by Richard Shawyer
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Explanation of phonetic symbols
":" indicates a lengthening of the sound. The production of the sound is also usually more tense.
"Ch" indicates that the sound is modified and emphasized by the exhalation of air, called aspiration (where C represents any consonant).
"Cə" indicates that the sound is emphasised by the addition of a very short vowel after the consonant, called gemination.
|WOLOF LETTER||PHONETIC SYMBOL||PHONETIC DESCRIPTION||WOLOF EXAMPLES||NOTES|
|b||b||voiced bilabial plosive||bakkan (nose)
|When it occurs at the end of a word preceded by a vowel it is unreleased and often voiceless ([p]), or may be produced as an implosive.|
|voiced aspirated bilabial plosive||jubbanti (to straighten)
|Length is 1½ times short b. "Geminated" in final position, that is emphasised by the addition of a short vowel.|
|c||c||voiceless unaspirated palantal plosive||caq (necklace)
mooco (head of femur)
c caabi The middle of the tongue makes contact with the hard palate. The tip is usually held down. The lips are not rounded ([ʧ] is rounded). This is not the same as "ch" [ʧ] in English, which is an aspirated grooved affricate. Is is approximately the same as the French "ti" in "tiens". The mechanism of production lies between [t] and [k].
Try saying [ta] [ca] [ka] [qa]; [t] [c] [k];
[tu] [cu] [ku]; [t] [c] [k]; [ti] [ci] [ki]; where, for each series, the only part that moves is the point of contact of the tongue with the roof of the mouth.
It does not occur as a single consonant at the end of a word, but note that j in final position preceded by a vowel is usually voiceless (i.e [c]).
|cc||c:h||racctal (slip knot)
nàcc (to bleed)
|Length is 1½ times short c. "Geminated" in final position.|
|d||d||unreleased voiced tip alveolar plosive||dàll (shoe)
raadu (level the ground after planting peanuts)
|It does not occur as a single consonant preceded by a vowel at the end of a word.|
|voiced aspirated tip alveolar plosive||kuddu (spoon)
|Length is 1½ times short d. "Geminated" in final position.|
|f||f||voiceless labio-dental fricative||fetal (gun)
foofu (over there)
|Same as English.|
|g||g||voiced back velar plosive||garab (tree)
digal (to order)
|voiced aspirated back velar plosive||àggale (to complete)
|Length is 1½ times short g. "Geminated" in final position.|
|j||ɟ||voiced unaspirated palantal plosive||jant (sun)
janq (young woman)
Kajoor (region of Senegal)
j When it occurs at the end of a word preceded by a vowel it is unreleased and often voiceless ([c]), or may be produced as an implosive. The middle of the tongue makes contact with the hard palate. The tip is usually held down. The lips are not rounded ([ʤ] is rounded). It is approximately the same sound as the French "di" in "Dieu". This is not the same of as "j" [ʤ] of judge in English, which is an aspirated grooved affricate. The mechanism of production lies between [d] and [g].
Try saying [da] [ja] [ga]; [d] [j] [g];
[du] [ju] [gu]; [d] [j] [g]; [di] [ji] [gi]; where, for each series of three, the only part that moves is the point of contact of the tongue with the roof of the mouth.
|jj||ɟ:h||béjjén (horn of animal)
|Length is 1½ times short j. "Geminated" in final position.|
|k||k||voiceless back velar plosive||kër (house)
|It does not occur as a single consonant at the end of a word, but note that g in final position preceded by a vowel is usually voiceless (i.e [k]).|
|voiceless aspirated back velar geminated plosive||bakkan (nose)
ëkk (tree stump)
|Length is 1½ times short k. "Geminated" in final position.|
|l||l, ɫ||clear voiced alveolar lateral,
dark voiced alveolar lateral
|English has 3 alveolar laterals depending on the surrounding letters. The back of the tongue when you say "lee" is higher than when you say "law". "Legal" uses both. These are referred to as clear and dark laterals, and both exist and function in much the same way in Wolof. Dark laterals are really velarised. Incidentally, the third l in English in the non-voiced l in words like "play".|
sàll (beak of bird)
|In final position, ll is a geminated dark l.|
|m||m||bilabial nasal||matt (firewood)
|Same as English|
|bàmmeel (tomb) sàmm (to shepherd)||Geminated in final position.|
|prenasalised voiced bilabial plosive||mboq (corn)
gumba (blind man)
mb A prenasalised sound begins as a nasal with the air stream escaping through the nose, but the velum rises to close the velic passage just as the articulation in the mouth begins, so that there is effectively a very short nasal onset to the oral sound.
These two letters represent a single consonant and when in the initial position must be said without adding a vowel in front. One should not say "em-bay", but simply mb + ay. Samba is not said Sam-ba, but rather Sa-mba.
|prenasalised voiceless bilabial plosive||samp (to establish)
sampal (to establish for someone)
|n||n||apico-dental nasal||néeg (house, room)
|The English n is an alveolar nasal. In Wolof it is an apico-dental nasal.|
|Length is 1½ times the length of the short n.|
|prenasalised voiceless aspirated palantal plosive||dencal (keep for someone)
pénc (meeting place)
nd ng janq A prenasalised sound begins as a nasal with the air stream escaping through the nose, but the velum rises to close the velic passage just as the articulation in the mouth begins, so that there is effectively a very short nasal onset to the oral sound.
