Gbe languages

Gbe languages

Infobox Language family
region=southeastern Ghana, southern Togo & Benin, and southwestern Nigeria

The Gbe languages (pronounced|ɡ͡bè) [The 〈gb〉 is a voiced labio-velar plosive, common in many West African languages.] form a cluster of about twenty related languages stretching across the area between eastern Ghana and western Nigeria. The total number of speakers of Gbe languages is between four and eight million. The most widely spoken Gbe language is Ewe (3 million speakers in Ghana and Togo), followed by Fon (1.7 million, mainly in Benin). The Gbe languages were traditionally placed in the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo languages, but more recently have been classified as Volta-Niger. They include five major dialect clusters: Ewe, Fon, Aja, Gen, and Phla-Pherá.

Most of the Gbe peoples have come from the east to their present dwelling-places in several migrations between the tenth and the fifteenth century. Some of the Phla-Pherá peoples however are thought to be the original inhabitants of the area who have intermingled with the Gbe immigrants, and the Gen people probably are immigrants from the north of Ga or Fante origin. In the late eighteenth century, many speakers of Gbe were enslaved and transported to the New World, causing Gbe languages to play a role in the genesis of several Caribbean creole languages.

Around 1840, German missionaries started linguistic research into the Gbe languages. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Africanist Diedrich Hermann Westermann was one of the most prolific contributors to the study of Gbe. The first internal classification of the Gbe languages was published in 1988 by H.B. Capo, followed by a comparative phonology in 1991. The Gbe languages are tonal, isolating languages and the basic word order is Subject Verb Object.


Geography and demography

The Gbe language area is bordered to the west and east by the Volta river in Ghana and the Weme river in Nigeria. The northern border is between 6 and 8 degrees latitude and the southern border is the Atlantic coast. The area is neighbored mainly by other Kwa languages, except for the east and north-east, where Yorùbá is spoken. To the west, Ga-Dangme, Guang and Akan are spoken. To the north, it is bordered by Adele, Aguna, Akpafu, Lolobi, and Yorùbá.

Estimates of the total number of speakers of Gbe languages vary considerably. Capo (1988) gives a modest estimate of four million, while SIL's Ethnologue (15th edition, 2005) gives eight millioninote|number obtained by adding up speaker numbers of all individual Gbe languages. The most widely spoken Gbe languages are Ewe (Ghana and Togo) and Fon (Benin, eastern Togo) at three million and 1.7 million speakers, respectively. Ewe is a language of formal education for secondary schools and universities in Ghana, and is also used in non-formal education in Togo. In Benin, Aja (740,000 speakers) and Fon were two of the six national languages selected by the government for adult education in 1992.


Greenberg, following Westermann (1952), placed the Gbe languages in the Kwa family of the Niger-Congo languages. [Greenberg (1966), "The Languages of Africa".] The definition of the Kwa branch has changed through the years, and Roger Blench classifies the Gbe languages have always been considered part of it and are currently classified as follows:


Gbe is a dialect continuum. Based on comparative research, Capo (1988) divides it into five clusters, with each cluster consisting of several mutually intelligible dialects. The borders between the clusters are not always distinct. The five clusters are: [Sources: for the classification, Capo (1991) & Aboh (2004); for speaker numbers, [ Ethnologue, 15th edition] .]

It should be noted that none of the Gbe languages has all of the above sixteen vowel qualities. In general, each Gbe lect makes use of a subset of fourteen vowels, seven oral and seven nasalised. The vowels IPA|i ĩ u ũ e o ɛ̃ ̃ a ã are attested in all Gbe languages.

Nasality plays an important role in the Gbe vowel inventory: every vowel in a Gbe language occurs in a non-nasalized and a nasalized form. Capo (1991) observes that the degree of nasality of nasal vowels is less when they occur after nasal consonants than after non-nasal ones.

Nasality in Gbe

Capo (1981) has argued that nasality in Gbe languages should be analysed phonemically as a feature relevant to vowels and not to consonants. [Cf. Capo (1981).] This means that underlying nasal vowels are recognized, while nasal consonants are treated as merely predictable variants of their non-nasal counterparts. For example, non-syllabic nasal consonants are always followed by a nasal vowel, and syllabic nasal consonants are analysed as reduced forms of consonant-vowel syllables. This analysis is in line with reconstructions of the proto-Volta-Congo language, for which similar proposals have been made. [Cf. Stewart, John (1985) 'Nasality patterns in the Volta-Congo foot.' Paper presented at the Colloquium on African Linguistics, Leiden, Sept. 1985.]


