How to make the sounds in Wolof

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by Richard Shawyer

Please note that this page uses Unicode to represent phonetic characters, and one of the Wolof characters, Wolof ng symbol . If your browser is set up for unicode with the correct font installed that includes the Unicode IPA Extensions range, you will see two Wolof ng picture ŋ characters. Otherwise, you will see one character with a small box or question mark beside it. The other phonetic characters will also show up as small empty boxes or question marks. Refer to the Unicode setup instructions to setup your browser for Unicode. The full content of the phonetics pages is also available in a single.pdf format file (117 kB).

Our goal is to speak Wolof like the Wolof, or at least to be clear in our speech so that a native Wolof speaker can listen to us easily with pleasure. This involves pronouncing the words as they do, using the same stress and intonation that the Wolof use, and also using the same syntax and way of thinking.

Every language consists of a limited number of sounds. By mastering each sound one by one, it is possible to speak a language without accent. The purpose of these pages is to provide instructions for each vowel and consonant in Wolof that might help the native English speaker in his pronunciation. You are advised to take them one by one, working on them until you can both hear and produce them with ease.

The English speaker will have greatest problems with those sounds which do not exist in English:

c [c] and j [ɟ] which one tends to replace with ch [ʧ] and j [ʤ] from English
; r; x; q; and all the nasals especially in the initial position: mp; mb; nc; nd; ng; nj; nk; nq; nt
ŋ in the initial position

The English speaker is also likely to have problems with vowels which are similar but not the same between the two languages:

[i] is further forward than the English [i], and [u] which is further back than the English [u];
[a] which only exists in diphthongs in some dialects of English;
[e] and [o] which do not exist at all in English.

The task is made more difficult by the existence of minimal pairs. That is, sounds which are very similar to the ears of English speakers but used to differentiate words in Wolof:

the unreleased plosives in final position j; g; t;
long and short vowels
[ʌ] and [a]; [i], [e] and [ɛ]; [o] and [ɔ]; kk and q; n, nn, , , ŋ, ŋŋ, ng

Wolof words do not have a mixture of open and closed vowels. They will either all be open or all closed. This is particularly important with the use of suffixes. The vowel created by the suffix is determined by the other vowels in the word. e.g. julli + ag + ul = jullegul.

Read also:

Aspirated and unaspirated stops (plosives) LAMP p256-258
"ch" in English LAMP p265, last paragraph.
"j" in English LAMP p266, second paragraph.
Nasals LAMP p269-270
For an explanation of the three kinds of "l"s in English and Wolof LAMP p271-272
The various kinds of "r"s LAMP p273

References:

BREWSTER, E. Thomas; BREWSTER Elizabeth S 1976 Language Acquistion Made Practical (Pasadena, Lingua House)
DIALO, Amadou 1983 Elments systmatiques du Wolof Contemporain (Dakar, CLAD)
DONEUX, J.L. 1975 Quelle phonologie pour le Wolof? (Dakar, CLAD)
KANE, Boubacar 1974 A Comparative Study of the Phonological Systems of English and Wolof (Dakar, CLAD)
SAMUEL, John T Bendor 1983 Introduction to Practical Phonetics (Horsleys Green, SIL)



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