Monday, September 20, 2010

The Twi Language Guide I Never Had....

You know when they told me that the national language of Ghana was English I think I took that a little too literally. It doesn’t take anyone longer than a day asking for a bathroom to realize that. It is why Danielle has to go by Daniella to not be a boy, why nice actually means pretty, or why I cannot say I like something without wanting it. Even if I was fluent in Twi, translation is more than the conversion of words in a dictionary or sentence structures. There is so much more to it, and here are some of my discoveries during the three months I spent in Ghana.

E=eh sound as in "egg"
)= ow sound as in "odd"

1. Greetings- whether you are a tourist for the day or spending a lifetime in Ghana, greetings are the most important part of social decorum. You must say good morning, "ma kye," good afternoon, "ma ha," and good evening, "ma djo" to everyone you meet, even if you are just buying something at the market. It is considered very rude if you do not greet, especially your elders. To respond, you must say yes mother, or "ya ena," and if a man greets you, say yes father, or "ya eja" in return.

2. "How Are You?"- In addition to greetings, you must ask the person how they are doing. "EtesEn" is how you ask people your age and younger, and ")hotesEn" is how you ask your elders. Responses are varied, but the typical "I am good," or "I’m well" translates to "I am fine" here in Ghana.

3. "Boko"- this is the slang term for I am cool, or doing well when someone greets you.

4. "Nyame ado"- Or, "By God’s Grace," is a common way of responding to someone’s "noun swey?" or "And you?" part of a conversation. It essentially means I am doing how I am how I am by the grace of God because I am alive.

5. Akwaba- this means "welcome" in Ghana. It is much more than a word though. Ghanaians are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. To respond, you must say "ya ena" and "ya eja" like you do in greetings. (See number 1)

6. "Exercise Patience"- When you are first getting used to the difference in time paradigms, this phrase is thrown around left and right by the locals. It means hold your horses, it is okay to sit and wait a few hours for your food. This is how time works here.

7. "Jiggy Jiggy"- An awkward night in Kumasi taught us that this is the slang term for intercourse. If you get an invitation, run!

8. "Gulla Gulla"- This is the slang term for butt. There are a lot of church songs about shaking the "gulla gulla" that God gave you.

9. "Me Pe"- "I like" is the literal translation, but it also means "I want." I tried to compliment our neighbor on her lovely dress, but in saying I liked her dress I was essentially asking for it. A simple explanation was given. You cannot like without wanting. This is a very important expression to understand before you throw it around thinking you are being kind and complimentary. It seems rather material, and that is not how the Ghanaians show courtesy.

10. "Walk Majestically"- This phrase, "mon entea" in Twi, is like saying "remember who you are" or "don't talk to strangers" in our own cultural paradigm. It is something said when someone is leaving.

11. "Ma Sa Ka"- This means "you are invited." It is more than a dinner invitation though, it is absolutely necessary that you extend an invitation if you have food. You cannot walk down the street eating without offering to the people you pass. They do not have to accept, but it is incredibly rude if you do not invite. We learned this the hard way.

12. "Wishy Wishy Contomereh"- This is the local saying that I heard daily from the little kids in the village. Literally translated it means nothing. It is what the kids say when they think they are speaking English to us.

13. "Don’t get missing"- This is how you say "do not get lost." It is just phrased differently among locals.

14. "Me pakyo"- This translates as "please." The more accurate translation would be "excuse me." You say "me pakyo" before you address a stranger or your elders. It is considered polite.

15. "How did you find it?"- This phrase is more familiar to us as "how did you like it?"

16. "Lights are out"- Local saying meaning that the power is out, which is rather frequent in Wiamoase, Ghana.

17. "Me Wia Me Djuma"- "I have finished my job" is the translation of this phrase. I had to say it everyday to the guard before I could leave the school and go home.

18. "I Want to Take You as My Friend"- In Twi you say "me pe sE mefa wo adamfo." This is the formality of exchanging contact information like emails and phone numbers. It shows that you are agreeing to this friendship formally.

