How to pronounce ubuntu

“ubuntu” is a southern and/or eastern Bantu word … one of those words that is found in a number of languages and that no one is quite sure of the origin of. But this does not mean that it can’t be pronounced correctly.

There are very straight forward rules of pronunciation for Bantu words in general. Especially in Eastern and Southern Bantu languages (of which there are hundreds) you can think of the vowels as always being pronounced the same way whenever and wherever they are encountered. There are not really any silent vowels, and although there is some elision, there is very little. In the case of “ubuntu” all the vowels are separate so that is not an issue. And all the vowels in “ubuntu” are the same vowels, therefore, they are all pronounced the same way.

Here is a Bantu vowel pronunciation guide that you may wish to clip out and keep in your pocket:

- – – – – – – – – – – – – -

a like “ah” such as “Ah, I see. Roosevelt’s dog’s name was fala. Aha!”

e like “ey” such as “Ey, how boot a Molsen’s, ey?”

i like “eeek!” such as “This is good shit, mon” in a thick Caribbean or Mexican accent.

o like “oh or “toe” such as “No. Which part of ‘No’ do you not ‘Know'”

u like “oooo” such as “Desmond Tutu does not wear a tutu.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – -

There are not really alternative pronunciations for these vowels. Just pronounce them as specified here and you’ll be fine. In truth, when you put a vowel between some consonants or next to some other vowel, it will get pronounced slightly differently, but your mouth, tongue, and larynx takes care of that for you. Just follow the guide above until it is internalized.

So, for example, a common Eastern Bantu (KiSwahili) greeting is:

Tutaonana, habari gani?

Which is pronounced (to an English speaker):

Too Ta Oh Na Na, Hah Ba Reee Gah Knee

Not

Tut own anna, hey berry gain ee

So, the vowels in “ubuntu” are simply:

Ooo , ooo, oooo

Like that kid on Welcome Back Kotter:

“Ooo, ooo, ooo, Mr. Kotter! Call on me!”

Then you stick in the consonants and the rest is pretty obvious:

Ooo (as in “ooo ooo ooo, I know the answer”) .. boon (as in Daniel Boone) … too (as in “me too!”).

Ooo boon too… ubuntu.

Not Ooo bun too

Not Ooo boon toe

Not oo bun toe

Just ooo boone too …. ubuntu.

But what does it all mean? Ask this guy:


Comments

  1. #1 eddie
    April 12, 2009

    Thanks Greg, for another excuse to show this to the people.

    Why ubuntu is wrong for america.

  2. #2 Romeo Vitelli
    April 12, 2009

    Zulu has some pretty horrendous clicks that can be hazardous to your health. I nearly sprained my tongue when I tried it.

  3. #3 eddie
    April 12, 2009

    The best comment from the link above;

    Takla June 10th, 2008 6:53 PM
    I was in South Africa, deep in the hinterland and many miles from the nearest town. I encountered some Zulu warriors hunting lions. We talked about the sacred land, the noble spirit of their quarry and their deep knowledge of the environment. Eventually I asked them ‘What is the meaning of ubuntu?” As one they said “It’s like Debian but slow and less stable”.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2009

    It is probably the case that the clicks in Zulu, Xosha, and other southern Bantu languages bled over from the numerous Ju/’hoansi, !Kung and other bushman type languages. (Xosha actually has a lot more clicking around, both in terms of numbers of different clicks and how often they are used, then Zulu.)

    Most Bantu languages are also tonal.

  5. #5 Nathan Myers
    April 12, 2009

    One I hear a lot is “Yoo-bun-too” or “Yoo-boon-too”. In middle-class England, I suppose, one hears “Yoo-bun-ter”. (I only just found out that the interjection “er” was transcribed from the sound “uh” by such rhotic Englishmen.)

    This, I suppose, answers my question about Uganda, which Americans, as one, pronounce “Yoo-gan-duh”. I take it that it’s said “Oo-gahn-dah” there. It’s not so unusual to have a different name for a country than the people there call it — “Germany” or “Allegmagne” for “Deutschland”, or “Leghorn” for “Livorno”. What seems odd is to have a different name but the same spelling.

  6. #6 Jason Thibeault
    April 12, 2009

    I hear “you-bun-too” around here too, and always correct them. Also hear “lie-nux” and yell at those particular goobers.

  7. #7 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    thanks, a definitive answer to this will free up some mental space (yes, I’ve actually been wondering how to pronounce that; a lot). And allow some uber-geek-bragging.

    You-bun-too and lie-nux bug me to no end as well…

    now I’ll need to work on my own pronunciation (I’ve been saying ooo-bun-too)

  8. #8 Brian X
    April 12, 2009

    I’m pretty dead set on /’lajn6ks/ as a pronunciation; sorry, Jadehawk, but if Linus did say his name in English, that’s probably how he’d pronounce the OS name. That said, I think it’s one of those things (like the spelling/pronunciation of alumin[i]um) that reasonable people can disagree on.

