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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: Adjectives



Swahili does not have a great many adjective stems as such, but adjectival construction can be made in several ways:

A. Adjective stems requiring the adjectival prefix.
B. Adjective stems requiring the pronominal prefix.
C. Invariable adjectives (not prefix) of non-Bantu origin.
D. Adjectival phrases based on
1. -A of relationship
2. -ENYE
E. Relative construction of the verb
F. A second noun as a qualifier (noun in apposition).

This chapter concludes by discussing word order with adjectives.


Adjective stems of Bantu origin require the adjectival prefix, which is identical to the prefix of the noun modified by that adjective. Phonological variations in these prefixes have been described under the various noun classes. The greatest number of variations occur in Class 9-10, paragraph 8.

For purposes of learning to master the agreements, these adjective stems fall into two groups:


Those beginning with a consonant, e.g., -zuri, beautiful:

1-2 mtu mzuri watu wazuri
3-4 mkate mzuri mikate mizuri
5-6 jina zuri majina mazuri
7-8 kitabu kizuri vitabu vizuri
9-10 habari nzuri habari nzuri
11/14 usiku mzuri
15 kusoma kuzuri
16 mahali pazuri
17 mjini kuzuri
18 mwilini mzuri



Those beginning with a vowel, e.g., -ema, good:

1-2 mtu mwema watu wema
3-4 mti mwema miti myema
5-6 jina jema majina mema
7-8 kitabu chema vitabu vyema
9-10 habari njema+ habari njema+
nyingi, nyeupe
11/14 usiku mwema
15 kusoma kwema
16 mahali pema
17 mjini kwema
18 mwilini mwema
+Note that njema in Class 9-10 is a special case. The normal Class 9-10 prefix before vowels is NY :
nyingi, nyekundu, etc.

The numbers -moja, -wili, -tatu, -nne, -tano, and -nane are adjective stems of this type and require the adjectival prefixes. See Numbers, paragraph 35.


Following is a list of the 30 most common adjective stems in Swahili and their various uses:

-BAYA BAD mtu mbaya a bad person
mfano mbaya a bad example
magon jwa mabaya serious diseases
hali mbaya a poor condition
Note the difference in pronunciation between Class 1 mtu mbaya and Class 9 hali mbaya :

In Class 1, the prefix M is a separate syllable and is so pronounced: m-ba-ya ;

In Class 9, MB is a "prenasalized" consonant - one unit. The M is not held, but sounded almost simultaneously with the B . Thus mba-ya is a two-syllable word.

The same holds true for the next two adjectives, below.

-BICHI RAW, UNRIPE yai bichi a fresh egg
matunda mabichi unripe fruit
kuni mbichi freshly cut firewood
chakula kibichi uncooked food

-BOVU ROTTEN, UNFIT FOR USE nyumba mbovu a house in poor condition
breki mbovu useless brakes
chakula kibovu unhealthy food

-CHACHE FEW (only with plural nouns) watu wachache a few people
vitu vichache a few things
nyumba chache a few houses



nguo chafu dirty clothes
manemo machafu obscene language
maji machafu unclean water

-CHUNGU BITTER, UNPLEASANT, PAINFUL dawa chungu bitter medicine
limau chungu a sour lemon
mawazo machungu bitter thoughts

-DOGO SMALL, YOUNGER mtoto mdogo a small child

jambo dogo

an insignificant matter
kiasi kidogo a small amount

-EKUNDU RED (from pink to brownish) kikapu chedundu a red basket
maua mekundu red flowers

-EMA GOOD, MORALLY GOOD watu wema good people
Usiku mwema! Good night!
habari njema good news

-EMBAMBA NARROW, THIN mtu mwembamba a slim person
mlango mwembamba a narrow door
daraja jembamba a narrow bridge

-EPESI LIGHT in weight,QUICK, AGILE, IMPATIENT nguo nyepesi light clothes
mtu mwepesi a quick - or impatient - person

-EUPE WHITE, LIGHT COLOURED kuta nyeupe white walls
watu weupe Europeans
moyo mweupe an honorable character

-EUSI BLACK, dark shades of blue, green, etc. mbwa mweusi a black dog
magari meusi black cars

-FUPI SHORT safari fupi a short trip
kijiti kifupi a short stick
habari fupi brief news

-GUMU HARD, DIFFICULT mtu mgumu a difficult, hard-hearted person
kazi ngumu a tough job
lugha ngumu difficult language
kiti kigumu a hard chair

-INGI MUCH, MANY watu wengi many people
vitu vingi many things
wali mwingi much rice


OTHER, ANOTHER, DIFFERENT watoto wengine other children
shamaba lingine another farm
jambo jingine another matter

Class 5: Both lingine and jingine are acceptable.

