Swahili is one of many hundreds of languages in the BANTU language family. One of the identifying characteristics of Bantu languages is a system of NOUN CLASSES. These classes have been designated in various ways. The system used in this book was devised by Carl Meinhof in his study of a large number of Bantu languages. The system proves useful for the Swahili learner as it is quite precise. It also provides a framework for comparison with other Bantu languages which the learner will encounter after finishing formal language study and continuing to learn at one's place of work.
Meinhof found 22 noun classes in the Bantu languages he studied. No language was demonstrated to have all 22, but some classes are shared by all, e.g. Classes 1 to 10, in which the odd numbers denote singular nouns and even numbers the plurals. For example, in Class 1 mtu = person; in Class 2, watu = people. Swahili has a total of 15 noun classes.
There are no definite or indefinite articles in Swahili. Mtu may mean "person", "a person", or "the person". There are several means for expressing the idea carried by the definite article: by using a demonstrative pronoun (i.e. "this", "that"), or an object prefix in the verb, or simply by context.
The noun classes require a system of "agreements"; i.e. all other words in a sentence which refer to a given noun (i.e. adjectives, possessives, verb subjects or objects, etc.) must be made to agree with that noun. This is done by use of the appropriate prefix for that noun class. There are two basic prefixes for each class: the NOMINAL PREFIX and the PRONOMIAL PREFIX.
The NOMINAL, or "noun" prefix determines to which class a noun belongs. This identical prefix occurs on adjectives which refer to that noun:
Class 6: matunda mazuri nice fruit
The prefix is used only with adjectives of Bantu origin. In this book, it will be referred to as the "adjectival" prefix: that is the agreement which the student must master and apply to adjective stems.
The PRONOMIAL, or "pronoun" prefix is used in all other constructions: verb subjects and objects, possessive and demonstrative pronouns, the interrogative -pi?, the A of relationship and the O of reference, as well as with the forms -enye and -ote:
Class 6: matunda yetu haya yote yatakwisha leo this fruit of ours will all be finished today
Phonological changes occur (note yetu not yaetu), but the basic form of the pronominal prefix is encountered in the subject prefix for each class.
No tidy demonstrations of meaning can be attributed to the noun prefixes of the various classes, but some observations have been made regarding the type of items included in each class. These will be mentioned as each class is considered.
Nouns in Class 1-2 are always animate, i.e. living beings of the animal kingdom. As a matter of fact, they identify human beings, with very few exceptions: mdudu insect; mnyama animal.
The Bantu Class 1 noun prefix is mu, heard in Swahili as m before consonants. Before vowels, the u in this prefix is activated: mu > mw, with the exception of before u where it is increasingly these days heard as mu.
The Class 2 noun prefix is wa in Swahili. When it precedes a vowel, certain changes take place: wa + a > wa; wa + e > we; wa + i > we. Note that the two vowels merge into one. Before o and u this shortening does not take place in nouns: wa + o > wao; wa + u > wau. Note how this is demonstrated in nouns in the list below:
|Class 1||Class 2|
|mwoga||waoga||coward, fearful person|
Note the plural forms of the following compound nouns:
|mja mzito||waja wazito||pregnant woman|
|m||msichana mzuri||a nice girl|
|mtoto mkubwa||a large child|
|mnyama mrefu||a tall animal|
|mtu mwema||a good person|
|wa||wageni wachache||a few guests|
|walimu wakali||strict teachers|
|wadudu wabaya||bad insects|
|wachungaji wengi||many pastors/ herdsmen|
In Class 1, the pronominal prefix is irregular; the two forms shown below reflect current (A) and ancient (YU) usage with verbs. For all other classes, beginning with Class 2, there is only one pronominal prefix, used in all constructions mentioned in paragraph 2B.
Muuguzi amenipiga sindano. The nurse has given me an injection.
Muuguzi yupi? Huyu. Which nurse? This one.
Wageni wamesharudi. The guests have already returned.
