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Published: July 31st 2008
Now that I'm back to an office routine (it is too hot for slacks and button-ups here if you ask me), I have the daily ritual of the guys in Finance walking by my desk and teaching me basic conversational expressions in Twii, the most common language in Ghana. I am trying my best to learn more than just "hello, how are you" and "thank you," but it is a slow process.
In general the language situation here is hard to explain. English is used throughout the country in formal settings like business, schools, etc., while Twii is the universal language of everyday life, what you use with family, friends, at a kiosk or even asking a policeman for help. However, at the same time there are dozens of other Ghanaian languages besides Twii that are still spoken as first languages in different regions, so depending on the village, the people might not be speaking Twii at all. And in some parts of the north you may find people who don't speak Twii, but do speak English, and a few local languages of the region, since Twii is actually really a regional language originating in parts of the south. Like I said, it's hard to explain.
So unlike a lot of other countries, where there are two layers of language: Colonizer's tongue and one or more local languages by region, here there is this added middle layer of a non-European national language that isn't really national or spoken everywhere. In fact, if you want to get socio-political, you could really say Twii's dominance reflects similar power dynamics as English's use in school and business, as the southern ethnicities in Ghana control more wealth and power than people from the north.
But enough politics. The really interesting thing is that no one swears here in Ghana. When I first got here I was quickly embarassed into dropping any and all profanity, which if you know me is no small task. In fact, I think a good rough measure of if someone has recently arrived or not is whether they curse in public. At first I thought this was just an extension of the courteous nature of people here, but then I began to think "if the only time you use English is at school or work, there would never really be occasion to swear." So I asked one of the students if they swore in Twii. His eyes lit up, "Oh yeah," he said, and rattled off about 10 curse words, which when translated back to me had the typical comments about anatomy and your family's promiscuity you could expect in a good swear, no matter the language.
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