The Gbe languages are tonal languages. In general, they have three tone levels, High (H), Mid (M), and Low (L), of which the lower two are not phonemically contrastive. Thus, the basic tonemes of Gbe are 'High' and 'Non-High', where the High toneme may be realised as High or Rising and the Non-High toneme may be realised as Low or Mid. The tones of Gbe nouns are often affected by the consonant of the noun stem. The voicing of this consonant affects the realisation of the Non-High toneme roughly as follows: If the consonant is a voiced obstruent, the Non-High toneme is realised as Low (è-ḏà 'snake') and if the consonant is a voiceless obstruent or a sonorant, the Non-High toneme is realised as Mid (ām̲ē 'person', á-f̱ī 'mouse'). The consonants that induce tonal alternations in this way are sometimes called depressor consonants.


The basic syllable form of Gbe languages is commonly rendered (C₁)(C₂)V(C₃), meaning that there at least has to be a nucleus V, and that there are various possible configurations of consonants (C₁₋₃). The V position may be filled by any of the vowels or by a syllabic nasal. It is also the location of the tone. While virtually any consonant can occur in the C₁ position, there exist several restrictions on the kind of consonants that can occur in the C₂ and C₃ positions. In general, only liquid consonants may occur as C₂, while only nasals occur in the C₃ position.

Most verbs in Gbe languages have one of the basic syllable forms. Gbe nominals are generally preceded by a nominal prefix consisting of a vowel (cf. the Ewe word IPA|"aɖú", 'tooth'). The quality of this vowel is restricted to the subset of non-nasal vowels. In some cases the nominal prefix is reduced to schwa or lost: the word for 'fire' is "izo" in Phelá, IPA|"əʤo" in Wací-Ewe and IPA|"ʤo" in Pecí-Ewe. The nominal prefix can be seen as a relic of a typical Niger-Congo noun class system.

The Gbe languages are isolating languages, and as such express many semantic features by lexical items. Of a more agglutinative nature are the commonly used periphrastic constructions. In contrast to Bantu languages, a major branch of the Niger-Congo language family, Gbe languages have very little inflectional morphology. There is for example no subject-verb agreement whatsoever in Gbe, no gender agreement, and no inflection of nouns for number. The Gbe languages make extensive use of a rich system of tense/aspect markers.

Reduplication is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word, or part of it, is repeated. The Gbe languages, like most other Kwa languages, make extensive use of reduplication in the formation of new words, especially in deriving nouns, adjectives and adverbs from verbs. Thus in Ewe, the verb "lã́", 'to cut', is nominalised by reduplication, yielding "lãlã́", 'the act of cutting'. Triplication is used to intensify the meaning of adjectives and adverbs, e.g. Ewe "ko" 'only' > "kokooko" 'only, only, only'.


The basic word order of Gbe clauses is generally Subject Verb Object, except in the imperfective tense and some related constructionsInote|Cf. Aboh (2004). The Gbe languages, notably Ewe, Fon and Anlo, played a role in the genesis of several Caribbean creole languages — Haitian Creole for example is classifiable as having a French vocabulary with the syntax of a Gbe language. [Lefebvre (1985). A recent research project of the Leiden-based Research School CNWS on this topic concerns the relation between Gbe and Surinamese creole languages. The project is titled "A trans-Atlantic Sprachbund? The structural relationship between the Gbe-languages of West Africa and the Surinamese creole languages".]

The Gbe languages do not have a marked distinction between tense and aspect. The only tense that is expressed by a simple morphological marker in Gbe languages is the "future tense". The future marker is "ná" or "a", as can be seen from the examples below.Other tenses are arrived at by means of special time adverbs or by inference from the context, and this is where the tense/aspect distinction becomes blurred. For example, what is sometimes referred to as "perfective aspect" in Gbe blends with the notion of past tense since it expresses an event with a definite endpoint, "located in the past" (see example sentences below).
* (man DET FUT buy umbrella) "the man will buy an umbrella" (Ewegbe, future marker)
* (man DET buy:PERF umbrella) "the man bought an umbrella" (Ewegbe, perfective)

Focus, which is used to draw attention to a particular part of the utterance, to signify contrast or to emphasize something, is expressed in Gbe languages by leftward movement of the focused element and by way of a focus marker IPA|"wɛ́" (Gungbe, Fongbe), "yé" (Gengbe) or "é" (Ewegbe), suffixed to the focused element.
* àxwé Kòfí tù (house FOC Kofi build:PERF) "Kofi built A HOUSE" (Gengbe, focus) Inote|Source: Aboh (2004)

Questions can be constructed in various ways in Gbe languages. A simple declarative sentence can be turned into an interrogative utterance by the use of the question marker "à" at the end of the sentence. Another way of forming questions is by using question words. These so-called "question word questions" are much akin to focus constructions in Gbe. The question word is found at the beginning of the sentence, as is the focus marker. The close relationship to focus is also clear from the fact that in Gbe, a sentence cannot contain a question word and a focused element simultaneously.
* (Afua reach:PERF IPA|Gɛ QUESTION) "Did Afua go to Accra?" (Ewegbe, question)
* (what Sena read:PERF) "What did Sena read?" (Gungbe, question word question) Inote|Source: Aboh (2004)

