Another kind of KP

In addition to being a military term, KP is a sound in many African languages.  This is Konlan Kpeebi.  He directs all translation work for the Ghana. Note the KP in his name. The KP sound is quite common in West Africa.  The language Dayle and I were assigned to in Burkina Faso, Cerma (pronounced CARE-muh), had the KP sound.

The interesting thing about the KP is that it is not a sequence.  PL is a sequence – a P followed by an L.  But KP is not.  Instead, it is a K and a P pronounced together at exactly the same time.

How is that done?  I thought you would never ask. One of my favorite classes when I was studying to work in Bible translation was articulatory phonetics – the study of how we humans move our mouths and throats to produce the sounds that make up words.

But back to KP.  We’ll break things into steps.  To say a P you press your upper and lower lips together.  Say “pa” and feel your upper and lower lips touch.  To say a K you push the back of your tongue against the roof of your mouth.  Say “cake” and feel the back of your tongue make contact with the roof of your mouth twice.  If you want some help, look at the diagram at the end.

To say KP, one must press both lips together and at the same time press the back of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, then release both points of contact simultaneously. Try it.  For most people who did not have this sound in a language they learned as a child, getting it right takes practice.  I worked on it for weeks when we were learning Cerma.  In fact, practicing the sounds that were new for me was a time-consuming activity in learning the language.  But it paid off.  In fact, it was a lot of fun being one of the few Americans to meet Mr. Kpeebi who pronounced his name right the first time and see the surprise on the faces of the Ghanaians who were there. I kind of like to do things that break expectations.  Besides, I don’t mind the credibility I get.

Because most languages in Africa were not written, the first outsiders who encountered African languages did not recognize the KP sound, writing it as K or P.  But languages that have the KP sound, might have a word “ka”, a word “pa” and another word “kpa”.  So writing the word “kpa” either “ka” or “pa” will result in confusion.  Imagine how difficult reading English would be if the alphabet had been decided by someone from a language which did not distinguish L and R and so they just wrote L everywhere.  Words like “raw” and “law” would both be written “law”.  Reading would be a lot more difficult, especially reading something as long or as important as the Bible.

There are still many languages in Africa that have never been written.  Sounds like KP are why the first step toward a translation for those languages is doing some applied articulatory phonetics.  We first take down lists of words in the language using the International Phonetic Alphabet, a cool alphabet with a symbol for every sound made in human language.

In this photo Konlan Kpeebi is working with other language and translation experts in his organization, Naana Nkrumah and Sammy Ntumi.  My next project is to work with them and others to find ways to make the work go faster and have more impact.  Among other things, that means a faster was to sniff out the KPs and other sounds in the languages in Ghana which have still never been written and then figure out how to put that plan into practice.  Then every person in Ghana can know the pride of having his or her heart language written in all its God-given glory.  That means KPs and all.

One thought on “Another kind of KP

  1. Pingback: Nida | Heart Language Observations

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