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The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names


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The paper addresses personal names among the Akan of Ghana and considers naming as an important aspect of the Akan society. The paper looks at Akan names within the purview of linguistics anthropology. It considers names as not being arbitrary labels but sociocultural tags that have sociocultural functions and meanings. The paper discusses the typology of Akan names. These include (1) day names, (2) family names, (3) circumstantial names, (4) theophorous names, (5) flora and fauna names, (6) weird and reincarnate names, (7) achievement names, stool names, religious, occupational, etc. (8) insinuating and proverbial names, (9) bodily structure and (10) kinship etc.
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Nordic Journal of African Studies 15(2): 206–235 (2006)
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
University of Ghana, Legon
The paper addresses personal names among the Akan of Ghana and considers naming as an
important aspect of the Akan society. The paper looks at Akan names within the purview of
linguistics anthropology. It considers names as not being arbitrary labels but sociocultural
tags that have sociocultural functions and meanings. The paper discusses the typology of
Akan names. These include (1) day names, (2) family names, (3) circumstantial names, (4)
theophorous names, (5) flora and fauna names, (6) weird and reincarnate names, (7)
achievement names, stool names, religious, occupational, etc. (8) insinuating and proverbial
names, (9) bodily structure and (10) kinship etc.
Keywords: personal names, social functions, and name connotation
Akan is the language of the people called Akans. The Akans are the largest
ethnic group in Ghana. According to the 2000, national population census,
49.1% of the Ghanaian population is Akans and about 44% of the population
speak Akan as non-native speakers.
The Akans occupy the greater part of the southern sector of Ghana. Akan is
spoken as a native language (L1-first language) in six of the ten regions in
Ghana namely, Ashanti, Eastern, Western, Central, and Brong Ahafo Regions.
They are sandwiched by the Ewes in Volta Region of Ghana (see Appendix 1
showing the map of Ghana and the Akan areas). The Akans are made up of
various dialects that are mutually intelligible. These are Asante, Akuapem,
Akwamu, Fante, Akyem, Agona, Assin, Denkyira, Twifo, Wassaw, Kwawu,
Bron and Buem.1 Some Bron speakers are found in Cote d’ Ivoire. Akan is
studied from primary school up to the university level. 2
1 Dialects like the Assin, Denkyira, Twifo, Wassaw, not indicated in the map, speak the
Asante forms, the Agona is closer to Fante while Buem is closer to Akuapem. The Buems are
sandwiched by Ewes the Volta Region.
2 Akan uses Arabic script and the phonemic method in its orthography. The Akan expressions
in this paper are rendered in this orthography. Akan has two unfamiliar letters in the
orthography and these are [ε,] and [ ]. The Akan language is currently written in three
different dialects namely: Asante, Akuapem and Fante. There has been a successful attempt to
have a unified standard Akan orthography.
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
The data for this paper was collected from both primary and secondary data. I
started collecting the names as far back as 1994. Some of them were collected
from the Asante King and Queen’s court in 1994 while I was collecting some
data on arbitration and verbal taboos. As a native speaker of Akan, I was able to
identify these names when people were called to narrate their versions of cases.
Most of the names used in this paper are names of people from my hometown
and people I have met from my school days up to now.
I also collected some of the names from school registers and pay rolls of
teachers at the various district education offices. A greater part of the names
were selected form our departmental class list of graduate and undergraduate
students from 1994 up to date.
I also consulted books on personal names written by scholars of Africa.
These include Obeng (2001), Asante (1995); Crane (1982) Chuks-orji (1972)
Zawawi (1993: 6) Suzman (1994) among others.
The study of personal names is referred to as anthroponomy. Anthroponomy is
related to genealogy, sociology and anthropology. Anthroponomy falls under the
umbrella of onomastics that deals with the study of proper names including their
forms and use (see Algeo 1992: 727). In our cultural contexts we name in order
to differentiate, to recognize and finally to know.
The topic of names is a multidisciplinary field that has occupied the attention
of philosophers of language, anthropologists, linguists and ordinary people.
Personal names can best be analysed by a combination of both philosophical and
anthropological notions. The Akans attach much importance to names and
naming practices. The knowledge about Akan names gives insight into Akan
culture, philosophy, thought, environment, religion, language and culture. The
symbolic nature of Akan names and their interpretation depicts Akan religious
beliefs, and their interaction with foreign cultures (see section 1.4 on issues
about linguistic anthropology).
In logical and philosophical sense, a name refers to a different element of
human experience i.e. to an individual or a collective entity, which it designates
or denotes. Names are therefore purely referential (see Rey 1995: 26). Some
philosophers and linguists have attempted to characterise names logically in the
absence of social contexts. Names are only considered as arbitrary labels that
refer to certain signified entries, therefore the signifier and the signified may not
share certain intrinsic qualities.
This notion is true when we consider situations where people who bear the
same name behave differently. Proper names refer very specifically (but without
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describing) to the person who has that name. The characterisation of names is
constant with Saussure’s characterisation of linguistic signs as arbitrarily
connected to their referent. If this assertion were true then names would have no
functional correlation with culture (see Rymes 1996). However, this is not
wholly true and is the converse that is the focus of this paper. We now tend to
cultural significance of Akan names.
The paper assets that Akan names are not arbitrary but they are based on
socio-cultural and ethno-pragmatic contexts. The current paper is a contribution
to linguistic anthropology and to the study of Akan and African anthroponomy
and the general theory of onomasiology by scholars like Obeng (2001), Asante
(1995), Crane (1982), Chuks-orji (1972), Suzman (1994), among others. The
paper argues that most African societies have similar naming practices that
correspond to that of Akan. For example, Madubuike (1976) has what he calls
“positional names” which correspond to Akan numeral names discussed under
(section 2.3c).
According to the literature on anthroponomy, African and Ghanaian names
are quite different from the western societies where people take their fathers’
last names. While western names are predictable, African names are generally
not predictable, for until the child is born and under what circumstances it is
born, the name cannot be determined with accuracy.
In every culture, names have cultural and social contexts that identify the
bearer. The Akans therefore have the maxim that nsεmmne nti na yεkyεε din ‘it
is because of criminal acts that names were shared’. This is to say that every
person in this world has a name that solely identifies and marks him/her from all
other peoples in the world. Algeo (1992: 728) aptly points out that “People are
almost invariably named, indeed, a human being without a name would be
socially and psychologically less than a fully man.” In Saussure’s notion, the
name is the sign and the denotatum is the signified. Simply put, the name is a
label that refers to a person.
Sign --------------------- signified
[-animate] [+ human,]
Among the Akan, by default people who bear the same family name are
supposed to be related genetically and so behave alike. This would thus dispute
the arbitrariness of names. There is an Akan maxim ne din ne ne honam sε
‘his/her name befits his/her body’. This depicts that there is an inherent element
in the name that corresponds with the bearer’s mental and social behaviour.
According to Zawawi (1993: 6) “a name constructs a person because the name
one bears may create an attitude in those who hear it before they meet the name
Frege (1949) and other scholars also consider names to have attributes and
therefore consider names to be attached to referents. This is exactly what
pertains in the Akan culture where the social and cultural context analyses of
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
personal names strongly reveal the power of names to emphasise social
relationships. Personal names are iconic representations of composite social
variables that indexicalise and relate to the name and the person. They include
sex, hierarchy in birth, circumstances surrounding the birth, the person’s
structure, power, status, etc (see section 2.3 - 2.5).
The events involved in the naming ceremony and the choice of names given
to children have traceable links to the referent. Lyons (1977: 222) therefore
claims that proper names are both “synchronically and diachronically
motivated”. Rymes (1996: 231) confirms this in saying that “the name an
individual is given has one synchronic meaning in the baptismal ceremony but
as the individual uses that name, it acquires new and varied meanings
diachronically. We will see that with time people may add names to their
original names and drop some of the original, this is a system of elimination by
substitution. In Akan, people with circumstantial names normally change them
when they grow up, however, some maintain theirs to make the names unique.
The circumstances and social contexts during the birth of a child may prompt
the parents to give a name X but not Y. The circumstantial context will be first
and foremost gender, then the social and economic situation of the parents and
the time of birth and their social links with other people, among other factors.
These are all aspects of the synchronymy. The individual then carries this name
and since names have social meanings, people expect the bearer to live by it or
make positive amends to that name. The varied meanings will represent the
diachronic aspects of the name. In this respect, it is gainsaying that the meaning
of one’s proper name evolves through a life history imbued with a lot of
transformations and may be intimately linked with the “identity concerns” of an
individual or society (Goodenough 1965: 265, Rymes 1996: 238).
