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The Swahili Alphabet and digraphs For

Study

The Swahili alphabet includes :

23 single letters : a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v, w, y, z.

The letters q and x are not used. The letter c, although present, is never used alone.

9 digraphs : ch, dh, gh, kh, ng', ny, sh, th, ts.

VOWELS:
SPELLING
A,a
E,e
I,i
O,o
U,u

PHONEME
[a]
[e]
[i]
[o]
[u]

EXAMPLE
baba (father)
debe (gallon)
kiti (chair)
moto (fire)
kuku (chicken)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
far
weigh

meet
boat
too, to

As you can see in this table, Swahili contains 5 vowels. They must always be kept short.
CLUSTER OF VOWELS:
Unlike in English, two (or three) written vowels that follow each other never merge together to
form a single sound. Each keeps its own sound. For example : ou is pronounced "o-oo" as in
"go", au is pronounced "a-oo" as in "cow", ei is pronounced "e-ee" as in "bay", ai is pronounced
"a-ee" as in "tie", etc. In theory, any vowel can be in succession with any other one. It is not
unfrequent to meet two similar vowels in succession : they must be pronounced as one long
vowel :
SEMIVOWELS:

SPELLING
W,w
Y,y

PHONEME
[w]
[j]

EXAMPLE
wewe (you)
yeye (he, she)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
why, week
yes, you

SIMPLE CONSONANTS:
SPELLING
B,b
D,d
F,f
G,g
H,h
J,j
K,k
L,l
M,m
N,n
P,p
R,r
S,s
T,t
V,v
Z,z

PHONEME
[b]
[d]
[f]
[g]
[h]
[]
[k]
[l]
[m]
[n]
[p]
[r]
[s]
[t]
[v]
[z]

EXAMPLE
baba (father)
dada (sister)
kufaa (to suit)
gari (car)
haya! (O.K.!)
juu (on top)
kuku (chicken)
lala! (sleep!)
Mama (mother)
na (and, with)
papa (shark)
rangi (colour)
saa (clock, time)
taa (lamp)
kuvaa (to wear)
zuri (nice, good)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
bad
do
far
got
hat
John
kid, cat
lot
man
no
pot
rat
soap
toy
very
zoo, easy

While most of the consonants are similar to the English ones and do not offer any difficulty,
special care must be paidto :

f : it has always the sound of the "f" in "fat", never that of the "f" in "of".

g : it is always hard like in "got". It should never be pronounced soft like the "g" in "gin".

s : it has always the sound of the "s" in "sad", never that of the "s" in "is" or "easy".

COMBINATIONS OF CONSONANTS:
SPELLING
Ch,ch
Dh,dh
Gh,gh

PHONEME

EXAMPLE
chai (tea)
dhahabu (gold)
ghali (expensive)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
chat, church
this, that
in French : "rare"

SPELLING
Kh,kh
Ng',ng'
Ny,ny
Sh,sh
Th,th

PHONEME

EXAMPLE
subalkheri (good morning)
ng'ombe (cow)
nyota (star)
shule (school)
thelathini (thirty)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
in Scottish : "loch"
singer
new
shoe
think

Most of the real difficulties of Swahili are concentrated here. It is however important to try and
pronounce these sounds correctly :

dh and th are both written "th" in English. dh is voiced as in "the", "this", "that", "with" ...
While th is unvoiced as in "think", "thin", "both" ... stakabadhi (= a receipt), hadithi (= a
story).

gh and kh are pronounced at the back of the throat. gh is voiced and close to the French
"r" in "rare" : ghali (= expensive), shughuli (= affair, activity).

kh is unvoiced and corresponds to a scraping of the throat : subalkheri (= good morning).

ng' although similar in sound to the English "ng" in "singing" poses a difficulty, for it
usually occurs at the initial of words. It is luckily quite rare : ng'ambo (= foreign),
ng'ombe (= a cow).

THE SYLLABIC CONSONANT "M":


M doesn't merge with the following consonant and should be pronounced somewhat like
"humm !". The M can be a stressed syllable in short words such as : mtu (= a person), mti (= a
tree), mji (= a town, a city), etc..