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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: Prepositions

Prepositions

124. Swahili has no prepositions as such. The prepositional function is carried in several ways:

1. The prepositional form of the verb
2. The -A of relationship
3. Phrases which incorporate: -a, kwa and -a, na.
4. Bantu nouns and verb forms; non-Bantu loan words.

A THE PREPOSITIONAL FORM OF THE VERB

This form of verb gives expression to concepts that in English are expressed by a variety of prepositions, such as: to, for, at, toward, on behalf of, in, into, etc. See paragraphs 107-110 for the prepositional form of the verb.

Aliniletea kitabu. He brought a book to me.
Walimlimia shamba. They cultivated the field for her.
Sabuni ya kufulia Soap to wash with
Mahali pa kukutania A place to meet at
Mahali pa kujengea A place to build on
Chumba cha kulia A room to eat in
Wamehamia Moshi. They have moved to Moshi.
Alikimbilia mti. He ran towards the tree.
Umetokea wapi? Where do you come from?
Walimwombea nafasi katika shule. They asked on her behalf for a place in the school.

B THE -A OF RELATIONSHIP

Note the three main uses of -A as listed in paragraph 119 and amplified in succeeding paragraphs.

1.
Watu wa nchi hii The people of this country
Kazi ya fundi The work of an expert
Maneno ya busara Words of wisdom

2.
Walikwenda kwa shangazi. They went to their aunt.
Nimetoka kwa rafiki. I have come from my friend.
Yuko kwa mwalimu. She is at the teacher's place.
Nimepata barua kutoka kwa ndugu. I have received a letter from my brother.

Note that KWA can never be used with locative nouns or names of places:

Tutakwenda Mbeya. We will go to Mbeya.
Wametoka dukani. They have come from the shop.

Instrumental use of KWA:
Watasafiri kwa ndege. They will travel by plane.
Napigilia misumari kwa nyundo. I hammer nails with a hammer.

3.
Nilicheza naye (mtoto). I played with her (a child).
Tutazungumza nao. We will talk with them.
Mzigo ulichukuliwa na baba. The load was carried by father.
Aligombana na mkewe. He quarrelled with his wife.

C PHRASES THAT INCORPORATE: -A, KWA & -A, NA

1. Phrases incorporating -A:

CHINI YA
Below, under (literally & figuratively)

Viatu vyake viko chini ya kitanda. Her shoes are under the bed.
Wanafanya kazi chini ya uongozi wa msimamizi. They work under the leadership of the supervisor.

JUU YA
Over, on top of, concerning, about, responsibility of

Weka kikapu juu ya meza. Put the basket on the table.
Alipanda juu ya mti. He climbed up into the tree.
Wameeleza yote juu ya ajali iliyotokea juzi. They have explained everything about the accident that happened the day before yesterday.
Watatulipia chumba, lakini chakula ni juu yetu. They will pay for our rooms, but food is our responsibility.
Ukitaka kusafiri ama kubaki nyumbani, ni juu yako. If you want to travel or stay at home, it's up to you.

BAADA YA
After (only about time)

Baada ya chakula nitapumzika. After food I shall rest.
Baada ya kupumzika nitakwenda shule. After resting I shall go to school.

KABLA YA
Before (only about time)

Nanywa chai kabla ya kwenda shuleni. I drink tea (have breakfast) before going to school.
Tutamaliza kazi kabla ya usiku. We will finish the job before night.

MBELE YA
Before, in front of, beyond, farther on, in a prominent place (as to rank)

Acha mizigo mbele ya nyumba. Leave the loads in front of the house.
Endelea mbele. Go farther on.
Kituo kile kipo mbele ya Dodoma. That centre is situated beyond Dodoma.

Sometimes mbele is used with za: mbele za. Mbele is a plural (Class 10) of a Bantu noun still found in some languages, uwele or ubele, meaning "breast".

NYUMA YA
Behind, beyond, in back of

Wamejenga kibanda cha kuku nyuma ya nyumba. They have built a chicken house behind the house.
Kijiji chao kiko nyuma ya mlima huu. Their village is beyond this mountain. (because you can see the mountain, and the village is behind it, where it is not seen).

