3. The Sounds of Maasai (Phonology)

  Perhaps the most obvious aspect of any language is its sound structure, known by linguists as its PHONOLOGY (phon = 'sound'; ology = 'study of').  Nilotic languages have completely distinct sound systems from Swahili (a Bantu language, ultimately connected to the Niger-Congo family), and from all Indo-European languages. Thus, writing systems developed to represent the sounds of Latin or Swahili do not always fare so well in representing Nilotic words. Three salient aspects of the Maa sound system are its consonants, its vowels, and its tone.


  The Maa language has about 25 consonant sounds, written as p, b, t, d, k, g, mb, nd, nj, ng, s, sh, c, j, m, n, ny, , l, r, rr, y, yy (yi), w, and ww (wu). Dialects may differ in what consonant sounds they have. Thus, Barbara Levergood (1987) describes Arusa Maa as lacking c and p; but instead having voiceless and voiced bilabial fricatives (sounds which are made by blowing through the lips almost as if one were saying p or b).

  One must be careful not to assume that letters on paper necessarily represent the same sounds for all languages. The Maa sounds written as b, d, j, g, mb, nd, nj, and ng are IMPLOSIVE, meaning that they are pronounced while the speaker draws air into the mouth. All the others are EXPLOSIVE, meaning that air travels out of the mouth while the sound is made. (By far, most language sounds around the world are explosive). For Maa, explosive sounds include those written as p, t, c, k, though to speakers of other languages, when these sounds occur after a nasal sound or between two vowels, one might be tempted to "hear" them like English 'b", "d", "j" and "g," thus perhaps mis-writing en-gitojó for 'hare' (instead of correct en-kitojó; IlWuasinkishu en-kitejó).

  The sound written as , as in eúes 'wild animal,' corresponds to the sound written as ng'  in Swahili or ng in English singer (but not the ng of English finger, nor to the sound written as ng in Swahili). The rr is produced by trilling the tip of the tongue against the top of the mouth (like the rr of Spanish).

  What are represented as ww (often represented by wu in practical writing) and yy (yi) can be described phonetically as "strong" or "fortis", more tightly-articulated versions of the more gently-articulated sounds w and y.  In Maa, these are clearly distinct sounds, which native speakers use to distinguish words. Compare:

éyyáya (éyíáya) 'He/she will go searching (for something)' 
éyá 'He/she will take it'
éwwáp (éwúáp) 'He/she will snatch it' 
éwál 'He/she will reply.'


Maa has nine distinct vowels. (For some comparison, Swahili and Spanish have only 5; while English arguably has 13.) The Maa vowels divide into two sets, depending on whether the tongue root is moved forward (enlarging the throat cavity); or is in a neutral position or moved backwards (reducing the throat cavity). The size of the throat cavity affects the acoustic sound waves that travel through the air, making the sounds distinct as they are first perceived by the hearer's ear, and then interpreted by the brain. When the tongue root is moved forward, this is referred to as Advanced Tongue Root (+ATR; which Tucker and Mpaayei called "close"); when the tongue root is in a neutral or retracted position, the sound is referred to as Non-advanced or Retracted Tongue Root (-ATR; which Tucker and Mpaayei called "open") (Figure 3). There is simply nothing like this distinction in Swahili or Indo-European languages, and it requires considerable practice for someone whose first language does not have such sound contrasts to learn to reliably recognize, and produce, the difference.

  Many Maa words differ from each other just by a change in the ATR value of a vowel. Thus, it is important to represent all nine vowels, which we do here as follows:
ADVANCED TONGUE ROOT   i   e   o   u 
NEUTRAL (also non-advanced)    a

With these nine symbols, the fact that the following words sound different can be represented:
érík 'He/she will lead it.'
rk 'He/she will nauseate (someone).'
épét 'He/she will plaster it.'
pt 'He/she will keep close to it.'
éból 'He/she will open it.'
bl 'He/she will hold it (by the mouth).'
ébúl 'He/she will pierce it.'
bl 'He/she will prosper. '

To find out more about how these contrasting vowels sound, click here.


  A third, extremely important, feature of Maa is its tone. The meaning of individual Maa words can be changed just by changing the tone (or pitch, i.e., relative acoustic frequencies) on which different syllables are pronounced.

  From a linguistic perspective, Maa has two "basic" tones, High and Low. But these can be combined so that some words end with a tone that moves quickly from High to Low and hence is perceived as Falling. Also, when listening to words in natural context, more than two acoustic pitches can be perceived because the tones are affected by surrounding tone contexts and by the general intonational patterns in sentences and discourse. In this description, the basic tone patterns are written over vowels as High á and a (word-final), Low a and à (word-final), and Falling â. Much humor, if not much misunderstanding, can arise if the tones across a word are inadvertently changed. The tone is particularly important in the grammar; a bit of this can be appreciated by considering the following simple pairs:

áadôl 'He/she/they will see me.'
'I will see you (singular).'
kntnyrra  'You (singular) have made me love it.
'You (plural) have made me love it.'
ár lmrraní látúny 'The warrior will kill the lion.'
ár lmrránì latúny 'The lion will kill the warrior.'

Back to top
Back to The Maasai Language

This page written by Doris L. Payne