A Primer on Speaking and Writing Luganda

Topical Outline

Introduction Elements of Luganda Orthography
The Vowels The Consonants
Verbalizing the Consonants The Semi-Vowels
Combination of Dissimilar Consonants Stressing Consonants
Some Special Cases Word Separation
Basic Luganda Grammar A Luganda Phrasebook
Help The Luganda Society Other Sites in or About Luganda
Featured book: 'Luganda Proverbs' by Ferdinand Walser.
Report of All-Baganda Conference on Standard Orthography (In Luganda)


Luganda, the native language of the people of Buganda, developed over the centuries as a spoken language. Its written form is only as recent as the arrival of the Arab and European influence among the Baganda. It is not easy, and of course it is not within the scope of this discussion, to trace its origins, but it is proper to assume that in a dynamic society with such well structured cultural, social, and political institutions like those of the Baganda, the language must have experienced a reciprocal influence during most of the changes the society went through over the course of its history. It was not however, until after the second half of the nineteenth century, that Luganda was first written down and appeared in print in its own right.

The following discussion is neither meant to be a grammar nor a dictionary of the language. The focus is solely on how the language is written (i.e. transcribing sound into alphabetic characters). The first writing clearly was a pilot venture, an improvisation by the early missionaries, who tried to put the language in a written form so that their work among the Baganda would be made easier. The creation of written Luganda words mainly depended on the interpretation and impression that the ears of these foreign listeners, had of the Luganda word sounds. It was not surprising that Speke spelt Kyabaggu (Chabagu). Looking at the earlier prints by various writers such as Speke, Stanley and others would confirm the suspicion that each wrote according to the interpretation his ears perceived. It was therefore necessary to undertake a serious study of the sounds in the Luganda language in order to be able to formulate a proper phonetic system that would help in transferring the sound of words into proper alphabetical symbols that would be meaningful in written form.

The first writers however, were faced with a problem since many of them were not linguists and the Luganda language was starkly different, without any linguistic similarity with their mother tongues. It became an academic adventure for them, trying to correlate the linguistic features of their native languages with the sounds they were simply detecting in the Luganda words. These efforts were necessary because the task of imparting the Christian norms and social standards of their home base to the Baganda demanded a system of communication in a medium that was natural and easily understandable in Buganda. A system of writing in vernacular was therefore developed and for the first time the Luganda word sounds were represented in alphabetical symbols.

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Elements of Luganda Orthography

In 1947, an All-Baganda Conference was convened which recommended a Standard Orthography of Luganda. The recommended standard was accepted by the Buganda Government as well as the Protectorate Government and it has governed the written form of Luganda since then. In order to develop such standards special attention must have been paid to the phonetic features in Luganda taking into account the sound units; their tones, syllabic intonations (the stress on various syllables), the recognizable sound pitches and any linguistic features that had to be addressed before launching Luganda into an acceptable written form. In this discussion we shall try to examine a few of the fundamental features of the word sounds in Luganda and how they are interpreted and reflected in a written word form.

The Vowels

The Luganda Language is basically transcribed into five vowel sounds which are represented in the five alphabetical symbols:

a, (as in attempt)
e, (as in employ)
i, (as in import)
o, (as in only)
u, (as in blue)

These are the only sound symbols that create meaning in any written Luganda word. Without them, the consonants do not convey any meaningful communication. The vowels however, on their own can represent communicative sound symbols. For example;

'aa.' (Symbol of showing or demonstrating)
'ee?' or 'uu?' (form of answering)
'ii!' or 'oo!' (exclamation remarks).

The vowels are called "enjatuza" (letters that make sound in a word) or "empeerezi" (letters that serve the consonants with sounds to create words). Luganda vowel sounds can be either short or long. In general, the short sound is represented by a single vowel while the long sound is represented by double vowels. Note that the double vowel denotes a long sound, as opposed to a repetitive sound. Let us cite a few examples;

'a' in bana vs baana (four vs children). The 'a' is short in bana but long in baana.
'e' in sera (dance the dance of the wizards) vs seera (overcharge). The 'e' is short in sera but long in seera.
'i' in sira (mingle, 'herbal') vs siira (walk slowly). The 'i' is short in sira but long in siira.
'o' in kola (work or do) vs koola (weed, 'verb'). The 'o' is short in kola but long in koola.
'u' in tuma (send) vs tuuma (name, 'verb'). The 'u' is short in tuma but long in tuuma.

