Notes on Phonology and Orthography


The Engwo alphabet was developed by the linguist and native speaker Julius A. EYOH and was adopted for use by the Ngwo community on July 7th 2007 in the Ngwo hall (Etsam) at Sabli-Ngwo. The alphabet is in conformity with the General Alphabet of Cameroon Languages, which was adopted in 1979 by the National Committee for the Unification and harmonization of the alphabets of Cameroon Languages.

Letters of the Engwo Alphabet

The Engwo segmental alphabet has a total of 36 letters. Among these 36 letters are 29 consonants and 7 vowels. The letters are presented below in their alphabetical order:

A a, B b, Ch ch, D d, Dz dz, E e, Ɛ ɛ, F f, G g, Gb gb, Gh gh, H h, ’ ’, I i, J j, K k, Kp kp, L l, M m, N n, Ny ny, Ŋ ŋ, O o, Ɔ ɔ, P p, R r, S s, Sh sh, T t, Ts ts, U u, V v, W w, Y y, Z z, Zh zh.

a A a atán chair
b B b dog
tS Ch ch echú red fly
d D d endé food
dz Dz dz àdzo honey bee
e E e ekèrè up
ɛ Ɛ ɛ èkɛ̀rɛ̀ pepper
f F f afú leaves
g G g agɛ́ grass
gb Gb gb ńgbáa salt
Ä Gh gh ghô human being
h H h ahlá hoe
? ’ ’ akó’ fufu
i I i ebírí war
J j eju shame
k K k aká pan
kp Kp kp ekpê canoe/boat
l L l álo leg/foot
m M m émɛ́n saliva
n N n enɔ́ soldier ant
ø Ny ny nyɛ̂m meat
ŋ Ŋ ŋ elɔ́ŋɔ́ trousers
o O o ató head
ɔ Ɔ ɔ atɔ́ branches
p P p épan curse
R R r akírí umbrella
s S s àsɛ̀’ comb
S Sh sh shúu fish
t T t átɛ́’ hut
ts Ts ts etsâ song
u U u goat
v V v vánà vine
w W w éwu fire
j Y y ayé woman
z Z z azó’ yam
Z Zh zh ezhú nose

The letter ‘v’ does not occur in any typical Engwo word, but has been added to the alphabet to serve in case of borrowed words and names. It is nicknamed ‘the sleeping letter.’ 


There are five phonemic tones in Engwo but only three are marked on words. The mid tone and the low-high tone are left unmarked. The various tones include:

The high tone (á) as in étáa “heart”

The low tone (à) as in ètàn “grasshoppers”

The mid tone (ā) as in etan “on the bed”

The falling tone (â) as in gô “mahogany tree”

The rising tone (ǎ) as in go “fall”


To mark level tones on long vowels, the tone is marked only on the first vowel and the second vowel is left empty:

The high tone (áa) as in étáa “heart”

The low tone (àa) as in é fàa “to frighten”

The mid tone (āa) as in é naa “to place”

For contour tones, the tone is split onto both vowels. The rising tone is not marked as we can see from the examples below:

The rising tone (àá) as in zɛɛ “loosen it”

The falling tone (áà ) as in abɛ́ɛ̀ “side”

It is good to master the tones very well. If you use the wrong tone, you get a wrong word which gives the wrong message. 

Syllabic Nasals

There are many words in Engwo that begin with either ‘m’ or ‘n’ but the ‘m’ or ‘n’ is pronounced like a vowel. In this case the ‘m’ or ‘n’ forms a syllable of its own in the word.  That is why the nasal ‘m’ or ‘n’ is called a syllabic nasal.  In such cases, a tone is marked on it except for the low-high tone and the mid tone which are not marked. The ‘m’ or ‘n’ which bears a tone is always followed by a consonant as in the following words: m̀pwɔ̀  “cow”, ǹkwɔ̀m  “ram”,  ńglí  “vein”,  ńkɔ́ “cup”, m̀bɔ̀b  “huckle berry”,  ḿbyéré  “knives”,  etc. 

Long Vowels

A long vowel is a vowel in a word which is pronounced by dragging out the word so that it makes a difference in meaning from the short vowel. It is written double as in the examples below:

kó “spend the night (short)”        fɔ́ “contribute (short)”

kóo “cover it (long)”            fɔ́ɔ “pass (long)”


fé “get burnt (short)”           bɛ́rɛ́ “thank (short)”

fée “blow air (long)”            bɛ́ɛrɛ́ “learn (long)”


kúrú “rest (short)”               kárá “urge (short)”

kúurú “heap up (long)”        káará “chase (long)”

dí “doubt it (short)”

díi “dirty it (long)”

Nasalised Vowels

In Engwo, the vowels [i, u, ɛ, ɔ, a] are pronounced in some words with air passing through the nose, making a difference with other vowels that do not have this. Nasalised vowels bring about a change in the meaning of words. A nasalised vowel in Engwo is written with a cedilla (  ̧ ) under the vowel. In the pair of words below, one of the words has a nasalised vowel and the other does not, and this signals the difference in meaning between the pair.

ewú      “death”                kùurù     “select”

ewú̧      “market”             kù̧urù     “weep (plural)”

Other examples include

fɔ̧́ɔ     “pass”

shi̧i    “press and rub”

éwɔ̧̂    “gossiping”


Palatalisation is the use of the letter ‘y’ in between a consonant and a vowel. In this case the letter ‘i’ is never used in that position. Therefore, use the letter ‘y’ in between a consonant and a vowel as in the following words:

abyɛ́     “wound”              mbyɛ̀ɛ     “we (excl.)”