In effect, what happens is that people expect the inherent power of words in
names to reflect the lives of people either positively or negatively. Therefore the
individual’s name is of concern to the society as a whole. For example, the
Akans expect a child named after a dignitary or a chief to behave himself
properly so that nobody makes derogatory remarks about the name in attempt to
denigrate it. It is for these same reasons that children named after grandparents,
parents and chiefs are addressed accordingly, such as Nana Opoku, Nana
Agyeman, Papa Agyekum, Maame Boakyewaa and so on. Such children are also
advised to behave well so as to avoid tarnishing their names. The names are
meant to shape the children’s upbringing, behaviour and socialisation (see
section 4.5).
Names in Akan frequently describe the characteristics of the named
individual. This is why people are able to acquire new names, appellations and
by-names based on their personal achievements. We will consider these when
we look at honorifics and appellations as part of the Akan name system in
section 2.6. Names can thus be clearly understood when placed in socio-cultural
context. Analysis of proper names should therefore concentrate more on the
functional theory bearing the society and culture in mind, for names are not
arbitrary as perceived. Names are important indicators of people’s behaviour
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and ways of life. Since Akan names can be best understood and interpreted
under context, people who know the language and culture of the people are able
to interpret such names accordingly.
Obeng (2001: 6) argues that there is indirection and ambiguity in African
naming traditions and name givers could use indirection as a defensive
mechanism. This assertion is not generally true. The use of indirection applies
with proverbial and death prevention names (Obeng 1998). All other categories
of names have socio-cultural and ethno-pragmatic referents and interpretation.
This paper is an aspect of linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics. It is
based on the theory that there is a strong interface between a people’s language
and their cultural practices. It mirrors on (a) how language is used as cultural
resources and practices, and (b) how language is viewed as a powerful tool used
to view and understand the worldview and philosophy of a particular society.
One can therefore use language as a microscopic lens to view and understand
the social practices and day-to-day activities of a society. As a microscope, the
language travels beyond what is expressed and settles on what is practised in the
real sociocultural world. Foley (1997: 3) aptly states the role of linguistic
anthropology and its instrumental function as follows:
Anthropological linguistics is that sub-field of linguistics which is
concerned with the place of language in its wider social and cultural
context, its role in forging and sustaining cultural practices and social
structures. It views language through the prism of the core
anthropological concept, culture, and as such seeks to uncover the
meaning behind the use, misuse or non-use of language, its different
forms, registers and styles. It is an interpretive discipline peeling away at
language to find cultural understandings.
According to (Duranti 1997: 2) “Linguistic anthropology is the study of
language as a cultural resource and speaking as a cultural practice.” The
language of the people is inextricably interwoven with their culture and thought.
In linguistic anthropology, language is considered as a social tool. Language has
the power to evoke realities beyond the literal linguistic content of what is been
talked about. It is a set of symbolic resources that enter the constitution of social
fabric and the individual representation of actual or possible worlds (see Duranti
1997: 1-3). It is a cultural practice and verbal activities that link and fit verbal
activities to the real world. This is also true of Akan personal names.
A society’s world is fitted to words and words may also be fitted to the
world. There is a strong relationship between the world, which is reality, and
the word, which is language. Linguistic signs are therefore representations of
the word and to a greater extent the world (see Duranti 1997: 337). In our
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
current study the Akan names are the linguistic signs, and the sociocultural
interpretations of the names represent the real world. Since the world and
cultural practices are dynamic, the naming system of the Akan people is also
affected by this dynamism. We will consider this in section 4 of this paper.
According to Mey (1993:132), “through the use of words I make the word fit
my language and change the world in accordance with my directions as given
through the use of language.” The language of the people is therefore the exit
valve through which their beliefs and thoughts cognition and experiences are
articulated. The limit of one’s language is therefore the limit of his world, and
man is at the mercy of his language (see Farb 1993: 168).
The language is a manifestation and description of the complexity and
diversity of the peoples’ way of life and practices. The language of the people is
manifested in their naming systems and practices (the centre of this paper),
marriage, family, kinship, political, economic, occupational, health systems,
religious beliefs and practices, law, funeral activities, etc. The language of the
people also depicts the social stratification of the society.3
The data on this paper looks both at the emic and etic point of view on how
the Akan naming systems depict the Akan philosophy and culture. The emic
perspective is the point of view of a cultural practice of the members of the
group based on their conceptualisation, meanings and interpretations of their
belief systems and the things around them. The etic is the point of view of the
observer and ethnographer. The approach here is to describe the Akan naming
systems in emic terms. In using this, it is apparent therefore that the paper is a
contribution to language and culture and how people use their language to
perform and participate in particular cultural activities such as naming.
Language is a resource for reproducing social reality.
Linguistic anthropology uses general theoretical frames in specific
sociocultural contexts. It focuses on how language allows for and creates
differentiations between groups, individuals and identities (see Duranti 1997: 7).
Naming can be considered as a universal cultural practice. Every society in the
world give names as tags to its people, but how the names are given, the
practices and rituals involved and the interpretations attached to the names differ
from society to society and from one culture to another.
The Akan naming system is very unique from any of the western societies,
but it may share some similarities with the naming systems of the Ewes Ghana
and other African ethnic groups. This phenomenon tallies with Giddens’s (1984)
concept of regionalisation that is defined as the “zoning of time and-space in
relation to routinized social practices. Within the Akan society in particular,
regionalisation is also applicable in space where certain names are very
particular to certain dialects of Akan and certain geographical areas (see section
3 In linguistic anthropology one is confronted with issues about language and power, language
and status, language and gender, language policy, language contact, language and persuasion,
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2.2). In terms of time, naming system has been affected with the spate of time
(see section 4 of this paper). 4
In discussing the theoretical concerns of contemporary linguistic
anthropology, Duranti (1997: 14-21) discussed three interconnected analytical
notions that help to understand the function of language in culture. These are (i)
performance, (ii) indexicality and (iii) participation. Of these three the most
important one to the discussion of Akan naming system is indexicality.
Indexes are signs that have some kind of existential relation with what they
refer to either spatial, temporal, social or personal (see Silverstein 1976: 27). In
indexicality, language is used as a tool through which our socio-cultural world is
constantly described, evaluated and reproduced. If we say that words are
indexically related to some objects and reality of the world it implies that words
carry with them a power that transcends beyond mere identification and tagging
of people, objects and properties (see Duranti 1997: 19). Akan naming system is
an aspect of cultural indexicality. In this theory, linguistic expressions or tags
such as Akan personal names are connected to some aspects of the sociocultural
context of the Akan. Indexicality is applicable in Akan names since they have
sociocultural interpretation. Some Akan names refer to personal, temporal,
spatial and social deixis.
We will see in this paper that Akan names have personal deixis because
there is always a person whom a child is named after. The Akan refer to such a
person as grandfather or mother, which may either be biological or distant. One
can always point to an elderly person in the society whether dead or alive whose
name a younger child bears. With regard to temporal deixis, Akan names are
very unique, because each person has an automatic birthday first name that
points to the day of the week that s/he was born. For example, my fist name Kofi
indexicalises the day Friday on which I was born (see section 2.1 and 2.3b).
There are also spatial names referring to localities within the Akan society
where people were born. This is what I have referred to as anthroponyms in
section 2.3a.
Social deixis refers to the social centre (SC) that is the social status, power
and rank, of the addressee or referent. Some names in Akan clearly depict that
the bearer comes from the royal family or has some affiliation with the royal
family. These may include names like Prempe and Osei Tutu that are
specifically from the Asante palace. The social deixis may also cover all
deference vocabularies such as honorific and address forms that show the status,
rank and power of the bearer of the name. Indexical modes like personal names
therefore link language and speech to the wider system of sociocultural life of
the people.
In linguist anthropology, performance refers to a domain of human action
where special attention is paid to ways in which communicative events are
4 Linguistic anthropology also employs the works of contemporary social theorists who pay
greater attention to the constitution of society and culture in everyday. Such scholars include
Bourdieu (1977, 1990) practice theory, and Giddens (1979, 1984) structuration theory.
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
carried out.5 Silverstein (1976: 44) argues therefore “Speech acts are the
elementary indexical formulae for specifying the pragmatic meaning or function
of speech signs. They operate within the framework of purposive function of
socially constituted behaviour.” Utterances therefore perform certain
sociocultural functional actions. In naming, the official performs the act of
naming by saying, “I now give you the name XYZ”, and that becomes the
official name of the newly born baby.
