Swahili: Unit 1 – Phonetics and Greetings

UNIT OBJECTIVES

By the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  • Pronounce any Swahili word
  • Initiate and respond to basic greetings in sequence
  • Offer and respond to polite Swahili expressions
  • Master the following vocabulary: Swahili Unit 1 Vocabulary

Here’s the audio for the full Unit Lecture, if you wish to listen along while reviewing the material below:

PHONETICS

Vowels

A

“ah”

Mama

E

eh”

Wewe

I

ee”

Mimi

O

“oh”

Mtoto

U

ooh”

Mungu

 

Vowel sounds frequently appear consecutively in Swahili words. When multiple vowels appear consecutively, each vowel sound is pronounced distinctly.  In Swahili, there are no composite vowel sounds, or diphthongs, as there are in English and other romance languages. You never blend multiple consecutive vowel sounds together to create a new sound. Each sound is always pronounced distinctly.

Some examples of distinctly pronounced successive vowel sounds:

Njoo

Kariakoo

Mguu

Kangaa

Niliepuka

Kuoa

Kuua

Consonants

B Ball Baba (father)
Ch Chip Chache (few)
D Dog Dada (sister)
Dh Somewhere between Then Thin Fedha (money)
F Fun Fanya (do)
G Gone Gani (what/which)
Gh Gutteral  (no equivalent) Ghali (expensive)
H Hat Hapa (here)
J Jack Joto (hot)
K Kid Kaka (brother)
Kh Gutteral (no equivalent) Kheri (blessing)
L Love (indistinct to many native Swahili speakers, often confused with “R”) Lengo (goal/aim)
M Mom Mama (Mom)
Mb Embarrass Mbuzi (goat)
N No Nanasi (pineapple)
Nd Indifferent Ndizi (banana)
Ng Engulf Ngoma (drum)
Ng’ Sing Ng’ombe (cow)
Nj Engineer Njema (good/well)
Ny Lanyard Nyanya (tomato)
P Pool Penda (like/love)
R Run (indistinct to many native Swahili speakers, often confused with “L” Roho (spirit)
S Soon Sasa
Sh Ship Shamba (farm area)
T Top Tatu (three)
Th Thin (soft sound, often sounds like “hiss Thelathini (thirty)
V Valve Vuli (short rain season)
W Wave Wewe (you)
Y Yellow Yeye (he/she)
Z Zap Zoezi (exercise)

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 its 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 (ex: “nilimpenda”)

In a spoken word, emphasis is always placed on the penultimate (second to last) syllable.

GREETINGS

Overview of Greetings

Greetings are an incredibly important part of Tanzanian culture. People love to greet each other—whole days can and will be filled with greeting family, friends, neighbors, and strangers. Tanzanians care about the connections that they have with people around them, and greetings are an important way to maintain those connections.

Greetings occur according to certain patterns that reflect dynamics of respect within a community. Two important things to always remember:

1) When two people of a different age greet each other, the younger person should initiate the greeting.

2) There are established responses for the basic questions posed in greetings, and they are always “positive”—you are always well, and your news is always good.

This second rule means that not a lot of useful, accurate information is exchanged in passing greetings. The truth is always meant to come out later—you have to prove your commitment by first working through long, formulaic greeting sequences.

Greetings are almost always a fun and pleasant way to engage with the people around you. Learn the greeting sequences well, because this is your first and easiest way to ingratiate yourself (and impress) the members of your community.

There is a natural rhythmic flow to Swahili greetings, with certain exchanges used to initiate, continue and close the greeting sequence. The opening varies according to the ages of the participants and intended formality. After a standard opening, greeting sequences flow almost like variations on a theme.

Opening

The first thing to know is the proper opening greeting for different kinds of people:

Formality Greeting Response
Standard (to an elder) Shikamoo (Required greeting to an elder) Marahaba (Required response)
Standard (to anyone) Hujambo? (Is anything wrong with you? Sijambo (Nothing is wrong with me)
Informal (to peer or younger) Mambo! (What’s up!) Poa (cool)

The most important rule to remember is that you should always greet elders with “shikamoo.” Tanzanians even great their elder siblings and parents this way. And, remember, the younger person always initiates the greeting sequence!

Middle 

After the initial greeting, a number of exchanges may follow, in varying order depending on the context. The basic “middle” exchanges:

Formality Greeting Response
Standard Habari za ____? (What’s the news of___? Nzuri/Salama (Good/Peaceful)
Standard Umeamkaje / Umeshindaje?(How have you awoken / passed the day? Salama (Peacefully)
Standard Kwema (Is everything good?) Kwema (Everything’s good)
Standard Mzima (Healthy?) Mzima (Healthy)

The “habari za _______?” greeting is the most common, with different words filled in at the end depending on context. In the morning, people often ask, “Habari za asubuhi” (what’s the news of the morning)? In the afternoon, “Habari za leo?” In the evening, “Habari za jioni?”  No matter the time of day, or the actual question asked, the answer is always the same: “Nzuri,” (good) or “salama” (peaceful).