Topicalization, the signalling of the subject that is being talked about, is achieved in Gbe languages by the move of the topicalized element to the beginning of the sentence. In some Gbe languages, a topic marker is suffixed to the topicalized element. In other Gbe languages the topic has to be "definite". A topicalized element precedes the focused element in a sentence containing both.
* (that snake DET Kofi FOC kill:PERF-it) "...that the snake, KOFI killed it" (Fongbe, topic) Inote|Source: Aboh (2004)

Negation is expressed in various ways in the Gbe languages. In general, three methods of negation can be distinguished: Languages like Gungbe express negation by a preverbal marker "má"; Fongbe-type languages express negation either like Gungbe, or with a sentence-final marker "ã"; and languages like Ewegbe require both the preverbal marker "mé" and a sentence-final marker "o".

Gbe languages share an areal feature found in many languages of the Volta basin, the serial verb construction. This means that two or more verbs can be juxtaposed in one clause, sharing the same subject, lacking conjunctive markings, resulting in a meaning that expresses the consecutive or simultaneous aspect of the actions of the verbs.
* (Kofi turn:PERF leave:PERF quietly) "Kofi turned and left quietly" (Ewegbe, serial verb construction)

Notes and references



*Aboh, O. Enoch (2004) "The Morphosyntax of Complement-Head Sequences (Clause Structure and Word Order Patterns in Kwa)" New York etc.: Oxford University Press.
*Amenumey, D.E.K. (2002) [ History of the Ewe] . Retrieved May 11, 2005.
*Ansre, Gilbert (1961) "The Tonal Structure of Ewe". MA Thesis, Kennedy School of Missions of Hartford Seminary Foundation.
*Ameka, Felix Kofi (2001) 'Ewe'. In Garry and Rubino (eds.), "Fact About the World's Languages: An Encyclopedia of the World's Major Languages, Past and Present", 207–213. New York/Dublin: The H.W. Wilson Company.
*Blench, Roger (2006) "Archaeology, Language, and the African Past." AltaMira Press.
*Capo, Hounkpati B.C. (1981) 'Nasality in Gbe: A Synchronic Interpretation' "Studies in African Linguistics", 12, 1, 1–43.
*Capo, Hounkpati B.C. (1988) "Renaissance du Gbe: Réflexions critiques et constructives sur L'EVE, le FON, le GEN, l'AJA, le GUN, etc." Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.
*Capo, Hounkpati B.C. (1991) "A Comparative Phonology of Gbe", Publications in African Languages and Linguistics, 14. Berlin/New York: Foris Publications & Garome, Bénin: Labo Gbe (Int).
*Cust, Robert Needham (1883) "Modern Languages of Africa".
* Duthie, A.S. & Vlaardingerbroek, R.K. (1981) "Bibliography of Gbe - publications on and in the language" Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien.
*Gordon, Raymond G. Jr. (ed.) (2005) [ Ethnologue report for Gbe] . ("Ethnologue, 15th edition".) Retrieved May 11, 2005.
*Greenberg, Joseph H. (1966) "The Languages of Africa" (2nd ed. with additions and corrections). Bloomington: Indiana University.
*Greene, Sandra E. (2002) "Sacred Sites: The Colonial Encounter". Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21517-X ( [ online version] )
*Henrici, Ernst (1891) "Lehrbuch der Ephe-Sprache (Ewe) Anlo-, Anecho- und Dahome-Mundart (mit Glossar und einer Karte der Sklavenküste)". Stuttgart/Berlin: W. Spemann. (270 p.)
* Labouret, Henir and Paul Rivet (1929) "Le Royaume d'Arda et son Évangélisation au XVIIe siècle". Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie.
* Lefebvre, Claire (1985) 'Relexification in creole genesis revisited: the case of Haitian Creole'. In Muysken & Smith (eds.) "Substrate versus Universals in Creole Genesis". Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
*Kluge, Angela (2000) ‘The Gbe language varieties of West Africa – a quantitative analysis of lexical and grammatical features’. [unpublished MA thesis, University of Wales, College of Cardiff] .
*Kluge, Angela (2005) [ ‘A synchronic lexical study of Gbe language varieties: The effects of different similarity judgment criteria’] "Linguistic Discovery" 3, 1, 22–53.
*Kluge, Angela (2006) [ ‘Qualitative and quantitative analysis of grammatical features elicited among the Gbe language varieties of West Africa’] "Journal of African Languages and Linguistics" 27, 1, 53–86.
* Pasch, Helma (1995) "Kurzgrammatik des Ewe" Köln: Köppe.
*Stewart, John M. (1989) 'Kwa'. In: Bendor-Samuel & Hartell (eds.) "The Niger-Congo languages". Lanham, MD: The University Press of America.
*Westermann, Diedrich Hermann (1930) "A Study of the Ewe Language" London: Oxford University Press.

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