How to make the sounds in Wolof - Vowels

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.


a ʌ voiced half-open central unrounded and (incense pot)
lal (bed)
xamb (poke a fire)
kaala (turban)
and  Play sound activation icon  xamb  Play sound activation icon  As in English "butter". As in English, in Wolof there is some degree of variation in certain contexts towards [ə] or even [u]. Thus man (can) can be said as [mʌn], [mən] or [mun]. But man (myself) is always [mʌn]. It bears no relation to an English "a" as in "cat", the sound of which does not exist in Wolof. which is [æ].
aa a:   baaraam (finger)
aada (tradition)
It exists in standard British English as part of the diphthong [a:i] (time, nine). It is different to the normal English long "a" as in star which is [ɑ:].
a voiced open front unrounded lluwa (writing board)
nd (to accompany)
xmb (spirit shrine)
dll (shoe)
nd Play sound activation icon  xmb Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between nd & and Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between xmb & xamb Play sound activation icon This is the same as the French a. It exists in standard British English as part of the diphthongs [ai] (life, buy, cry); and [au] (owl).
ã ɑ̃ voiced open central unrounded nasalised sãs (very hot) This is very rare. As for the ɑ̃ in temps, gant in French.
e voiced half-close front unrounded
(cardinal 2)
by (goat)
gnn (to leave)
dg (thorn)
dg Play sound activation icon  gnn Play sound activation icon  Same as French or the German e. In normal Wolof, there is some variation in pronunciation with drift towards [ə] or [ɪ]. In German as in edikt.
e e:   te (cloth for carrying on head)
ser (skirt)
rer (to get lost)
rer Play sound activation icon
e ɛ voiced half-open front unrounded
(cardinal 3)
dem (to go)
deg (type of soil)
genn (a, one)
fen (lie)
estomaa (stomach)
deg Play sound activation icon  genn Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between gnn & genn Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between dig, dg & deg Play sound activation icon  Same as the English e in bed or the French as in pre. This is the of German as in fllen, or e as in Teller.
ee ɛ:   seede (testimony)
reer (evening meal)
jeex (to be finished)
reer Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between riir, rer & reer Play sound activation icon In German, as in the German word ghnen.
ə voiced half-close central unrounded kr (house)
mb (pregnant)
f (to blow)
ə Play sound activation icon Same as the French e as in demain. In normal speech this sound may replace [a], [ʌ], [ɛ], [e], [u], or [o] especially when they occur at the end of a word. This is the e of German, as in hacke. It is more closed than the German .
e ə:     As in English bird.
i i voiced closed front unrounded
(cardinal 1)
cin (cooking pot)
dig (promise)
Ibliis (Satan)
bukki (hyena)
The tongue is humped as far forward as possible and as near to the palate as possible without causing any friction. This is like the French "i" rather than the English short "i" [ɩ]. That is in comparison with [ɩ], the lips are less rounded (more spread) and the tongue is more humped, further forward and nearer the palate.
ii i:   biir (stomach)
riir (to roar)
As in English beat.
o ɔ voiced half-open back rounded
(cardinal 6)
bopp (head)
golo (monkey)
oto (car)
Same as in English pot hot, not, and the open French o as in pomme. Same as in German doch, offen.
oo ɔ:   boot (carry on back)
door (to begin)
woom (to be abundant)
andandoo (to go together)
door Play sound activation icon As in the English port, or bought. Hence the English word bought is phonetically the same as the Wolof word boot (carry someone on one's back) and the English word your is said the same as the Wolof yoo (mosquito).
o voiced half-close back rounded
(cardinal 7)
jge (to come from)
smbi (rice porridge)
Same as the closed French o as in beau, chose. Does not exist in English. Sometimes this sound will be interchanged with [u], but when it differentiates between [ɔ] or [o:] it is invariable.
o o:   wom (knee)
dor (to hit)
bom (to murder)
dor Play sound activation icon   Contrast between dor & door Play sound activation icon 
Contrast between wuum, wom & woom Play sound activation icon As in the German word not, Bote, Sohle
u u voiced close back rounded
(cardinal 8)
bukki (hyena)
ubbi (to open)
toxu (to relocate)
Play sound activation icon It is the same as the French ou as in vous or the German u as in Mut. Similar to the English [u] in book, except that it is closer, rounder and stronger. The tongue is as far back as possible and as near to the roof as possible so that the opening between the tongue and the palate is as narrow as possible. The lips are heavily rounded.
uu u:   buur (king)  


Wolof has a large number of diphthongs as does English. These include [ai] nay; [ei] by; [ɛi] tey; [ɔi] doy; [əi] xy; [ui] duy; [ɛu] sew; [iu] diw; [au] daw; [ɔw] sow;

[a:i] baay; [e:i] fey; [ɛ:i] teey; [ɔ:i] nooy; [o:i] toy;[u:i] fuuy; [e:u] rew; [ɛ:u] reew; [i:u] siiw; [a:u] baaw; [ɔ:w] soow;

Unlike English the duration of the vowel is important to differentiate minimal pairs such as bay (to cultivate) and baay (father); by (goat) and bey (whitlow). Other minimal pairs include words like rew (country) and reew (impolite).

As in English the glide is always of the falling type (open vowel moving toward a more closed one).

Because Wolof differentiates length of diphthongs while English doesn't the length of an English diphthong tends to be between a long and short Wolof diphthong. Thus the English speaker needs to shorten how he would say doy [dɔi] or woy [wɔi] in relation to how he says boy [bɔi] which is closer to how theWolof would say booy [bɔ:i] or nooy [nɔ:i].