These two letters represent a single consonant and when in the initial position must be said without adding a vowel in front. One should not say "en-dey", but simply nd + ey. In final position the consonant is geminated.
Note "n" before the consonants k, g, q is phonetically [ŋ], bank = [bʌŋk] in Wolof or [bæ:ŋk] in English.
|prenasalised voiced tip alveolar plosive||ndaa (water pot)
|prenasalised voiced back velar plosive||ngemb (loin cloth, nappy)
jàngal (to teach)
song (to attack)
|prenasalised voiced palantal plosive||njombor (rabbit)
junjuŋ (Sereer drum)
jànj (termite mound)
|prenasalised voiceless back velar plosive||ponkal (giant)
|prenasalised voiceless uvular plosive||sanqal (millet semolina)
janq (young girl)
|prenasalised voiceless tip alveolar stop||santaane (command)
|ñ||ñ||voiced palatal nasal||ñey (elephant)
roñu (to move location)
ñ Say "cannon." Now say "canyon." Lengthen the nasal sounds in the middle of these two words, so you can feel what you are doing. Now as you say "canyon," concentrate on holding the tip of your tongue down and the blade up as you say the sound spelled "ny". The sound is [ñ]. Practice "[aña] [oño] [uñu], [ña] [ño] [ñu], [añ] [oñ] [uñ]." As you practice, be sure you are saying ñ with your tongue tip down behind your lower teeth. The point of contact of the tongue is the same as for the plosive [c].
|wàññi (to reduce)
waññ (to count)
|Geminated in final position.|
|ŋ||ŋ||voiced velar nasal||ŋaam (jaw)
diŋat (to disagree with something)
joŋante (to compete)
latkoloŋ The closure is made by the back of the tongue against the velum, in the same place where the sound [g] is made. It appears in English as the "ng" of "sing" or in German as in singen. Since it does not occur in English or German at the beginning of a word, speakers want to put a vowel before it when it starts a word in Wolof. To master beginning a word with this sound practice as follows:
repeat the word "longing";
Leave off the "l" and continue repeating "onging";
Now, pause after the first vowel, so you are now saying "[o-ŋiŋ]";
Now leave off the first vowel and say "[ŋiŋ]".
Practice saying it with different vowels.
ràŋŋati (to throw into a panic
waŋŋeetu (to kick out)
|Geminated in final position.|
|p||p||voiceless bilabial plosive||paaka (knife)
piipaw (caftan with wide sleeves)
|It does not occur as a single consonant at the end of a word, but note that b in final position preceded by a vowel is usually voiceless (i.e [p]).|
|voiceless aspirated bilabial plosive||koppin (turkey)
|Length is 1½ times short p. Aspirated strongly in final position.|
|q||q||voiceless unaspirated uvular plosive||bëqët (cowardly)
làqu (to hide oneself)
|r||r||rolled linguo-alveolar vibrant||ràbb (to knit, weave)
reer The Spanish r. The Wolof [r] is articulated as an alveolar vibrant: the tip of the tongue taps against the teeth ridge to give a series of occlusions. The main body of the tongue is neither concave or convex, nor contracted, but loose. It makes no particular effort. All the sound is produced at the apex. The number of vibrations in the only thing varying from one lingual vibration to five or even more. When r is in the initial position there is only one tap with the tip of the tongue concave and the air passing freely through a narrow passage between the concave tip and the teeth-ridge. The Wolof r is normally voiced but may occasionally be unvoiced when at the end of a word. Occasionally [r] is interchanged with [l] or [w].The Wolof r bears no resemblance at all to an English r [ɹ]. Some English speakers can produce the sound by saying "grrrr". It can be mastered by opposition of English and Wolof r's in the following words:
reer [rɛ:r] (dinner)
rab [rʌp] (beast)
rat [rʌt] (a sort of plant)
raay [ra:i] (caress)
|rr||r:||jérr (superlative of tang)|
|s||s||voiceless alveolar grooved fricative||saan (worm)
|Same as English.|
|t||t||voiceless tip alveolar stop||tànk (leg)
|When it occurs at the end of a word preceded by a vowel it is unreleased.|
|voiceless tip alveolar aspirated stop||fàtte (to forget)
butti ( to gut)
|Length is 1½ times short t. "Geminated" in final position.|
|w||w||voiced labio-velar semi-vowel||Wolof
daw (to run)
|Same as English|
|ww||w:||tawwi (to stretch something elastic)
|w and ww are contrasting minimal pairs. The doubled letter needs to
be articulated with strength and insistence to avoid giving the
e.g. xewi (going to be in fashion some day)
xewwi (out of fashion)
|x||x||voiceless back-velar fricative||xeej (spear)
xam (to know)
|y||j||voiced unrounded palatal semi-vowel||yax (bone)
caaya (traditional pants)
|Same as English|
|yy||guyy (superlative of sedd)
làyyi (to justify oneself)
|y and yy are contrasting minimal pairs. The doubled letter needs to be articulated with strength and insistence to avoid giving the contrary meaning,|