    But although I usually pronounce it “oo-bun-too”, I never put the /j/ at the beginning. I try to get at least that much right…

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2009

    Brian: Tell us how you pronounce Linux using understandable analogs. Like, do yo usay:

    Line as in Hold The Line X as in My X is a jerk? … Line X

    Or

    Lynne like my friend Lynn is cool uks as in I’ve got the rod and reel, hand me the hooks .. Lynne uks

    (The second of these two is how I pronounce Linux. So I’m currently considering it the correct way)

  10. #10 Stephanie Z
    April 12, 2009

    Or you could just ask Torvalds.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2009

    That bit if video is much better than what i had seen (actually, heard) previously.

    So you get that everybody? Linux rhymes wth Lynne Fix.

    By the way, if you listen to a non-Zulu/SB speaker, especially a brit, try to pronounce Ubuntu, they will usuallu shorten the middle syllable to get “OOO Bunt OOO” (to some degree). This is not correct, it is just the British not pronouncing east and southern African words correctly because of some gene they have.

    Shuttleworth himself barely gets it right.

  12. #12 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    I’m going to guess the impossibility of making all three syllables long is that no English words have equal emphasis on all syllables, so either you get oo-BUN-too, or uboon-TOO. so i’m pretending it’s an Asian dish: Ooo Boon Too. That kinda works, but still feels wrong, and it seems to take forever to say.

  13. #13 Brian X
    April 13, 2009

    Ah, I stand corrected. I was going on very old data.

  14. #14 Nathan Myers
    April 13, 2009

    Correcting people’s pronunciation is a good way to piss them off and make them thing you’re some kind of pencil-necked prig. “Lye-nux”, “Lee-nooks”, and “Lin-nix” are all correct. Linus himself says it most like the second one, but you’ll never succeed in matching what he actually says.

    I make a point of alternating among them, or pronouncing it differently from whatever whoever I’m talking with does. I never advocate any pronunciation.

    “Ubuntu”, as a distribution, is a proper name. “Ubuntu”, as a word, is related, but not the same. If somebody feels more comfortable saying “Yoo-bun-ter”, I’m just glad they’re talking about it at all. I’ll say it another way, and if they’re a good listener and care they might pick it up, but probably won’t, and it doesn’t matter if the do or don’t.

  15. #15 Jadehawk
    April 13, 2009

    what is it with people hating on correct pronunciation/spelling/use of words? when did it become socially acceptable to mispronounce things, but a social taboo to be striving to get things right?

    *sigh*

  16. #16 csrster
    April 13, 2009

    That was easy. Now what about Xubuntu (and LaTex).

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    April 13, 2009

    I learned “gnome” and “gnu” as “nome” and “new” and I learned “sql” as “Ess Que Elle” and I cannot bring myself to say “Sequel”

    I also agree that being pedantically inclined about pronunciation and for that matter spelling is usually annoying.

    However, of all the people who read this blog, and all the people in the science and tech blogosphere, Africa and Africans, as well as Africanists are underrepresented. As an Africanist, I am constantly seeing the (especially British) mispronunciation that is actually not just “correct if in English” but actually something else.

    The Brishis shun the Bantu nK pronunciation where K is a consonant. Thus, words like “ndege” and “ndutu” are proununced “En Dege and “En dutu”. That would be like looking at the word “Queen” and prounouncing it “Que Ween”

    Also, the Colonial Brits could not stop themselves from prouncing a trailing “e” like “eee” instead of “ey”. So what you say? Because the “eee” sound at the end of the word is a Euro diminutive. Similarly, having lots of strings of “oo” in a word became a written marker for primitive and exotic so we have words liek “Voodo” and “Hindoo” in the colonial written record.

    In other words, conventions hegemonic objectify, primitivize, or infantilize the colonialized.

    It is therefore asshatery to spell “Ubuntu” as “Ooboontoo” or to pronounce it OO – Bun — Too (Because the “nK construction is getting butchered). This would not have been bad if you did not know it. But now you know it. So you can’t do it any more. Sorry.

    It is like saying “Obama is pretty articulate for a black guy.” Or even just “Obama … articulate” Technically that is true because he is super-articulate in comparison to any group or category of person including all humans. But we know from cultural convention that the word “articulate” used in the context of an African American carries with it racist implications, so using it is ashattery.

    Maybe you didn’t know that but now you do. So you’re stuck with this new convention.

