SOUNDS

Vowels

Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. They are very similar to the vowels of Spanish and Italian, though /u/ stands between /u/ and /o/ in those languages. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. The vowels are pronounced as follows:

  • /ɑ/ is pronounced like the "a" in father
  • /ɛ/ is pronounced like the "e" in bed
  • /i/ is pronounced like the "i" in ski
  • /ɔ/ is pronounced like the first part of the "o" in American English home, or like a tenser version of "o" in British English "lot"
  • /u/ is pronounced between the "u" in rude and the "o" in rote.

Swahili has no diphthongs; in vowel combinations, each vowel is pronounced separately. Therefore the Swahili word for "leopard", chui is pronounced /tʃu.i/, with hiatus.

Semivowels

Standard Swahili has also two semivowels, y (/j/) and w (/w/). They are used to make diphthongs, as in the passive form of verbs (kupendwa, to be loved, from kupenda, to love). Other examples can be mpya, new, pronounced m-pya, and mbwa, dog, pronounced m-bwa.

Consonants
Bilabial Labio- dental Dental Alveolar Post- alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal stop m /m/     n /n/   ny /ɲ/ ng’ /ŋ/
Prenasalized stop mb /mb/     nd /nd/   nj /ɲɟ/ ng /ŋɡ/
Implosive stop b /ɓ/     d /ɗ/   j /ʄ/ g /ɠ/
Tenuis stop p /p/     t /t/ ch /tʃ/   k /k/
Aspirated stop p /pʰ/     t /tʰ/ ch /tʃʰ/   k /kʰ/
Prenasalized fricative   mv /ɱv/   nz /nz/      
Voiced fricative   v /v/ (dh /ð/) z /z/     (gh /ɣ/)
Voiceless fricative   f /f/ (th /θ/) s /s/ sh /ʃ/   (kh /x/) h /h/
Trill       r /r/      
Lateral approximant       l /l/      
Approximant           y /j/ w /w/



Notes:

  • The nasal stops are pronounced as separate syllables when they appear before a plosive (mtoto [m.to.to] "child", nilimpiga [ni.li.m.pi.ɠa] "I hit him"), and prenasalized stops are decomposed into two syllables when the word would otherwise have one (mbwa [m.bwa] "dog"). However, elsewhere this doesn't happen: ndizi "banana" has two syllables, [ndi.zi], as does nenda [ne.nda] (not *[nen.da]) "go".
  • The fricatives in parentheses, th dh kh gh, are borrowed from Arabic. Many Swahili speakers pronounce them as [s z h r], respectively.
  • Swahili orthography does not distinguish aspirate from tenuis consonants. When nouns in the N-class begin with plosives, they are aspirated (tembo [tembo] "palm wine", but tembo [tʰembo] "elephant") in some dialects. Otherwise aspirate consonants are not common.
  • Swahili l and r are confounded by many speakers, and are often both realized as /ɺ/

 


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