Conference PaperPDF Available

Kiswahili Phonology and Pronunciation Guidelines

Kiswahili Phonology and Pronunciation Guidelines
P. I. Iribemwangi, PhD
Kiswahili Lecturer & Language Expert
Department of Linguistics & Languages
University of Nairobi
January 25th 2010,
Dubai, UAE
Target Accent: Kiswahili Sanifu (Standard Swahili) is the official Swahili that is used in education systems
in East and Central Africa. It is also the national languages of Kenya and Tanzania. Standard Swahili is
understood by any Swahili-speaking person from any region in East Africa. Unlike the other dialects, its
words are simple and easy. Standard Swahili was derived from the Kiunguja dialect, which originated on
the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. It was chosen to be the standard Swahili because it was the most
widespread Swahili dialect because of trade. The standard accent that we recommend is Kimvita, which
is spoken in Mombasa, Kenya, and is considered as the correct Swahili accent. Standard Swahili spoken
with a Kimvita accent is the official Swahili in all Swahili media used by the BBC, VOA, NTV, KTN, Radio
Tehran, etc.
The other dialects, such as Kiamu, Kivumba, Kitumbatu, Kingazija, Kipemba, Kipate, Kimgao, Kingwana,
Kitikuu, Chimbalazi, Kijomvu, Chichifundi, and Kimtangata, are regional dialects that are only spoken and
understood in their different regions. Their accents are hard, with difficult pronunciation that deviates
from Standard Swahili. However, the speakers of all these dialects understand each other, and they all
can understand Standard Swahili, which is easiest among all the dialects.
The Swahili language uses the Latin alphabet without any diacritics. There is only one consonant ng’
which has an apostrophe, and it has the pronunciation of English ng as in sing. But the words that
contain this consonant are very few, e.g.:
Ng’ombe: cow
Ung’ong’o: Straw
B /b/ baba (father) book
CH / / chai (tea) chair
D /d/ dereva (driver) driver
DH // dhaifu (weak) them
F /f/ fasihi (literature) file
G /g/ gaidi (terrorist) get (fig, hug)
GH / / ghali (expensive) (water gargling sound)
H /h/ habari (news) habit
J // jeshi (army) job
K /k/ kaka (brother) keep
KH /x/ kheri (better) (Scots) loch
L /l/ lahaja (dialect) look
M /m/ majira (season) mother
MB /mb/ mbali (far) combat
MV / / mvuke (steam) (similar to) humvee
N /n/ nanasi (pineapple) name
ND /nd/ ndege (bird) indigo
NG /g/ ngano (wheat) anger
NG’ // ng’ombe (cow) hang
NJ /n/ njaa (hunger) injection
NY / / nyanya (grandmother) (British pron.) news
NZ /nz/ nzuri (good) benz
P /p/ paka (cat) pain
R /r/ raia (citizen) run
S /s/ soma (read) sad
SH / / shika (catch) shine
T /t/ taa (lamp) time
TH / / thelethini (thirty) thirty
V /v/ vaa (wear) vampire
W /w/ wali (boiled rice) want
Y /j/ yaya (nurse-maid) young
Z /z/ zabibu (grapes) zebra
The Swahili language has five vowels:
a /a/ dada (sister) father
e // wewe (you) set
i /i/ sisi (us) keep
o // popo (bat) caught
u /u/ lulu (pearl) shoot
1. Swahili language is an open-vowel language. Most Swahili words have an open vowel at the end.
2. Swahili consonants are all pronounced; Except for one word that has a silent /r/, which is korti
court,” no Swahili words have silent letters.
3. The voiced consonants like /b/, /d/, /g/, and /j/ are pronounced softly unless there is an example of
an English name, e.g.: John anakuja John is coming.” The /j/ of John will maintain its hardness
because John is an English name but the /j/ of anakuja should be soft.
4. Phonemes /mb/, /nd/, /nj/, /ng/, /ng’/, /ny/, and /nz/ are mostly supposed to be pronounced as
part of the same syllable. But there are situations where the first sound of the pair should be
pronounced in a syllable separate from the first:
For the words that are class A-WA nouns or adjectives which start with /m/, followed with
/b/, the two consonants should be pronounced as two different sounds, e.g.:
Mbaya bad (m-ba-ya) three different syllables for nouns classes A-WA, U-I and U-ZI (singular
Mbaya bad (mba-ya) two syllables, i.e., the m and b should be pronounced as part of the same
syllable for noun classes I-ZI and U-ZI
The other guideline is that the pronunciation depends on the type of word. That is, words
that are otherwise polysyllabic will combine both sounds as one syllable; words that are
otherwise monosyllabic separate the sounds, e.g.:
Nje outside (n-nje) two syllables. Njaa hunger (nja-a) /n/ and /j/ are one sound.
