Since Igbo is a tonal language, it is vital that you learn about the different tones so that you are pronouncing and writing the words you mean to communicate and understanding what you hear and read correctly. This is especially important for words that are spelled the same way (called homographs in English). Words in Igbo can have the same exact spelling, but are pronounced differently due to tone (called heteronyms in English). Tonal marks are sometimes placed on top of vowels show whether they are pronounced with a high tone, low tone, or middle tone.
Ụdaelu refers to vowels pronounced with a high pitched tone and it is usually marked with an acute accent slanting up from left to right ( ´ ).
Ụdaala refers to vowels pronounced with a low pitched tone and it is usually marked with a grave accent slanting down from left to right ( ` ).
Ụdansuda refers to vowels pronounced with a mid pitched tone and it is usually marked with a horizontal diacritical mark called macron/macra (–). The general rule (is that mid tone vowels must come after a high tone vowel. So mid-tone vowels are found in words with more than one syllable.
Note: I have seen mid-tones come after other mid-tone vowels too.
Let’s use the word “akwa” as an example of a word that can have many different meanings depending on the tone.
àkwà – “bed” [low tone – low tone]
ákwà – “cloth” [high tone – low tone]
ákwá – “cry” [high tone – high tone]
àkwá – “egg” [low tone – high tone]
M & N as “vowels”
Also, sometimes the letters “m” and “n” can be treated as vowels in Igbo. This means that you can pronounce m or n with high or low tones. Consonant clusters do not exist in Igbo language (meaning that two consonants cannot follow each other). So if you see an “m” or “n” in front of another consonant, treat it like a pseudo vowel and give it a tone.
ńnà – father [high tone – low tone]
ńné – mother [high tone – high tone]
ḿmā – good [high tone – mid tone ]
ḿmà – knife [high tone – low tone]
Note: Do not treat “n” as a vowel when it is actually another letter such as ny, nw, or ñ.
Also, digraphs like Ch, Gh, Gb, Kp, Kw, and Sh do not count as double consonants.
Here is the list of Igbo vowels (both without dots and dots below) and their tonal accent marks for you to use:
Á á À à Ā ā
É é È è Ē ē
Í í Ì ì Ī ī
Ị́ ị́ Ị̀ ị̀
Ó ó Ò ò Ō ō
Ọ́ ọ́ Ọ̀ ọ̀
Ú ú Ù ù Ū ū
Ụ́ ụ́ Ụ̀ ụ̀
Ḿḿ M̀ m̀
Ń ń Ǹǹ