Participation sees communicative events as belonging to a bigger class of
social activities that go beyond the linguistic expressions and utterances to the
sociocultural domains. Naming conforms to both performance and participation
for the labels may dictate how the person behaves and how s/he participates in
social activities. We now turn to the typology of Akan personal names.
This section deals with the typology of Akan personal names. It is an empirical
and sociocultural descriptive study of names that exist in the community. It
considers both purely traditional and contemporary names. We will give the
translations and the ethnography background of the names.
This is the first automatic name every Akan child gets based on the day s/he was
born even before s/he is officially named. Except in few cases, this first name is
not tampered with.6 The Akans call it kradin (lit.) ‘souls name’ and they believe
that this is a name that a person’s soul offers him/her. It is the soul of the person
that decides when to allow the unborn child to enter this world. It is believed
that this particular day may affect his/her behaviour, fate and future. The names
of the days were derived from names of deities and their particular days of
worshipping. Akan names of the days of the week show a regular pattern: name
of a deity + -(a)da ‘day’ e.g. Kwasi-ada, Dwo-ada, Memene-da... We find the
same patterns in English (Mon-day, Tues-day, Wednes-day...), in Italian (Lune-
5 This is what Jakobson (1960) refers to as the “poetic function” of speech (see Duranti
1997:15). Performance includes the speech act theory and how it operates in sociocultural
contexts as proposed by Austin.
6 The birth day name may only be altered for another in a situation where the person the child
is being named after bears a different birthday and the parents think that if they maintain the
automatic day name of the child it may appear that the child is named after a different person
For example, I wanted to name my son after my father called Kwasi Agyekum (Sunday born),
however, he was born on Friday. Naming him Kofi Agyekum would not be proper here, in the
sense that it will mean that I have named him after myself. I therefore changed my son’s
birthday name from Friday to Sunday and called him Kwasi Agyekum.
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dì, Marte-dì, Mercole-dì) and in many other Indo-European languages: French
(Lun-di, Mar-di, Mercre-di), German (Mon-tag, Diens-tag, Donners-tag),
Norway (Man-dag, Tirs –day, Ons-dag), and so on. This pattern (name of a
deity + word for ‘day’) is a feature shared by almost all the languages belonging
to the Indo-European family, and it is believed to have been a trait of the Proto-
Indo-European language as well. 7
There is a system of seven-day names that correspond to the days of the
week. There are two forms; one for females and another for males. I present here
a table of these in both the Twi and Fante forms. Twi and Fante are two major
dialects of Akan. In some of the names in the table below, the Twi forms
overlap with the Fante. In others there are two different forms. There are cases
where Fante alone has two different forms.
Table 1. Akan Days and Birthday Names male and Female.
Twi Fante Twi Fante
Sunday Kwasiada Kwasi Kwesi Akosua Akosua/Esi
Monday dwoada Kwadwo Kojo/Jojo Adwoa Adwoa
Tuesday benada Kwabena Kobina/Ebo/ Kwamena Abenaa Abenaa/Araba
Wednesday Wukuada Kwaku Kweku/Kuuku Akua Ekua/Kuukua
Thursday Yawoada Yao Ekow Yaa Aba
Friday Efiada Kofi Kofi/ Fiifi/Fi Afua Efua/Efe
Saturday Memeneda Kwame Kwame/Kwamina/Ato Ama Ama
Among the Twi speaking people, each of the birthday names has its own
appellation that hints on the behaviour of the people born on such days. The
table below depicts that (cf. Opoku 1973: 26-27, Yeboa-Dankwa 1990: 155,
Obeng 1997: 41). The English glosses of the appellations are given.
7 The bigger question is, is it just a sheer coincidence that Akan names of the days of the
week show a pattern which is exactly the same pattern observed within the Indo-European
family? Or is it a case that the Akan names of the days of the week must have been coined
after the arrival (and settlement) of the British colonials in Ghana, in order to imitate a pattern
which is actually typical of the Western (Indo-European) culture? The answer to this question
is that it is sheer coincidence because the Akans have these day names and birthday names
long before the advent of the early Europeans. For when the Portuguese arrived in Elmina
they met the chief Nana Kwamena Ansa. The name Kwamena is a Saturday born.
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
Table 2. Akan Birthday Names and their Appellations.
Male Female Response
Appellation Day
Appellation Both Male and
Kwasi Bodua/ Obueakwan ‘agility’ Akosua Dampo ‘agility’ Awusi ‘agility’
Kwadwo Okoto/Asera ‘peace’ Adwoa Badwo/Akoto ‘peace’ Adwo ‘peace’
Kwabena Ogyam/Ebo ‘friendliness’ Abenaa Kosia, Nimo ‘friendliness’ Abra
Kwaku Atobi/Daaku/Bonsam ‘evil’ Akua Obirisuo/Obisi/daakuo ‘evil’ Aku ‘evil’
Yaw Preko/pereba ‘brave’ Yaa Busuo/Seandze ‘brave’ Awo ‘bravery
Kofi Kyini/Otuo/Babne/Ntiful
Afua Baafi/Nkso ‘wanderer/
Afi ‘wanderer/
Kwame Atoapoma, teanankannuro
‘combat ready’, snakebite
Amma Nyamewa/Adoma
Amen ‘creation’
The appellations for both male and female and their responses have the same
interpretation. People born on particular days are supposed to exhibit the
characteristics or attributes and philosophy, associated with the days. For
example, a Monday-born is supposed to be peaceful and calm, while a Friday
born is a wanderer and adventurer, and a Saturday born is creative (see Obeng
2001: 16). The last column represents response addressive associated with the
day names of the Akan. Both female and male have the same forms because
they are all derived from the same source, i. e. the deity of the particular day.
The elderly people still use these responses when one greets them and they
know the person’s birthday name. This phenomenon confirms our hypothesis
that names are not arbitrary labels among the Akan of Ghana but have indexes to
sociocultural contexts.
Family names are clan names given to children by their fathers. The cultural
norms demand that the father discusses the name together with his parents. It is,
however, possible for the husband also to discuss this with his wife. The family
names are based on the twelve patrilineal clans of the Akan. These are
Bosommuru, Bosompra, Bosomtwe, Bosomnketia, Bosompo, Bosomdwerεbe,
Bosomkrεte, Bosomafi, Bosomayesu, Bosomakm, Bosomakonsi, Bosomafram,
and Bosomsika. These names were derived from certain deities the ancestors of
Akan worshipped in the olden days. The first morpheme bosom in all the names
means ‘a deity’. Each of these clans has their peculiar names, although some
names may overlap. People whose fathers are from the same patrilineal clans are
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therefore suspected to bear the same family names. Some of the names are
Apau, Yeboa, Agyekum, Yankah, Ofori, and Agyeiwaa.
Within the family names, it is possible to have a male name with a
corresponding female name just by attaching a feminine suffix-waa, - maa, or
bea/ba (female). However, certain names have the same morphological form for
both male and female. Examples are, Agyeman, -ÆAdwoa Agyeman, or Kofi
Agyeman, and Kofi or Ama Konadu. Kwadwo or Adwoa Pinaman, and Adu.
Table 3. Akan Male Names and their Female Counterparts.
Male Female
Asante Akuapem Fante
Ofori Oforiwaa Oforiwaa ----------------
Ado Adowaa/Adoma Adobea Adoma
Agyekum Agyekumwaa -------------- ----------------
Frempn Frempmaa Frempmaa Frempmaa
Akyampn Akyampnmaa ------------------- ----------------
Agyei Agyeiwaa Agyeibea ----------------
Opoku Opokuwaa Opokuwaa ----------------
Asare Asare Asabea Esarewa
Kumi Kumwaa/Kumi Kummea ----------------
Fosu Fosuwaa Fosuwaa ----------------
kyere Kyerewaa Kyerebea Kyerewaa
The three columns representing female names depict that some of the male
names have three realisations in the three main dialects of Akan: - Asante,
Akuapem and Fante. A hollow in the pattern means that the particular dialect
does not have such a female name.
Let us consider an excerpt from a naming ceremony of my daughter that was
held on the 1st of June 1985 in Kumasi. The child is named after my mother a
female born on Friday. The child’s full name is Afua Ataa Boakyewaa
Agyekum. This is what the elderly person who was performing the name ritual
Abfra woaba tena ase, mmy ykyer nk. Wo maamenom ne wo
papanom na ahyia ha nn yi. Yrema wo din nn. Edin a yde rema wo
ne Afua Ataa Boakyewaa Agyekum. Ybfr wo Afua firi s ywoo wo
Efiada. Saa da yi na wo kraa pene so s bra asaase yi so. Yde wo reto
wo nana Afua Ataa. Wo nana Ataa no de ywoo no nta nti na yfr no
saa. Ne din pa ara ne Boakyewaa, ne mmarima din de Boakye. Woaba a,
hunu s wo nana y Ataa, Ataa biara nso y bosom a kyiri fi. Yei nti
bbu subanpa, mmy biribi a bma nkurfo anya kwan adidi wo atm
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
ama ebi aka wo nana. Bio yde wo papa din Agyekum reka wo din ho
sde wobfa wo papa su na woatiatia n’anammn mu ayere wo ho asua
ade te s wo papa. Yka s nsuo a, ka s nsuo, yka s nsa a, ka s nsa.
