Alphabet and orthography

The dictionary is organised alphabetically, according to the first letter of each headword. A few remarks need to be made regarding the alphabet and the writing system, also called the “orthography”.

There are 26 letters or graphemes in the Samburu alphabet, as used for practical writing:[1]


<a, b, ch, d, e, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ng’, ny, o, p, r, rr, s, t, u, w, wu, y, yi>


A few letters or graphemes need a comment:

  • <ch> is always pronounced “ch” [tʃ] after a consonant, and usually “sh” [ʃ] elsewhere.
  • <ng’> represents the velar nasal [ŋ], the “ng”-sound in English (as in the English word <song> or the Swahili word <ng’ombe>). When the sound appears word finally, the apostrophe is dropped and the velar nasal is spelled <ng>, as in <alang> [aláŋ].
  • <r> is pronounced as a fast “r” sound (a flap, [ɾ]), while <rr> is pronounced as a rolling “r” sound (a trill, [r]). The r-sound is always pronounced as a trill before consonants and at the end of words, but it is always spelled <r> in these environments, as in <lbarnoti> [lbarnóti] and <lasar> [lásar].
  • <wu> is a stronger, more lengthened sound and has a phonetically higher formant frequency than <w>, and <yi> is a stronger, more lengthened and higher sound than <y>. Both <wu> and <yi> are consonants, even though the graphemes are a combination of a consonant and a vowel symbol.

The reader should notice that the Samburu orthography underrepresents four vowel phonemes. Spoken Samburu has nine contrastive vowels, divided into what are called [+ATR] and [-ATR] sets, with <a> being neutral between the sets. Aside from <a>, the [-ATR] vowels share graphemes with their [+ATR] counterparts, such that <e> represents both [e] and [ɛ], <i> represents both [i] and [ɪ], <o> represents both [o] and [ɔ] and <u> represents both [u] and [ʊ]. The [ATR] value of a vowel is given in the phonetic script.

An exception to this spelling convention is found in words ending with [aɪ]. Such words are spelled <ae>, as in <ntae>, which phonetically is [ntáɪ́]. Also, words ending in [aɛ] are spelled with <ae>, as in <mbae>, which phonetically is [mbá̩ɛ̩].[2]

The Samburu orthography also contains two tone marks, the colon (:) and the slash (/), which sometimes can be seen in the example sentences in the dictionary. The colon marks nominative tone and is used on subjects (nouns or pronouns and modifiers), while the slash marks perfective aspect (roughly like “past tense”) and is used on verbs.

The tone marks are used with a few exceptions. The rules for omission of the colon tone mark are the following (in the examples here, the subject is written in bold face):

  • The colon is not used in “kore”-constructions, where the topicaliser “kore” is followed by a subject.

Kore kuna ng’uesi, neata larikoni lenche oji Lng’atuny.

So, these animals, they had a leader who was called Lion.

  • The subject of an intransitive verb is not marked with a colon.

Neichir Sidai oleng.

Ostrich cried very much.

  • When the 1st person or 2nd person is the subject in a clause, the subject is not marked with a colon.

Ira iyie layieni lai lacham.

You are my beloved son.

  • The colon is not used when there is no ambiguity. If a clause makes sense if only a certain noun phrase is interpreted as the subject, then the colon is not used on that subject noun phrase.

Nelau Lng’atuny ndaa tee mperot kumo.

Lion lacked food for many days.

The slash is omitted in three types of verbs or environments (in the examples here, the verbs are written with bold face):

  • The slash is not used when the verb is morphologically marked for perfective aspect (i.e., what loosely may be called “past tense”). In the example below, the prefix <to-> together with the suffix <–o> indicate perfective aspect, or that the action already has happened. A few other verbs have an irregular form for perfective aspect.

Katobolo ltim.

I opened the gate.

  • The slash is not used when there is a temporal marker in the context, such as an adverb of time or another verb which is morphologically marked for perfective aspect. In the example below, the word <apa> (a discourse marker indicating past time) shows that the action already has taken place.

Keichiunyie apa lkumo.

He had healed many.

  • The slash is not used on verbs that begin with the connective <n->, in the example below the word <najing>. The word <kachomo> is not tone marked because of the first rule about the slash above.

Kore ng’ole, naa kachomo Wuampa, najing lduka le Monika.

Yesterday I went to Wamba and entered Monika’s shop.

Other tonal contrasts are not marked in the practical spelling (i.e. orthography). In this dictionary, tone is marked in square brackets in the phonetic information for individual words. In the phonetic script, the syllable marker (e.g. [a̩a̩]) shows extra length wherever there is a bimoraic (or trimoraic) vowel cluster. Absence of syllable/mora marker under an orthographic vowel cluster means that the cluster is short (i.e. monomoraic). Hence the vowel cluster in [mbá̩ɛ̩] is phonetically longer than the vowel cluster in e.g. [ntáɪ́].

[1] For clarity in this introduction, angled brackets < > surround practical Samburu, English, and Swahili spelling or graphemic forms. Square brackets [ ] surround Samburu phonetic forms represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

[2] The small marks under the vowels are explained below.