Wageni hawa These guests
Wazazi wangu My parents
Waliokuja They who came
As the last example demonstrates, these prefixes need not refer back to a specific noun, they also stand independently as 3rd person singular and plural "bound" pronouns, i.e. they are bound to the verb and cannot stand alone.
There are a number of animate nouns belonging to other classes. Being animate, they take their adjectival and pronominal agreements from Class 1 - 2:
Class 5 - 6:
Daktari mpya amefika. A new doctor has arrived.
Mafundi wamemaliza kujenga. The craftsmen have finished building.
Class 7 - 8:
Kijana wetu amemaliza darasa la saba. Our youngster has finished Standard 7.
Vibarua walifanya kazi mchana kutwa. The workers worked the whole day.
Class 9 -10:
Seremala anatengeneza mlango. The carpenter is repairing the door.
Nguruwe wote wamechinjwa. All the pigs have been slaughtered.
In Class 3 - 4, several categories of inanimate things that seem in some sense animated have been identified as shown in the examples listed below. Polome (in Swahili Language Handbook, p. 97) suggest "traces of an animistic conception of the world" in these categories. but many Class 3 - 4 nouns cannot be categorized in this way.
The Class 3 Bantu prefix MU is again produced in Swahili as M, becoming MW before most vowels. Before a noun stem beginning with O, the U most commonly (not always) coalesces with O; note the examples below. The Class 4 prefix is MI.
|Class 3||Class 4|
|Trees and things that spread:|
|mwanzi||mianzi||bamboo shoot/ bamboo clusters|
|mwembe||miembe||mango tree/ mango trees|
|moto||[mioto is archaic]||fire|
|moshi||[mioshi is archaic]||smoke|
|Certain body parts as well as the body itself:|
|mguu||miguu||foot, leg/ feet, legs|
|mkono||mikono||hand, arm/ hands, arms|
|Beings who act as instruments of a higher power:|
|Nouns related to verbs:|
|mkate||mikate||bread, loaf/ loaves|
|muundo||miundo||shape, form/ shapes|
|muungano||miungano||a joining, federation(s)|
|No identifiable category:|
|mfuko||mifuko||bag, pocket/ bags, pockets|
|mshahara||mishahara||wage, salary/ wages|
|mwezi||miezi||month, moon/ months|
|mwiko||miiko||large wooden spoon, taboo|
mti mrefu a tall tree
moyo mwema a good heart
moshi mwingi much smoke
mkasi mkali sharp scissors
mwili mwembamba a slender body
milango mipya new doors
mifuko myekundu red bags
miaka mingi many years
mizigo mizito heavy loads
miguu michafu dirty feet
Mti umeanguka. The tree has fallen.
Mzigo wake umepotea. His baggage is lost.
Kula mkate huu wote. Eat all this bread.
Mwaka uliopita Last year
Mwezi ujao Next month
Mti wenye matunda A tree with fruit
Mikate imekwisha. The bread is finished.
Mizigo iliyopotea The lost loads
Mikono yangu My hands/ arms
Miti ipi itakatwa? Which trees are to be cut?
Mitego ya panya Rat traps
Classes 5 - 6 incorporate a number of categories of items, as indicated in the lists below. The class has acquired a large number of foreign words, many of which designate persons -- either as terms of relationship or titles of rank or profession.
Class 5 nouns have either a JI prefix or no prefix at all. All mono-syllabic stems must have the JI prefix, which then takes the stress. Stems that begin with a vowel are all prefixed with JI but in this case the I disappears, leaving only J.
One of the functions of Class 5 is to signify augmentative meaning; stems from other noun classes, either without a prefix or prefixed with JI are thus made augmentative: mtu, a person (Class 1) becomes jitu, a giant (Class 5). When so used, the JI is retained in the plural, with Class 6 MA prefix not replacing, but preceding JI: majitu, giants.
The Class 6 prefix MA makes the plurals of Class 5 nouns. In addition, it is the prefix of mass, uncountable nouns where the singular-plural concept does not apply and there is no Class 5 counterpart. Nouns indicating totality are also found in Class 6 with no Class 5 counterparts, e.g.: marafiki, a circle of friends, from Class 9 - 10 rafiki, a friend/ friends. Sound changes occurring in the MA prefix are like those for Class 2 WA: MA + A > MA; MA + E or I > ME; MA + O > MAO; MA + U > MAU.