‘Baby, you are welcome to this world. Have a longer stay, just do not
come and exhibit yourself and return. Your mothers and fathers have
assembled here today to give you a name. The name we are giving to you
is Afua Ataa Boakyewaa Agyekum. You are named Afua because that
is the day your soul decided to enter into this world. We are naming you
after your grandmother Afua Ataa. Your grandparent is Ataa because she
was born a twin. Her real name is Boakyewaa the feminine form of
Boakye. Remember that your grandmother is a twin and therefore a deity
and sacred figure that must be kept hallowed. In view of this, come and
put up a good moral behaviour. Again we are attaching your father’s
name Agyekum to your name. Follow the footsteps of your father and
come and study hard. When we say water, let it be water, when we say
drink let it be drink.’
In this except, we see that the child’s name indexicalises, the day of birth that is
Friday, the name Ataa indexicalises the grandmother who was a twin, the name
Boakyewaa first and foremost indicates the female gender because of its suffix -
waa. The final family name Agyekum indexicalises the father. In future, if the
girl mentions her name anywhere and the people she meets know me, she would
be questioned if she is related to me. All these go to prove that, the name is not
just a tag but strongly related to temporal, personal and social indexes.
2.2.1 Family Names as Markers of Personal or Group Identity
One of the social contexts of names among the Akan is that they are used as
social tags to indicate personal and group identity. This is so with family names
derived from the patrilineal clans of the fathers that are given to children. Each
of the twelve patrilineal clans has its peculiar family names. It is thus possible to
use one’s name to trace his/her patrilineal clan. Children who trace their
genealogy to one patrilineal father may therefore share similar family names
(see Opoku 1973: 21-34). There are examples of some patrilineal clans and their
associated names in Table 4.
Among the Akans, names are so synonymously equated with their bearers
that in some cases the two may alternate. There are expressions like wasεe ne
din ‘s/he has soiled his name’, yεama ne din so, ‘his name has been elevated’.
The latter is the situation where the person has been promoted and his/her name
stands metonymically for him/her.
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Table 4. Patrilineal Clans and Associated Names.
Patrilineal Family Examples of Family Names
1 Bosomafram Afram, Peasa, Dame, Amponsa, Awua, Afrane, Anokye
2 Bosom-Akm Asuman, Adu, Akmaa, Oben, Anim, Ado, Ankomahene
3 Bosom-Dwerεbe Akuamoa, Skyere, Otieku, Sakyi, Amponsa, Aboagye
4 Bosomnketia/Bosompo Ayim, Dakwa, Boadu, Antwi, Poakwa, Bonsu, Osei, Otutu, Apea, Kusi
5 Bosompra Agyeman, Amoako, Asare, Boaten, Kwakye, Ofori, Owusu, Oti
6 Bosomtwe Ofosu, Boafo, Gyadu, Kwatia, Boate, Atakora Osafo
Names can also carry some aspects of telepathy among the Akan such that in
most cases a mention of the name of a person marks the appearance of that
individual. The Akans would therefore say that akoa yi de ne din nam, ‘this man
walks with his name’, or wo din bn wo,your name is closer to you. It is by
this concept of equation between name and personality that make people use
names in certain religious divination and sorcery. In water gazing in certain
cultures in Africa, it is possible to mention the name of a person and to see
his/her image in the water. It is for this same reason that people can curse others
during their absence and cast spells on them.
In fact, family names may tell us which of the Akan dialects a person
belongs to (see section 1.1). Some names are very peculiar to certain particular
dialectal groups of the Akans. The list below expatiates that.
Akuapem: -- Adobea, Aye, Akufo, fεe
Bono: -- Ansu, Kyereme, Efa, Henne, Kodom,
Kwawu: -- Kissi, Mireku, Darfour, Ansong, Sampong, Twerefo
Asante: -- Prεmpε, Konadu, Akyaa
Denkyira: -- Boa Amponsem, Korang, Ntim Gyakari
Fante: -- Yankah, Osam, Aidoo
Akyem: -- Dokua, Kena, Amoatia,
Within a particular group of Akans, it is also possible to indicate one’s place of
domicile by his name. For example, most Asantes called Basoa hail from
Kumawu. The Atafua’s are from Akyem Oda. Notwithstanding, there are certain
floating names that cut across the whole terrace of the Akan community and
such names include, Agyemang, Yεboa, Opoku, Adu, sεe, etc.
Names fulfil many other functions that are not explicitly manifested but
which are indexes of cultural situations that are remote from the situation at
hand. One’s individual name is felt in the context of his personality as a member
of a group. Levi-Strauss (1966: 176) therefore posits that “naming claims unity
at the heart of diversity”. This is to say that names distinguish one member of
the community from all others. It is also possible to assemble a group of people
and catalogue them as belonging to one bigger group. The ongoing, therefore
depicts that names serve to describe individual traits, and they index familiarity,
kinship and group membership. They pick out entire world of cultural
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
significance. By this mechanism, naming surely indexes an entire world of
socio-cultural association (see section 1.4 on linguistic anthropology).
There are certain names based on the circumstances surrounding the birth of a
child. These may relate to the places of birth, period or time, festivals or sacred
days, manner of birth, etc. According to Blum (1997: 364) these names are
viewed as governing the child’s fate in some ways, they should harmonise with
the time and often place of the child’s birth...’. I have grouped these names into
(a) anthro-toponyms, (b) temporonyms, (c) manner of birth, and (d) death
prevention and survival names.
(a) Anthro-Toponyms: These are personal names that pertain to the place of
birth of the child. Examples are Kwaku Bekwae, Afua Kumase, Kwabena
Kokofu, Abena Dwansa, Ama Agogo, and Kwaku Mampn. The names
Bekwae, Kumase, Kokofu, Dwansa, Agogo, and Mampn are traditional towns
in the Asante Region of Ghana. Kumase is the capital of the Asante Region,
while Mampn, Bekwae and Agogo are district capitals.
The place may even refer to the farm or inside the car when the woman was
travelling to another place. It is also possible to use the names of rivers, lakes
and other geographical areas as names for children. Such names include Kwasi
Bosumtwe (name of the only natural lake in Ghana, located in the Ashanti
region, Densu, (a river in the Eastern Region), Afram, Pra, (rivers in the Ashanti
Region) Tano (a river in the Brong Ahafo Region). Obeng (2001: 32) refers to
this as hydronymic-anthroponyms.
(b) Temporonym: I am using the term temporonym for names that relate to the
period of birth. Under these, various categories can be identified. The period
may relate to sacred days in the Akan calendar like Fofie (sacred Friday), Adae
(sacred Sunday), Dapaa (sacred Tuesday, Saturday). This category of names
includes Afua Fofie, Kofi Fofie, Kwaku Adae, Kwasi Adae, Ama Dapaa, and
Kwabena Dapaa. Since these sacred days, called nnapnna or nnabne occur on
the same particular days, they carry with them their automatic day names. These
sacred days occur once every forty days on the Akan traditional calendar. They
are days set aside for the worship of the deities, and the cleansing of the
misdeeds in families and in villages and towns. People do not go to farm on
these days they rather do general cleaning and sanitary activities.
The period of birth may also relate to important festivals of the Akan such as
Odwira, Akwamb, Ohum, Aboakyere, and Bakatue. Akans have names like
Kwadwo Munufie, Akosua Apo, Kwame Dwira, etc. Christian festivals like
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Buronya ‘Christmas’, Yesu Amanehunu, ‘Easter’ have also brought names like
Abenaa Buronya, Kwaku Buronya, Akosua Yesu, etc.
Odwira is one of the major festivals of the Akans. The name is derived from
the verb dwira ‘to cleanse’. It is a cleansing festival that takes stock of the
misdeeds of the past year and makes amend for a virtuous incoming year.
During the festival, we pacify the gods and the supernatural beings and ask for
forgiveness, good health and prosperity.
There is also an Akwamb festival celebrated among the Fantes of Ghana.