It is important to note that changing the length of the vowel sound in general also changes the meaning of the word as the above examples clearly illustrate. Since Luganda follows a 'cv' (consonant/vowel) pattern in its word order, vowels are critical ingredients in every written word.

Exception: A long vowel is not written double when it occurs at the beginning or end of a word. For example, we write abo (those - the a is long). However, an exception to the exception is yee (yes). Note that words consisting of vowels only are not affected by this.

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The Consonants

In order to make meaningful communication of sound in a word, the vowel symbols must combine with the consonants to make the word sounds. The Luganda language has the following alphabetical symbols falling in the consonant category. We shall try to examine their nature and level of articulation, and the position the speech muscles assume during the articulation of various sounds.

w, y, c, h,
b, p, f, v, m,
d, t, l, r, n, ny (the 'ny' combination is a special case considered to be a single consonant)
z, s, j, g, k, ng (the 'ng' combination can sometimes represent a single consonant)

The 'ng' sound when it is a single consonant is sometimes represented by a special character that does not appear in the Latin alphabet. Sometimes this difficulty is handled by writing the consonant as ng' (with the apostrophe) to distinguish it from the different sound resulting from the combination of the two consonants n and g but this practice is not universal. Thus the ng combination in printed form can sound two different ways. For example ngalabi (a type of drum) and ngaali (the crested crane) form different sounds. Thus, ngaali may sometimes be written ng'aali to denote the corresponding special ng sound. The actual appearance of this character when used is shown in the following image.
The character looks the same when written in upper case or lower case.

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Verbalizing the Consonants

We can simplify the classification of the Luganda consonant sounds in mainly four categories; the stop sounds, fricative sounds, nasal sounds and the lateral or trill and flap sounds.

i. Stop Sounds (the sound is short and abrupt)

'bb' occurs bilabial (voiced)
'p' is also bilabial (whispered)
'm' bilabial (We shall meet this again in the nasal section)
'd' occurs at alveolar (voiced)
't' is also alveolar (whispered)
'g' occurs at velar (voiced)
'k' is also velar (whispered)

ii. Fricative sounds (some air emitted out of the mouth at utterance)

'h' is glottal (voiced)
'b' is bilabial as we have seen above
'v' occurs at labio-dental (voiced)
'f' is also labio-dental (whispered)
'z' is alveolar (voiced)
's' is also alveolar (whispered)
'c', 'ky' (kyapa), and 'ki' (kibira) is palatal (whispered)
'j' and 'gy' are also palatal (voiced)

iii. Nasal sound (the nose is involved in creating the sound)

'm' bilabial (voiced)
'n' alveolar (voiced)
'ny' palatal (voiced)
'mb' and 'mp' bilabial
'n + any consonant' will produce a nasal sound of its related symbol.
'ng'' as in ng'aali. (word processor inability)

iv. Lateral/Trill/Flap Sound (the tongue seems to lateral)

'l' and 'r' both occur at the alveolar

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The Semi-Vowels

It must be noted though that 'w' and 'y' appear in several Luganda words as semi-vowels - that is they help create the sound; mwa (shave) and lya (eat). When they stand on their own like in okuyiga (to learn) or okuweta (to bend), they are regular consonants. It should also be noted that in Luganda, two dissimilar vowels never follow one another in a word. If necessary, the consonants 'y' or 'w' are inserted between the vowels to maintain the sound while not violating the rule. For example, write 'wakayima' instead of 'wakaima', 'okuyimba' instead of 'okuimba' or 'yawula' instead of 'yaula'.