Mbele and nyuma are sources of endless confusion for speakers of European languages. Both mean 'beyond', from the perspective of the speaker. Mbele ya Dodoma in the sentence above, denotes "beyond", "on the far side of" Dodoma. Mbele ya mlima huu (a mountain which you can see where you are standing) would mean "in front of", "on this side of" the mountain. But mbele ya Mlima Kilimanjaro (when you are on the highway east of the mountain and cannot yet see it) would mean "beyond", "on the west side" of the mountain; the place you reach after going past the mountain.

For houses and people and such things which, unlike mountains, have a definite "front" and "back", the situation is less complicated: mbele ya nyumba is in front of the house, presumably where the main entrance is; nyuma ya nyumba is behind the house.

The Oxford Swahili-English Dictionary has long discussions on each of these words which would be worthwhile studying. They won't eliminate the confusion, but will at least illuminate the reasons for confusion!

Here is a beautiful example from John 1:27:
Yuaja mtu nyuma yangu, ambaye amekuwa mbele yangu; kwa maana alikuwa kabla yangu. A person comes behind me who ranks ahead of me, for he existed before me.

KANDO YA
Beside, by the side of

Watoto walicheza kando ya mto. The children played beside the river.
Reli inapita kando ya barabara. The railway goes alongside the road.

NDANI YA
Inside of, within

Uweke vyombo ndani ya kabati. Please put the tools inside the cupboard.
Wako ndani ya nyumba. They are inside the house.

NJE
Outside of

Mtoto asiende nje ya lango. The child shouldn't go outside of the gate.
Walipakua mizigo nje ya kiwanda. They unloaded the loads outside the factory.

KATI YA
KATIKATI YA
Between, among, in the midst of

Amejenga nyumba yake kati ya barabara na mto. He has built his house between the road and river.
Alisimamisha gari katikati ya barabara. She stopped the car in the middle of the road.
Kati ya wageni waliofika walikuwamo walimu. Among the guests who arrived there were teachers.
Kati ya kila wanafunzi kumi, mmoja hakufaulu kupata kazi. Every tenth student did not succeed in getting a job. (lit. Among every ten..., one...)

BADALA YA
Instead of

Ulete mahindi badala ya ngano. Please bring maize instead of wheat.
Afadhali ujifunze badala ya kucheza. You had better study instead of playing.

BAINA YA
Between, among (See also kati ya)

Hakuna tofauti baina ya kazi yake na yangu. There is no difference between her work and mine.
Baina ya kwenda Serengeti na kubaki nyumbani, napendelea kwenda Serengeti. Between going to Serengeti and remaining home, I prefer going to Serengeti.

MAHALI PA
In place of, instead of

Waweza kuhudhuria mkutano mahali pangu. You may attend the meeting instead of me.

ZAIDI YA
More than

Nimemwona hapa zaidi ya mara tano. I have seen her hee more than five times.
Mbili kuongeza mbili ni zaidi ya tatu. Two plus two is more than three.

MIONGONI MWA
Among, in the midst of

Miongoni mwa wanakijiji, mlikuwa na wazee. Among the villagers there were old people.
Hamna madaktari miongoni mwetu. There are no doctors among us.

Miongoni is a locative of miongo, pl. of mwongo, number. Miongoni mwa... in the number of... Note that Class 18 agreements are used with this phrase.

LICHA YA
Not only (the lesser; followed by hata and something greater)

Licha ya kutengeneza gari, hata mashine za aina yoyote anajua kuzitengeneza. Not only cars, but any kind of machines, he knows how to repair.
Licha ya kukosa sukari, hata mchele haupatikani. Not only sugar is lacking, but even rice is unavailable.
Licha ya wananchi, hata watu wa ng'ambo walihudhuria mkutano. Not only local people, but also people from overseas attended the meeting.

2. Phrases incorporating KWA and A:

KWA HABARI YA
About, concerning

Sijasikia lolote kwa habari ya mkutano ule. I haven't heard anything about that meeting.