ékye     “medicine”           mfyɛ́ɛ      “our”

fyee     “two”                  etyé        “stone”


Labialisation here refers to the use of “w” in between first a consonant and then a vowel.  In this case the letter “u” is never used in that position. Only the “w” is used, for example:

abwó  “hand”                âkwè    “bachelor”

ekwá  “skin”                  egwe    “hatred”

égwɔ   “plantain”           m̀pwɔ̀   “cow”

Consonant plus “l”

Consonant clusters in Engwo result from the combination of a consonant immediately followed by the letter “l” as in these examples:

aplákwa’ “a type of bird”              eŋlimi   “sweat”

éblâ    “shoes”                m̀blì’     “ditch”

èklɔ̀    “fear”                  ahlá      “hoe”

gli      “go out”               fli         “drive away”

Word Final Consonants

Not all the consonants can occur at the end of words. There are typically 7 consonants that can occur at the end of Engwo words. These include “b, d, g, ’, m, n, ŋ.” Examples of words with these word final consonants are as follows:

ándwɔb “beans”             m̀bɔ̀b    “hukkle berry”

ébíd      “excreta”           ngúd     “oil”

ákɔ́      “container”        m̀bi      “kidney”

atâm     “walking stick    ebûm    “belly”

atán      “chair”              abán     “breasts”

àkɔ̀ŋ     “helmet”           ǹdzàŋ   “poverty”

We have come across a very rare case of “g” occurring at the end of the word

m̀bog     “envy”

Apart from the above cases of word final consonants for typical Engwo words, any other consonant that comes at the end of a word is an indication that the word is borrowed from another language. As for vowels, all can occur at the end of words. 

Word Initial Vowels

In Engwo, only the vowels “a” and “e” can occur at the beginning of words. They serve as noun prefixes for singular and plural nouns as in;

égwɔ “plantain”     ágwɔ “plantains”

ékɔ    “pot”           ákɔ   “pots”

álo    “leg”            élo    “legs”

ahlá  “hoe”           ehlá  “hoes”

We may find “o, ɔ, i or ɛ” occurring word initially only in responses, exclamations, borrowed words or names. The “u” may occur word initially only in borrowed words also.

The Glottal Stop and Echo Vowel

When the glottal stop comes at the end of a word, the preceding vowel is echoed and sometimes it is not. You are free to write the echo vowel or not to write it. See examples

ebó’ or ebó’ó     “bundle”

ekwá’ or ekwá’á         “ladder”

zé’ or zé’é         “come”

tɛ́’ or tɛ́’ɛ́           “place it on”

Spelling Rules

The spelling rules of this language, backed by complementary distribution, demand that the letters ch, j, sh, zh must only be directly followed by either w, y, u, or i before any other letter can follow. On the contrary, the letters ts, dz, s, z must never be directly followed by w, y, u or i in any typical Engwo word. This information is very vital especially as it will help us to correct the spellings of our local names that were wrongly spelt before and maintain the real pronunciations of these names as pronounced in our community. For instance


Acha   x                  Atsa

Ajoh   x                  Adzoh

Nche  x                  Ntse

Ejah   x                  Edza

This is a true reflection of the Ngwo man’s pronunciation and a preservation of the true culture among other things.

 Vowel1-Vowel2 Co-occurrence

From the use of the letters “y” and “w” in between a consonant and a vowel, any typical Engwo word written with two different vowels next to each other will mean that the two vowels have resulted from a combination of two different words (compound words). Otherwise, the “i” which comes first, changes to a “y” and the “u” which comes first, changes to a “w.” Compound words with different vowels occurring next to each other can be seen from the following examples;

eléabwa      “behaviour”

ŋwɔ́ànɔm    “boy, son”

bwoàyè       “girls, daughters”

If the vowels “i” or “u” are followed by another vowel in a compound word, then they must be separated with a hyphen (-) as in the following examples;

àtí-ànàm      “blacksmith”

àshí-àkɛb     “treasurer”

ákɔ́’ nu-azhì “camera”

àku-ato        “block-headed person”

Vowel Deletion and Use of the Apostrophe (’)

As in French (d’ l’ etc), some Engwo vowels are dropped in speaking and so we can possibly use the apostrophe to indicate their absence. This should not be confused with the glottal stop. Nontheless we will recommend that you try to write the words in full. Examples of cases of vowel deletion that can use the apostrophe are as follows:

Don’t write Instead write   for
n’ éndê na éndê “it is so”
n’ aŋu na aŋu “as/since”
n’ eklá na eklá “it is the family”
m’ éngɛ ma éngɛ “if it is so”
Other Spelling Rules to Remember

- Except for borrowed words, the letter “l” occurs root initially whereas “r” occurs root medially.

- Except for exclamations or other such words, the letter “h” is usually followed by “l”

- Never write “t” at the end of a word, write “d”

- Never write “p” at the end of a word, write “b”

- Never write “c” alone, always write “ch”

- When “w” and “l” are preceded by a nasal, always write “ŋw” and “ŋl” respectively.

- When “g” and “k” are preceded by a nasal, always write “ng” and “nk” respectively.

- Never write “s” before “u, w, i or y,” always write “sh”

- Never write “z” before “u, w, i or y”, always write “zh”

- Never write another nasal infront of “f, b, p,” always write “m”

- Never write another nasal infront of “t, d, ch j,” write but “n”

- Never write two different vowels next to each other, instead the first vowel which is “i” will change to “y” or the “u” will change to “w”

- When a vowel is long, write it double

Punctuation and Capitalisation

The punctuation marks and the rules that govern the Ngwo language are the same as those for English. The punctuation marks used for Engwo are therefore as follows:

Full stop (.)

Question mark (?)

Exclamation mark (!)

Comma (,)

Colon (:)

Semicolon (;)

Quotation marks (“ … ”) and (‘ … ’)