Notice in the expression "some... and others...", -ingine is used in both clauses of the sentence:

Watoto wengine wapenda kucheza na wengine wapenda kusoma.
Some children like to play and others like to read.

-ingine may be suffixed with the -O of reference, and then has the meaning of "other similar..." or "other such...":

watu wengineo other such people
mambo mengineyo other similar matters

-KALI SHARP, FIERCE, INTENSE mwalimu mkali a strict teacher
kisu kikali a sharp knife
maneno makali sharp words
jua kali hot, intense sun
homa kali high fever

-KAVU DRY, HARD, WATERLESS nchi kavu dry land (opposite sea)
kitambaa kikavu a dry cloth
kahawa kavu black coffee

-KUBWA BIG, EXTENSIVE, ELDER, SUPERIOR nyumba kubwa a large house
kiwanja kikubwa a large field
kaka yangu mkubwa my elder brother

-KUU GREAT, PRE-EMINENT mwalimu mkuu head teacher
neno kuu motto, theme (e.g. of a convention)
mambo makuu great (main) things
sababu kuu chief reason
sikukuu holiday, fest

-NGAPI HOW MANY? watoto wangapi? how many children?
mizigo mingapi? how many loads?
Saa ngapi? What time is it?

-PANA BROAD, WIDE barabara pana a wide road
mlango mpana a wide door
mawazo mapana broad ideas

-PYA NEW, FRESH gari jipya a new car

mkate mpya

fresh bread
nguo mpya a new garment

-REFU LONG, TALL, HIGH, DEEP mtu mrefu a tall person
safari ndefu a long trip
mlima mrefu a high mountain
kisima kirefu a deep well

-TAMU SWEET, PLEASANT matunda matamu sweet fruit
chakula kitamu delicious food

maneno matamu

pleasant words
maji matamu fresh water (not salt)



kikombe kitupu an empty cup
maneno matupu meaningless words
uwongo mtupu a sheer lie
furaha tupu pure (unmixed) joy


WHOLE, SOUND, PERFECT mtu mzima an adult; a well person
nyumba nzima the whole house
saa nzima a whole hour, 60 minutes
mwaka mzima the whole year

-ZITO HEAVY (in weight), DEPRESSED, THICK mzigo mzito a heavy load
uji mzito thick gruel
moyo mzito a sad heart
neno zito a serious matter
mja mzito a pregnant woman


NICE, PLEASING, BEAUTIFUL maua mazuri pretty flowers
kitabu kizuri a pleasant book
habari nzuri good news



Adjectives may and often do stand alone as nouns in a sentence. The class prefix is the clue to understanding what noun is implied.

mgonjwa sick, diseased (person; Class 1 implies mtu )
mkuu pre-eminent (person) i.e., the supervisor, boss
mwongo untruthful (person) i.e., a liar
mwingine another (person); someone else
mdogo wangu my younger brother or sister
mkubwa wako your elder brother or sister
mwema a good, generous person
mema good things (Class 5 implies mambo )
mbaya a bad person
mabaya misfortunes
mengine other matters ( mambo, maneno, matendo )
mengi many affairs, words, actions (see above)
kidogo a small amount of something (Class 7 kiasi )


Four stems take pronominal prefixes. The phonological changes given in paragraph 12 apply with these stems; only Class 1 is irregular: see the examples below.



(It is always followed by a noun)

mtu mwenye duka a person having a shop; i.e. shop-owner
daraja lenye hatari a dangerous bridge
uso wenye furaha a happy face
mahali penye shida a troublesome place



(Used to express distinctness: a particular thing or person.)

mimi mwenyewe I myself (not someone else)
wao wenyewe they themselves
mtu mwenyewe the particular person
mwenyewe the very person; owner
kiti chenyewe the actual chair
gari lenyewe the very car
mbao zenyewe the boards themselves

It is used in an emphasizing sense and is not reflexive. Note the difference in the following:

Mimi mwenyewe nilichukua mizigo. I myself carried the loads (nobody else did it).

Nilijichukulia mizigo. I carried the loads for myself.


(Cannot be used with Class 1)

watu wote all the people
kitabu chote the whole book
vitabu vyote all the books
mjini kote all over town

There are special forms with personal pronouns:

sisi sote all of us
ninyi nyote all of you
wao wote all of them


(Note the special Class 1 form)

mtu yeyote any person
mchezo wowote any game
chombo chochote any vessel, tool
picha zozote any pictures
Kuna chochote? Is there anything (to eat)?

