Bambara Alphabet and Pronunciation (N'ko and Latin)

Here I lay out how to read, write and prononce Bambara using the N’ko and Latin alphabets. Before looking at the tables though, let’s take a step back and understand what exactly we mean when we say “Bambara”.

Map of the Manding language continuum

From a linguistic perspective Bambara is but one variety of Manding, a language-dialect continuum spoken across a massive area stretching from Senegal to Burkina Faso. Traditionally, it is divided into four major named varieties: Bamanan (Bambara), Maninka (Malinké), Jula (Dioula) and Mandinka (Mandingo). The first three, in particular, are often held to mutually intelligible by native speakers. They are all Eastern Manding varieties characterized by a 7-vowel system. Mandinka, on the other hand, is a Western variety which has a 5-vowel system and a number of other features that make it more difficult to consider mutually intelligible in many contexts.

Despite early attempts following independence to develop a unified Latin-based orthography, most West African countries with Manding-speaking populations each have their own tradition and quirks when it comes to writing their dominant national varieties of Manding. N’ko on the other hand is a single normative tradition meant to be used for writing Manding as one single language. In this paper, I analyze and compare the emergence and philosophies of these two orthographic traditions.

The following tables lay out the basic letters of Manding orthography in both N’ko and Latin script without going into the details that distinguish the named national varieties of

Consonants
LatinN’koEnglish approximationExampleGloss
bߓbadbón‘house’
cߗChadcɛ̌‘man’
dߘdogdɔ̀lɔ́‘alcohol’
fߝfilmfɔ́lɔ‘first’
g-goodgàribú‘Quranic student seeking alms’
gbߜ*A labio-velar double occlusive—in essence, an English /g/ and /b/ at the same timegbò‘bad’
hߤhellohákili‘idea’
jߖjumpjàn‘long’
kߞcallkélen‘one’
lߟlamplòkó‘plantain’
mߡmightmɔ̀gɔ́‘person’
nߣnevernáani‘four
ɲߢ*Palatal nasal—like enseñar in Spanishɲì‘good’
ŋ-kingŋɔ̀mí‘fritter’
pߔpowerpán‘jump’
rߙ / ߚ*a tapped /r/ like pero in Spanishbáara‘work’
sߛsoupsàyá‘death’
tߕtomatotìlé‘sun’
wߥwestwári‘money’
yߦyogurtyɛ́lɛ‘laugh’
z-zebrazùwɛ́n‘June’
 
Vowels
LatinN’koEnglish approximationExampleGloss
aߊwaspbàbá‘dad’
eߋ*like manger in Frenchbèsé‘machette’
ɛߍmetsɛ̀nɛ́‘farming’
iߌhappyfili‘throw’
uߎgoosedùgú‘earth’
oߏ*like beau in Frenchbǒ‘excrement’
ɔߐboughtbɔ̀gɔ́‘mud, clay’
 
Syllabic Nasal
LatinN’koEnglish approximationExampleGloss
nߒ*Syllabic nasal‘I’