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Setswana Phonology

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When Batswana communicate, they use a combination of sounds which enable them to convey various ideas with each other. Each of these sounds consists of words which are made out of discrete speech sounds known as phonemes. This study of phonemes and other phenomena related to the sounds of a particular language is known as phonology. In order to gain a full understanding of the Setswana language, it is necessary to carefully analyze the inventory and structure of its consonants and vowels.

In all, there are 28 Setswana consonants that each have different distinctive features. These 28 consonants consist of four aspirated voiceless plosives, three non aspirated voiceless plosives, one voiced plosive, three aspirated voiceless affricates, three non-aspirated voiceless affricates, one voiced affricate, five fricatives, four nasals, and four sonorants.

It is also important to note that there are other consonants besides these 28 which include clicking sounds that are accompanied by the sucking of the air in the mouth cavity. These clicks consist of the dental click, the lateral click, and the palatal click. Since these clicks are only found in marginal words such as interjections and ideophones, they are not officially considered as part of the Setswana phonological system. Moreover, these clicks are slowly starting to disappear in the speech of young Batswana.

There are many peculiarities associated with Setswana consonants that should be addressed. The phoneme g is pronounced as a throaty h sound similar to the ch in loch. One example of this phoneme is in the pronunciation of Botswana's capital, Gaborone. Another unusual phoneme is f which is often spoken as h in most dialects (except Sekgatla, Setlokwa and Selete). This is particularly the case before u as in sefuba which is normally pronounced as sehuba. Furthermore, the phoneme th is pronounced as a hard t sound such as in the word tap rather than thick. The same is true for all other consonants used in combination with h, such as ph, sh, tlh, etc.

Although consonants are extremely vital to understanding the phonology of a language, vowels are just as important as they tend to be the nuclei of syllables. Bantu languages typically have an inventory of five or seven vowels, which are described in terms of the localization of the tongue, the height of the tongue, the position of the lips, and the position of the muscles of the tongue. Setswana has an inventory of seven vowels which can be seen in Figure 2 below.

It should be noted though that some phonological descriptions of Setswana vowels have come up with a nine vowel system that consists of the seven vowels in Figure 2, as well as the vowels e and o. Although there is a general tendency to have a seven vowel system in standard Setswana, some Setswana dialects such as Sengwaketse and Serolong are said to maintain a nine-vowel system.

Within Setswana, there are several common phonological processes that include assimilation processes, dissimilation processes, and phonemic restructuring. The assimilation process involves the changing of a phoneme into another phoneme or allphone similar to a neighboring one. This usually happens in order to facilitate the pronunciation of words in which the adjacent phonemes are not similar. One type of assimilation in Setswana is the velarisation of nasals that is the changing of bilabial, alveolar or palatal nasal consonants into velar nasal consonants. This process is caused by the semivowel w which is itself articulated as a velar consonant. Therefore all nasal consonants become velars when they precede the semivowel as in the word lema (cultivate) and lengwa (be cultivated). Another type of assimilation process known as homorganic assimilation is where a nasal consonant assimilates to the point or place of articulation of the following consonant. Figure 3 provides an example of homorganic assimilation.

One final type of assimilation is called strengthening or hardening. In this type of assimilation, a strong phoneme, such as a nasal or a high tense vowel, causes another phoneme to become strong. In the strength scale, plosive consonants are stronger than sonorant or fricative consonants; voiceless consonants are stronger than voiced consonants; and aspirated consonants are stronger than non-aspirated consonants. The strengthening process in Setswana is very unique as it involves two series of consonants, the unstrengthened and the strengthened. The two series including the direction of strengthening are shown

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