, "Twumasi ammodam ante a, nka akom amma". (If Twumasi's madness did not disappear, fetishism would not have renained), we discover a similar mistake as in the previous ones. The correct thing to say is: "Twumasi ammoa Damte a anka akom amma". (If Twumasi did not help Damte, fetishism would not have existed). More than a century ago, in a village in Ashanti, a chief wanted to make sure if the fetish priests who were growing in numbers were fake or not. They were called to perform. Those who exhibited powerlessness or could not show their powers were chased away. It was now Damte's turn to perform. He happened to be a close friend to Twumasi, the chief linguist of the palace. Every move and incomprehensible speech Damte made, Twumasi, in order to help him, pretended he understood Damte clearly, and he began to interpret them to the chief. Damte finally gained favour with the chief. The other fetish priests saw the trick and all the fetish priests began to employ linguists and interpreters. Fetishism then became a reality.
We have colleges of languages and I think one can now take degrees in Twi and other Ghanaian languages in Cape Coast University. We also had Ghana Bureau of Languages (GBL) during the Nkrumah regime which did a lot to promote the local languages including finding local equivalents of foreign words. GBL gave out bi-weekly newspapers in the local languages (called Nkwantabisa in Twi, Motabiala in Ewe, and others in the major languages spoken on radio). But what has become of GBL? Is it still in existence and what are its tasks now? GBL is poorly resourced. It exists only in name. The sorry and the dying state of the Bureau is a reflection of where Ghanaian languages are heading. Before the advent of all these fm stations, GBC was responsible for spreading very good local languages. Remember Akwasi Donkor's popular programme “Yen ara nkonkonko” where he talked about some of these things in very clear Twi? What are today's radio stations doing to promote the language? Some of the best Twi is spoken in the ahenfie by the elders who know the history of the language and speak it well. How much of this are we tapping for our use before these elders pass away? The chief's linguists must be very good speakers of the language. No one becomes a linguist who is not a good speaker.
Twi is a very easy language to learn due to the blend of English with the Twi language. It has lost a great deal of its vocabulary. Even though Twi is the most widely spoken language in Ghana, it is not properly cared for by any academy of language experts. Due to this, there are so many words in English that have no equivalents in Twi. Dear reader, can you translate, "wrist watch" into Twi? If you are not able to translate it, then you should know that Twi is not yet ready to become a national language.
Written by: Stephen Atta Owusu
Author: Dark Faces at Crossroads