Segments and Spelling of Mushunguli

This section presents the segments and tones of Mushunguli, and also introduces a spelling system which we use in this work. This (unofficial) spelling system is tenative, and we especially welcome suggestions from Mushunguli speakers interested in writing their language. Our goal is to balance the need for accurate representation of pronunciation with practical usefulness as a spelling system, making minimal use of special marks such as IPA letters. The basic system of spelling follows the one used in Swahili. Attention should be paid to actual pronunciation (available through the linked recordings). For more recorded examples, see the Lexicon.


The vowels of Mushunguli are [i u e o a], and [i u e o] are pronounced rather lax like IPA [ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ].

mphirípiri ‘pepper’ mílima ‘hills’
ḿnungu ‘spirit’ dûdu ‘bug’
ḿvere ‘woman’ kwerékweche ‘francolin’
ḿgongo ‘back’ bóko ‘banana’

The vowel [a] is central to back, and at the end of the word sounds particularly back.

harágwe ‘bean’ máme ‘mother’ mwâna ‘child’ kázana ‘baby’


The consonants of Mushunguli are as follows:

“Ch” represents a voiceless alveopalatal affricate, IPA [tʃ], like in English “choose”. [k] is often produced further back than it is in English.

p  t  ch  k
mipíra ‘balls’ môto ‘fire’ kwerékweche ‘francolin’ mphûku ‘rat’

The voiced stops [b d j g] are usually implosive, except after non-syllabic nasal. The stop [d] is retracted to IPA [ɖ], and j is the palatal stop [ɟ].

b  d  j  g
bahári ‘ocean’  ddu ‘bug’ gôwla ‘room’ mbgo ‘forest’ ndóni  ‘boat’ wabga  ‘rabbits’ ngûku  ‘chicken’

“Sh” represents a voiceless alveopalatal fricative, IPA [ʃ], like English “shoe”, and is not very common in our data.

f  s  sh
súfu ‘cotton boll’ mísale ‘arrows’ shawáka ‘bed-net’ hánshi ‘paper’

The consonant [z] can also be pronounced as “dh” i.e. IPA [ð] as in English ‘these; father”.

v z/dh
májovu ‘marabou stork’
mzéhe ‘elder’ wadhéhe ‘elders’

We write the velar nasal ([ŋ]) as ng’, following Swahili spelling, and the palatal nasal [ɲ] as ny.

m n ny ng’
móroti ‘millet’ ndóni ‘boat’ nyôka ‘snake’ ng’ômbe ‘cow’

The flap [r] is pronounced as a trill at the beginning of a word.

w r l y h
shawáka ‘bed-net’, ḿvere ‘woman’ róti ‘bread’ jûla ‘frog’ môyo ‘heart’ laláhi ‘fish’

On occasion, [g] is pronounced as a voiced fricative [gh] (IPA [γ]) harághwe or harágwe for ‘beans’. This is an optional pronunciation feature and never serves to distinguish words.

The combination of a nonsyllabic nasal and voiceless stops is pronounced as a short (partially) voiceless nasal plus an aspirated stop, written [mph, nth, nkh]. It can be difficult to hear the nasal at the beginning of a word, but when a vowel precedes the nasal, it is easier to hear the nasal.

mphêra ‘rhinoceros’ nthêmbo ‘elephant’ nkhánde ‘food’

Notice the difference in pronunciation between aspirated th and plain t in the words haránti ‘courtyard’ and bânthi ‘door’. Aspirated th sounds somewhat like r.

Phonetic backing of /k/ before [a,o] is especially noticeable when /k/ is aspirated, as in ‘food’. Also note that the stops in [nth] and [nd] are retracted, sounding retroflex and resembling “r” to the point that ‘elephant’ sounds like [nrhembo] (in other contexts it is dental). It is, in fact, pronounced as a voiceless flap.

