SOUNDS AND SPELLING
Nasals before other consonants
When studying a language, it is often useful to remember that the writing system is a set of symbols which attempts to represent the sounds of the language which are distinctive those sounds which indicate changes in meaning.
In practice it is not always easy to come up with a set of symbols which everyone agrees on, and this has been the case with Kiribati, which was first written in the mid-19th century by missionaries translating the Bible.
Since that time, various writing systems have been proposed and used, and while a great deal of regularity has emerged, there is still no complete agreement on how certain sounds should be written.
The spelling system used in this text does not deviate much from those in general use, but it does attempt to make the differences in pronunciation as explicit as possible. (Specifically, this means that you will find many doubled vowels and nasals in this text, where in most other writing you would find only a single form e.g. marooroo / maroro).
On the following pages the sound and spelling system of Kiribati is described in some detail. You are not expected to master all of the intricacies of pronouncing and spelling Kiribati in his one lesson; please consider this lesson as an introduction only. You will probably find yourself referring back to this lesson as you work through the language program.
To examine the sounds of Kiribati, it is convenient to group them into vowels, nasals, and consonants.
1. The Vowels
Kiribati vowels may appear as both long and short sounds, and meanings of words will often be distinguished by this difference. As this is not a characteristic of English, some difficulty may be expected in this area.
It is in the representation of vowel length that many of the spelling systems differ. Often, length is not indicated at all, or only in some words. In this text length will be indicated by a doubled letter; it may be thought of as the sound followed by itself.
There is no restriction on vowel combinations; therefore long vowel strings may occur, such as in the word ruoia, a kind of Kiribati national dance. These vowel combinations may also be expected to provide some difficulty.
(Note: The following description of Kiribati sounds should be considered as a reminder rather than as a guide. Actual pronunciation should be learned from a native Kiribati speaker.)
This is pronounced like the a in father, or the vowel sound of hot, spot, not. While it keeps this pronunciation after b' and m', after b and m it has a sound more like that in cat, bat, or hat.
|man|| from; animal|
|maan|| long time; animals|
|mata|| eye; color|
|baba|| board; fool|
|b'ab'a|| to drown|
This is generally pronounced like the vowel in hate, cane, make.
|tebe|| to jump, dart, bounce up|
|enga|| to be where?|
This has the sound of the vowel in heap, meet, speak.
|iika|| fish (plural)|
|tiku|| to stay|
|riki|| to become|
This is like the vowel of hope, coat, smoke.
|ota|| residue of scraped coconut|
|koro|| husking stick|
|ongo|| to hear|
This usually has the sound of the vowel in moon, soup, boot. When it appears immediately before another vowel, it is difficult to distinguish from w.
|taku|| to say|
|ruuruu|| cleaning out a shell|
2. The Nasals
Like the vowels, the nasal sounds may also occur lengthened, which may provide some difficulty for English speakers. This is another area in which spelling systems do not agree, often failing to indicate the additional length. For the most part these sounds are similar to those occurring in English.
Except when lengthened, this is basically as in English. Unlike the other nasals, it may occur directly before any nasal or consonant sound, providing some combinations which are rare or non-existent in English. (A following a has the vowel sound of hat, cat, rat.)
|m'baa|| to kiss|
|mte|| small, fine|
This symbol is only used before a, in which case the vowel sound remains like that in hot, top, or mock. (Some systems write ma for both sounds ma and m'a. In others, m'a is written mwa. It never occurs before o or u.)
|kanimm'a|| adhere it|
The n sound is basically that of English, except that it too can be lengthened. It can also occur alone however, as in, the word N, (the pronoun "I").
|nako|| to go|
|kana|| to eat|
|ntabena|| kind of crab|
|man|| from; animal|
|N|| I (before future)|
Although written with two symbols, ng is also a single sound, quite similar to that appearing in the English word singer (though not the sound in finger).
|ngare|| to laugh|
|ngka|| give me|
|ngenge|| a begging look|
|uringga|| remember it|
3. The Consonants
The Kiribati consonants may only appear at the beginning or middle of a word, never finally. They never occur adjacent to each other (although b' is usually spelled bw before i and e).
The spelling symbols for the consonants are not always good indicators of pronunciation, as quite a bit of variation occurs before different vowels, so some care must be taken to memorize the correct sound/symbol correspondences.
This sound is somewhere between the English b and p, and was often spelled with a p in some earlier systems. It is rather like the p in spit. (The sound of a following a is as in cap, hat, back.)
|beebete|| easy, light|
|buoka|| to help|
|biri|| to run|
Like m' this symbol only appears before a, where it has the effect of retaining the 'hot, stop, lock' sound of a. (Some writing systems don't use a separate symbol for b', using b for both sounds. It is written bw before i and e. It never occurs before o or u.)
|b'aka|| to fall|
|bwe|| oar, paddle|
|b'aa|| rock, oil|
|mb'aa|| to kiss|
This sound is some where between the English t and d, rather like the t in stick. When it occurs before i it is pronounced as an s (so
that ti, 'only, we', is pronounced like see). In the Northern dialect it has this s pronunciation before u as well. (see next chapter on dialects. )
|toka|| to get on|
|tiku|| to stay|
|matuu|| to sleep|
|tei|| to stand|
|mata|| eye, color|
This is pronounced somewhere between the English g and k, but rather similar to the k in skill.
|karea|| to throw|
|tiku|| to stay|
|korea|| to cut|
A somewhat difficult sound for English speakers, it is made with a tap of the tongue, and sometimes sounds like a d or dr.
|roko|| come, arrive|
|rama|| outrigger boom|
This is usually pronounced similarly to w in English, but is often between w and v. Before e it is always pronounced as a v. (It never occurs before o or u.)
|wetea|| to call|
|kewe|| to lie|