Bemba Phonology

Phonology is the study of the sound systems of languages.  Some languages have only 6 consonants (the Indo-Pacific language of Rotokas) and some languages have 95 (the Khoisan language !Xu, spoken in Southern Africa).  Some languages have a 3 vowel system and others have a 12 vowel system.  Most are between these extremes.

Bemba has 5 vowels and 19 consonants.  This section of the BOP contains a few clickable links to audio clips demonstrating phonological features of the Bemba language.  Look for the red text, followed by blue links!.  The linguistic analysis and material featured here was developed by Debra Spitulnik Vidali and Mubanga E. Kashoki. How to cite this page.  More background on iciBemba can be found on this website and in this article.

There are three consonant sounds in Bemba which do not occur in Standard American English. The voiced bilabial fricative [ß] sounds like a cross between [b] and [w]. This sound occurs in two contexts, word initially (for example in bwangu ‘fast’) and between vowels (as in abantu ‘people’). In all other contexts, the character b is pronounced [b]. You can hear this voiced bilabial fricative [ß] as the first two consonant sounds in the word abaBemba ‘Bemba people’ and as the second consonant in the related word iciBemba ‘Bemba language/customs’. Note that the orthography here is not meant to represent the [ß] sound. An uppercase B is used to spell these words because it signals the proper noun status of the word Bemba.

Another difference from Standard American English appears in the sound represented with l. This is an alveolar lateral flap in Bemba, rather than the English approximant. The characters ny in Bemba orthography represent a palatal nasal [ñ], as in the Spanish peña or the French gn in agneau. The velar nasal [ng’] exists in Standard American English – for example in singer — but it does not occur at the onset of syllables as it does in Bemba.  You can hear this sound in:  ing’ng’anga ‘traditional healer, doctor’ and ing’ng’anda ‘house’.  The ng’ is used to represent the velar nasal.  A hooked n [η] is also used in some orthographic systems.

There is a contrastive semantic distinction between short and long vowels (the doubling of vowels represents vowel length) as in: uku-pama ‘to be brave’ and uku-paama ‘to hide’. Can you hear the difference? Other minimal pairs that are distinguished just by vowel length include: uku-pepa ‘to pray’ and uku-peepa ‘to smoke’; uku-shika ‘to be deep’ and uku-shiika ‘to bury’; uku-sela ‘to move’ and uku-seela ‘to dangle’.

In addition, there is a small number of words in Bemba which are distinguished from each other just by differences in tone marking. One example is: ulúpwá ‘family’ and úlupwá ‘eggplant’. The first word has high tones on the second and third vowels. The second word has high tones on the first and the third vowels.  Can you hear the difference?

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Alveopalatal Palatal Velar
  Voiceless p t k
  Voiced (b) (d) g
  Voiceless f s (S)
  Voiced ß
  Voiceless tS
  Voiced dZ
Nasals m n ñ ng’
Laterals l
  (semivowels) w y

The sounds [b], [d], and [S] (represented above in parentheses) are allophones of the phonemes /p/, /l/, and /s/ respectively. The consonant [b] occurs only when preceded by the homorganic nasal [m] as in mbweele ‘should I return?’ (derived from N– (1st pers. sg.), –bwel– (verb root), –e (Subjunctive); where N– becomes m– in homorganic harmony with the following b). The consonant [d] occurs only when preceded by the homorganic nasal [n], as in ndeeya ‘I shall go’ (derived from N– (1st pers. sg.), –lee– (tense/aspect), –ya (verb root)). The alveopalatal [S] occurs before [i]. In addition, the consonants [dZ] and [g] never occur word initially or between vowels; they are always preceded by a homorganic nasal in nasal clusters represented orthographically as nj and ng (e.g. njeba; ‘tell me’ and ngupa ‘marry me’).


Front (unrounded) Central (unrounded) Back (rounded)
High i    ii u    uu
Mid e    ee o    oo
Low a    aa

Syllable Structure

As with many other Bantu languages, syllables in Bemba are characteristically open and are of four main types: V, CV, NCV, and NCGV (where V = vowel (long or short), C = consonant, N = nasal, G = glide (w or y)). These types are illustrated by isa (i-sa) ‘come!’, soma (so-ma) ‘read!’, yamba (ya-mba) ‘begin!’ and impwa (i-mpwa) ‘eggplants’.

For more on Bemba grammar, click here.  Also see our Resources links.

How to cite this page:  Vidali, Debra Spitulnik and Mubanga E. Kashoki. 2014. “Bemba Phonology.” Bemba Online Project. Published November 29, 2014:

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