KWA SABABU YA
Because of

Hawezi kufika kwa sababu ya kazi nyingi. She cannot come because of much work.
Amevunja mguu kwa sababu ya kuanguka. He has broken a leg because of falling.

KWA AJILI YA
On acoount of, for the sake of

Panya alikufa kwa ajili ya sumu. The rat died on account of the poison.
Walifanya kazi hiyo yote kwa ajili yangu. They did all the work for my sake.

3. Phrases with NA:

Take special note of the fact that in the five phrases which follow, it is NA that follows the main word and not YA as in the long lost in the first group in this section.

KARIBU NA
Near to

Wanaishi karibu na mji. They live near to the town.
Walikaa karibu nasi. They lived near to us.

MBALI NA
Far from

Hospitali iko mbali na shule. The hospital is far from the school.
Hawako mbali nawe. They are not far from you.

PAMOJA NA
Together with

Watoto wako pamoja na yaya. The children are with the nursemaid.
Alileta vikombe pamoja na visahani vyake. She brought the cups and their saucers.

SAWA NA
Equal to, the same as

Mbili kuongeza mbili ni sawa na tano kutoa moja. Two plus two is equal to five minus one.
Mtoto wako ni mrefu sawa na mtoto wangu. Your child is as tall as my child.

TOFAUTI NA
Different from

Tembo ni tofauti na simba. An elephant is different from a lion.

D BANTU NOUNS AND VERB FORMS, NON-BANTU LOAN WORDS

Several of these can be grouped together, being interchangeable with others.

KUTOKA
TOKA
KUTOKA KWA
TOKEA
From, out of, since, away from

Nimepata barua kutoka Kigoma. I have got a letter from Kigoma.
Nimepata barua toka Kigoma. I have got a letter from Kigoma.
Nimepata barua kutoka kwa mjomba wangu. I have got a letter from my uncle.
(kutoka kwa is used only with people)
Wamekuwa marafiki tokea (toka, kutoka) utoto wao. They have been friends since their childhood.

KUTOKA KATIKA
From within, out of

Alitoa shilingi tatu kutoka katika mfuko wake. He took three shillings out of his pocket.
Alitusomea kutoka katika kitabu chake. He read to us from his book.

MPAKA
HATA
HADI
Up to, until, as far as, as much as
(When followed by a verb form, a subjunctive is used).

Walikwenda mpaka (hata, hadi) Arusha. They went as far as Arusha.
Tulingoja mpaka (hata, hadi) jioni. We waited until evening.
Uningoje hapa mpaka (hata, hadi) nije. Wait for me here until I come.
Nitaendelea na kazi hii mpaka (hata, hadi) iishe. I will continue with this work until it is finished.

(Mpaka is a Class 3 noun for border, boundary).

KAMA
like, as

Rangi yake nyekundu kama damu. Its color is red as blood.

KULIKO
KUPITA
KUSHINDA
KUZIDI
(More or less) than

Used in comparisons; what precedes the preposition will designate whether it is "more than" or "less than".

Una vitabu vingi kuliko (kupita, kushinda, kuzidi) mimi. You have more books than I.
Bustani yao ni nzuri kuliko (kupita, kushinda, kuzidi) bustani yetu. Their garden is more beautiful than our garden.
Walileta kiasi kidogo kuliko tunavyohitaji. They brought less than we need.

KWENYE
On, at, in, by
(One of the most useful prepositions!)

Msicheze kwenye barabara. Don't play on the road (lit.: in the place having the road)
Nilimwona kwenye maduka. I saw her at the shops (in the area where the shops are)
Watu wengi walikusanyika kwenye kiwanja. Many people gathered on the field.
Weka chupa kabatini kwenye makopo. Put the bottle in the cupboard where the tins are.

BILA
Without

Tuliona miti bila majani. We saw trees without leaves.
Bila shaka wajisikia vizuri leo. No doubt you feel good today.

TANGU
Since (only about time)

Najifunza tangu asubuhi hata jioni. I study from morning until evening.
Maisha yote ni kujifunza--tangu kuzaliwa hata kufa. All of life is learning--from birth to death.
Sijamwona tangu afike hapa. I haven't seen him since he arrived here.

