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Kiswahili Grammar Notes: Verb Structure

Verb Structure

41

The Swahili verb carries a great deal of information. The verb root is the heart of the construction. The verb root is the basic element, stripped of all affixes (i.e. prefixes and suffixes), including the infinitive KU- and the -A ending. In kuimba, to sing, the verb root is -imb-.

Sometimes a verb root will be followed by one or more suffixes. At the very least it will have an ending, -A in the infinitive form. Verb root plus the following element(s) make the verb stem. The simplest verb stem is root plus ending as in imba, sing. A more complicated verb stem may have one or more suffixes between root and -A as in imbia, sing to or for (someone). This stem consists of the root -imb-, the suffix -i, and the ending -a. The function of the suffix -i will be explained later.

But a verb construction includes much more than the verb stem. Every element that comes before the stem we call a prefix; every element that follows the root is called a suffix. [In Bantu literature the object prefix is often called an "infix" even though it is not inserted into the verb root but precedes it; this text will use only the terms "prefix" and "suffix."] The following elements are included in verb constructions. No one construction will have all of them, however:

A. A series of prefixes indicating:
    1. Negative (HA)
    2. Subject of the verb: must agree with the person or noun classes of the sentence subject. See paragraphs 20 and 22.
    3. Negative (SI)
    4. Tense or aspect of the verb (paragraphs 42, 44-60)
    5. Relative particles (who, which): 0 of reference agreeing with the noun to which it refers (paragraph 123.B)
    6. Object of the verb: must agree with the person or noun class of the object in the sentence. See paragraphs 21 and 22.

B. THE VERB ROOT

C. Optionally, one or more suffixes giving varying shades of meaning to the verb—e.g. prepositional, reciprocal, stative, causative, passive, etc.

D. An ending, either:
-A the ending found in the infinitive form and most verb constructions,
-I the ending for negative present verbs only, or
-E the ending for subjunctive constructions and imperatives which have an object prefix. This is also the ending when the post-final 2nd person plural element is included in the construction.

E. A post-final 2nd person plural element (NI)

Of the prefixes in section A above, no one verb construction can have all of them: nos. 1 and 3, for instance, are both negatives. Any negative construction will have one or the other but never both. Similarly, there are other prefixes in the list that will never be together in the same construction. The maximum number that ever occur together is four.

The component of section B in the list is the verb root. Normally, this is all that fills this spot. However, Swahili has a number of monosyllabic verbs, e.g. kula, to eat. In this case the root consists of only one consonant, -l-. In some verb tenses, these monosyllabic verbs will retain the infinitive marker ku- as part of the verb construction, as in wanakula (wa-na-ku-l-a), they are eating. Compare wanaimba (wa-na-imb-a), they are singing. In the tenses where ku- is retained with monosyllabic verbs, this will be indicated in the text.

The following chart shows a few examples of how the elements from our list combine to form verb constructions.

Negative Subject Negative Tense/ Aspect Relative Object VERB ROOT Deriva-
tional Suffixes
Ending 2nd Person Plural
wa
na
imb
a
Wanaimba They are singing
ha
wa
ta
imb
a
Hawataimba They will not sing
tu
li
o
wa
imb
i
e
ni
Tuliowaimbieni We who sang to you (pl.)
ni
si
ye
imb
a
Nisiyeimba I who do (or did) not sing
m
si
tu
imb
i
e
Msituimbie Please (you pl.) don't sing to us
a
wa
imb
ish
e
Awaimbishe He should direct their singing
wa
si
nge
imb
a
Wasingeimba If they wouldn't sing...
ha
wa
nge
imb
a
Hawangeimba If they wouldn't sing...

42 TENSE OR ASPECT OF THE VERB

Languages have ways of telling when actions are performed, whether in the present, past or future. The signals which tell us about the time of the action we call tense markers.

Languages also have ways of telling about the character of the action, whether it is completed or on-going, for instance. The signals which tell us about the kind of action are called aspect markers.

