Saturday, 13 April 2019

Chapter 1 - The Ngoni Alphabet and Pronunciation Guide

I would like to advise all the Ngoni learners that the best way to learn how to pronounce ngoni words is to talk to a native speaker. However since they are few ngoni speakers around the alternative for most  is to listen to isiZulu broadcasts tv which are readily available. In fact in the early days of Christianity when ngoni was widely spoken in Mzimba, Malawi (then Nyasaland) the worshippers used Zulu bibles in worship. 

There are of course a few differences between ngoni and Zulu but the differences are negligible in my opinion for a ngoni language student. As you continue your studies on this blog which I am still updating those differences will be pointed out.

Another way to master pronunciation in the event that you have no native speakers is to have audio app for a Zulu book such as a bible. If you can read it side by side with an English that is even much better for the acquisition of vocabulary.

I am also currently trying to rewrite into modern writing style an old ngoni bible translation of the book of mark. I intend to create an app with some audio for people to read and listen in Ngoni the bible's book of mark.

Please also bear in mind that the main objective is to be understood and not to be perfect. Perfection comes with time.

The Alphabet

The Roman characters are used to represent the sounds met with in Ngoni.


Five of the letters are vowels and are pronounced with the open Italian sound. In accented syllables the sound is long, and in unaccented syllables it is short; but the sound of the vowel is essentially the same in both cases.

a as a in father, bark e.g., amanata (leprosy), amasi (sour milk), ubaba.

e as e in there or bed e.g., ukuphelekezela (to accompany one), -thengile (bought).

i as i in machine or see e.g., ukusindisa (to save), izilimi (tongues, languages).

o as o in tone or saw e.g., -bona (see) imondoro (a lion). Not sure if imondoro is a Nguni word. It is most probably a foreign word.  Nguni words for lion are ibhubesi; imbube; ingonyama; isilo.

u as u in rule or food e.g., umpupu, flour of maize, umuntu, person.

There are no dipthongs in the language, hence two vowels coming together are to be sounded in separate syllables. In rapid speaking it often appears as if there were dipthong sounds, but careful attention will discover the presence of a semi-consonant w or y according as the first vowel is u or i. See chapter 2. 3 for further remarks on this subject.


Apart from the following exceptions which may cause pronunciation problems the consonants are pronounced as in English.

c.  This letter is taken to represent the dental click, which is made by suddenly and forcibly withdrawing the tip of the tongue from the back of the upper front teeth. It is pronounced as in the English exclamation of tsk tsk! An example is -cela (request).

The easiest way to do this sound is to (a) place the tongue behind the upper front teeth (b) lower the centre of the tongue and suck back.

The sound of ch in the English word church is correctly represented by tsh; and thus, c is redundant and may be used to represent the dental click. It is phonetically incorrect to use ch instead of tsh.

The hard sound of ch as in monarch is correctly represented by k.

g. This letter is always pronounced hard as in give; e.g. ugogo (grandmother).

h. Sounded as in hat. It is also used before l where that consonant is aspirated. Thus, if it occurs before a consonant without a vowel intervening, it has no separate sound of its own, but must be sounded with the consonant. An example is hamba (go)

hl To pronounce this sound you do it by pressing the tongue just behind the upper teeth as if to articulate l then, while holding it there, blow the air over both sides of the tongue; eg -hlala (sit)

Here is a video explaining the correct way of pronouncing the consonants except the clicks which will be explained in another video before the end of this post.

q. The sound of qu in queen is correctly represented by kw, and q is therefore redundant. It is taken to represent the palatal click which is made by forcibly and quickly withdrawing the tongue from the roof of the mouth.

A consonant combined with a click modifies the sound of the dick and must be sounded along with it.

An example is qala (begin, start).

w and y. As semi-consonants, they fill an important place in connection with various changes which take place in words, as will be seen on referring to Chapter 2. 3,

x. The sound of x = ks as it occurs in English words. The letter is redundant in Ngoni, and is chosen to represent the lateral click, which is made by forcibly and quickly withdrawing the tip of the tongue from the side teeth. An example is xoxa (chat).

1890s Note: Only among the older Ngoni people may all the clicks be heard as in Zululand. The dental click, being the easiest, takes the place of the others. None of the incorporated peoples have adopted the more difficult q and x clicks, and the Ngoni not compelling their subjugated people to speak Ngoni, a new dialect has appeared having various combinations of consonants as substitutes for clicks. The clicks are not destined to survive long among the Ngoni.

Here is a video to help you on how to pronounce the ngoni clicks, c q x.

There are various combinations of consonants, such as nga, nda, mba, mva, &c., which present no difficulty in pronunciation; but where the aspirated l (hl) occurs alone or in combination with one or more consonants, the proper sound can only be learned by listening to a native using them.


I-mvu-la > Imvula, rain.

U-ku-ba-mba > ukubamba, to hold.

A-ma-nga > amanga, lies.

I-nda-ba > indaba, news.

U-ku-dla > ukudla, food.

Ama-ndla > amandla, strength. Another word for strength or power is isidlakathi.

I-ndlwa-na > indlwana, a small house. From indlu, house.

Certain consonants are interchangeable in the ngoni language.

b is often used for w, and vice versa.
l is often used for r, and vice versa.

gha. This represents a sound adopted from Tumbuka. It is really g with the a aspirated, and is best pronounced with the mouth somewhat more open than is usual in speaking.

tsh. = the sound of ch, in church. An example is ukutshala, to plant, planting (when used as a verbal noun)

n. Before g and k this consonant has frequently the ringing sound of ng in singing, and nk in ink but not always. Note: Some Nguni people pronounce ng as in finger, but most pronounce it as in singer.


1. N with ringing sound, luhengo, a basket. The proper Nguni word should be imbenge.
    N. with ringing sound, bonke, all (people).

2. N without ringing sound, ingoma, a song.
    N without ringing sound, inkukhu, chicken, inyoni, fowl.

ng is pronounced as in finger, e.g  lungisani (make straight).

ny is pronounced as in Vignette; e.g. inyoni (bird).

Click here to go to Chapter 2 : Ngoni Accentuation, syllables

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