Note these phrases based on the verb kuwa: a general relative construction now used only this way:
mtu awaye yote any person whoever it is
ua liwalo lote any kind of a flower


A number of adjectives are of non-Bantu origin--usually Arabic. These are the "invariables": they do not require prefixes.

BORA GOOD, EXCELLENT, FIRST CLASS kilimo bora good agriculture
chakula bora nutritious food
kazi bora an excellent job

GHALI EXPENSIVE chakula ghali costly food
vitu ghali expensive things



fedha haba too little money
chakula haba little food



madhumuni halali a lawful cause

HARAMU ILLEGAL, FORBIDDEN uwindaji haramu illegal hunting
biashara haramu illegal trade

HODARI EFFECTIVE, SKILLED, ABLE mkulima hodari a skilled farmer



habari kamili complete information, the “whole story”
Saa 6 kamili 12 0' clock sharp


SOFT, SMOOTH, PLIABLE mto laini a soft pillow
nguo laini fine (soft) clothes
mchanga laini fine sand

MAALUMU SPECIAL kazi maalumu a special task

jambo maalumu

a particular matter


CHEAP, EASY kazi rahisi an easy job

bei rahisi

a cheap price
nyumba rahisi a cheap house


OFFICIAL mgeni rasmi an official guest
nguo rasmi a uniform



a clean house

moyo safi

a pure heart (good character)
maneno safi

clear, straightforward words



flat country

kiasi sawa an equal amount
sawa kwa sawa equal amounts, halves

TAYARI READY nguo ni tayari the clothes are prepared, ready
weka tayari put (something) in readiness; prepare


(precedes the noun)
kila dakika every minute
kila mtu every person, everybody
kila mwaka wa tano every fifth year
kila siku ya pili every second day
kila baada ya miaka mitano every 5th year; literally: every after five years
kila baada ya siku mbili every second day

Nusu, a half; and robo, a quarter are Class 9-10 nouns, but are often used as adjectives. Like kila, they must precede the noun:
nusu saa a half hour
robo kilo a quarter of a kilo

(Always used with a noun)
kitu gani? what is it?
sababu gani? why?
jinsi gani? how?
mahali gani? where?



Adjective phrases are of two main types, those based on:

1. A of relationship


The A of relationship requires the pronominal prefix.

Phrases made with A include:


Taa ya mafuta kerosene lamp
Mafuta ya taa lamp oil (kerosene)
Nameno ya kweli true words
Kazi ya muda temporary work
Mfuko wa ngozi a leather bag
Ngozi ya ng ombe cow hide


Saa ya kuamka getting-up time
Maji ya kunywa drinking water
Chakula cha kutosha enough food
Vitu vya kufaa useful things



In this phrase, the infinitive expresses the purpose for which the noun is to be used:

Sabuni ya kufulia laundry soap, washing powder
Vyombo vya kupasulia surgical instruments
Kisu cha kukatia a knife to cut with
Kitambaa cha kusafishia a wash cloth, dish cloth


This phrase forms the ordinal number (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.):

Siku ya kwanza the first day
Darasa la pili the second class (standard two)
Wimbo wa tatu the third song (song number three)
Mwezi wa nane the eighth month (August)
Ukurasa wa tisini the ninetieth page (page 90)



Adverbs of likeness (manner) and location (including adverbial nouns) are common in these phrases:

Nyumba ya karibu a nearby house
Safari ya mbali a long trip (trip to far away)
Mawazo ya kitoto childish ideas
Fedha za kigeni foreign currency
Taa za mjini city lights
Kazi za nyumbani domestic work
Uwanja wa ndege wa kimataifa international airport


Phrases made with ENYE are:


The pronominal prefix is required with ENYE. Some examples:

mtalii mwenye furaha a happy tourist
suruali yenye viraka patched trousers
ziwa lenye uchafu a polluted lake
dalili zenye kuogofya frightening symptoms
mtu mwenye kukasirika an angry person

Phrases with ENYE define a current condition , in contrast to A phrases which define a characteristic. Note the difference:

taa ya mafuta a kerosene lamp (kind of lamp)
taa yenye mafuta a lamp with oil in it (current state)
mtu wa hasira a quick-tempered person (kind)
mtu mwenye hasira an angry person (current condition)

31 RELATIVE CONStrUCTIONS as adjectival phrases

All kinds of relative constructions may be used, both positive and negative, to convey the descriptions for which European languages use adjectives.