Nge centipede (n-nge) two syllables. Ngazi ladder (nga-zi) /n/ and /g/ are pronounced as one
Nzi housefly (N-nzi) two sounds. Nzige tsetse fly /n/ znd /z/ should pronounced as one
5. Natural Swahili language tends to use the more simple grammar than the official Swahili, otherwise
the pronunciation of Standard Swahili and the natural language is similar.
a) Verb Conjugations
Swahili verbs, when conjugated, do not show gender differences, e.g.:
She is walking: Anatembea.
He is walking: Anatembea.
But gender differences can be shown in mentioning if the subject is a boy or a girl, e.g.:
The boy is walking: Mvulana anatembea.
The girl is walking: Msichana anatembea.
Additionally, the verbs can be conjugated to show first person, second person, and third person, e.g.:
I am walking: Ninatembea (ni: first-person prefix, na: present-tense prefix, tembea: the verb)
You are walking: Unatembea
He is walking: Anatembea
The other important point to note in verb conjugation is that Swahili, just like the other Bantu
languages, is dependent on noun classes. The nouns are classified into main groups, and verb
conjugation and adjective prefixes are all affected depending on which class the noun belongs to. For
example, the following phrases and sentences are constructed and the verb conjugated depending on
the noun class:
These are subject/object markers used for
nouns and in this class in showing
singularity or plurality of the nouns. The
markers are also used on the adjectives.
These are subject/object markers
attached on the verbs. This applies
to all nouns in each class (no
Singular Plural
mtoto mzuri watoto wazuri
a good child good children
msichana mzuri wasichana wazuri
a good girl good girls
Names of insects, birds, animals and fish
do not change prefixes whether in singular
or plural form:
paka mzuri paka wazuri
A good cat good cats
But there are names of animals and
Singular Plural
Anaanguka wanaanguka
is falling are falling
This class includes all living
things: human beings,
animals, birds, insects and
fish. (NOT PLANTS)
humans that start with ki in singular, they
will have vi when in plural, e.g.:
kiwete mzuri viwete wazuri
a good cripple good cripples
kifaru mzuri vifaru wazuri
A Good rhino good rhinos
Singular Plural
mti mzuri miti mizuri
a good tree good trees
mto mzuri mito mizuri
a good pillow good pillows
mwili mzuri mili mizuri
a good body good bodies
muwa mzuri miwa mizuri
a good sugarcane good sugarcanes
Singular Plural
unaanguka inaanguka
is falling are falling
This class includes trees,
plants, some body parts, and
some things or nonliving
things that start with M, MW
or MU in singular but all start
with MI when plural
Singular Plural
gari zuri magari mazuri
A good vehicle good vehicles
jino zuri meno mazuri
A good tooth good teeth
This class is also used bigness of things
that belong to the other classes:
jitu zuri majitu mazuri
A good big man good big men
Singular Plural
linaanguka yanaanguka
Is falling are falling
Names of nonliving things that
may have different prefixes
when singular but start with
MA when in plural.
Singular plural
kiti kizuri viti vizuri
A good chair good chairs
kidole kizuri vidole vizuri
A good finger good fingers
chuo kizuri vyuo vizuri
A good university good universities
Singular plural
kinaanguka vinaanguka
is falling are falling
This class include names of
nonliving things and it is also
used to show smallness of
things that belong to the other
classes. When in singular form
the names start with ki and
ch, and they change to vi and
vy respectively when in plural.
choo kizuri vyoo vizuri
a good toilet good toilets
kisichana kizuri visichana vizuri
A good little girl good little girls
Singular Plural
kalamu nzuri kalamu nzuri
A good pen good pens
nyumba nzuri nyumba nzuri
A good house good houses
pua nzuri pua nzuri
A good nose good noses
Singular Plural
inaanguka zinaanguka
Is falling are falling
These are things that their
noun prefixes do not change
whether they are in singular
or plural forms.
Singular Plural
uzi mzuri nyuzi nzuri
a good thread good threads
ulimi mzuri ndimi nzuri
a good tongue good tongues
ubao mzuri mbao nzuri
a good wooden board
ujiti mzuri njiti nzuri
a good stick good sticks
ufunguo mzuri funguo nzuri
a good key good keys
waya mzuri nyaya nzuri
a good wire good wires
Singular Plural
unaanguka zinaanguka
Is falling are falling
These are things that start
with u or w when singular and
ny, nd, mb, nj when plural:
Singular plural
kutembea kuzuri kutembea kuzuri
kukimbia kuzuri kukimbia kuzuri
kusafiri kuzuri kusafiri kuzuri
is falling
These are verbal
nouns/Nomino-vitenzi. They
do not change prefixes
whether in singular or plural:
kutembea (walking)
kukimbia (running)
kusafiri (travelling)
These refer to locatives or
Juma yupo hapa; Juma is here (PA)
Juma yuko huku: Juma is here (KU)
Juma yumo humu: Juma is inside here
Mahali dhahiri
panapoeleweka hata kama ni
mbali--a place which is open
and can be seen
Mahali kusiko dhahiri hata
kama ni karibu--a place which
is not very open
Ndani--inside a place
By reading the above examples, one will discover that the verb noun classes are classified according to
the verb prefixes. The noun classes are the most important aspect of the Swahili language, as they affect
everything: possessives, adjectives, demonstratives, verbs, etc.
b) Moods
In Swahili there are four kinds of moods which are frequently used. These moods are also not hard for
the learner to grasp if given the right exposure. The four moods are indicative, imperative, subjunctive,
and conditional.