19. "When You Go, Remember Me"- The Twi of this phrase is "so koa kaeme." Unfortunately when most foreigners return to their homelands, the friendship is cut off. Whenever we would meet someone who had taken us as friends they told us this. A plea to not go back and forget like everyone else.

20. "Wya Die"- Or "you have done well." This is the local saying for good job or you are doing great. They are words of encouragement.

21. "Sweet"- The word sweet is used differently in Ghana. The Twi is "dE," and it means enjoyment, good, and tasty, not necessarily referring to the kind of taste.

22. "Trotting" or "Training"- This is the phrase used for running. It is not a common practice among the villagers, although when we used to run in the mornings we used to see a few football players occasionally.

23. "Of course"- These words are an insulting thing to say in Ghana. It implies that the person talking to you thinks you are stupid.

24. "The Cold is Eating Me"- This is how you say that you are cold in Ghana. The Twi is "Aw) di."

25. "Mining"- This is what the students at Okomfo Anokye used to call staying up late to study. It is probably more local to the school than to Ghana as a whole.

26. "Lava Junction"- Again, a local school saying referring to the road linking together the dormitories. In Provo Utah terms, this is when couples go down and have a DTR, or a "define the relationship."

27. "Off Sides"- This saying means that the food or the meal is not ready quite yet, and to be patient.

28. "Scatter"- This local term is applied when the first comers eat all of the food before the late comers have a chance to get any.

29. "Boiling"- This is the slang for "walking."

30. "Let’s Go Batiking"- One of my personal favorites, batiking is how you make Adinkra cloth in Ghana. This local saying means that someone is inviting you to go steal someone’s laundry drying on the line.

31. "Barbe"- This is the translation of what we would call a toilet. You cannot ask for a bathroom. Like in England, a bath is literally a bathtub, and if you have to urinate there are cement slabs with drains at the end that you are supposed to use, not the "barbe."

32. "Acomba"- This is the slang term referring to a person who has a large appetite.

33. "Kafra"- This is as close to "sorry" as our idea of sorry comes in Ghana. This is how you respond if someone is complaining of something or happens to trip (which I do, quite frequently).

34. "Armed to the T"- This local saying means that "I am prepared." It was very common around finals week.

35. "Yey!"- This word that I constantly use as an expression of excitement means "dang it" in Ghana. Quite the opposite of what I was trying to say.

36. "Bills"- I didn’t learn this until two days before I flew out of Ghana, but bills actually translates as "notes" among the locals. So if you are ever in Ghana and are trying to break big bills into small ones, this is the word for you.

37. "Obama Fabrics"- Ghanaians are big fans of Americans, and especially the president. From Obama Biscuits to Obama laundry bags, he pretty much has a whole line of merchandise. "Obama Fabrics" are the cloths in Ghana that have glittery threads in them. They are considered more western and flashy.

38. "I Myself"- This is the common expression we know as "as for myself" or "in my opinion."

39. "Not really"- While this sounds like a wishy washy no, it actually means "definitely not" in Ghana.

40. "Next Time"- Or ")kyena beu" I first encountered as a name on a tro-tro. Hakeem explained to me that it is a karma statement. It means next time you do something good for someone else. Pay it forward.

Proverbs are also a very important part of the Ghanaian’s language. They are the sayings that have come down from the past but are still valuable to the people in the present. No one knows who invented them so they are a part of folk literature. They are valued, according to Grace, my host sister, because they are easy to remember and offer good advice, and sometimes even conflicting advice, on how to live trouble free lives. They also add spice and wit to conversation. Here are a few of my favorites that I collected.

1. DeE w)w) akano suro sonsono- This was the first proverb that I learned from Emmanuel. The literal translation means bitten once twice shy. It means that someone who has been bitten by a snake (w)w)) is afraid of a worm (sonsono).

2. NtoboaseE ne anidah) no w)tumi de yE ade kEseE- We understand this proverb as "success follows patience." Being a patient person is an important part of life in Ghana. It is not the go-go-go pace the west is familiar with. They believe that good things happen in time, and that rushing does not necessarily mean that the job will be done well.

