Me Vebe Srom

“I’m learning Ewe.” Though I’m sure an Ewe-speaker would correct my spelling of the post’s title). I’m still working on my Ewe even though I’m in the capital of Accra this week where Twi is the main language, with Ga spoken in some areas too. One language per trip is already enough!

I’m learning by collecting words and phrases directly from people and anywhere else I can get them. I’ve created an Excel doc called “Jessica’s Ultimate Ewe-English Language Guide” that has over 300 entries now. I sometimes make it into pseudo-flashcards, by blacking out one column. So far, I’m doing pretty well with the language thing. But there’s still a long way to go.


Ewe Learning Story #1

You know that “DUDE”/”SWEET” tattoo scene in the movie Dude, Where’s My Car? (if not, YouTube is your friend) – well I had a similar moment.

One Woman: [unintelligible word]

Me: What does that mean? Nya ma se egomeo [I don’t understand]

Another Woman: Well done!

Me: Akpe [thanks] but what does [unintelligible] mean. Nya ma se egomeo.

Other Women: Well done!

Me: THANKS but what does [unintelligible] mean?

(And yep, it meant “well done”)


I read somewhere that Ewe is a tonal language – intimidating! But I’m not sure I would actually agree. Sure, for example, the words for 3 and river, and the words for 4 and coconut are the same but pronounced slightly differently. BUT I think that if written with all the proper Ewe letters/accents, you’d be able to see a difference. Does that still make it tonal? Hm. . .


Somewhat disturbing example of written Ewe, but I DO work in social services after all. This says “Domestic Violence is a Crime: STOP IT!” 

People seem to write Ewe two different ways: a) using only letters we have in English; or b) using all the extra Ewe letters. I’ve stumbled across at least 4 extra letters:

1) An “o” with a gap on the left – it makes kind of an “ohn” sound (but using English letters it seems to be just written as an “o”, which isn’t quite right)

2) A fancy “f” that looks like cursive writing or the forte symbol in music, and makes a “p” sound (using English letters it might be written as “f” or “p”, so you sometimes see the same word spelled differently)

3) A swirl, that looks like the top of a tornado (yep) or like the @ symbol without the “a” in it – pronounced a bit like a “w” (maybe…)

4) A vertical… er… fish. Like a Jesus fish, but without the final line closing the tail. This seems to make an “hl” sound.


Ewe Learning Story #2

I was practicing body part words with the Beading class, and they introduced one to me that I just could not pronounce. I think it’s written “a-swirl-swirl-a”. So I kept trying and trying, and pronouncing it terribly, and everyone was giggling (from my bad pronunciation, I thought). So finally I say: “Hey, what does this word even mean?” And like 4 women shout “Penis!”. Great.


Then there’s pronunciation. A “kp” in the middle of a word is the bane of my word-saying. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of one of my most-said words, “thanks” (akpe). It’s kind of like “ack-buh”. Except not quite. That “p” sounds like a hard “b” mixed with a slight hint of “f” and almost a mouth pop. I read it described somewhere as explosive. Hm. Even more thrilling is ekpekpem, or “it’s heavy”. This one sounds like “eh-bug-bum” with double mouth pop action. Super tricky.

Being in an “English speaking country” in a place where most people aren’t fluent in English is somewhat strange. Odd that I, as a foreigner, can understand all the signs and government-workings and such, but the locals might not be able to! One boon for language learning though, is that for certain things, the Ewe-speakers mostly use the English. Things like numbers, days, and colours (which may not seem as useful, but keep in mind I work with beading, dyeing/fabric, and soap-making). It also makes market shopping and community meeting-planning, among other things, much simpler.

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