Examples below are grouped according to the various categories that have been identified.
|Class 5||Class 6|
|Things occurring in pairs or sets, e.g. body parts:|
|jino||meno||tooth/ teeth||(ma + ino = meno)|
|Parts of trees and bushes:|
|jani||majani||leaf/ leaves, grass|
|Augmentative or amplifications:|
|lango||malango||gate/ gates||(from mlango)|
|jiji||majiji||large city/ cities||(from mji)|
|jitu||majitu||giant/ giants||(from mtu)|
|jiti||majiti||large tree/ trees||(from mti)|
|jumba||majumba||palace/ mansions||(from nyumba)|
|joka||majoka||large snake/ snakes||(from nyoka)|
|Mass nouns, uncountables:|
|Nouns indicating totality:|
|marafiki||circle of friends|
|Nouns related to verbs:|
|jambo||mambo||matter, affair/ things|
|agano||maagano||agreement, pact/ pacts|
|Words of foreign origin indicating relationship or title:|
|shangazi||mashangazi||aunt (father's sister)|
|waziri||mawaziri||minister (in government)|
Adjective stems with more than one syllable of Bantu origin take no prefix when agreeing with Class 5, except those beginning with a vowel, which will take J of the JI prefix. All monosyllabic stems require the JI prefix. Class 6 agreement is MA, with sound changes outlined for nouns, paragraph 6A.
|papai dogo||a small papaya|
|jani bichi||a green leaf|
|tunda bivu||a ripe fruit|
|gari jipya||a new car|
|shuka jeupe||a white sheet|
|joto jingi||much heat|
|meneno machache||a few words|
|maziwa mengi||much milk|
|mashauri mema||good advice|
The pronominal forms for Class 5 and 6 are LI and YA, respectively. Examples of their various uses follow:
|Gari lile limeharibika.||That car has broken down.|
|Jino langu liliuma.||My tooth ached.|
|Tawi lililokauka||The dried branch|
|Majani yote yamekatwa.||All the grass is cut.|
|Mafuta yana harufu mbaya.||The oil has a bad smell.|
|Maziwa yaliyochemshwa||Boiled milk|
Classes 7 - 8 contain chiefly names of inanimate objects, but two other categories are prominent in these classes: diminutives, and terms for people with physical defects, commonly taken to have a derogative connotation.
The Class 7 noun prefix is KI, modified to CH before all vowels except I; the Class 8 prefix is VI, modified to VY before vowels other than I.
Nouns of other classes are made diminutive by prefixing KI to the noun stem: kitoto, an infant. In the case of monosyllabic stems, JI is inserted: kijitu, a dwarf; if the stem begins with a vowel, J is inserted: kijoka, a little snake.
|Class 7||Class 8|
|chombo||vyombo||vessel, tool/ tools|
|People with physical defects:|
|kipofu||vipofu||blind person/ blind people|
|kiziwi||viziwi||deaf person/ deaf people|
|kilema||vilema||cripple/ handicapped people|
|Diminutives from other noun classes:|
|kitoto||vitoto||infant/ infants||(from mtoto)|
|kijiji||vijiji||village/ villages||(from mji)|
|kijiti||vijiti||stick/ sticks||(from mti)|
|kijitu||vijitu||dwarf/ dwarfs||(from mtu)|
|kijiko||vijiko||spoon/ spoons||(from mwiko)|
|kijoka||vijoka||small snake/ snakes||(from nyoka)|
|Nouns related to verbs:|
Class 7 - 8 with Adjectival Prefixes
The prefixes by which adjectives agree with Class 7 and 8 are KI/ CH and VI/ VY respectively, the form depending on whether the adjective stem begins with a consonant or a vowel, as stated in paragraph 7A, above.