Note: Tangu is followed by a subjunctive if a verb form is required.

KATIKA
In, inside

Depending on the verb it follows, this can mean on, at, off, out of, from! Its many uses help explain why Swahili speakers learning English will say things like "He came out of from in the house." Its various uses can be grouped under three headings:

1. Preceding a noun which denotes a place, but is not a locative form, and not the name of the place.

Alipona katika hatari. He escaped from danger.
Tulipotoka katika mji, kulikucha. When we came out of the town, it dawned.
Kuna viwanda vingi katika nchi ile. There are many factories in that country.
Ameondoka katika kitanda. She has got out of bed.
Aliandika katika karatasi chafu. He wrote on a soiled paper.
Niliondoka katika kiti. I got off the chair.
Usipande katika mti ule. Don't climb up into that tree.
Wameshuka katika basi. They got off (descended from) the bus.

2. Preceding expressions indicating a time span: "while", "during the time of", "while doing..."

Aliumia katika kumsaidia jirani. He was injured while helping his neighbor.
Katika muhula wa kwanza, tulijifunza jiografia. During the first term we studied geography.
Katika kujadili mambo hayo tulipata kuelewana zaidi. While debating those matters we got to know one another better.
Tunajifunza Kiswahili katika muda wa miezi minne. We learn Swahili in four months' time.

3. In expressions defining a situation or particular circumstance.

Katika swali mliloniuliza... Concerning the question you asked me...
Nilikuwa katika usingizi mzito nilipoitwa. I was fast asleep when I was called.
Alikuja tulipokuwa katika kazi. She came when we were at work.
Alipokuwa katika kusema, kelele ilisikika. As he was speaking, a disturbance was heard.

E USE OF -A, KWA and NA with pronouns

When pronouns are substituted for nouns in any of these phrases, very definite distinctions are made as to type of pronominal form to be used. Each of the three kinds of phrases has its own requirement for pronoun substitutions for people and for things, namely:

1. Phrases with -A

a. Referring to people: -A combines with the singular or plural possessive pronoun

badala yangu instead of me
miongoni mwenu among you (pl.)

b. Referring to things: -A combines with 3rd person singular possessive pronoun -ake for both singular and plural things.

badala yake (kijiko) instead of it (spoon)
badala yake (vijiko) instead of them (spoons)
Hapa pana miti, tukae chini yake. Here are trees, let's sit under them.

2. Phrases with KWA

a. Referring to people: KWA combines with the singular or plural possessive pronoun

Yuko kwake. She is at his place.
Njoo kwetu. Come to our place.

b. Referring to things: KWA combines with the -O of Reference agreeing with the thing(s) referred to.

Alikula kwacho (kijiko). She ate with it (spoon)
Watapima kwavyo (vijiko). They will measure with them (spoons)

3. Phrases with NA

a. Referring to people: NA combines with the contracted personal pronoun

mbali nasi far from us
karibu nawe near to you

b. Referring to things: NA combines with the -O of Reference agreeing with the thing(s) referred to.

Weka sahani karibu nacho (kijiko). Put the plate near it (the spoon).
Watoto wanacheza navyo (vijiko). The children are playing with them (spoons).

To summarize in another way:
-A and KWA when referring to people combine with possessive pronouns.
NA when referring to people combines with the personal pronouns.

-A when referring to things combines with -ake (for all, sing. or pl.)
KWA and NA when referring to things combine with -O of Reference.

MTU WATU KIJIKO VIJIKO
(badala y-) -A YAKE YAO YAKE YAKE
(watakula ...) KWA KWAKE KWAO KWACHO KWAVYO
(karibu ...) NA NAYE NAO NACHO NAVYO

Thanks to Krzysztof Suchecki, Julian Baker, Abdalla Bafagih, Carl Hinton, Michael Manus, Anja Schaffhirt, Peter Schotsman, Ben Stanford, Tololwa Mollel, and Heidi Frontani for assistance preparing this page for the Web.
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