The word Akwamb is made up of the morphemes a-(nominal prefix), kwan,
‘path’, and b, ‘to weed or clear’. The compound thus means weeding or
clearing of a path. It is an environmental sanitary festival during which all paths
that lead to farms, streams and shrines are cleared to make them safe.
Let us finally look at Aboakyere since the description of all the festivals is
beyond the purview of this paper. The people of Winneba in the Central Region
of Ghana celebrate the Aboakyere festival. The name is made up of the
morphemes aboa, ‘animal’ and kyere, ‘to catch’. It is a deer hunting festival
where two groups go to hunt for a life deer. The group that catches first, runs
home to show the deer to the chief and thus wins the game for the year. The
chief steps on the deer three times (see Opoku 1970 for details on Ghanaian
Another typology of periodic names relate to periodic social, economic or
political atmosphere of the time, particularly those that relate to the status of the
parents and/or the family. A child born during the period of an economic boom
or prosperity among the people would be called Afriyie, (lit) ‘has appeared well’
(has come at the right time), Abayie, ‘has come well’, or Sika ‘wealth’. A child
born during good economic times will get the name Antobrε, ‘did not come to
experience hardships’. On the contrary, a child born during the time of
mysteries, hardships, poverty and periods of death may have one of the
following names: Abεbrεsε, ‘hardships’, Adiyia, ‘has encountered sorrow’, and
Antobam, ‘did not come to meet good days’. In fact, a child who was born at a
time when the father is dead is called Anto made up of a-n- to. The verb to in
this context means ‘to meet’; Anto thus mean ‘did not come to meet’.
(c) Manner of birth: This may relate to the sequence by which the mother has
given birth. More importantly there are names that refer to the order in which
the children come. Ordinal names include Piesie, ‘first born’, made up of pie,
‘erupt from a place’, and sie ‘anthill’. Here, the pregnant woman’s stomach is
compared to an anthill and the first-born is conceptualised as the one who has
erupted from the anthill thus making an exit. The children who come after the
piesie have names that morphologically correspond with the Akan numerals, 2nd-
Manu, 3rd- Mεnsa and Mansa (female), 4th-Anane/Annan, 5th-Num/Anum, 6th-
Nsia, 7th-Nson/Esuon, 8th-Nwtwe/Awotwe, 9th -Nkroma/Akron, 10th-
Badu/Beduwaa, 11th-Duku, 12th-Adunu, 13th-Adusa. There are therefore names
like Kwaku Nsia, Ama Anane, and Kofi Anan. The names above that have two
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
forms refer to Twi and Fante forms. The first slots are the Twi forms and the
second are the Fante forms. It can be seen that Akan like other African societies
has names that correspond to the position children occur in the sequence of
Another aspect of the manner of birth is the situation when twins come into
the scene. Children who are born twins and those who follow them get some
cultural automatic names in addition to their family names. The twins are called
Ata (male) and Ataa (female). The child that comes directly after the twins is
called Tawia, then comes Nyankomago, Atuaksεn, Abobakorowa and Damusaa
in that order. The names that come after the twins are all positional names.
A child who is born through a pregnancy that lasted for more than ten
months may get a name like ‘akyiremu ‘has kept too long’. Dzameshie (1998: 5)
records that among the Ewes such a child may get the name Feyi, ‘a year has
passed’, Fenu ‘year thing’, and Fenuku ‘year seed’. All these names have a
component of year and means that instead of the nine months pregnancy, the
mothers went beyond a year or more. (The Ewes are located in the Volta
Region, is one of the major ethnic groups of Ghana).
(d) Death Prevention and Survival Names: The Akans, like other cultures in
West Africa, believe that if a mother suffers constant child mortality, then the
reason is that it is the child’s mother in the underworld that does not want the
child to stay in the living world. To combat such an unfortunate situation, the
parents give the child a weird name. They believe that if the name is unattractive
the other mother in the underworld will not like to accept the child over there
and this would make the child stay. Such a name is called bagyina 8, apεntεdin
among the Akan and may be derived from any object the parents can think of.
They may be nasty names of migrant labourers, dangerous animals, nasty
objects, filthy places and expressions of emotions (see Obeng 2001: 90-103,
Obeng 1998, Opoku 1973: 26-30).
The basic reason is that the name must be unpleasant even in the ears of the
living. Such names include, Sumina ‘garbage, Dnk, ‘slave’, Kaya, ‘carrier of
loads’, and Adwengo, ‘palm kernel oil’. Others are Sereba, ‘silver’, Agyegyesεm,
‘harassment/trouble making’, Saarabi, ‘just like that’, Abirekyie, ‘goat’, Sraha,
‘Islamic gift’, Asaaseasa, ‘the land is finished’, etc. The name Asaaseasa is very
interesting. The concept of lack of land is to imply that if this child now chooses
to die, there would be no land for its burial and it would therefore be left to the
prey of cannibals. There is another name Dinkyene made up of two morphemes
di ‘eat’ and nkyene ‘salt’. The act of eating salt implies being alive. The word is
in the imperative mood to imply that the newborn child should survive and eat
salt than to go back to the ancestral world.
8 bagyina is made up of ba ‘child’ and gyinaa, ‘stop’ which is metaphorically extended to
mean ‘be stable’. The concept of bagyina therefore refers to a system of birth where the child
born should come to stay but not to return to the other world.
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It is believed that if a woman suffers constant child mortality, then it is the
same child who comes and goes back several times. The Akans also believe that
if the name is funny, the child will be ashamed to go back to the underworld.
Again, if the members of the underworld recognise the child with such a funny
name, they will be so annoyed and refuse to call it to the spirit world.
Certain personal names are derived from flora and fauna. It is their physical
structures that are compared. The flora includes Odum, Dwuma, Onyina, Bdm,
Sã, Esie ‘anthill’. Faunym include names like Kwaku Sono, ‘elephant’, Yamoa
Pnk, ‘horse’, Kofi Nantwi, ‘bull/cow’, Abenaa Ko ‘buffalo’, and Adwoa Kre
‘the eagle’. The physical structure and complexion of a person can also be the
basis of names such as Akua Kk, ‘the red’, Owusu Kk, ‘Owusu the Red’,
Buroni, ‘the white person’, Tuntum, ‘the Black’, Opoku Tenten, ‘Opoku the
Taller’, Opoku Ware, ‘Opoku the Taller’, Akua Tia ‘ Akua the Short one’, Kofi
Teawa ‘Kofi the Slim One’, Kwaku Dua ‘Kwaku the Tree’, etc.
There are certain names that depict the Akans’ belief in the supernatural beings
and their power to give children. These names are normally given when parents
have struggled for children for a number of years and all hopes are lost. A child
whose parents give birth out of a broom would be called Nyamekyε, ‘God’s gift’,
Nyameama, ‘God has given’ and Nso Nyame yε ‘it is not impossible for God to
Children who have been sought from other deities apart from God are also
named after the deities who have helped the parents in cases where there has
been child mortality. These names are referred to as abosomdin, ‘deity’s name’
or abagyina, ‘child stability’. Some of such names are Akua Abagyina, Osei
Tutu, Kwadwo Mframa, Kwaku, Firi, Yaa Gare, and Afua Ntoa, Kofi Dwomo,
Yaw Dumgya, ‘Yaw the Fire Extinguisher’. All the names attached to the day
names above are names of Akan deities.
Some other names are achieved outside people’s given names. Such names may
be achieved from occupations, wars, zeal, and stool names when a person is
enthroned. Such names are normally appellations and titles. They include
kogyeasuo, ‘the fighter who seizes a river’, koforobo, ‘the fighter who
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
climbs rocks’, deneho, ‘the independent one’. Some of these names may also
be religious. Traditional priests, Christians and Moslems acquire them when
they are ordained into office. These include sfo, ‘pastor’, kmfo, ‘traditional
priest’, and Imam,‘Islamic leader’.
Some titles were previously based on excellence in wars and such names are
now established as personal names. They include Bekoe, ‘came to fight’, kofo
‘the warrior’, Katakyie, ‘the strong man’, safohene ‘the commander’,
Ankoanna, ‘does not sleep without fighting’, Bediako, ‘came to engage in wars’,
Agyeman, ‘saviour of the nation’, etc.
There is an Akan maxim which states that Bεkoe din fata no a εfata no w
akono na εnyε gyedua ase. ‘If Bεkoe’s name befits him, it befits him at the war
front not under the shady tree’. This maxim depicts the situated functionality of
Akan names. The word Bεkoe is made up of the motional prefix bε- which
indicates a coming, the verb ko, ‘fight’, and the past tense suffix marker –e. The
word means ‘came to fight’, and it implies that the bearer should be a fighter.