|kitabu chema||a good book|
|chakula kingi||much food|
|choo kipya||a new toilet|
|vijiti virefu||long sticks|
|visu vikali||sharp knives|
|vitambaa vyeupe||white cloths|
In Classes 7 - 8, the prefixes for all pronominal forms are like the noun/ adjective prefixes: Class 7 takes KI/ CH; Class 8 takes VI/ VY, as pointed out in paragraph 7A.
|Kikombe changu kimevunjika.||My cup is broken.|
|Ulifikia kilele cha mlima?||Did you reach the top of the mountain?|
|Hiki ndicho kikapu nilichokitengeneza.||This is the very basket I made.|
|Vitambaa vyote vimefuliwa.||All the cloths have been washed.|
|Vitu tulivyoviuza...||The things which we sold...|
|Vyombo hivi ni vya nani?||Whose tools are these?|
Classes 9 - 10 have the largest number of foreign words of any noun class in Swahili, thus making the total vocabulary very large and very diverse as to content. The nouns of Bantu origin are also quite diverse, designating among other things various kinds of fruit, names of animals, and objects in everyday use.
There is no singular-plural distinction in the Class 9 - 10 noun prefix: basically it is a nasal (hence the name "N Class" by which it is sometimes designated), but its actual form depends on the first sound of the noun stem. This can only be demonstrated in nouns of Bantu origin; foreign words do not reflect the Bantu phonology because they have been taken into the language more or less in their original form.
The following phonological categories are seen in nouns of Bantu origin:
1. Noun stems beginning with a voiced non-nasal consonant -- b, v, d, z, j, g:
These are preceded by "pre-nasalization" -- i.e., a nasal made with tongue and/ or lips in the same position as for the initial consonant of the noun stem, resulting in these variations:
|M before b and v||mbegu||seed||mvua||rain|
|N before d and z||ndizi||banana||nzige||locust|
|NY before j||njia||path, way|
|NG' before g||ngozi||skin, hide||ngoma||drum, dance|
Please note: nouns of the last three groups are all written with N, not with the symbols shown, but the appropriate distinctions must be made when speaking.
2. Noun stems beginning with a nasal -- m, n, ng':
These have no prefix before the noun stem: mama, mother; mende, cockroach; nazi, coconut, nundu, hump (on cattle); ng'ombe, ox or cow.
3. Noun stems beginning with voiceless consonants -- p, f, t, s, sh, ch, k:
These have no prefix before the noun stem, but stronger aspiration is heard in the speech of some areas, particularly in p, t, ch, k. Examples: pete, ring; fagio, brooms; tembo, elephant; simba, lion; shingo, neck; chupa, bottle; kuni, firewood; kiu, thirst.
monosyllabic stems beginning with these consonants must have a prefix to take the stress; the prefix is a nasal made with tongue and/ or lips in the same position as the initial consonant: nta, beeswax; nso, kidney (an old word); nchi, country.
4. Noun stems beginning with a vowel -- a, e, i, o, u:
These are prefixed with NY: nyama, meat; nyegere, honey badger; nyimbo, songs; nyongo, bile; nyumba, house, building.
5. Noun stems beginning with l or r:
The l or r changes to d and is then prefixed with N: ndimi, tongues (plural of Class 11 ulimi).
6. Noun stems beginning with w:
The w changes to b and is then prefixed with M: mbati, building poles (plural of Class 11 uwati).
Following are a few words of foreign origin in Class 9 - 10. Notice that they do not necessarily conform to the phonology outlined above. Plural forms are not listed since they are identical to the singular. The source language is given for each:
|chandalua||mosquito net||gundi||gum paste, glue||Hindi|
The phonological variations with adjective stems of Bantu origin are identical to those found with nouns, but since there is a limited number of adjective stems, not all possible variations are realized. The 9 examples below illustrate the adjective variations that correlate with the noun groupings in paragraph 8A.
