A brief look at Twi

I had originally planned to spend a bit more time looking at Twi, but here I am, 3 weeks before my departure, and all I’ve done is read an overview. I do intend to look at it a bit more over the next couple weeks, but since things will start to get really hectic soon, I wanted to write a post now about what I’ve learned so far.

Twi is spoken in the southern part of Ghana, and is the language of the Akan people (I’m mostly summarizing the Wikipedia article here). The region of Ghana that I will be in (Kumasi) is the Ashanti region, and, luckily, the only formal materials I could find online on the language were written for the Ashanti dialect. Those are the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Basic Course, written in 1963. Obviously the material will be a little dated, but there are 240 pages and accompanying audio files, all available for free, which is probably the best I’m going to get.

As of now, I’ve read through the first 9 of 20 modules (lessons) in the FSI course, and while the vocabulary hasn’t stuck very well and I haven’t looked too rigorously at the audio files, I have gotten a feel for the grammar and some of the basic structure, which has been really interesting for me. I tend to contrast it with German grammar, since that’s the other language that I know, and is my point of reference for working with another language. Bear with me, I’ll try not to do too much of that.

The most obvious initial trait of the language is that it is a tonal language. This is particularly difficult for me, as I am utterly tone deaf. I tend to read the different tones as accents (although I’m not sure if that’s how they sound), but my ability to reproduce them leaves a lot to be desired. This is probably my critical flaw (along with some obvious pronunciation issues), since the tone of a word can completely change the meaning. For example, the words for brother-in-law and arithmetic are virtually identical except for the tones (I would spell them out here, but there are special characters that my keyboard can’t handle–something like akonta, with some special accents and squiggly marks).

Grammatically, the first thing I noticed was a lack of obvious pronouns (I, you, we, he, she, they, etc.), and along with that, you don’t seem to conjugate verbs at all. The subject of a sentence is denoted by adding a prefix to the verb root, so yeye is we are, meye is I am, and so on (again, those are the closest I can get to the actual characters, and the tones aren’t written here). It also looks as though you change the tense of the verb by adding a suffix. To me, this seems a lot easier than having to learn both pronouns and verb conjugations, but, as always, it goes downhill from here. Possessives do exist (my, your, his, her, their, etc.), and since there are no obvious cognates with English, Spanish, or German, the entire vocabulary will be new to me (with the exception, probably, of some newer words like computer, internet, etc., but those won’t be in the course written in 1963 anyway).

One of the drills in the FSI course is a substitution drill, where you start with one sentence, and then in each subsequent sentence one word is changed, so “how are you” becomes “how is he” becomes “how are they” and so on. This is probably one of my favorite things, because I feel like I’m solving a little puzzle to get at how the sentence is constructed. There are also conversation models at the beginning of each module, which are mainly designed to introduce new vocabulary along with some phrases (good morning, how are you, etc.)

So, there it is, a summary of my admittedly half-hearted efforts to look at some Twi before I head out. It’s really a pretty fascinating language, and in case anyone is interested in taking a look at it, the link to the FSI course is here.

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