Swahili has both tense and aspect markers; some are one or the other, but some are both tense and aspect. These markers are prefixes which come immediately after the subject prefix in most verb constructions that have a tense/aspect marker (not all constructions do).

To keep the terminology as straightforward as possible, we are referring to all tense/aspect markers as "tense" prefixes, but the accompanying explanation in each case in the sections which follow will indicate to you whether the prefix under consideration is tense or aspect or both.

43

Another kind of verb construction in Swahili puts the verb into the subjunctive mood, which indicates a willingness or desire that an action should be taken (see the 5th and 6th examples on the chart above). This is a very much-used verb form in Swahili, more so than in European languages. It is a very simple construction not involving a tense prefix, but has a great variety of uses to which you will be introduced in paragraph 64. C.

44

Swahili has three present tenses: NA, A, and HU tenses. There is only one negative tense for all present tenses.

45

NA TENSE: This is sometimes called PRESENT CONTINUOUS; an alternate name could be "Actual Present" because it expresses ongoing action, and in that way can be compared with the English use of ...ing.

FUNCTION:

    1. To express an action actually taking place in the present time.
    2. To express that the action is going on at a time indicated elsewhere in the text, e.g.:

Nilimwona anacheza I saw him playing (i.e. playing was in progress at the time I saw him)
Alitusikia tunaimba
she heard us singing (we were in the act of singing at the time she heard us)

WA NA IMB A They are singing

TU NA JARIBU We are trying

NI NA KU L A I am eating

Note that in the monosyllabic verb KULA, infinitive KU is retained. For NEGATIVE of NA tense: See paragraph 48.

46

HU TENSE: Sometimes called the "HABITUAL TENSE." This tense does not have a subject prefix. If necessary to clarify the subject, use a noun or personal pronoun.

FUNCTION: To express a habitual or recurrent action: "generally," "usually," or "always" without specific reference to time.

Wao HU IMB A They usually sing

Sisi HU JARIBU We usually try

Mimi HU L A I usually eat

For NEGATIVE of HU tense: See paragraph 48.

47

A TENSE: This is sometimes called "Present Indefinite" or "General Present" in contrast to the "Actual Present" of NA tense.

A tense is not very common in daily speech; NA tense has to a large extent taken over the A- tense function. It is however commonly seen in newspaper headlines.

FUNCTION: To express that (or question whether) an action takes place, generally speaking, in the present or currently, but without reference to an actual time.

Note the difference between A and NA in the following examples:

Ninasoma vitabu. I am reading books (I am now in the act).
Nasoma vitabu. I read books. (a general statement of fact).
Wapenda kusoma? Do you like to read? (at any time, not only at this moment).

WA IMB A They sing

TWA JARIBU We try

NA L A I eat

Note: The subject prefix and A tense coalesce. See paragraph 12 for combined forms for all classes.

For NEGATIVE of A tense: See paragraph 48.

48 The NEGATIVE PRESENT forms the negative of NA, A, and HU tenses. It does not have any tense prefix. Its distinguishing feature is replacement of final -A of the verb stem with -I (in Bantu verbs only, verbs of non-Bantu origin do not change).

In addition, a negative element precedes (HA-/H-) or replaces (NI -, SI-) the subject prefix.

HA WA IMB I They don't sing/ They are not singing

HA TU JARIBU We do not try/ We are not trying

SI L I I do not eat/ I am not eating

Note that this is the only negative present tense, and makes the negative of all three present tenses.

49

TA TENSE: The FUTURE TENSE in Swahili.

FUNCTION:

TA tense refers to an activity in the future, including all time from the immediate to the distant future.

When this prefix is followed by a relative particle, its form is changed to TAKA. The function of KA in TAKA is to carry the secondary stress of the relative construction.

Nipe nguo zitakazofuliwa. Give me the clothes which are to be washed.

WA TA IMB A They will sing

TU TA JARIBU We will try

NI TA KU L A I will eat

Note that in the monosyllabic verb KULA, infinitive KU is retained.

