It was an uneventful evening in January.
As usual my eyes were glued to the smartphone screen when Vida sent the video to one of the numerous Whatsapp groups I’m in. I was about to ignore it as usual when an unusual level of interest from other members of the group made me curious. I had to see what all the fuss was about; I tapped to download.
Boy, did it pay off.
“Ananse honhom”, the American actress started, “odaadaafo) ma Asantefo). Mesre wo. Beyi yen firi nno)ma daadaa yi ase. Firi yen so! Firi yen so!”
I laughed so hard I might have snapped a rib or broken my spleen, or something equally drastic. By now everyone who owns a smartphone, and even some who don’t, have seen the hilarious video in question. As the Ghanaian media love to say these days, it went viral. The clip was taken from the second season of Fox’s TV series Sleepy Hollow, Episode 9 titled Mama.
WHITE PEOPLE SPEAKING TWI
Ghanaians have always loved to hear our local languages spoken by foreigners. Few things pique the imagination more than hearing a buroni speak Twi. It is simultaneously funny, awesome and heartwarming. Who can forget the formerly ubiquitous Akua Gosky or Gospie or however that name was spelt, a white woman who featured in several TV ads in the early 2000s? Her Twi was impeccable, without the usual tell-tale accent of non-traditional speakers that is always a dead giveaway of their origins – that is, if their significantly paler skin wasn’t clue enough. In fact she was so popular that she pretty much invented the word gye –pronounced ‘jeh’ – which is an abbreviation of genuine. That word, which was by and large non-existent before she used it in an advert for a money transfer service, is still in use today – over a decade later. She was also known for how she emphatically called out her friend’s name in an advert, saying “Ei, Abrafi Koto!” so much so that people began calling her Abrafi Koto instead. In the brief history of white people speaking Twi, she was the best. There was also that white guy who spoke perfect Twi in the TV classic Taxi Driver, defending hiplife impresario Reggie Rockstone. Reggie was writing a song while reclining on the bonnet of a car belonging to Master Richard, one of the best Siano characters on TV ever. Master Richard started to tell Rockstone off in his usual manner, and this white guy jumped to his defense in Twi, stunning everyone.
MAKING STUFF UP
Sometimes, however, we are so eager to hear Twi from Hollywood that our brain tricks us into hearing what we did not hear. Did an Arabian man really sadly proclaim, “Masa, masa, battery ahye” (Boss, the battery is dead) in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s True Lies? Many of my friends swore they heard this line in the movie when they were kids. This is where mondegreens come in.
A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, due to similarity in pronunciation. The word mondegreen was created by the writer Slyvia Wright way back in 1954. She wrote:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favourite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highland and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen
The funny thing is, there was no Lady Mondegreen who was tragically slain alongside the Earl. Actually, the fourth line should read “And laid him on the green.” Sylvia Wright simply misheard that line as a child, and thus a new word was born. Therefore the term mondegreen is itself a mondegreen.
Another English-Twi mondegreen I remember from junior high, is when my friend Benjamin insisted that Jean Claude Van Damme had said in the movie Hard Target, that “Me maame atu kwan”. After watching the movie myself, I laughed really hard when I realized that what he had said instead. His character’s name in the movie was Chance, and when asked why he was given that name, he replied, “My mama took one”.
Though cross language mondegreens are far more amusing, they are also a bit of a rarity. You’ll more often find mondegreens within a particular language, especially in songs. And in Twi songs, there are oh so many examples.
In the Church of Pentecost it is very common for an elder or pastor to take the microphone after Praise and Worship, and correct the lyrics to a song we had apparently been singing wrongly for years. I recall two memorable corrections. There’s a popular song which is usually sang as “Hallelujah won mbom, won mbom, won mbom, Yesu reba a, eye a won mbom” (Hallelujah, clap, clap, clap, when Jesus is coming, clap). When we sing this song, come see vigorous clapping! The correct word though is not won mbom, which refers to clapping, but wonduom, which, I am reliably informed means ‘join the procession’.
The second one is “Eda a meko soro ho, mede matare bekita, meko akodi Yesu akyi” (when I get to Heaven, I will take hold of my clothes and go follow Jesus). When you really think about it, it doesn’t make that much sense, but that didn’t stop anyone singing that line very gleefully. The line should rather go, “Eda a meko soro ho, mede matare yuu fitaa, meko akodi Yesu akyi” meaning, “When I get to Heaven, I will go follow Jesus in my long white robe. The problem here is the adjective yuu, which is only known to a small subset of Twi speakers. In fact it is not a common word at all, and apparently it describes gowns or robes that are long and flowing.
Mondegreens occur when your brain tries to make sense of a gap in knowledge or hearing. As Steven Connor put it, they are the “wrenchings of nonsense into sense.” However Steven Pinker also noted that mondegreens were usually less plausible than the actual lines, and that once the listener had accepted the mondegreen as the correct version they were likely to hold on to it even when its plausibility becomes questionable. That is why some of you secretly asked, “Hmmm are you sure?” after reading the previous corrections given.
The existence of mondegreens is what made the ‘Ananse Honhom’ clip all the more memorable. For years I had been waiting to hear Twi from Hollywood, and there it was. This time round it was a TV show. Next time it will be a major summer blockbuster. There have been a few other instances though. For example in a movie adaptation of the Arabian Nights stories, a sorcerer is heard saying furiously to Aladdin, “Wo nna! Wo nna!” This is an insult in Twi.
Language is not only beautiful, it is a lot of fun. There are phenomena like Hobson-Jobsons, which refer to adopting words into one’s language by virtue of how they sound. Thus bucket in English becomes bokiti in Twi.
Even more fun are soramimi, homophonic transformations and bilingual puns. We’ll look at those in a related post very soon.
This just might be the year Twi goes international in a really big way. So if you happen to watch a Hindi movie and you hear someone singing “Ogya ee ogya” (this really happened), don’t be too surprised.