We see that the name is not arbitrary and there is a correspondence between the
name and the bearer.
There are other names couched in the form of innuendoes to depict the situation
on the ground during the pregnancy and childbirth. Some of such innuendoes
and proverbial names are called abebudin. They depict the sour and bitter
relationship that exists between the parents and other neighbours. These names
thus portray that the enemies are ashamed because their expectations have
misfired (see also Dzameshie 1998: 5). All these names are meant to portray
some of the aspects of life and the conflicts that ensue in human relations. Such
names are presented in Table 5.
Table 5. Insinuating, Proverbial, Insulting and Nicknames.
Akan Name English Gloss
1 Agyegyesεm the troublemaker
2 Ammamanyε they did not allow me to perform it
3 Ammεyεhuu did not come to perform anything
4 Asεmyεyaa issues are painful
5 Atenka the experiencer
6 Disaaka you deserve saying it
7 Disaay you deserve doing it
8 Fasaayεme treat me like that
9 Kaedabi remember the past
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10 Kwandah the road is there
11 Mafamadi I have taken it for free
12 Maniyεwo the kinsman is harming you
13 Matemasie I have heard and concealed the fact
14 Mmaεnyεwodε do not rejoice over it
15 Mpεasεm does not like any trouble
16 Nkaeguo saying it for nothing
17 Nkasεmbi do not say anything
18 Nnipa nka human beings do not love each other
19 Ntoaduro where slander has reached
20 Nyaasεmhwε be in trouble and see
21 Obideεaba someone’s has come
22 dyεfε love is beautiful
23 Sunkwa cry for life
24 Suronipa be afraid of human beings
25 Susuka say it moderately
26 Tenabaabi just stay at a place
27 Yεkekanokwa they are saying it in vain
28 Yεkwa harming in vain
There are also rivalry and insinuating names that indicate the rift between the
speaker and the addressee. These names are not the real names of the children
but used as verbal duelling terms by their parents and normally occur among
rivals. These names are made so impersonal and indirect that speakers can easily
run away from commitment and face threatening acts. Such names include;
Agya Ntεtea Kk ‘father the red ant’. The red ant is considered as man’s
enemy since it can destroy a lot of domestic things in the house. Other
impersonal names are Asomasi, bεnten and Okooto and they do not belong to
any category of the Akan name system except being used as insinuating.
There are derogatory names used as invectives, and they normally bring
conflict among Akans so they are considered in some respects as verbal taboos
and should therefore not be used. These names include mmrane ‘nicknames’.
People use the physical structure, including one’s complexion, height or size, or
a person’s behaviour to give him/her a name. Such names include pobire ‘black
snail’ to refer to a person who is very dark. We also have metonymic names
where a person’s body-part that is contrary to the norm is used to tease him/her.
Such names include apantan ‘jaw’, abdweε ‘chin’, nkonto ‘bow legged’, aso
‘ears’, kntape ‘short necked’, etc.
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
Among the Akan, gang names are referred to as εfe or mmrane. They are
normally coined slogans that are used by gang members. One funny and striking
thing about the gang names is that members of the same gangs use the same
name to refer to each other. The gang names can therefore be referred to as
“reciprocanyms”. Examples are panin, ‘the elder’ w’agya, ‘your father’, wo
nua, your cousin’, wo gyafo, ‘your colleague’, wo nana, ‘your grandparent’,
hene ‘chief’, hemmaa ‘queen’, akora ‘old man’, etc. It is possible to have
different gang nicknames whereby A refers to B with a nickname and B refers to
A with another nickname.
1. A: Agya ‘Father’
B: Wo Nana ‘Your Grandparent’
2. A Osikani ‘Rich man’
B: mamma/Okonkoni ‘Wealthy man’
In 1, the speaker A and the addressee B use kinship terms. In 2, however, they
use status terms especially wealth. Nicknames may also be referential to the
behaviour of the people who bear such names. Most of such names are
derogative and meant to tease the bearers to change their ways of life. Below are
examples of such names:
weee (lit) ‘the chewer’ ------------> ‘drunkard, alcoholic’
nomfo ‘the drinker’ ------------> ‘drunkard, alcoholic’
kaka (a fa nkwan mu) ‘the bad aroma that spoils the broth ------->
ohui (lit.) ‘the blower’ ---------------> ‘the liar’
Most gang and nicknames in Akan are descriptive and normally have allusions
or etymological information about them that are best known to their users and
in-group members. This confirms the indexical sociocultural importance of
names that is the focus of this paper.
This section looks at the innovations in the Akan name system as a result of
westernisation, education and foreign religion. It first considers the use of
multiple names.
Religion, education, westernisation and urbanisation have brought about
innovations in the structure and system of Akan names. Some members of the
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elite are gradually shifting away from the traditions (see Oyetade 1995: 531-32).
These days, apart from birthday names and surnames, some people get
additional Christian or Islamic name(s) during baptism or when they first enter
into formal school. Some nationalistic members would maintain their traditional
names without taking any Christian or Islamic names during baptism or at
At school, most people would now use their fathers’ or sponsors’ name, or
combine names of these people with their own names. People whose schooling
have been sponsored by some people other than their biological parents take the
names of their sponsors and may thus have two varied names. The above
phenomenon is a real shift from the tradition where fathers and their children do
not bear the same name (see cultural dynamism in section 1.3).
Assuming a person is called Ofori, and the father is called Agyemang, the
following combinations can be expected: James Ofori, James Agyemang, Kofi
Ofori Agyemang, James Ofori Agyemang, James Kofi Ofori Agyemang, etc.. The
same structure may prevail for both males and females. Quite apart from these,
some people would add appellations to their given names as in Kofi Ofori
Amanfo, James Ofori Amanfo, Agyemang Pambo Prεmpε.
The foregone issues therefore bring about two categories of names, official
and unofficial names. The official is normally religious (Christian or Islamic)
plus one’s Akan name used at school or job site. This is the name that appears
on his/her personal records such as passport, certificates, and all other personal
documents. If somebody is enthroned as a chief, king, or queen then an
additional official stool name is given to him/her in the chieftaincy sector.
Among the Akans, the symbol of office of a chief, king or queen is a stool. The
name may be that of one of his/her predecessors. An unofficial name refers to
the name the person gets at out-dooring that his/her parents, kinsmen and closer
mates call him/her by it.
In Akan, as in many cultures, there is a current phenomenon where a person can
receive multiple names that change according to social context and situation; the
person may be accordingly addressed differently.9 In contemporary Akan, it is
possible for a person who has undergone various baptism to combine the various
names into a serial mononymy.
With education, it is also possible for certain Akan Chiefs to maintain
separate baptism name. One may have a “scholarly name” that appears on his
9 The Arizona Tewa for example receive several different names through several different
naming ceremonies during their lives. According to Dozier (1954: 325-31) the Arizona Tewa
ceremonies include tribal initiation, clan initiation, girls’ puberty rites and society inductions.
The various baptismal names have their sources and origin from the sociocultural contexts.
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
certificate which is very official. He may be called at the work site by this name
and also by his colleagues. Outside these scenarios, he may be referred to by his
stool name. It may even be possible that he had his own efie din ‘domestic
name’ which he shelved and took that of his parents. This means that in reality
he has three category of names. It could even be more depending on the type of
colleagues he has. For example, a chief can combine his birthday name with his
stool name as Nana deneho Kwame Ababio Agyeman.
Newly acquired names are given in addition to people’s initially given
names. The given names, although rarely used, may be needed later in life as
hypocoristic terms of endearment and affection. In fact, among the Akan, one of
the names that serves as an affectionate term is first, the birthday name- Kofi,
Ama, Abenaa, etc. (see Whiteley 1992). The given first names are shortened into
the hypocoristic terms as in Kofi becoming Koo or Kee, and Abenaa becoming
As the names accumulate so do one’s prestige and social standing within the
community. This is to say that multiplicity of names is proportional with social
elevation. In fact, this hypothesis is true when and only when the added names
are acquired through good deeds.
Conversely the accumulation of negative names is inversely related to one’s
prestige and social standing within the society.
A. multiple names ------- via good deeds --------------> social upliftment and prestige
B. multiple names ------- via vicious deeds -----------------> social debasement
There is a social practice that compels individuals to use names they would
rather not use. Those who acquire the multiple names via good deeds feel
honoured and even use the names themselves to assert their status. On the
contrary, multiple names got through vicious means are derogatory and
humiliating. Sometimes people use them hoping that the bearers may change
their behaviour. The vicious names are given by certain individuals and accepted
by the entire society and are based on the behaviours of the referents whose
behaviour go contrary to the Akan sociocultural norms. (See also Barnes 1980
on multiple names and use among the Hidatsa).