The “Ume____je” greeting also varies according to time of day. In the morning, people may ask “Umeamkaje?” (how have you awoken?). In the afternoon, “Umeshindaje?” (How have you passed the day). In both cases, the answer is most often “salama.”

End

The ending to a greeting sequence is generally flexible. There are three basic endings, which can even be combined with each other:

Formality Greeting Response
Casual Haya (General affirmation) Haya (General affirmation)
Casual Baadaye (Later) Baadaye (Later)
Standard Kwaheri (Good bye) Kwaheri (Good bye)

You’ll often hear people close greetings by saying “Haya, kwaheri”, or “haya, baadaye” to one another.

Let’s put it all together in some basic greeting sequences:

Between two people of different ages:

Greeting

Response

1. Shikamoo (Proper opening greeter to an elder) 1. Marahaba (Proper response to “shikamoo”)
2. Hujambo? (Is anything wrong with you?) 2. Sijambo (Nothing is wrong with me)
3. Habari za leo? (News of today?) 3. Nzuri (Good)
4. Mzima? (Healthy?) 4. Mzima (Healthy)
5. Haya, kwaheri (Ok, goodbye) 5. Kwaheri (Goodbye)

Here’s how it sounds:

A standard, slightly formal greeting between two peers:

1. Hujambo? (Is anything wrong with you?) 1. Sijambo (Nothing is wrong with me)
2. Umeamkaje? (How have you awoken?) 2. Salama (Peacefully)
3. Kwema? (Non-literal: is everything ok?) 3. Kwema (Everything is ok)
4. Haya, kwaheri (Goodbye) 5. Kwaheri (Goodbye)

Listen here:

And the one, self-sufficient greeting you’ll exchange a million times in passing:

1. Mambo! (What’s up?) 1. Poa! (Cool!)

Shout it out:

POLITE EXPRESSIONS

As you may have already sensed, Tanzanian culture(s) place a high value on social decorum. People treat each other with respect, following strong social codes that shape greetings, speech patterns, dress, etc.

In Swahili, though, there are fewer conventional expressions of politeness than exist in English. Tanzanians almost never say “please”, and rarely say “thank you.”

What they do say, over and over and over, is karibu, “welcome.”

Here are some basic polite expressions to remember:

Hodi: Call given to announce oneself / request permission to enter a home or private space

Karibu: Welcome

Asante: Thank you (most often used as response to karibu)

Samahani: Excuse me / Forgive me

Ndiyo: Yes

Hapana: No

Naomba: Please (lit. I beg/pray for)

CONCLUDING ADVICE:

In Tanzanian, people really, really, really like to call each other, most often just to exchange a quick greeting! To get yourself into the spirit, you should be calling at least one of your fellow PCs every day, just to greet them.

UNIT 1 PRACTICE ACTIVITIES: 

The Unit 1 Practice Activities are:

  1. Listening Comprehension
  2. Greetings Practice
  3. Sight Reading
  4. Written Exercise

Activity 1: Listening Comprehension

Listen to each conversation, then answer the comprehension questions that follow.

Conversation 1: Juma and Samweli

1) Is this a formal or informal dialogue?

2) Who is the elder?

3) What time of day did this take place?

4) What news did each ask of the other?

5) How did Juma and Samweli end their conversation?

Conversation 2: Swahibu and Omari

1) Is this a formal or informal dialogue?

2) What time of day did this take place?

3) Where did this conversation occur?

4) What news did each ask of the other?

Conversation 3

1) Is this a formal or informal dialogue?

2) What time of day did this take place?

Activity 2: Greeting Practice

Each audio file contains a different greeting. Listen to the greeting, then provide the correct reply. After a few seconds, the audio file will tell you the correct response(s).

 

 

 

 

Activity 3: Sight Reading

Read each word aloud and check yourself using the audio pronunciation. If you made a mistake, try until you get it correct

Mama

Baba

Pipi

Sala

Saba

Hapa

Huku

Bibi

Dawa

Joto

Moto

Shamba

Acha

Safi

Majina

Kijana

Mahindi

Sifuri

Sita

Moja

Tatu

Kulala

Kumi

Sabuni

Habari

Sijambo

Alafu

Miguu

Nzuri

Mji

Shikamoo

Ndizi

Mbegu

Mbili

Nne

Njoo

Mzima

Ninapika

Tunafanya

Mtoto

Mnahitaji

Tumekunywa

Wataendesha

Unaitwa

Njema

Mwalimu

Tumeshaomba

Activity 4: Worksheet

Swahili Unit 1 Worksheet

Swahili Unit 1 Worksheet Answers

2 comments

  1. David · · Reply

    Excellent! It would be nice if all the words had English translations.

    Is there a dialectical difference between Tanzanian Swahili and Kenyan???

  2. Tatjana Kaliste · · Reply

    fine

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