In the combinations [mw, bw] and we presume [pw], the glide w is realized as velarization of the preceding consonant, thus [mγ, bγ], as in mwâna ‘child’, mwêzi ‘month’, bwiríbwiri ‘spider’, m̂bwa ‘dog’

Syllabic Nasals

There is a pronunciation difference in sequences of nasal plus consonant, between those with a 'syllabic nasal' and those with a 'nonsyllabic nasal'. Generally, the syllabic nasal is [m̩], and is a noun class prefix, for example ḿ̩gosi ‘man’, m̩tédha ‘peanut’ (composed of the singular prefixes /m̩/ and the roots /gosi, tedha/). If the nasal has a tone mark, it is syllabic (ḿ̩nyula ‘leech’, m̩̂bwa ‘dog’, n̩̂da ‘stomach’), which means that it is longer. The nasal [m] before a consonant other than [w ph b] is always syllabic, for example ḿ̩kono ‘arm’ m̩nyáwu ‘cat’ m̩tabwári ‘vulture’. The (short voiceless) nasal in mphûla ‘nose’ is non-syllabic, and is followed by an aspirated p (thus the spelling mph), which is different from the syllabic nasal of m̩púnga (phonetic [m̩púŋgɑ]) ‘rice’. There is also a difference between plain n before kh and other aspirated stops, versus a syllabic plus plain n before kh, so compare the pronunciation of nkhôndo ‘war’ versus n̩nkhôndo ‘it’s a war’. Another pair like this is mphâsa ‘twin banana’ versus m̩mphâsa ‘it’s a twin banana’.

In this grammar, we aim to avoid such marking because it requires special symbols, and learning how to use and insert diacritics has traditionally been difficult for people learning to write their language, especially diacritics which are not part of official alphabets. For the sake of linguistic clarity, we will sometimes reduce syllabicity marking to tone marking. Typically in Bantu languages, even though tone is linguistically important for correct pronunciation, tone marks are not included in a practical spelling system, because such marks clutter writing systems and are very fluid owing to rules of tone change (see the sections on tonology). The problem posed by m̩buya / mbúguni is comparable to the Swahili minimal pair m̩buni ‘coffee plant’ vs. mbuni ‘ostrich’ (related to Mushunguli mbúguni 'ostrich'), which are spelled the same way. Since such pairs are rare, they do not impede reading and writing on a practical front. Syllabicity of nasals can be predicted by a few rules, so our data can be interpreted phonetically by applying those rules.

When m is followed by any consonant it is syllabic, unless the consonant is w or b. Before /p/, the spelling mph indicates a non-syllabic nasal (with aspiration of p and devoicing of the nasal), and mp indicates a syllabic nasal -- thus mphûla ‘nose’ with nonsyllabic [m] versus mpúnga ‘rice’ with syllabic [m]. There is no syllabic [m] before w, so mw is unambiguous. In the case of following b, there can be a minimal contrast for example m̩buya ‘friend’ versus mbúguni ‘ostrich’. In this case, we mark the syllabic nasal with a grave accent -- m̀búya.

Sometimes, syllabic /m/ will in fact assimilate in place of articulation to the following consonant, so mtédha ([m̩téða]) ‘peanut’ can also be pronounced ǹtédha. It is in this contest especially that tone-marking becomes useful as a marker of syllabicity. While the lack of aspiration (ǹ̩tedha, not *nthedha) could suffice to indicate syllabicity, such a clue is insufficient for ǹ̩dôle ‘it is a finger’, the reduced form of ni dôle, contrasted with ndóni. In ǹ̩dôle versus ndóni the difference in syllabicity can be make explicit by tone marking. Differences of this type are due to optional (but common) reduction of /ni/. The copula ni ‘it is’ and the homophonous 1st person parker can freely reduce to a syllabic nasal.


There are two basic tone marks necessary for Mushunguli, the acute accent mark for level H (táte ‘father’, chiróle ‘mirror’, kwerékweche ‘francolin’) and the circumflex accent for falling tone (dêge ‘bird’, vîga ‘legs’). The falling tone only appears on the first syllable of two-syllable simple words. A final tone mark is downstep marked with an raised exclamation mark, which seems to play a distinctive role in a few noun plurals, viz. má!vúha ‘bones’, má!zína ‘names’, as contrasted with mátunda ‘flowers’, máyonda ‘baboons’. We expect that in ordinary usage, these tone marks would be omitted.

The vowel in the second-to-last syllable of a word is pronounced somewhat longer (tte, chirle, bwiríbwiri), and when this syllable has a falling tone the extra length becomes more noticeable (dge, vga). This is predictable, and lexically-distinctive long vowels do not play a role in the language, unlike Luganda, Af Maay or Somali. However, double-vowel sequences do arise in sentences, by combining i+i, u+u etc, and which such sequences are usually reduced to one vowels, somtimes they are not -- they will be written ii, uu and so forth, when recorded.