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The Swahili Alphabet and digraphs

The basic principle which was retained to establish the Swahili alphabet, is that every distinct
sound or phoneme should always be transcribed by the same distinct written form (either a single
letter, or a cluster of letters), and conversely.
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. These are pronounced openly, without
diphtongs, like in Spanish or in Italian. 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 :

Naam! (= Yes!) (like someone calling your name, used by man)(woman say bei)

Juu (= on top)

Kuu (= principal)

Zii! (= Down!)

Mzee (= old)

Jogoo (= cock)

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

PHONEME

EXAMPLE
chai (tea)

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
chat, church

SPELLING
Dh,dh
Gh,gh
Kh,kh
Ng',ng'
Ny,ny
Sh,sh
Th,th

PHONEME

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

ENGLISH EQUIVALENT
this, that
in French : "rare"
in Scottish : "loch"
singer
new
shoe
think

Reddit can't show Phonemes for these ones.


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":


The syllable M corresponds to the class prefix MU- (Class 1 and Class 3) whose U has been
dropped. However, the "m" doesn't merge with the following consonant and should be
pronounced somewhat like "humm !". The M syllabic can be accentuated (stressed syllable) in
short words such as : mtu (= a person), mti (= a tree), mji (= a town, a city), etc..
SPELLING
Mb
Mch
Mf
Mg
Mj
Mk
Ml
Mm
Mn

EXAMPLE
Mbuyu
Mchezo
Mfano
Mgeni
Mji
Mke
Mlango
Mmea
Mnara

TRANSLATION
baobab
game
example
guest, foreigner
town, city
wife
door
plant, crop
minaret, tower

SPELLING
Mp
Ms
Msh
Mt
Mv
Mz

EXAMPLE
Mpira
Msafiri
Mshahara
Mtoto
Mvuvi
Mzungu

TRANSLATION
ball, pipe, tube
traveller
salary
child
fisherman
white man

B - SYLLABE, STRESS AND PRONUNCIATION:


The Swahili syllable is said to be open, for it always ends on a vowel sound. For example :

KI-SWA-HI-LI (= Swahili)

JA-MBO (= hello!)

M-ZU-NGU (= a white man)

NG'O-MBE (= a cow)

N-NE (= four)

TA-NZA-NI-A (= Tanzania)

An extra vowel is usually added in loanwords, in order to conform to the open syllable pattern.
For example :

O-I-LI (= oil)

SHI-LI-NGI (= shilling)

BE-NKI (= bank)

PE-TRO-LI (= petrol)

NA-NA-SI (= pineapple)

SHA-TI (= shirt)

The stress usually falls on the last but one syllabe of a word. There are however a small number
of exceptions, on words of Arabic origin. For example : lazima (= it is necessary) : /'lazima/.
Compare also : barabara (= a road) : /bara'bara/ , and barabara (= very well) : /ba'rabara/.

CHAPTER 1 - SWAHILI SPELLING AND PRONUNCIATION


A - THE SWAHILI ALPHABET:
The basic principle which was retained to establish the Swahili alphabet, is that every distinct
sound or phoneme should always be transcribed by the same distinct written form (either a single
letter, or a cluster of letters), and conversely.
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.

1. VOWELLS :
SPELLING
EXAMPLE
English equivalent
A,a
baba (father)
far, but cut short
E,e
debe (gallon)
bed
I,i
kiti (chair)
kit
O,o
moto (fire)
off,lot
U,u
kuku (chicken)
too,to

As you can see in this table, Swahili contains 5 vowels. These are pronounced openly, without
diphtongs, like in Spanish or in Italian. They must always be kept short.
2. 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 :
Naam !
Zii !

(= Yes ? )
(= Down ! )

3. SEMIVOWELS :
SPELLING
EXAMPLE
English equivalent
W,w
wewe (you)
why, week
Y,y
yeye (he, she)
yes, you
4. SIMPLE CONSONANTS :
SPELLING
EXAMPLE
English equivalent
B,b
baba (father)
bad
D,d
dada (sister)
do
F,f
kufaa (to suit)

Juu
Mzee

(= on top)
(= old)

Kuu
Jogoo

(= principal)
(= cock)

far
G,g
gari (car)
got
H,h
haya ! (O.K. !)
hat
J,j
juu (on top)
John
K,k
kuku (chicken)
Kid, cat
L,l
lala ! (sleep !)
lot
M,m
Mama (mother)
man
N,n
na (and, with)
no
P,p
papa (shark)
pot
R,r
rangi (colour)
rat
S,s
saa (clock, time)
soap
T,t
taa (lamp)
toy

V,v
kuvaa (to wear)
very
Z,z
-zuri (nice, good)
Zoo, easy
While most of the consonants are similar to the English ones and do not offer any difficulty,
special care must be paid to :

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".