Among the present generations, some elites, Christians and Muslims are best
known by their religious names. Those who have gone to school use such names
as their first names in addition to their Akan family names. Some people even
drop their Akan birthday names such as Kofi, Ama, and choose John and Mary
respectively. It is not uncommon to come across people with names like John,
James, Martin, Ali, Ahmed, Issa, etc. Apart from the Christian and Islamic
names, many Ghanaians pick western names such as Charles, George, Andrew,
Jackson, Faustina, Florence, Margaret, etc.
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This phenomenon is so predominant among females than among males.
Females may prefer to be addressed as Ajila, Asetu, Fatima, Mary, Susana,
Theresa, Martha, Sophia, Grace, Jennifer, Priscilla, etc. rather than their
indigenous names. In fact, some ladies even become offended when they are
addressed with their indigenous names referred to as efie din (lit.) ‘home name’,
especially when such a lady bears any of the weird or circumstantial names (see
sections 2.3, 2.4, and 2.7 above). My wife’s senior mother is called Saarabi but
she has since changed it to Theresa. There are evidences that prove that people
equate the Christian, Islamic and western names with prestige, education and
higher status in the society.
At the holy matrimony, Akan females get another category of names in addition
to any of the innovated names they already have. A greater percentage of them
take the names of their husbands and drop their maiden names or combine them
with their matrimonial names. We therefore have names like Mrs. Abenaa
Akyaa Agyekum, Mrs. Serwa Boateng, Mrs. Theresa Sarpong, and Mrs. Beatrice
Opokuaa Agyei. In all these combination, the last name is the husband’s name.
The last two or three decades have witnessed a positive nationalistic movement
in personal names among the Akan. Many people have realised the significance
of Akan personal names as markers of cultural identity and have therefore stuck
to only the Akan names. They give only these names to their children during
baptism and first entry into school, doing away with any foreign names. In fact,
there are several cases where people who earlier on had these foreign names
have legally changed them and maintained only the indigenous ones. A person
who was formerly named as Timothy Akyampong may now be officially called
Kwasi Akyampn.
Many Akans, who started as civil servants and registered with Christian and
Western names attached to their Akan names have dropped the former. Some
friends who completed training college with names like Stephen Bosie Amponsa,
Andrews Jackson Dapaa, and Daniel Kyei, have dropped, the Stephen, Andrews
Jackson and Daniel respectively. Almost all my mates at the Training College
and at the Diploma College have dropped their Western and Christian names.
On the Legon campus, there is a Legon newsletter and the last pages
normally have change of names by students. In most cases, what I observe is
that you see a long list of students who have changed their names by dropping
the foreign names. Below are two examples that appeared in Vol. 41 No 49 of
University of Ghana Reporter No 715 page 92. The heading is Change of Names
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
1. From: Quarcoo, Agnes Naa Ahima (Miss)
To: Quarcoo, Naa Ahima (Miss)
2. From: Senya, Praise
To: Senya, Kafui.
In 1 above, the student who is in her final Year dropped the western name Agnes
from the chain of names. In 2, however, there is an elimination by substitution.
The student dropped the western name Praise and replaced it with Kafui that is
an indigenous Ewe name.10
According to Akan sociocultural norms, adult and kings may not be addressed
with their bare names and this is an aspect of the Akan naming taboo system
(see Agyekum 1996). Parents who name their children after their own parents,
grandparents or chiefs would like to show reverence to their bearers by
addressing the children with the right labels and address terms. These kinship
labels become part and parcel of the official names of these children throughout
life. Examples of such names are Nana Opoku Ware, Nana Akuffo Addo, Nana
Yaw, Papa Owusu Ankoma, Maame Abenaa, Nana Yaa, etc.
The use of kinship terms is also undergoing innovations among the Akans.
Oyetade (1995) records this same phenomenon among the Yorubas that certain
kinship terms like daddy, mummy, uncle, aunty, sister, brother have been
borrowed from English into Yoruba with altered changes. The Akan equivalents
are first and foremost used for one’s kinsmen but like the Yorubas, they are also
used for people with whom one may not have any kinship ties.
It is not uncommon for the present day youth to address any male elder as
Dada, Daddy Daa, and a female as Mam, Mum and Maa. The speaker may use
these terms as intimate, persuasive and polite markers to lure the addressee to
buy from them. They may be used in commerce, arbitration, request, permission,
etc. (see Agyekum 2004).
The use of these kinship terms carries with it both implicit and explicit
recognition of the superiority of the addressee and his or her status. It is
common for market women or hawkers to address their educated, rich, or aged
customers as Daddy, Daa, Mummy, Maa, Auntie, etc. (see Oyetade 1995: 533).
10 The Ewes normally take Names that are English words. These include, Victor, Prosper,
Innocent, Patience, Praise, Success, etc.
Nordic Journal of African Studies
There is another dimension of naming innovations among the Akan that deals
with Anglicisation of Akan names. Two categories can be drawn here:
4.6.1 English Orthography
Here, Akan names are spelt with the English alphabet and sounds, such names
Acheampong instead of Akyampn
Mensah instead of Mεnsa
Adjei instead of Agyei
Arthur instead of` Atta
Quarcooe instead of` Kweku
Otchere instead of kyere
Crentsil instead of Kwenstir
Forson instead of F
This is even less problematic, for people still pronounce the names correctly and
people can easily know whom they are referring to. In Akan, there are no
consonant clusters like [ch, dj, rth, and tch]. Again [g] and [h] do not end any
word in Akan, and there is no [q] in the Akan alphabet.
4.6.2 Anglicisation Through Translation
Some Akan names are translated literally into English and such anglicised
names have come to stay as family names. This phenomena is so prevalent with
the Fantes; one of the major Akan subgroups. One can argue that the Fantes
living on the coast were the first to be in contact with the Europeans. It is
therefore possible that the trend is a western influence. Examples of such
anglicised transformational name are:
Dua (lit tree/board) ---------------------> Woode
Kuntu (blanket ) son of Kuntu -----------------> Blankson
Kumi ba ( child of Kumi) ---------------------> Kumson
Akorma (hawk) ---------------------> Hawkson
Nyameba ---------------------> Godson
bo (stone) ---------------------> Rockson
The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
Certain phonological processes take place during anglicisation that we do not
intend going into the details here. The anglicised forms are distant from the
original both in morphology and phonology. The two forms are opaque. It is
therefore difficult for the ordinary Akan speaker to know that the two forms
refer to the same name.
This paper is an aspect of linguistic anthropology and based on the theory that
there is a strong interface between a people’s language and their cultural
practices. It mirrors on (a) how language is used as cultural resources and
practices, and (b) how language is viewed as a powerful tool used to view and
understand the worldview and philosophy of a particular society. We have
argued therefore that language is used as a microscopic lens to view and
understand the social practices and day-to-day activities of a society.
Akan personal name system and practice is a marker of the people’s belief,
ideology, religion, culture, philosophy and thought. The names are best
understood and analysed when one has insight into the ethno-pragmatics, socio-
cultural norms and the language and culture of Akan. The Akan personal names
are therefore an aspect of linguistic relativity. In the philosophical sense, Akan
names refer to elements of Akan human experience and ways of life. This paper
has claimed that names are not mere arbitrary and meaningless labels but rather
have indexical relationship to socio-cultural meanings and functions, places,
time, people and events.
Akans believe that there is some inherent power and linkage in names, and
expect the names to reflect and indexicalise the lives and behaviour of people
either positively or negatively. The individual’s name is of concern to the
society as a whole, for the individual performs and participates in the society.
Akan names may show group identification and reveal some aspects of the
cultural patterns and behaviour of the culture concerned.
Akan typological names indicate various contexts. They may be day names,
family, circumstantial, manner of birth, theophorous, weird names, insinuating
and proverbial names, gang and nicknames, status, occupational, professional,
religious, matrimonial, and western names. Every potential Akan has at least
two of these names: a birthday name plus a family name. Apart from these, there
can be a combination of two or more of these typological names.
It is also possible for a person to accumulate some other names especially
baptismal names as s/he grows up in the society. I have argued that if multiple
names are achieved through virtuous means then it is proportionate to the
achievements of prestige and the social standing of the person within the
society. Conversely, if the multiple names are through vicious means, then as
they multiply, the person debases his/her prestige and honour in the society.
Nordic Journal of African Studies
Akan personal names are a multidisciplinary area of study for scholars in
sociology, history, religion, anthropology, linguistics, ethnography and
philosophy. It is an important area of the Akan culture that should not be
ignored in any sociolinguistic and anthropological studies.
