I just spent several months leading tourists on a trip around East Africa, and spent a good chunk of time helping foreigners become comfortable pronouncing and speaking Swahili. I thought I’d share a few of my pro-tips for pronouncing Swahili (many of which I learned from my university Swahili teacher, shoutout Mme Dumeril!).
I digress, and here we go!
Emphasize the Second-To-Last Syllable
If you remember (and internalise) nothing else, remember this: in Swahili (and most Bantu languages), you generally emphasize the second-to-last syllable in a word.
What does that mean?
For example, in the word chakula (food), it would be pronounced as “cha-KU-la” (and not “CHA-ku-la” or “cha-ku-LA”). The second-to-last syllable gets the emphasis. As another example, we can take the word nakupenda (I love you). This would be pronounced as “na-ku-PEN-da,” with the second-to-last syllable getting the emphasis.
If a word only has two syllables, the same rule still applies. For example, the word maji (water) is pronounced as “MA-ji” — still emphasis on the second-to-last syllable, even though the second-to-last syllable is now also the first syllable. Another example is simu (phone), pronounced “SI-mu” and not “si-MU.”
Bonus Point: An interesting thing to note here is that even in related words, the emphasis changes when additional syllables are added. Karibu (welcome, to one person) is pronounced as ka-RI-bu, with the emphasis on the “RI.” However, when the plural suffix is added, forming karibuni (welcome, to multiple people), it’s pronounced as “ka-ri-BU-ni.” The emphasis shifts to the “BU” instead of the “RI” because that’s now the second-to-last-syllable.
That’s it! This is a rule you need to internalize, since you’re not going to be counting syllables and thinking this through as you read or speak. Don’t worry, it becomes second nature soon enough.
The Vowels Don’t Change: Learn Them
If you’re a native English speaker, here’s a pleasant surprise: vowels in Swahili are pronounced one way, and they don’t change. They don’t combine, there aren’t exceptions, they’re just there. So, to pronounce Swahili, just learn them, and say them. Here they are:
- A: like in “avocado”
- E: “ay” sound, like “day” or “way”
- I: long “e” sound, like in “feet”
- O: long “o” sound, like “oh no”
- U: rhymes with “too” or “you”
So, as an example, wali (cooked rice) rhymes with the animated movie name — WALL-E. Easy, right?
Finally: The Consonants
Swahili takes a lot of words from other languages (Arabic, German, Portuguese, Bantu languages… the list goes on), and so there are oftentimes sounds you wouldn’t necessarily expect. That being said, the spellings are amazingly consistent, and there are no pronunciation exceptions or weird words (what an amazing language).
I’m not going to go through the entire alphabet, as most as the same as English. I’ll just highlight a few key points for beginning language-learners. My motto is that pronunciation shouldn’t stress you. As a language-learner, especially as a beginner, an accent is inevitable to start. It will dissolve with time — no use trying to eliminate it completely before you even know words. Plus, focusing so much on “exact” pronunciation of foreign sounds is intimidating and can crush your confidence, which is exactly what we’re trying to build up!
- Swahili doesn’t use an independent “C,” so don’t worry about it. You’ll only see “c” as “ch,” and it’s pronounced the same as English.
- Some teachers fuss about “J.” Politely ignore them. For your purposes as a language-learner, it’s pronounced the same as in English, and you’ll get used to the accent as you progress.
- “DH” seems to stress some students, as does “GH.” First of all, these are relatively uncommon (although tafadhali/please and ghali/expensive come up pretty early), so don’t stress too much. As a beginning language-learner, just pronounce them as “D” and “G” — you’ll be understood.
- “SH” is the same as English.
- “G” is always hard when alone (always like “good” in English, and not like “giraffe”).
- “NG” is like at the end of “thing,” and can sometimes take some practice for English-speakers who aren’t used to seeing it at the beginning of words. Some people will laugh at foreigners as they try to pronounce ng’ombe/cow. Have patience with yourself.
- “NY” is pronounced like ñ in Spanish. English speakers might be familiar with the sound from the word mañana (which would be spelled in Swahili as “manyana”).
Swahili is a very regular language in terms of pronunciation, which makes it great for language-learners! Just follow those rules, and you will honestly be able to read anything, even a full article, and sound like you’re completely fluent. Next step is to learn some vocabulary!