Thursday, June 9, 2011

Akan Language: Vowel Harmony, Tone and Downdrift

Fun Twi (Akan) language introduction

At first glace, the Akan languages, and other African languages, might seem a bridge too far.  We might ask ourselves if Akan is simply too different and difficult to understand.  We might even imagine that Akan is not sufficiently interesting to us.  Thus we might miss taking a glimpse at this deeply philosophical language and fail to have the chance to see our own language in perspective.

For the curious among us, we are fortunate that Johann Gottlieb Christaller, a missionary to the Gold Coast in the 19th century, with his finely tuned ear, grasped the depth of the Akan languages, both in their grammatical complexity and their potential for philosophical expression.  His work served as a basis for a systematic approach for the study of Akan languages, which continues to this day.  This historical academic study of Akan languages has served native and non-native speakers, and linguists alike.  Linguistic aspects of Akan, such as vowell harmony, tone and downdrift, serve to inform us of where non-African languages, which generally use subsets of these methods of expression, might fit in the evolution of language.
There is a superb online teaching course for Akan languages.  I refer generously to this online course, Akan Teleteaching Course, to illustrate Akan grammar and methods of expression.

Vowel Harmony

In general, there are a total of ten vowels in the Akan language, which are grouped into two groups of five vowels.  Words are usually pronounced with vowels in one of the two vowel sets, but not both.  The vowel sets are differentiated by the position of the tongue.  The Akan Teleteaching Course, with its vowel harmony audio player examples, is an easy way to grasp the concept of vowel harmony.  Viewed another way, vowel harmony allows the speaker to use the expressive capability of ten vowels, but to efficiently alter the position of the tongue only between words.  The altering of the position of the tongue to pronounce vowels is known as palatalization.

The technical terms for Akan palatalization of the two vowel sets are retracted tongue root (RTR) and advanced tongue root (ATR). (link)


Like other Niger-Congo languages, Akan languanges are expressed with two tones.  The tones are not absolute, but are voiced relative to the tones of the preceeding syllables.  This method of tonalization is known as a register tone system.  I'll let the Akan Teleteaching Course introduction to tones do the talking for me here.  Possessive person body parts are generally low toned, as are references to younger persons.  Older persons are referred to with high tones.  Other rules for tone must be learned, just as noun gender must be learned for many Indo-European languages.


As in English and other Indo-European languages, the last syllable is inflected downward at the end of a statement.  This serves to tonally complete the idea.

Unlike English, downward inflection in an Akan statement trends downward over the entire statement, not just at the end.  The effect of this is a surprisingly easy ability to understand the phasing of an Akan speaker, even if one cannot understand the specific words spoken.  Statements start high and are downdrifted.

The rules for downdrifting are easy to understand, but I'll leave it to the Akan Teleteaching course to illustrate the process. (link)  They even have a spectrogram illustration of someone's speech which illustrates the intonation of tone and downdrift. (link)

Musical Example of Downdrifting

The effect of downdrifting is a series of phrases that are expressed in waves, with each new phrase upswept and then downdrifted so that the end of the phrase is punctuated by the lowest tone.  Within this overall downward trend, relative up and down tones are expressed to intonate within the downward trend.

Above is Kwaa Mensah, singing "Odo me me sum do no" [to purchase see: Otrabanda or Amazon] in Fante:  "She loved me and I loved her.  But now she is doing something I don't like, so we're finished."  You can hear Kwaa Mensah sweeping upward at the beginning of a phrase, then drifting down at the end of each phrase.  Final sentence ideas are punctuated by the lowest tones.  Again, the method of intonation is somewhat familiar to Indo-European speakers.

The clip is from the vintage recording of Palmwine music Vintage Palmwine recorded over many years at Bokoor Studios.

Word Order

As in English, sentences are generally expressed in subject-verb-object sequences(link).  English speakers can breathe a sigh of relief here.

Comparison with other languages

Vowel Harmony has been retained in many non-African languages, but strict vowel harmony has been lost in most Indo-European languages.  Many languages retain tone, but again, it has been lost in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and many other languages.  Some Indo-European languages such as Greek have lost their tonal aspects only in the last several thousand years.  Tonal systems are broadly classified into register tone and contour tone systems.  Akan languages fall into the register tone classification.  Most languages retains aspects of downdrifting, especially on the final syllable.  However, the structure of downdrifting is often less specific than in the Akan language.

Further Reading

Bruce Connell, Downdrift, Downstep and Declination (link)

Akan Music

John Collins, Music Makers of West Africa (link)

Vintage Palmwine Recording (link)


  1. Just noticed this article.

    Irish Gaelic uses strict vowel harmony!

    There are 2 groups of vowels, dubbed short and long, as follows:
    1. Short - e,i
    2. Long - a,o,u

    Any given word has consonants framed by either short or long vowels, but never both!

    Of course IMHO Irish Gaelic retains something of a substrate of another language, possibly an Afro-Asiatic one?!

    There are also 2 different types of guttural sounds in Irish, which when I speak on the subway in New York, people think I'm speaking Arabic or Hebrew...

  2. Hi Paul,

    Great. I didn't know that Irish Gaelic uses strict vowel harmony. Amazing, isn't it?

    Regarding Irish Gaelic retention of an Afro-Asiatic language, many people over the last several hundred years have noticed the congruence of Afro-Asiatic language aspects with Celtic languages. For instance, see "Celtic and Afro-Asiatic" by Graham R. Isaac, University of Ireland, Galway. Many other papers and books discuss the topic. You can pick some of them up by seaching with Google Scholar.

    You might also want to have a look at the Declaration of Arbroath:

    The passage "Most Holy Father, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among
    other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. It journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage peoples, but nowhere could it be subdued by any people, however barbarous. Thence it came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to its home in the west where it still lives today."

    "Pillars of Hercules" = Strait of Gibraltar

    It's an appeal to the Pope for the defence of Scotland, so it needs to be read in that context. There's a bit of spin. For instance, I'd guess that the Pope wasn't too hot on Picts and Britons, given the comment "The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed." Well, for that story, at least regarding the Picts, you can see here:

    A History of Scotland: The Last of the Free

    Again, Arbroath is an appeal to the Pope to recognise Scotland as an autonomous people, so it needs to be read in that light. I'd always thougth that the allusions to the Pillars of Hercules and the Tyrrhenian Sea were pure fairytale. However, I'm really beginning to wonder about that.

    As a point of personal interest, Stephen of Dundemore [Dunsmore], the Bishop of Glasgow in 1317, was involved in the appeal to the Pope for Scotland. However, he died on the way to Rome before 1320, undoubtably on a trip as part of the many negotiations between Scotland and Rome. The Seals were set on the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.

    Paul, I'm hoping to discuss this further in the New Year. I'm in the midst of something at the moment and until then, can't really do the topic justice.

    Thanks for telling me about vowel harmony in Irish Gaelic. To be honest, the reason that I started looking at this whole Gibraltar + Strait of Sicily thing is because of these cumulative indications that there is congruence across the Mediterran by way of Gibraltar and Sicily+Tunisa, as well as the Levant, periodically, over very long time scales.

    Vowel harmony in Irish Gaelic just adds to the picture.

    Best to you.


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