Swahili also has many letters found in combination that produce specific sounds. There are 3 broad categories of letter combinations, but only the 3rd category will be of some difficulty to English speakers. The combination letters will be introduced in capital letters below.
Letter combinations in this category are the easiest for English speakers as they already exist in English and are pronounced exactly the same, for example:
CH as in “chocolate” – chafu (dirty)
NJ as in “enjoy” – njaa (hunger)
SH as in “shore” – shule (school)
TH as in “thing” – thamani (price, worth)
VY as in “envy” – vyumba (rooms)
Letter combinations in this category only occur in English in compounded words, i.e. words made up of two nouns. In order to get the correct pronunciation in Swahili one must say the compounded word quickly, so as to get the combined letters to be pronounced as one sound as a Swahili speaker would. Listed below are some of the letter combinations that occur in Swahili.
“Bw “as in “subway” – bwana (sir)
“Kw” as in “backward” – kweli (true, truth)
“Mw” as in “teamwork” – mwalimu (teacher)
“Ng” as in “sunglory” – nguo (clothing, garment)
“Ny” as in “lanyard” – nyumba (house)
“Pw” as in “upward” – pwani (coast)
These letter combinations are the most challenging for English speakers at first because they have NO equivalent sounds in English. Only listening to Swahili speakers and some practice will allow Swahili language learners to produce and recognize these sounds.
AA as in baada (after). AA is a voiced guttural sound taken directly from the 18th letter of the Arabic alphabet. However, even most native Swahili speakers do not pronounce it the “correct” Arabic way and instead pronounce it in much the same way as an English speaker would attempt to pronounce it. “Baada” (after) is pronounced as a lengthened
“A” as in “apartment” where the letter “a” is stretched for an extra half a second. DH as in fedha (money). DH makes the TH sound from “that” but NEVER the TH sound from “thing.”GH’ as in ghali (expensive). GH is a voiced guttural sound taken directly from the 19th letter of the Arabic alphabet. “Ghali” (expensive) is pronounced starting with the hard “G” sound from “gun” but flowing immediately into the “H” sound as in “house.”
KH as in khanga (a piece of fabric). KH is a voiceless guttural sound taken directly from the 7th letter of the Arabic alphabet. Anyone who knows Arabic, Persian or Swahili can produce this sound.
NG’ as in ng’ombe (cow/cattle). Please note the presence of an apostrophe in this case. When the apostrophe occurs a specialized sound is produced. The sound is closest to the NG in “singer” where air is pushed through the nose making a nasalized NG. A similar sound exists in Spanish with the letter ñ but without the “y” sound associated with that letter.
Syllables and Emphasis
Within the roots of words (more on this later), consonant sounds are always immediately paired with vowels, to form syllables. This construction gives Swahili it’s rhythmic, often melodic sound. As you will see later, there are certain consonant sounds (especially “m”) that are fixed within verbs, and are not paired with a vowel sound. These infix consonant sounds receive distinct pronunciation, just like any other consonant (eg: “nilimpenda”)
In a spoken word, emphasis is always placed on the penultimate (second to last) syllable.