50 NEGATIVE of the TA tense:

The negative future tense is expressed with the same tense prefix as the positive form. The difference is in the addition of the prefix HA before the subject prefix (or in substituting SI for NI in 1st person singular).

HA WA TA IMB A They will not sing

HA TU TA JARIBU We will not try

SI TA KU L A I will not eat

Note that in the monosyllabic verb, infinitive KU is retained.

51

LI TENSE: The PAST TENSE

FUNCTION:

LI tense refers to an action or event that took place in past time. Usually a specific time in the past is indicated somewhere in the context, with expressions like "yesterday," "last month," "five minutes ago," "long ago," etc. These can either be mentioned or understood from the context.

WA LI IMB A They sang

TU LI JARIBU We tried

NI LI KU L A I ate

Note that the infinitve KU is retained in monosyllabic verbs.

52

KU TENSE: NEGATIVE PAST TENSE

Negative past tense is made with the tense presfix KU. In addition the negative prefix precedes the subject prefix (HA), or replaces it (1st person singular NI becomes SI).

HA WA KU IMB A They did not sing

HA TU KU JARIBU We did not try

SI KU L A I did not eat

Note that the infinitive KU is dropped with the monosyllabic verb. In this example, KU is the negative past tense prefix.

53

ME TENSE: Has been called the PERFECT TENSE

FUNCTION:

ME tense indicates an action that has been completed and has resulted in the present state of affairs

Nimesikia habari. I have heard the news (so now I know it).
Baba amerudi nyumbani. Father has returned (and he is there now).

There is no reference to time — simply that something has occurred sometime. Note this difference between ME and LI tenses:

Nimekula mayai I have eaten eggs (sometime in my life). Having experienced it, I know how eggs taste.
Nilikula mayai jana I ate eggs yesterday. This points to one specific event, and the time when it happened is specified: jana.

WA ME IMB A They have sung

TU ME JARIBU We have tried

NI ME KU L A I have eaten

Note that in monosyllabic verbs, the infinitive KU is retained.

Because the ME tense expresses a completed action resulting in a state of affairs, it is especially useful with two types of verbs found in Swahili:

    1. Process verbs (see paragraph 104)
    2. Stative verbs (see paragraph 110-111)
  1. Process verbs express an action which results in a state or position, e.g. kuketi, to perform the act of getting into a sitting position (from some other position — standing up or lying down, for instance — hence kuketi can be either to sit up or to sit down). Therefore when in English we say "I am sitting," we must in Swahili say Nimeketi, I have put myself into a sitting position.
  2. Stative verbs express an existing state of affairs that may have been reached by unknown means, therefore the ME tense is useful in expressing "this state of affairs has been reached": Kikombe kimevunjika, the cup has got broken; in better English, the cup is broken. But no comment is made as to how it happened or who did it.

54

JA TENSE: The "NOT YET" Tense

The negative counterpart of the ME tense is expressed with the JA tense. The JA tense conveys the information that up to the present time an action has not taken place, but there is the implication that it may yet take place in the future. Bado, not yet, is often used with this tense, making explicit the idea of "not yet but still possible."

1. JA tense contrasts with KU tense in that KU simply expresses that an action was not carried out at a particular time, but JA indicates that the action has not yet been carried out but the possibility of its being done still exists.

Umefua nguo? Have you washed the clothes?
Sijafua. I haven't washed yet (but it's on the agenda).
Sikufua. I didn't wash (and that's that).

HA WA JA IMB A They have not sung.

HA TU JA JARIBU We have not tried.

SI JA L A I have not eaten.

2. A special sentence construction with kabla, before, and JA tense should be noted:

Wageni walifika kabla sijasafisha nyumba. The guests arrived before I had cleaned the house (lit. before I had not yet cleaned...).

This construction, kabla + JA, must be used if the subjects of the two clauses are different:

Alikuwa mwalimu kabla sijazaliwa She was a teacher before I was born.
Maliza kazi yako kabla saa haijaisha. Finish your work before the time is up.