    I should note that I do not believe that English people should pronounce every allo-term in the original native accent. That is annoying and ingenuous. When the news caster slips into a perfect-sounding Spanish accent in the middle of an English Sentence it is distracting and also incorrect for most Spanish speaking people (as there are many dialects and this news caster is typically using only one). It is a mere affection. Nonetheless, one would be wrong pronounce “Canon de Chelley” as “Cannon Day Shelly” … but you can say “Canyon deh Shay” in whatever your native accent is and that would be unaffected and correct.

    The pronunciation of Linux is different. That is a whole other, less interesting and less important, ball of wax.

    BTW, the middle syllable in Ubuntu is stressed but that does not make it Ooo Bun Too. It is Ooo BOO Ntoo.

  18. #18 Nathan Myers
    April 13, 2009

    I learned Gnome and GNU as “gnome” and “gnu” (hard “g”), and always pronounce SQL as “squeal”, although “squall” would be defensible, “suckle” equally so.

    M-W says “gnu” comes from the Khoikhoi “t’gnu”. I don’t have any idea of the grammatical role of the “t'”, if any. Again, though, GNU is a proper name, and the most defensible guess at its pronunciation comes from GNU’s founder. When last I heard, he was not eliding the “G”.

  19. #19 eddie
    April 26, 2009

    My pronunciation of linux is due to charles shultz. From that perspective, Mr Torvalds is saying his own name, with his own accent. Good luck to him.

  20. #20 yatakta sevişme
    April 26, 2009

    Zulu has some pretty horrendous clicks that can be hazardous to your health. I nearly sprained my tongue when I tried it.

  21. #21 Lindani
    July 17, 2009

    First of all ubuntu is a Zulu word, and the only people that were called Bantu were South African black people, thats how i know it. Oh my God such ignorance! There are no Zulu’s here hunting for lions. Oh and I’m Zulu, a rural one for that matter, so there.

  22. #22 Greg Laden
    July 17, 2009

    I don’t know where that hunting for lions things comes from. But I do know a *place* called Lindani, a village or reserve or something in the Waterberg IIRC.

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    August 3, 2010

    Nathan: M-W says “gnu” comes from the Khoikhoi “t’gnu”. I don’t have any idea of the grammatical role of the “t'”, if any.

    Khoikhoi is not a langauge, but the t’gnu is probably a click at the beginning.

  24. #24 timberwoof
    September 30, 2010

    It’s all the fault of the Great English Vowel Shift, which includes the most obvious transitions:

    a -> e -> ey
    e -> i
    i -> a -> ay
    o -> o -> ow
    u -> u -> yu

    Use the Roman encoding of sounds into glyphs—the “European vowels”—to make sense of this.

    These changes happened between Chaucer and Shakespeare, mostly on long or accented syllables. Plenty of other sounds entered the language. Unaccented vowels tend to degenrate to that strange uh sound, and in English English, to ur.

    So any time you find a new word you don’t know how to pronounce, ignore the Great English Vowel Shift and use the proper Roman vowels. You are more likely to pronounce it correctly.

    More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift

  25. #25 Liz
    September 30, 2010

    Curse the damn vowel shift!

  26. #26 paris hilton
    March 17, 2011

    Are those vowels like, metric or something?

  27. #27 AntiVaccine
    March 17, 2011

    I am glad I don’t use Linex or Youbuntee. Becuase if you can’t get off your high horse enough to actually stop worrying about this detail. The micromanagement must be out of control.

    Its a computer, I turn it on. I do stuff. I turn it off.

  28. #28 Nick
    April 2, 2011

    Tomato or to mah to. Never mind the pronunciation. It’s free and it’s better than Microslop-that’s how us Lie-nuxers say microsoft.

  29. #29 Lowes Printable Coupon
    April 22, 2011

    Haha very interesting article! I’m glad I have always pronounced the word ‘ubuntu’ and ‘habari’ the right way. Although I was skeptical about whether it’s hay berry, I just knew by my guts that it’s not hay berry but haa baa ree! May be because I’m asian and I know french, I’m familier with different pronunciations.

  30. #30 Kalimeros
    August 16, 2011

    Well, at least Spanish (Castellano -Castillian- for many of us) hasn’t taken a Great (English) Vowel Shift or a Great (German) Consonant Shift. So I can tell Ubuntu (OoBOONtoo, for you), without thinking about it. The same way I can say Ngorongoro pronouncing each consonant. Habari takes some training, because in Spanish ‘h’ at the beginning of a word has no sound (it’s a mute consonant we’ve been dragging around for centuries).

  31. #31 anandine
    August 23, 2011

    Nathan Meyers wrote: What seems odd is to have a different name but the same spelling.

    If by “different name,” you mean “different pronunciation,” see Mexico, France, Switzerland, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatamala, Australia,

  32. #32 Forensic Penguin2
    January 14, 2012

    Or just say you use Mint.