5. COMBINATIONS OF CONSONANTS :
SPELLING
EXAMPLE
English equivalent
Ch,ch
chai (tea)
chat, church
Dh,dh
dhahabu (gold)
this, that
Gh,gh
ghali (epensive)
in French : "race"
Kh,kh
subalkheri
in Scottish : "loch"
Ng',ng'
ng'ombe (cow)
singer
Ny,ny

nyota (star)
new
Sh,sh
shule (school)
shoe
Th,th
thelathini (thirty)
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).

6. THE SYLLABIC CONSONANT "M" :


The syllable M corresponds to the class prefix MU- (Class 1 and Class 3) whose U has been
dropped. However, the "m" doesn't merge with the following consonant and should be
pronounced somewhat like "humm !".
The M syllabic can be accentuated (stressed syllable) in short words such as : mtu (= a person),
mti (= a tree), mji (= a town, a city), etc..
SPELLING
EXAMPLE
English equivalent
Mb
Mbuyu
baobab
Mch
Mchezo

game
Mf
Mfano
example
Mg
Mgeni
guest, foreigner
Mj
Mji
town, city
Mk
Mke
wife
Ml
Mlango
door
Mm
Mmea
planet, crop
Mn
Mnara
minaret, tower
Mp
Mpira
ball, pipe, tube
Ms
Msafiri
traveller
Msh
Mshahara
salary
Mt
Mtoto
child

Mv
Mvuvi
fisherman
Mz
Mzungu
white man
B - SYLLABE, STRESS AND PRONUNCIATION :
The Swahili syllable is said to be open, for it always ends on a vowel sound. For example :
KI-SWA-HI-LI
(= a white man)
NG'O-MBE
(= Tanzania)

(= Swahili)

JA-MBO

(= hello !)

M-ZU-NGU

N-NE

(= four)

TA-NZA-NI-A

(= a cow)

An extra vowel is usually added in loanwords, in order to conform to the open syllable pattern.
For example :
O-I-LI
(= bank)
PE-TRO-LI
(= shirt)

(= oil)

SHI-LI-NGI

(= petrol)

NA-NA-SI

(= shilling)

BE-NKI

(= pineapple)

SHA-TI

The stress usually falls on the last but one syllabe of a word. There are however a small number
of exceptions, on words of Arabic
origin. For example : lazima (= it is necessary) : /'lazima/ .
Compare also : barabara (= a road) : /bara'bara/ , and barabara (= very well) : /ba'rabara/ .

EXERCISES
EXERCISE 1 : Read aloud the following words :
Kaa, taa, saa, jaa, njaa, maana, chai, yai, zaidi, faida, laini, hao, wao, au, bilauri, sauti, dau, mzee,
bei, cheo, leo, nyeupe, nyeusi, njia, kiasi, kulia, pia, siagi, raia, zii, hii, kiu, kiumbe, kuoa, kupoa,
kuzoea, choo, njoo, jogoo, kioo, ndoo, shikamoo, fua, barua,
mvua, adui, kuzuia, huo, uongo, juu, huu, kuu.
Wewe, wiki, dawa, bwana, kiswahili, ya, yao, hayo, yeye, mayai.
Baba, bado, bata, barabara, marahaba, dada, debe, duka, baada, kufaa, fisi, afya, hafifu, gunia,
kugawa, gari, kujenga, haba, hapa, hodi, sahihi, jembe, jambo, kujua, jibu, juzijuzi, kaka, kukaa,
haraka, kidogo, kibaba, la, lakini, kulia, kubali, mama, muwa, mamlaka, na, naam, nanasi, nukta,
neno, papa, pana, pole, kupaka, lipa, ruka, robo, starehe, sisi, siri, sababu, asante, tatu, tele, tisa,
tafuta,

matuta, kuvaa, vema, kavu, viti, uvivu.


Chui, cheo, chafu, chache, dharau, fedha, dhahabu, ramadhani, ghali, ghafula, shughuli, lugha,
subalkheri, ng'ambo, ng'ombe, ng'oa, nyuma, nyota, nyoka, shida, shilingi, shule, safisha,
thumni, hadithi.
Mbu, mbwa, mjinga, mhindi, mfalme, mchezo, mji, mkate, mlima, mnazi, mpaka, msaada,
mstari, mswaki, mzungu.
Tafadhali, magharibi, mashariki, nywele, kuchemsha, mchanganyiko, nyang'anya, masalkheri,
thelathini, mgonjwa, maharagwe.