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Combination of Dissimilar Consonants

When 'm' or 'n' (empuunyi) prefixes another consonant forming a verb, the verb is personalized (in first person 'I'). The following are examples:

'mpa' (give me)
'mbala' (I am counting)
'ndaba' (I am seeing)
'ntemye' (I have cut)

However, there are several nouns, adjective, adverbs and prepositions; i.e. names of people, places etc. that begin with the 'm' and 'n' as a nasal prefix:


The sound represented by 'ch' in English is written 'c' in Luganda. The letter combination 'ch' never occurs in Luganda. Some example words follow:

caayi (tea)
cacanca (celebrate),
cwacwalika (throw yourself into a rage).
cuuma (smell bad)

The 'c' sound is very close to the 'ky' sound but the two should not be confused. Some examples of when 'ky' is used are given below:

kyange (it is mine),
kyapa (print).
kyenvu (yellow)
kyokya (it is hot, or it burns)
kyuma (metal)

The 'ki' sound can also be very similar to the 'c' and 'ky' sounds. Here are some examples of its usage:

Kibuuka (name of a person)
Kiggwe (name of a person)
Kibuli (name of a place)
kibira (forest)
kirye, (eat it)

However, the 'ki' in the second syllable aki(ki)rira or a(ki!)kirira (he/she represents) does not carry the same sound as the first 'ki' syllable.

The phonemes 'c', 'ky', and 'ki' are very similar. It is not easy to describe the sound in a written form so as to avoid the confusion. When in doubt, consult a dictionary.

The 'h' is a very rarely used in Luganda, the only use that easily comes to mind is the laughing sound 'ha ha ha'. Note that the letter combination 'ch' which occurs frequently in other Bantu languages is never used in Luganda.

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Stressing Consonants

The Luganda consonants may be either stressed or hit softly. The letter 'b' is a typical example of this. It is either strongly hit which requires the sound 'bb' as in 'mubbi' (a thief), or it may be hit softly as in 'mubi' (a bad person). The double consonant in a word is used to indicate a single strong emphasis on the consonant. This should not be confused with a repetitive consonant sound. Some more examples are given below:

kutta (to kill) vs kuta (to release)
mukka (smoke) vs muka (wife of)
bidde (let them come back) vs bide (bells)

Again notice that the change in emphasis can change the meaning of a word completely. It is also very common in Luganda to stress the first syllable in a word. Take a close look on the following;

mmamba (lung fish)
ffenna (all of us)
ttemankima (kind of snake)
vvaawo (get out of here)
nnima (I am digging)
Jjajja (grand parent)

The exception is the special consonant 'ny'. When this is stressed in a word, only the n part is written twice as in nny rather than nyny. One example is nnyonnyola (explain).

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Some Special Cases

Now that we have seen the functions of the vowels and consonants in Luganda we need to go a little further in examining the sounds and their proper orthography or how they are reflected in the written form.

We have already discussed the long vowels in the word sounds and have looked at some relevant examples. It should be noted that long sounds in words can also be caused in different ways other than use of the long vowels. For example, if a nasal consonant is followed immediately by a non-nasal consonant, the combination forms a naturally long syllable in Luganda. There is no need for a double vowel before such a syllable. Consider the word owange (by the way). The long 'a' is caused by the last nasal 'ng'. This takes away the need for a double 'aa' before the 'ng' syllable. Take a closer look at these words as well:

ebbanga (space) ebba-nga
akambe (knife) aka-mbe,
ennanga (musical organ) enna-nga
kimpi (it is short) ki-mpi
kitanda (bed) kita-nda
tunda (sell) tu-nda

Note that the rule applies only when you have a nasal 'ng' syllable as a suffix. It is different where the nasal syllable is a prefix;

ntaalu (very unruly) nta-alu
nteeba (I am scoring) nte-eba
mbuuza (I am asking) mbu-uza
mpuuna (I am humming) mpu-una

Similarly the semi-vowel 'y' or 'w' in a word also naturally creates a long sound when it immediately follows another consonant. There is no need to double the vowel after such a combination. The difference here is that the long sound in the word is caused by the preceding syllable as in:

Mwami (Mister) Mwa-mi (do not use 'aa')
kikyamu (it is wrong) kikya-mu.
bwomu (for one, alone) bwo-mu
lwana (fight) lwa-na
twete (let us free ourselves) twe-te
Ddwaliro (hospital) Ddwa-liro
Ddwaniro (battle ground) Ddwa-niro
tyagira (walk with difficulty) tya-gira
kyalo (village) kya-lo
myala (streams) mya-la

