Extract from:

Knut J. Olawsky, AN INTRODUCTION TO DAGBANI PHONOLOGY. Arbeiten des SFB 282, No.76. HHU Düsseldorf, 1996.

0. Preface

Dagbani is the mother tongue of ca. 500.000 speakers in Northern Ghana and among emigrants in the south and in neighbouring countries of Ghana. It is one of the languages officially recognized by the Ghanaian government, thus it is also taught in schools. The illiteracy rate among the Dagbani speakers though is still very high.

The present introduction to the phonology is the first part of a research project intending to describe the grammar of Dagbani. One could easily deal only with the phonological system of a language for years, therefore this article cannot be considered to be "complete". Its aim is to point out the most important and interesting features of a language which has not been analyzed in detail so far. There is a small number of linguists (and also non-linguists) who have dealt with Dagbani in the past. R. Fisch (1912) tried to describe the main grammatical features of the language, and his work written in German early this century is certainly the first published material on Dagbani. One of the next to work intensively with it was W.A.A. Wilson in the 1960's and the following years. Many of my preliminary ideas about the phonological (and further grammatical) structure of Dagbani are based on his Introductory course and other materials he put at my disposal. - The most recent research on Dagbani I found is by Larry Hyman who collected some phonological data a few years ago and made interesting findings for modern linguistics, especially regarding the tonal system of Dagbani (see Hyman, 1988, 1993). - Beside the existing literature, personal contacts with André Wilson and John Bendor-Samuel were useful for the preparation of a fieldtrip undertaken in July 1994. Within 5 weeks, a large data corpus concentrating on phonetic and phonological questions was recorded and later analyzed in the Phonetiklabor (Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf) with the help of Ralf Skischally and Karl-Heinz Bockers. During a second trip in 1995, the results were modified and extended. - In Tamale the research wouldn't have been possible without the help of my patient helpers, Moses Seidu and Memunatu Sayibu Musah and the kind support by the Dagbani Literacy Project, a branch of GILLBT (Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation). Thanks also to my friend Wolfgang Tiedeck in Tamale, who helped in many practical matters, to Prof. Greenstreet, Prof. Dolphyne and Mr. M. Sulley at the University of Ghana, Legon, and to Richard Wiese and Chris Golston (both Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf). Special thanks also to Tony Naden for crosschecking and contributing a number of ideas to this article.

The findings of the fieldtrips mentioned were essential for the analysis presented here though a number of questions remain which require further research.

1. Introduction

The Dagbani language can be divided into two main dialects: the eastern one which is spoken around the traditional capital of DagbaN (Dagomba land), Yendi, and the western dialect spread in the Tamale area. - Regarding the technical terms for the language and its speakers, there is some confusion: the name Dagbani is used by English speakers, the speakers are called Dagomba(s) within Ghana. The indigenious name for the language is Dagbanli, the people call themselves Dagbamba (sg. Dagbana). - Dagbani belongs to the Western-Oti-Volta branch of the Gur languages, being a group of the large Niger-Congo language family. Within the francophone world, Gur languages are also known as Voltaic languages. Adams Bodomo, a Ghanaian linguist, introduced the expression Mabia languages as an indigenous classificatory term. It is built out of lexical items as <ma> (mother) and <bia> (child) and denotes a sibling relationship between languages such as Dagbani, Mampruli, Dagaari and Kusaal. Mabia is meant to replace such terms as Western Oti-Volta, as a subgroup of Gur (Bodomo, 1994).

Dagbani is a written language. The New Testament was published in the 1980's (as a revision of some gospel samples of the sixties) and the orthographic standard used there was adopted for a certain period. In the last years though a number of writing conventions were abandoned, due to the lack of cooperation between the various publishers of texts. As this has led to inconsistent and non-standardized writings, the conventions used in the NT will be adopted in the present paper. Every example in this article is given as a sequence of three forms using different kinds of brackets:

Where an interlinear translation was necessary, this was indicated by quotation marks ("..."), giving the "literal" meaning.

Regarding the phonetic form of utterances, I decided not to insist on a "narrow" transcription in cases in which it did not seem crucial. Thus, optional features like palatalization, labialization or allophonic variants are not considered in the transcription when this was not relevant, as that would have had a confusing influence on the questions in discussion.

- Like the other Gur languages (and Niger-Congo languages in general), Dagbani is a tone language.

One interesting aspect is the overlapping of phonology and morphology, or: how prosodic features like tone operate on the morphological level. The interaction between phonology and syntax is another task which is worthy to be analyzed. - The difficulty that arises in an article on phonology is, of course, where to restrict the "phonological" description, as half of it might be pure morphology or syntax. Therefore in the chapter about suprasegmental phonology, the information about tonal influences on other components of the grammar is reduced to a minimum; instead the main emphasis is placed on some aspects of the tonal behaviour on the word level. I hope to fill this gap in later descriptions.