mwezi uliopita last month
debe lililojaa a full tin
ndizi zilizoiva ripe bananas
maji yanayochemka boiling water (bubbling now)
maji yaliyochemka boiled water (water which has boiled)
maji yaliyochemshwa boiled water (water which has been boiled)
nguo iliyochafuka a dirty garment
watu wasiojiweza disabled people
chakula kisicholika inedible food
nchi zinazoendelea developing countries (which are progressing)
nchi zilizoendelea developed countries (which have progressed)
juma lijalo nest week
mwaka ujao next year
mlango ulio wazi an open door
ng' ombe ambao wamelala sleeping cattle

32 A SECOND NOUN may be used as a modifier

This is called a noun in apposition, and is spoken as one work with the main stress on the next to last syllable of the whole unit. The first noun gets only a light secondary stress. See paragraph 16. D for more examples.

mwaka jana last year
raw materials
mwana kondoo lamb
natural resources
mbwa mwitu a wild dog
ndege ulaya airplane
neighboring country
bwanashamba agricultural extension officer
all day until sunset
usiku kucha all night until sunrise

Some currently used combinations of noun + noun may be contradtions of A phrases in which the A has been omitted:

maji moto hot water
maji baridi
cold water

33 COMPARISON with adjectives

Swahili adjectives cannot be declined for comparison in any way similar to English degrees of comparison. But comparisons can be made in any desired degree; it is done by means of phrases, following the patterns below.


My child is AS TALL as yours.

A phrase with kama , as, like; or sawa na, equal to, is used to designate equality.

Mtoto wangu ni mrefu kama wako.
sawa na
Bata huyu ni mkubwa kama yule? Is this duck as big as that one?
Kisu hiki si kikali sawa na changu. This knife is not as sharp as mine.


My child is TALLER than yours.

Phrases can be made with any one of three verbs, all of which in this context mean surpassing: kupita, kushinda or kuzidi ; by a phrase zaidi ya, more than; or by a special term: kuliko which is a relative verb form but is used almost exclusively as than in comparisons.

Mtoto wangu ni mrefu kupita wako.
zaidi ya
Nani mfupi zaidi, huyu au yule? Who is shorter, this (person) or that one?
Nyumba yake nzuri kuzidi yangu. Her house is nicer than mine.

Not only adjectives can be compared in this way:

Napenda machenza kuliko machungwa. I like tangerines better than oranges.
Dodoma ni mbali kupita Dar es Salaam. Dodoma is farther away than Dar es Salaam.


My child is the TALLEST

The same phrase is used as in B, above, but the comparison is with "everybody".

Mtoto wangu ni mrefu kupita wote.
zaidi ya
Safari hii ni ndefu kuliko zote nilizofanya maishani mwangu mwote. This is the longest trip I have made in my whole life.


Expressions of ultimate (tallness, distance, etc.) are common, accompanied by a rise in pitch of the voice and/or, in the case of distance, pointing with the chin.

Watoto wote ni warefu lakini huyu ni mrefu hasa. All the children are tall, but this one is especially tall.

Mtoto huyu ni mrefu zaidi This child is really tall.
Huyu ni mtoto mrefu saaaaana!
Huyu ni mtoto mrefu kabisaaaaa! (with raised voice)
Yuko mbali kuleeeee! (with chin) He is far away over there.


With one exception, adjectives always follow the nouns they modify.

The exception is kila: kila siku, every day. (See also paragraph 29). Two nouns which function as modifiers also precede the noun they modify: nusu, half; and robo, one-fourth:

nusu mkate a half loaf of bread
robo saa a quarter hour

Notice that this order is in contrast with the order of modifying noun in the “noun in apposition” phrase, paragraph 32.


Two adjectives modifying the same noun:

As a rule, the more important or more emphasized adjective comes last:

magari mawili madogo two small cars
magari madogo mawili two small cars
nyumba kubwa nzuri a nice, big house
nyumba nzuri kubwa a big, nice house

The two adjectives may also be joined with tena:

nyumba kubwa tena nzuri a big and nice house

If the two adjectives are joined with na, two separate items are indicated:

nyumba kubwa na nzuri a big house and a nice one (two houses)


When a possessive and an adjective modify a noun, the possessive precedes the adjective:

nyumba yangu nzuri my nice house
habari zake njema her good news

See also paragraph 23. B.


The place of the demonstrative may vary:

nyumba ile nzuri that nice house
ile nyumba nzuri that nice house (more emphatic)
nyumba nzuri ile that (is) a nice house


If a single adjective is used together with an adjective phrase, the single adjective comes first after the noun:

ngozi nyingi za ng' ombe many cowhides
kiwanda kikubwa cha viatu a big shoe factory


It is most unusual for more than two modifiers to be used with a noun. If more are needed, the phrase should be broken up, e.g.:
motokaa yangu ndogo--ile nyekundu for my small red car


Thanks to Patricia Wallace for assistance preparing this page for the Web.

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