Before b: M (see paragraph 8A.1)
Before other voiced non-nasal consonants: N
ndogo, nzima, nzito, ngumu (8A.1)
Before nasals: No prefix (8A.2)
nne, nane, ngapi?, mojawapo
Before voiceless consonants: No prefix (8A.3)
pana, fupi, tatu, tupu, chache, chafu, kali
Before a vowel: NY (8A.4)
Njema is an exception
Adjective stem beginning with r: (-refu)
r changes to d and N is prefixed (8A.5)
Adjective stem beginning with w: (-wili)
w changes to b and M is prefixed (8A.6)
For all verb subjects and objects and pronoun forms mentioned in paragraph 2B, the Class 9 prefix is I, realized as Y before vowels; the Class 10 prefix is ZI, realized as Z before vowels.
Mvua ilinyesha mchana kutwa. It rained the whole day.
Haraka haraka haina baraka. Haste has no blessing.
Nipanguse meza ipi? Which table shall I dust?
Ndizi tulizozila The bananas which we ate
Sababu zako hazitoshi. Your reasons are inadequate.
Nguo hizi hazijafuliwa bado. These clothes have not been washed yet.
1. Nouns in these classes which denote personal relationships need special attention. Because they are animate nouns, they are treated as Class 1 - 2 nouns for all agreements except possessive, which have normal Class 9 -10 agreements:
mama yangu my mother
dada zangu my sisters
rafiki zetu our friends
jirani zao wazuri their nice neighbors
marafiki zetu our friends (i.e. circle of friends)
majirani zao their neighbors (neighborhood)
Moshi ipo sehemu ya kaskazini ya Tanzania. Moshi is in the northern part of Tanzania.
Uganda ipo kaskazini-magharabi ya Tanzania. Uganda is northwest of Tanzania.
But if the place name is used together with a noun, the class prefix agreeing with that noun is used:
Mji wa Moshi upo sehemu ya kaskazini ya Tanzania. The town of Moshi is in the northern part of Tanzania.
Ziwa Nyanza lipo sehemu ya kaskazini-magharibi ya Tanzania. Lake Victoria Nyanza is in the northwest part of Tanzania.
Nchi ya Ufaransa ipo Ulaya. The country France is in Europe.
3. Peke is a Class 9 noun meaning "the condition of being alone". It is always used with the possessive:
peke yangu I alone, by myself
peke yetu we alone, by ourselves
Swahili Class 11/ 14 is a combination of two Bantu noun classes. Historically, Bantu Class 11 nouns have their plural in Class 10, while Class 14 are abstract nouns lacking a plural. Others included in this class are mass nouns which also lack a plural, and names of a few countries which, although Class 11 in form, take Class 9 and 10 agreements (see paragraph 8D.2 regarding place names).
The noun prefix is U, this being a singular form. Nouns which have plurals most commonly form them in Class 10, but a few in Class 6, and all Class 10 or Class 6 agreements apply to the plurals thus formed; these will not be repeated here. Notice how the Class 10 plural forms reflect the noun formations exemplified in paragraph 8A.
|Class 11/ 14||Class 10|
|ubao||mbao||board, plank/ boards|
|udara||ndara||thong sandal/ sandal|
|upande||pande||side, direction/ sides|
|uchale||chale||cut, incision, gash/ cuts|
|wakati||nyakati||time, season, opportunity/ times|
|uwati||mbati||building pole/ poles|
|ulimwengu||malimwengu||world, universe/ worlds|
|Abstract nouns, no plural:|
|Mass nouns, no plural:|
|udongo||earth, soil, clay|
|Names of countries:|
Class 11/ 14 is the sole exception to a rule cited earlier: that noun and adjectival prefixes are identical. Adjectives agreeing with Class 11/ 14 nouns, instead of taking the Class 11/ 14 noun prefix, take an adjectival prefix identical with that of Class 3: i.e., M(U).
udongo mgumu hard soil
wimbo mzuri a nice song
uji mzito thick gruel
usiku mwema a good night
The Class 11/ 14 pronominal prefix is U, realized as W before vowels (again, identical to Class 3).
Uwindaji haramu ukomeshwe. Illegal hunting should be stopped.
Ua ulizunguka nyumba. A fence surrounded the house.
Ugonjwa huu ndio tunaoogopa. This is the disease we fear.
Uzito wa mzigo ulitushinda. The load's weight was too much for us.