But if both clauses have the same subject, either kabla + JA or kabla ya + infinitive may be used:

Nilisafisha nyumba kabla sijapika. OR:
Nilisafisha nyumba kabla ya kupika. I cleaned the house before cooking.

55

KA TENSE: The "CONSECUTIVE" Tense

KA does not indicate any specific time when the activity takes place, but it does imply that is is subsequent in time to activity expressed in the preceding verb.

KA tense has several functions; implicit in each of them is the idea of the state or activity being subsequent in time:

1. It expresses an activity or state which follows another:

Niliamka, nikaanywa chai, nikaondoka. I awakened, drank tea, and left.
Alimtafuta akamwona. She looked for him and found him.
Waliamka wakaja. They awakened and came.

Note that "and" is included in the KA tense prefix here.

Mliwafundisha WA KA IMB A vizuri You (pl.) taught them and they sang well.

2. It expresses an action or state which is a result or consequence of something previously mentioned:

Huwezi kukawia njiani ukafika mapema. You can't take a long time on the way and arrive early.
Imekuwaje hata akawa mgonjwa kiasi hicho? How did it happen that he became so ill?

3. It follows a negative subjunctive construction of the suxiliary kuja: -SIJE -KA-, expressing "lest":

Aliogopa asije akashindwa. He was fearful lest he fall.
Nenda polepole usije ukapatwa na ajali. Go carefully (slowly) so you don't have an accident.

Tunza mfuko, mwizi asije A KA JARIBU kukuibia Take care of your purse so a thief doesn't try to rob you.

4. In a subjunctive construction it expresses purpose in an action which is to be carried out subsequent in time and away from the speaker.

Nitakwenda sokoni nikanunue ndizi. I'll go to the market and buy bananas.
Ukachemshe maji. (Go and) boil the water.

Ngoja niamke NI KA L E Wait, let me get up and (go and) eat.

5. Without the subject prefix it expresses mild surprise. This can be used only with person subjects.

Nani kafanya hivi? Who (in the world) did this (like this)?
Aliiba mtoto kakimbia naye. He stole a child and ran off with it.

56

KI TENSE: The "SIMULTANEOUS" Tense

FUNCTIONS:

1. In a dependent clause, it expresses action taking place at the same time as the event related in the main clause.
2. In a conditional clause, it functions as "if."

A. In a dependent clause, expressing an ongoing action taking place at the time indicated elsewhere in the context:

Tulimwona akisoma vitabu. We saw him reading books (The reading was going on at the same time that we saw him).
Nilisoma gazeti nikinywa kahawa. I read the magazine (while) drinking coffee.

Aliwasikia WA KI IMB A He heard them (while they were) singing.

Alituona TU KI JARIBU She saw us (as we were) trying.

Aliniona NI KI L A He saw me (when I was) eating.

Note that this use of the KI tense is interchangeable with one of the uses of the NA tense, see paragraph 45.

B. In a conditional clause, functioning as "if":

Ukifunika sufuria, maji yatachemka upesi. If you cover the pot, the water will boil quickly.
Ukitia mbolea utapata mazao bora. If you fertilize you will get good crops.

In some cases, KI can be understood as "when":

Ukienda mjini uninunulie mkate. If (when) you go to town, please buy me some bread.

WA KI IMB A tutawasikia If they sing, we will hear them.

Note that with this use of KI, there is an expected sequel expressed (usually) in future or subjunctive.

57

SIPO: Negative of KI as "if"

SIPO is really two elements: the negative SI and the relative of time and place, PO. It can be understood as "when not," "if not," "unless."

Usipofunika sufuria, maji hayatachemka upesi. If you don't cover the pot, the water won't boil quickly.
Usipotia mbolea, hutapata mazao bora. If you don't fertilize, you won't get good crops.

TU SIPO JARIBU atatufukuza kazi If we don't try he will fire us.

NI SIPO KU L A nitakufa If I don't eat I will die.