3. Abufuo tumi ba obiara so- This proverb means that anger, like a wanderer, does not live in one house. It means that we should take care of our disputes at home and not take them for the neighbors to solve. It makes the issue worse and spreads unnecessary fires.

4. Naekuo bebirebe sEe aiy)nkofa anaasE afitena- Or, "Too much gossiping causes the slave to be sold." It is a proverb that teaches us that sometimes it is best just to keep our mouths shut. Talking it about it does not necessarily help the situation.

5. SE enia obi se de En ara a, EnsE sE )ma ne nsa waneE- Or, "An alligator solves its problems in the river and not in the forest." I think we can learn a lot from this proverb. Like in number 3, our private issues need to be solved in the private sphere. It also reminds us to remember our place.

6. Mm)denb) nnyE b) na a, anka )biara bEgye adwapadeE- This proverb means that a good thing should be imitated. It is a lot like the saying we hear about imitation being the highest form of flattery. If someone is doing something that is good and it is working, copy them.

7. Ehiaonipa a, )dideE ompE- "The leopard in need eats grass." This is a proverb about doing what you can with what you have. It is about contentment and making the most of your situation, no matter what it might be.

8. )ko anon a obi de mmaninsEm, na EnyE efie- This proverb says that "A warrior displays his skills and valor in war, but not at home." It urges husbands to be good men of the house and to keep the public and the private spheres of life separate.

9. Obi nnyE b)nend )fofor)nnya so asotweE- This is a proverb that says we should bare the punishment of our own crimes. It is about taking responsibility for our choices and accepting the consequences.

10. )kwantufo) a )taa so E faakoho yE mfonnoeE ; Ema w)bu na animtiaa- Or "formality breeds contempt." It is about being yourself and reminds us that being geniuine is more important than being polite. It is actually worse in the long run.

11. Obi anom asEm so na w)nam honu sede E )teE- This proverb means that "one’s real character is best known through ones speech." I think there is a lot of truth to that. Thoughts are manifested in words, and in some ways they are just as representative as their actions.

12. Obadwemma na w)kyerE no anintaeE mu adeE- Or "secrets are revealed to a wise person." This proverb instructs us that if we want to know what most people do not, we must be wise and respect things that should not be spoken of, especially private matters.

13. AhobrEaseE kasa dwodwo abufuo ano- This proverb means that a soft answer can cause a cane to be dropped. I had never seen a canning until I came to Ghana, and it was something I never really got used to, but this proverb says that a beating can be avoided if the person is humble and apologetic. It is about the importance of acknowledging mistakes.

14. AdeE ketewa k)bata kEseE ho a Enni din bio- Or "any river loses its identity when it enters the sea." I heard this once when a mother was talking about her son getting into trouble at school. It means that we become the kind of person we associate ourselves with.

15. Nnwane nnya wo d)fo) w) abEbrEsE mu- This proverb teaches us that we should not forsake our bosom friends in a time of difficulty. It implies that life is hard and that the people who have known us the longest and love us for who we are should not be pushed out. We should be good friends and family members even in our most challenging times of life.

16. )kwantuni ananteseE nyinaa hnyE nokware- Or "one should not believe all stories narrated by a solitary traveler." I love this proverb. It is my all time favorite because it represents everything I studied about the authenticity of experience and travel writing during my stay in Ghana. There is so much truth to this statement. It might be a title someday.


(Field Notes: 1-5.18, 1-5.31, 7.3, , 10.7, 10.11, 10.15, 12.2, 16.6, 16.12, 22.35, 23.33, 27.8-9, 34.23, 35.14, 36.10, 36.11, 39.3, 40.2, 41.15, 45.2, 56.28, 58.8, 62.20, 65.20, 69.7-8, 72.4, 74.3, 74.6, 75.6, 76.7-22, 84.5, 87.10, 90.10, 91.3)


  1. My son is there right now. I find it interesting to learn all I can about his experience. Thanks for sharing more about Ghana.

  2. I love this language... Wanna learn more of it😙

  3. I am currently taking an online course but this is as helpful because there is nothing better than experiencing it firsthand. I am planning to go myself this year.