Class 15 is composed of the infinitive form of verbs. Singular-plural distinctions do not apply, but there is a negative form of the infinitive.
The prefix for Class 15 is KU. The negative infinitive is most commonly formed by prefixing KUTO to the verb stem (from the verb kutoa), i.e., kutosoma not to read. Other forms are possible but less usual: kutoasoma, kutokusoma.
kuimba to sing, singing
kuingia to enter, entering
kufagia to sweep, sweeping
The prefix KU becomes KW before vowels.
kuimba kuzuri nice singing
kuishi kwema good living
Kuishi kwingi ni kuona mengi. To live much (long) is to see much. (a proverb)
Kusema ni kuzuri lakini kutosema ni kuzuri zaidi. Speaking is good but not speaking is better.
The prefix KU becomes KW before vowels.
Kushona kulikuwa kazi yake. Sewing was his job.
Kushona kwake kunapendeza. His sewing is nice (it pleases).
Kunyesha kumezidi. Raining has increased.
Kuwapo ama kutokuwapo, ndilo suala. To be or not to be, that is the question.
Class 16, 17, and 18 are the so-called Locative Nouns, or Adverbial Nouns signifying location. Only one noun belongs to this group in its basic form: that is the Class 16 word mahali, place. The older form pahali can still occasionally be heard. That form reflects the Class 16 prefix PA.
In addition to that one vocabulary item, virtually any noun in the language can be transferred into one of these classes by addition of the suffix NI signifying location: nyumbani, at/ by/ near the house. The precise location (i.e. whether at/ in/ by/ on, etc. is meant) is designated by the choice of agreements:
Class 16 agreements indicate a specific location.
Class 17 agreements indicate a general area, or motion to or from.
Class 18 agreements indicate inside-ness.
See the examples below:
Class 16, PA:
kichwani pangu on my head (specific place)
nyumbani pangu at my home
Class 17, KU:
nchini kwangu somewhere in (or to/ from) my country
nyumbani kwangu in the general vicinity of my home: a loosely specified place
Class 18, M(U):
moyoni mwangu in my heart
mwilini mwangu in my body
nyumbani mwangu inside my house
When any noun is given a NI suffix, it no longer belongs to its original class. Thus in these classes the noun prefixes are irrelevant; the relevant item is the suffix NI. Nouns from any class with this suffix would qualify for a vocabulary list here. But there is one noun which belongs exclusively to Class 16: mahali.
Class 16, 17, or 18
Any noun + NI
The Class 16 prefix is PA, merging with vowels in the way described for the Class 2 prefix in paragraph 4A. The Class 17 prefix is KU, becoming KW before vowels. The Class 18 prefix is M(U), sounded M before consonants and MW before vowels.
Class 16: PA + adjective stem:
mahali pazuri a nice place
mahali pengi many places
mahali pakubwa a large place
nyumbani pazuri (it is) nice at the house
Class 17: KU + adjective stem:
Adjectives are not much used, except -zuri and -ema.
nyumbani kwema (it is) good at home
mlimani kuzuri (it is) nice on the mountain
Class 18: M + adjective stem:
Adjectives are seldom used with this class.
nyumbani mzuri (it is) nice inside the house
The pronominal prefixes are: Class 16, PA; Class 17, KU; Class 18, M(U). Modifications before vowels are the same as those described above for adjective prefixes.
Mahali hapa panatosha. This place is adequate (will do).
Mahali pazuri, napapenda. The place is nice, I like it.
Mezani hapa pana vitu vingi. Here on the table there are many things.
Vitabu vipo kichwani pa mtoto. The books are on the child's head.
Vipo kichwani pake. They are on her head.
Nyumbani kwetu kwapendeza. It is nice at our house.
Mjini kote kumejaa watu. The whole town is full of people.
Shambani kwa baba kuna migomba mingi. On my father's farm there are many banana trees.
Mwilini mwangu mna damu. There is blood in my body.
Mfukono mle hamna kitu. There is nothing in that bag.
Sijaona kitu kama hiki maishani mwangu mwote. I have not seen such a thing in my whole life.