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Tom McArthur (ed.), pp. 727-729. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
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Barnes, R. 1980.
Hidatsa Personal Names: An Interpretation. Plains Anthropologist
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Blum, Susan D. 1997.
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Outline of a theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge:
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1990 The Logic of Practice theory. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford:
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The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Names
Appendix 1: A Map of Ghana Showing the Akan dialects.
... Most importantly for this article, there are also many examples from within the African context. For instance, Kofi Agyekum (2006) has looked at how Akan personal naming systems reflect the Akan philosophy and culture. Philip Boateng Ansah and Patricia Beatrice Mireku-Gyimah (2021) have Fiaveh et al. (2015), and Nyambi et al. (2016) are very relevant to my study. ...
... Analysis of the names of male Sesotho aphrodisiacs provides important perspectives on challenges within Basotho society. This marries with Agyekum's (2006) assertion that naming practices constitute an indicator of people's beliefs, ideologies, religion, culture, philosophy, and thought, because there is a strong dialectical relationship that binds people's language and their cultural practices. In the context of Lesotho, the naming practices for some traditional aphrodisiacs are indicative of a phenomenon where gendered power relations that endorse violence against women are exercised either overtly or covertly. ...
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This article examines the naming practices employed for traditional male Sesotho aphrodisiacs with the aim of unveiling the ideologies reflected and promoted by these names. It draws on a combined analytic approach of socio-onomastics and Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis (Feminist CDA). While a socio-onomastic analysis of traditional male Sesotho aphrodisiacs shows that naming is a discursive practice interwoven with the cultural beliefs of the Basotho, a Feminist CDA makes visible the disparaging beliefs often hidden in seemingly neutral discourses. Feminist CDA further reveals how gendered power relations are discursively reproduced by explicit and implicit meanings inherent in the names of traditional male Sesotho aphrodisiacs. This analysis thus shows how dominant gendered power relations are promoted; however, it also shows how, to some extent, these gendered power relations seem to be contested. Overall, this article argues that naming is a discursive practice that is used, on the one hand, to sustain and, on the other hand, to seemingly challenge patriarchal inequalities imposed by the cultural beliefs of Basotho society.
... The European and American linguistic traditions led by Crystal (1995) and Lyons (1977) have viewed names to be merely signifiers and arbitrary to the people and things they name. On the other hand, African anthropological linguists like Malande (2006Malande ( , 2011Malande ( , 2012Malande ( , 2013Malande ( , 2018Malande ( , 2020aMalande ( and 2020c, Lusekelo (2015), Agyekum (2006), etc, have, using extensive examples from diverse African languages, found personal names semantic, morphosemantics and of a greater social linguistic value. These two varying opinions are in themselves problematic-controversial; that often pushed African onomastics to cultural anthropology. ...
... It does not imply that those names are meaningless. Agyekum (2006) argued that in a logical and philosophical sense, a name refers to different factors of human experiences i.e., to an individual or a collective entity, which it designates. Similarly, Akinnaso (1980) declares that in every culture the fundamental reason of naming is to give a figurative structure of recognition. ...
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... In Africa, anthropological linguists have generated a lot of data on naming patterns and name meanings as espoused in local or native-African languages. Such studies by Malande (2012, 2011 and 2006), Batoma (2009), Légere (2008, Agyekum (2006), Guma (2001), etc. have largely looked at people, plant and place names. Those studies have established a socio-cultural and morpho-semantic basis as the sole motivation behind names and naming in African languages. ...
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It applies Linguistic knowledge in Phonology, Morphology, Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis and Onomastics in the study of Kenya political party names, party symbols, party colours and party slogans
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The literature on the nominal classification system of Mabia languages reveals a consistent pattern where nominals are often classified based on their morphology, phonology and semantics. What has not received mention is the role of ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology in the classification of nominals in these languages. This study offers a comparative analysis of the nominal class systems of three Mabia languages: Dagbani, Kusaal and Mampruli. The main purpose is to examine the role of semantics from the angles of both ethnolinguistics and linguistic anthropology in the nominal classification system of these languages. The hypothesis is that the morphophonology of nominal classes in these languages is triggered by a shared semantic network and pragmatic association of member elements influenced by the beliefs, traditions and world views of speakers of these languages. The sameness or near sameness of beliefs, and world views of these people explains the observation of identical items from all the languages in specific groups. Nouns in the various categories behave the same morphologically, phonologically and semantically. Nouns are classified under 5 concepts: Human-beings and kin relationship, spirituality, protection, shape and Non-count nouns. This work is entirely qualitative.
... Most available studies on personal names focus on the semantic-pragmatic and sociolinguistic interpretations (see among others Akinnaso 1980;Agyekum 2006;Abiodun 2015;Mensah 2015). As Van Langendock and Van de Velde (2016:17-18) note, studies on the linguistic structure of personal names are rarely sought after in linguistic descriptions. ...
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Cultural norms of interactions influence Maasai people to apply animal names to address each other. This article explains that avoidance of personal names of certain categories of people in Maasai influences the use of animal names. In the theoretical framework of Cultural Linguistics, the author analyzed information from an ethnographic exploration through observations and interviews with Maasai informants in Tanzania. The article shows that Maasai’s categorization of people and avoidance system make senior members accumulate more animals through the process of selecting animal names to use. The patriarchal cultural beliefs and conceptualizations of domestic animals have implications on how animal names are applied between men and women. Only women married to polygamous men use animal names to address each other. There are some lexical, morphological and semantic differences between men and women’s names to mark gender categorizations.
Contributing to extant debates on the juncture of naming and gender(ing), this study interrogates naming practices among Bette-Christians of northern Cross River, Southeastern Nigeria, and how they enhance understanding of the relation between naming and the enunciation of religious identity as well as how gender is enacted. With analytical insights from socio-onomastic theory, which explores the relationship between names, culture, and society, we interrogate naming practices as essential cultural currency for identification, categorization, and connectedness. Data were obtained from 40 participants through semistructured interviews and participant observations. We focus on the intersection of naming and spiritual sentiments to argue that the contemporary reality of naming among Bette-Christians illuminates a practice that negates traditional Bette cosmology and cosmogony. We illustrate how the emergence of Christianity has altered the naming patterns and practices of the people, and how these names embody multidimensional connotations that range from religious identity to stereotyped gender ideologies.
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Child marriage remains relatively high in developing countries such as Ghana despite several legislations against it. This study explores the sexual and reproductive health of victims of child marriages in selected communities in the Upper East Region of Ghana. Employing the qualitative data collection methods of in-depth interviews, we examine how the web of culture, age and gender of children predisposes them to child marriages and subsequent negative reproductive health outcomes. Employing snowball and purposive sampling, fifteen victims of child marriages were selected from four districts in the Upper East Region of Ghana and interviewed. Transcribed data were analysed thematically. The findings indicate that most adolescent wives have no say regarding their choice of partner, the number of children to have, their use of contraceptives and their access to health facilities during pregnancy, delivery and after delivery, due to male authority. The findings of this study underscore the need to develop the capacity and negotiation skills of adolescents for and within marriage. Ultimately, multi-level community engagements with key stakeholders such as chiefs and religious leaders need to be deployed to provide knowledge and a re-orientation on reproductive and health rights and needs of adolescents to prevent child marriages.
The goal of this paper is to decolonise Akan divine episteme from undue Euro-Christian influence. Since the 1920s, cultural anthropologists have argued that the Akan concept of Twereduampon Kwame is because God either revealed himself to the Akan on a Saturday or the Akan worshipped God on that day. Employing in-depth interviews and a secondary data research approach that incorporates analysis of extant literature, I challenge this assumption by arguing that the name of God as Twereduampon Kwame is based on the significance of day names. This is because the name intermeshes with the enigma of death and God’s positionality as the source of the answer to the disruption caused by death. Contrary to the assumption of revelation or Sabbath observance in the Akan religion, the name Twereduampon Kwame points to God’s appellation as the greatest herbalist.
Hidatsa social organization has been taken to be the exact matrilineal converse of Omaha social organization. In fact, Hidatsa pass male personal names from classificatory fathers to classificatory sons. Furthermore, Hidatsa names have meanings, descriptive of neither the bearer nor the giver, but often of some third agnatic relative. This paper relates names to customs of avoidance, friendsnip and license; it compares the views of Lévi-Strauss on names with those of the logician Frege, and it concludes that in some respects Frege's approach, particularly in his distinction between sense and reference, is more suitable for the analysis of Hidatsa names.