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Swahili Pronunciation Guide

Swahili Pronunciation

This pronunciation guide has been adapted for the Internet from Swahili: A Foundation for Speaking, Reading, and Writing - Second Edition, by Thomas Hinnebusch and Sarah Mirza. This is a widely-used and widely-recommended text for beginning students of Swahili. The book is copyright 1979 by the University Press of America, Lanham, MD. Library of Congress Card Number: 78-65430. ISBN: 0-8191-0659-3.

The following comments are intended to alert the student to the general characteristics of the pronunciation of Swahili. Because of a diverse dialect situation, and because there are more second language speakers of Swahili than first language speakers, variations in pronunciation will be heard. An acceptable pronunciation can be attained through careful attention to the speech of native speakers. Click the highlighted words to hear proper pronunciation. Additional pronunciation recordings are available for this guide here.

Vowels. There are five vowel phonemes (distinctive sounds) in Swahili represented by the graphs a, e, i, o, and u. These approximately have Spanish or Italian values. There are important differen ces between English and Swahili vowels. For one, the Swahili vowels are short and are not diphthongized as are the comparable English ones. For instance, Swahili e is comparable to the vowel in English say without the lengthening or diphthon g; it is also similar to the vowel in set, but not quite as low. With these differences in mind, note the following comparisons:

Swahili as in English Examples
a ah! baba "father"
e say wewe "you"
i be kiti "chair"
o ho! moto "fire"
u too tu "only, just"

A special caution should be mentioned: Americans tend to neutralize unaccented vowels. Each vowel should be given its full value whether accented or not. This is also true of vowels in juxtaposition; the vowels in au 'or' and bei ' price' are all pronounced.

Consonants. Consonants in Swahili generally have English values, but as in the case of vowels, there are considerable differences; note the following:

1. p t k
These are similar to English voiceless stops, but they can be aspirated or unaspirated. That is, speaking the first two words below would release a burst of air that would rustle a sheet of paper held in front of the speaker's mouth; for the second set of words, the sheet of paper would remain still. Generally, initial p, t, and k of class 9/10 nominals are aspirated in contrast to initial p, t, and k of class 5 nominals:

paa [p(h)aa] 'gazelle'
kaa [k(h)aa] 'crab'
versus
paa 'roof' t
kaa 'piece of charcoal'
2. b d g
As English voiced stops, but they are imploded, that is, in their pronunciation the air is sucked into the mouth as they are released. The g is always hard as in English goat vs. the g in gin. Examples:
baba 'father
dada 'sister'
gumu 'hard' (class 5)
3. f v s z
f: as in English far
v: as in English very
s: as in English sister; s is never pronounced as z
z: as in English zoo
Fatuma 'girl's name'
fupi 'short'
kavu 'dry'
vizuri 'well'
sasa 'now'
4. m n
As in English. In some cases where they occur before other consonants, m and n are pronounced as full syllables, but without inserting a vowel sound either before or after. The first two examples are syllabic, but not the second two:
mtu 'person'
nta 'wax'
versus
mboga 'vegetable'
ndege 'bird, airplane'
5. ny
As the ñ in Spanish mañana 'tomorrow', or as the segment ni in English 'onion':
nyanya 'grandmother, tomato'
ninyi 'you (plural)'
6. ng'
As the ng in English sing (not as in finger), e.g.
ng'ombe 'cow, cattle'
The same sound but spelled with 'n' is also heard before 'g', e.g. ngoma 'drum, dance'. Linguists represent this sound with the phonetic symbol for a velar nasal, thus ng'ombe is [(symbol)+ombe] and ngoma is [(symbol) +goma].
7. ch
As the first sound in English 'cheek', not as in 'chemist':
chakula 'food'
chache 'few'
8. j
As in English job, but without the audible friction associated with the English consonant. Some speakers of English hear this sound when pronounced by a native speaker as y, however, a fairly accurate pronunciation can be achieved by pronoun cing it as the sequence dy:
hujambo (hudyambo) 'hello'
jana (dyana) 'yesterday'
9. w y h
Some people spell Swahili h with 'kh' which symbolizes a sound similar to the ch in Scottish loch . This occurs frequently with Arabic borrowings but is not the practice followed in this manual:
watu 'people'
yeye 'the or she'
huyu 'this one, this person'
10. r
Swahili r is quite different from the English one; it is similar to the Spanish tapped r as in pero 'but' or claro 'of course':
habari 'news'
heri 'good will, blessings, good wishes'
11. l
As in English when in initial position, e.g. 'leak'; second language speakers tend not to distinguish r and l.
lala 'sleep'
leo 'today'
12. th
As in English thin, think, both:
thelathini 'thirty'
13. dh
As in English thy, though, then:
dhambi 'sin'
-dhani 'think'
14. gh
This sound is produced by pronouncing g as a fricative; it is similar to the the ch in Scottish loch, but voiced:
ghala 'storehouse'
ghali 'expensive'
15. sh
As in English 'push'. This sound plus kh, dh, and gh are found in words that have been borrowed into Swahili predominantly from Arabic. Examples of sh:
ishirini 'twenty'
mshahara 'salary'
16. mw
A combination of m followed immediately by w:
mwalimu 'teacher'
mwanafunzi 'student'
17. bw
A combination of b and w:
bwana 'sir, mr.'
mbwa 'dog'
Stress.In Swahili stress generally falls on the penultimate syllable:
habari 'new'
gani? 'what kind?'
msingi 'foundation'
There are some exceptions to this rule, but only in words of foreign origin that have not been assimilated completely into the language.
There are at least two intonation patterns for questions in Swahili, one used in reading questions or in emphatic contexts, another in non-emphatic or normal contexts. Compare and practice the following examples:
Questions in normal contexts.
Unaenda wapi? 'Where are you going?'
Baba hajambo? 'Is your father well?'
Utakuja lini? 'When will you come?'
Kitabu kiko wapi? 'Where is the book?'
Emphatic questions.
Unaenda wapi? 'Where are you going?'
Baba hajambo? 'Is your father well?'
Utakuja lini? 'When will you come?'
Kitabu kiko wapi? 'Where is the book?'

This page is Copyright 2016, Kamusi Project USA, Thomas Hinnebusch, and Sarah Mirza. Basilio Mungania of Nairobi, Kenya, recorded the examples of Swahili pronunciation.
Laura M. Mondrogon of Baldwin Park, CA, recorded the examples of Spanish pronunciation. /content/swahili-pronunciation-guide

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