An exception to this rule is that if the consonant preceding the semi-vowel is 'gg', then both single and double vowels are possible. Thus we have:

eggwolezo (court house)
eggwoolezo (customs house)

Note that since the combination 'ny' as in fact considered to be a single consonant, it is not affected by the above rules. Thus in ekinyumu both the 'i' and 'u' are short sounds. We can also have:

akunonye (he/she has come for you)
akunoonya (he/she is looking for you)
nyiga (press)
nyiiga (become annoyed)

Written words are usually assumed to be the direct reflection in alphabetical symbols of the sounds uttered, and conventional rules are set to give language a standard by which people can communicate. However, it is not uncommon that a mere arrangement of letters in a single unit, will not necessarily give the exact word sound required. Some language have instituted symbols like accents, in order to create a distinction that may exist between words with similar spelling but with different intonation and meaning. This has not been done in Luganda and consequently some confusion may arise for such words. To bring the point closer to home, let us look at the following examples:

mpanga (rooster) falling on the last syllable
Mpanga (place or personal name) rising on the last syllable
Lwanga (personal name) rising on the last syllable
Lwanga ( place name) falling on the last syllable
muweesi (black smith) falls on 'wee' and rises on 'si' syllables
muweesi (carrier) rising on both 'wee' and 'si' syllables

When spoken, these words sound distinct from each other and their meanings would be self evident. In written form however, the distinction is not evident and instead it has to be deduced from the context in which the words are used.

The use of the letters 'r' and 'l' in Luganda follows a special rule. Phonetically, the two are indistinguishable in Luganda words. In fact, the 'r' sound as in raspberry does not exist in Luganda. But a rule in spelling Luganda words calls for the use of the letter 'r' immediately following the vowels 'e' and 'i', whereas the letter 'l' is to be used in all other instances calling for the corresponding sound. The following are examples of the usage accepted in the standard orthography.

kolera (work for) ko (le) (ra)
wulira (listen) wu (li) (ra)
lulira (long umbilical cord) (lu) (li) (ra)
laalira (get stuck) (laa) (li) (ra)
bulirira (get lost for a while)

Note especially that in the last example, the syllable 'li' as compared with the syllable 'ri' in the same word 'bulirira' does not produce any phonetic difference. But the rules of orthography call for the indicated spelling.

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Word Separation

In general, all small words preceding nouns, adjectives or verbs are written separately. We have the following commonly occurring forms:

ne [conjunctive]
ne, nga [narratives]
e, ku, mu, wa [locatives]
ba, bya, ga, gwa, ka, kya, lwa, lya, wa [genitives]
ba, bwa, bwe, bye, gwe, gye, nti, oti [relative object]
ggwe, nze, ye, yo [emphatic pronouns]
kyo, yo, ye [personal possessives]
kye, ye [copulatives]

The following are example usage of these forms.

Kintu ne Nnambi [conjunctive form]
natuukayo ne ndaba [narrative form]
ntudde ku ntebe [locative form]
omwana wa Musoke [genitive form]
omukazi gwe nsanze [relative form]
ggwe onomugambako [emphatic pronoun]
embwa yo [personal possessive form]
omulenzi ye mulalu [copulative form]

Notice that all these little words end in vowels. When these words precede a word starting with a vowel, their ending vowel is elided in speech. The elided vowel is dropped from the spelling and instead denoted by an apostrophe. This creates a long sound that is not represented by a double vowel. The exception to this is if the word is an emphatic pronoun (see example above). Examples of usage are given below:

omwenge n'ennyama [conjunctive form]
n'otema omuti [narrative form]
ew'omuyizzi [locative form]

Finally , some little words are used as suffixes. In such usage, these words are always attached to the word affected. The suffixes are:

ko, mu, nga, wo, yo.

Examples of usage are:

kumpiko (the place is a bit near)
nfumbeko (it is a little cooked)
nvuddewo (I have left this place)
natuukayo (I arrived there)

For additional information, check out the following references.

M.B. Nsimbi and J.D. Chesswas 'An explanation of the Standard Orthography of Luganda' 4th edition, Uganda Bookshop Press, Kampala, 1985.

John D. Murphy 'Luganda-English Dictionary' The Catholic Univeristy of America Press, Wahington, D.C. 1972

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