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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: Noun Formation

Noun Formation


Relationship of nouns to other word classes:
Swahili nouns are of several categories if we consider them in relation to other word classes in the vocabulary.


Some nouns have no demonstrable relationship to any other word class. They consist of:

Class prefix + noun stem: m-tu

(See paragraphs 4-11). The same stem may be found with several different class prefixes, e.g.: mtu/watu, kitu/vitu, jitu/majitu, kijitu/vijitu, and utu. But the stem -tu will not be found elsewhere in the language.


Some nouns are formed from adjectives or adverbs, and consist of:

Class prefix + adjective/adverb stem

This is especially true of C1.11/14 nouns, e.g.:

uchafu, dirt from - chafu, dirty
uzima, life, wholeness from - zima, whole
ugonjwa/magonjwa, illness from - gonjwa, ill
umbali, distance from - mbali, far away
In Cl.1-10, the close relationship between noun and adjective in Bantu languages is illustrated by the way in which an adjective can stand alone functioning like a noun in a sentence, e.g.:

mgonjwa, which implies mtu mgonjwa, a sick person
kidogo, which implies kiasi kidogo, a small amount

For further examples, see paragraph 27D.


Some nouns are related to verbs and are commonly called deverbatives, implying that the verb existed first and the noun was formed from it. Whether or not this is a true picture of its history, it is a fact that these nouns have in their stems some of the same derivational suffixes found in verb stems.

There are several different types of deverbative nouns:

1. Those which replace the final -a of the verb stem with one of several nominal suffixes. These nominal suffixes convey a specific meaning. These consist of :

Class prefix + verb stem + nominal suffix ending (see paragraph 14).

2. Those which retain the final -a of the verb stem. They consist simply of:

Class prefix + verb stem with its -a ending (see paragraph 15).

3. Those formed by composition. This type of noun includes both deverbatives and composites which do not include a deverbative (see paragraph 16).

4. Nouns formed by reduplication (see paragraph 17).

The paragraphs that follow will show examples of each of these types.


Nouns in which a nominal suffix replaces -a of the verb stem are in four groups, each of the four suffixes conveying its own specific meaning. The same verb stem can appear in nouns with different suffixes, giving an entirely different meaning. Note these examples:

Class prefix

i victor, conqueror
e the conquered, vanquished
vu attention, listening, obedience
o ears

The related verbs are kushinda, to overcome; and kusikia, to hear. The various endings with the meanings they convey are as follows:

Indicates an agent: the person or thing performing the action.

mlezi tutor, malezi upbringing (kulea to bring up)
kiongozi leader, uongozi leadership (kuongoza to lead)
mwokozi saviour (kuokoa to rescue, save)
msemi talker, usemi speaking (kusema to speak)
mazoezi exercises (kuzoeza to accustom)
ushindi victory (kushinda to overcome)

Indicates an habitual agent.

mchungaji shepherd, pastor (kuchunga to tend flocks)
msomaji a regular reader (kusoma to read)
mwimbaji a singer (kuimba to sing)
kinywaji a beverage (kunywa to drink)

Sometimes phonetic changes affect the final consonant of the stem:
malazi sleeping arrangements (kulala to lie down)
mpanzi sower (kupanda to plant)
mjenzi builder (kujenga to build)
mwizi thief (kuiba to steal)
mfuasi follower (kufuata to follow)
mpishi cook (kupika to cook)
ugomvi quarreling (kugomba to contradict)
mlinzi watchman (kulinda to guard)

Indicates a state Variations: -vu, -fu.

uangalifu care, mwangalifu careful person (kuangalia to pay attention)
utulivu quietness (kutulia to quiet down)
wokovu salvation (kuokoa to rescue)
mwongofu one who is directed, a convert (kuongoza to lead)
msikivu an attentive, obedient person (kusikia to hear)
uchovu weariness (kuchoka to get tired)
ukuu greatness (kukua to grow)
uharibifu ruin, destruction (kuharibu to spoil)
usahaulifu forgetfulness (kusahau to forget)
msahaulifu a forgetful person

Indicates: 1) an implement which performs an action, or 2) the ultimate result of the action.

kizibo cork, stopper (kuziba to stop up)
kifuniko lid (kufinika to cover)
kifungo button (kufunga to close, fasten)
ufunguo key (kufungua to open, unfasten)
nyundo hammer (kuunda to construct)
sikio ear (kusikia to hear)
malisho pasture (kulisha to feed (cattle))
mwongozo a manual, guide (kuongoza to lead)
mwendo journey, way of going (kwenda to go)
mshindo blow, shock (kushinda to overcome)
mchezo game, dance (kucheza to play)
mapatano agreement (kupatana to agree)
ndoto dream (kuota to dream)
wimbo song (kuimba to sing)
mkato cutting, short act or method (kukata to cut)

Indicates passivity

mkate loaf of bread (kukata to cut)
mtume messenger, apostle (kutuma to send)
kiumbe created being (kuumba to create)
mteule one who is chosen, appointed (kuteua to choose, select)
mahame place from which people have moved away (kuhama to move away)


Nouns which retain the final -a of the verb stem: Their construction is simply: Noun prefix + verb stem.

mshinda one who conquers (kushinda to overcome)
mwiwa debtor (kuwiwa to owe)
mganga doctor (kuganga to cure)
matata complications (kutata to tangle)
kinywa mouth (kunywa to drink)
ndoa marriage (kuoa to marry)
kifaa useful thing (kufaa to be of use)
njia path, way (kuja (kujia) to come (to))
kipawa gift (kupewa to be given)
mazoea familiarity, habit (kuzoea to get used to)
makosa errors (kukosa to err)

Others of this type are found in the nouns formed by composition. (See paragraph 16.A)

16 Nouns formed by composition are made in several ways: A

A deverbative formed by a noun class prefix plus a verb stem is followed by another noun. Formerly these compositions were written as two words, but currently there is pressure to join them as one word. that is done here, but you will no doubt see them as written as two at times.

mwuzasamaki fish seller
mwuzachakula grocer
metendakazi worker
kitindamimba last-born child
kifungatumbo first-born child
kifungakinywa breakfast
mfuachuma blacksmith
kifungabei deposit to make agreed price binding
kifauwongo plant that wilts on touch
kipaimara confirmation (the Christian rite)
mgombeakiti campaigning candidate for an election
mpigapasi ironer (of clothes)
mpigachapa typist
mpigapicha photographer
kiinuamgongo severance pay, bonus
pimamaji spirit level
kifyonzavumbi vacuum cleaner


Compositions made with mwana

mwanamke woman
mwanamume man
mwanafunzi student, learner
mwanachama party member
mwanasiasa politician
mwanamaji sailor
mwanahewa aviator
mwanaanga astronaut
mwanasheria lawyer
mwanachuo university student


Formations including the adjective -kuu

mkulima farmer
mkufunzi tutor, post-graduate level
mkurufunzi student in university, college; tutor
mkurugenzi directore (from genda, the old form of kwenda)


"Noun in apposition": two nouns in which the second acts as a modifier of the first

mitishamba herbalist's medicines
afisauhamiaji immigration officer
afisakilimo agriculture officer
katibu kata ward secretary
katibu tarafa division secretary
katibu wilaya district secretary
katibu mkoa regional secretary

For additional examples, see paragraph 32.


Nouns formed by reduplication of the stem for expressiveness are occasionally heard.

kizunguzungu giddiness, dizziness
kipindupindu cholera
kichefuchefu nausea


Thanks to Broderick Nichols for assistance preparing this page for the Web.


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