Indicative mood is the most common and is found in all the tenses: present tense, perfect (immediate
past) tense, past tense, and future tense.
Imperative mood is the mood when the verb is used for commands and orders, e.g.:
Soma. Read. Someni : Read (plural).
Kimbia. Run. Kimbieni. Run (plural).
Subjunctive mood is formed by combining the subject prefix with the verb root but ending with e for
verb roots that end with a, e.g.:
Nije. I ought to come, let me come.
For verbs that end with another vowel, like u, they retain their vowel, e.g.:
Ajibu. He/she ought to reply, let him reply.
For negation, the si prefix is added after the subject marker:
Nisije. I shouldn’t come, don’t let me come.
Asijibu. He/she shouldn’t reply, don’t let him reply
Conditional mood is used by including nge for present tense and ngeli for past tense, e.g.:
Ningeenda. I would go. (present tense)
Ningelienda. I would have gone. (past tense)
Verb extensions, which include active and passive moods, may cause some difficulty for the learner, but
after much exposure, he/she will also grasp.
c) Major tenses include present (na), past (li-ku), future (ta) and perfect or immediate past (me-ja)
tenses. They are very easy to grasp as they constitute only one verbal prefix that comes after the subject
or object marker, e.g.:
Present Past Future Perfect
Anakimbia (he is running) alikimbia atakimbia amekimbia
Hakimbii (he is not running) hakukimbia hatakimbia hajakimbia
The point to note here is that the object marker changes according to class.
d) The inflection features that are used in Swahili are for showing whether a certain noun is
singular or plural, e.g.:
mtu (person), watu (persons)
msichana (girl), wasichana (girls)
These kinds of inflections depend heavily on the noun class system. The sentence examples given in the
section on verb conjugation can explain this more. This may be a bit hard for the beginning learner, but
after practice, he/she will understand how different noun classes affect the inflections in the nouns,
verbs etc. The good thing is that the inflections do not lead to major changes in the words that may
make it hard for the learner to recognize.
e) Prepositions: Swahili uses prepositions to show the relationships between subjects and objects.
They are few and easy to grasp. The only thing to note is that some words are used to show
different meanings: e.g., kwa can be used to mean byor “with. Na also may mean with or
4. Language-specific grammar points
The specific grammar in Swahili language and the Bantu group of languages is that its grammar is highly
dependent on the noun class system; this aspect of the grammar cannot be overemphasized. In Swahili
it is called ngeli. As said earlier, the noun class system affects nearly every aspect of grammar in the
language. It is not hard to master the class system, but it needs a lot of practice until one is able to
differentiate the common nouns in each class. It may take a bit of time for the learner to master the
ngeli system.
The other thing is that, unlike in English, where the verb and pronoun occur as different words, in
Swahili, the verb can stand alone, be prefixed, and take up the whole meaning.
For example:
I am walking (three words) Ninatembea (one word)
He is reading Anasoma
Another aspect is that some Swahili words have more than one meaning, e.g.,
nyanya means tomato and it also means grandmother.
Phonetic features
Swahili language is not tonal, but there are very few phonemes which the learner need to practice eg.
Ashton, E. O. 1944. Swahili Grammar. Essex, UK; Longman Group, Ltd.
Gakuru, A. K. 2006. KCPE Golden Tips Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya; Macmillan Kenya.
Waihiga, G. 1999. Sarufi Fafanuzi ya Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya; Longhorn Publishers.
Wallah bin Wallah. 2006. Mazoezi na Marudio Mufti ya Taswira ya Mtihani KCPE Kiswahili. Nairobi,
Kenya; WASTA.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
KCPE Golden Tips Kiswahili
  • A K Gakuru
Gakuru, A. K. 2006. KCPE Golden Tips Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya; Macmillan Kenya.
Mazoezi na Marudio Mufti ya Taswira ya Mtihani KCPE Kiswahili
  • G Waihiga
Waihiga, G. 1999. Sarufi Fafanuzi ya Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya; Longhorn Publishers. Wallah bin Wallah. 2006. Mazoezi na Marudio Mufti ya Taswira ya Mtihani KCPE Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya; WASTA.