58

NGE TENSE: The PRESENT CONDITIONAL Tense

This tense states a supposed condition with a consequence that is possible of realization because it is in the present time. The consequence (or result) would be realized if the condition were fulfilled, but as the situation is stated, this is unlikely.

The two clauses (condition and consequence) are both stated with the NGE tense. The condition may be introduced by kama:

Ingenyesha tungepata mazao. If it would rain, we would get crops.
Kama ningejaribu, ningemaliza kazi upesi. If I tried, I would finish the job quickly.
Wangekula zaidi wangenenepa. If they ate more, they would get fat.
Kama chakula kingepatikana, tungekula zaidi. If food were available, we would eat more.

Note that in the monosyllabic verbs, the infinitive KU is retained.

59

NGALI TENSE: The PAST CONDITIONAL Tense

This tense states an imagined condition in the past with a consequence that cannot be realized because the condition was not fulfilled in the past time.

Both clauses (condition and consequence) can have the NGALI tense, or the conditional can be in the NGALI tense and the supposed consequence in the NGE tense.

(Kama) ingalinyesha, tungalipata mazao. If it had rained, we would have gotten crops.
(Kama) ningalijaribu, ningalimaliza kazi upesi. If I had tried, I would have finished the job quickly.
(Kama) wangalikula zaidi wangalinenepa. If they had eaten more, they would have gotten fat.
(Kama) chakula kingalipatikana, tungalikula zaidi. If food had been available, we would have eaten more.
(Kama) ungalijifunza kwa bidii, ungeweza kusema Kiswahili leo. If you had studied hard, you would be able to speak Swahili now.

Note that the infinitive KU is retained with monosyllabic verbs.

60

SI: NEGATIVE OF NGE AND NGALI TENSES

There are two possibilities for making these tenses negative:

1. By using the negative prefix SI following the subject prefix. This is the most frequently used method.
2. By prefixing HA before the subject prefix (and in the case of singular persons, substituting SI for NI in 1st person, and prefixing only H before 2nd and 3rd persons).

There is no other verb form in Swahili in which it is possible to choose which form of negative to use.

A. Negative forms with NGE:

Isingenyesha tusingepata mazao. or:
Haingenyesha hatungepata mazao. If it did not rain we would not get crops.

Nisingejaribu, nisingemaliza kazi upesi. or:
Singejaribu singemaliza kazi upesi. If I did not try, I would not finish the job quickly.

Wasingekula zaidi wasingenenepa. or:
Hawangekula zaidi hawangenenepa. If they didn't eat so much they wouldn't get fat.

B. Negative forms with NGALI:

Nisingalijaribu, nisingalimaliza kazi upesi. or:
Singalijaribu, singalimaliza kazi upesi. If I hadn't tried, I would not have finished the job quickly.

Chakula kisingalipatikana, tusingalikula zaidi. or:
Chakula hakingalipatakana, hatungalikula zaidi. If food had not been available, we would not have eaten so much.

Kama dawa isingaliwahi kuletwa, wagonjwa wasingalipona. or:
Kama dawa haingaliwahi kuletwa, wagonjwa hawangalipona. If the medicine hadn't been sent early, the patients would not have been cured.

C. Negative forms with both NGALI and NGE:

Usingalijifunza kwa bidii, usingeweza kusema Kiswahili leo. or:
Hungaljifunza kwa bidii, hungeweza kusema Kiswahili leo. If you hadn't studied hard, you wouldn't be able to speak Swahili now.

Barabara mpya isingalijengwa, tusingeweza kufika Dodoma upesi. or:
Barabara mpya haingalijengwa, hatungeweza kufika Dodoma upesi. If the new road had not been built, we wouldn't be able to reach Dodoma quickly.

61 A COMPARISON OF THREE WAYS OF EXPRESSING A CONDITION

One of the functions of the KI tense is to make a conditional clause "if," as a real condition. The NGE and NGALI tenses, on the other hand, present imaginary conditions.

A. Condition expressed with the KI tense:

Akiwa na nafasi, atakwenda. If he has time, he will go. This is a real condition; the condition is unknown: akiwa na nafasi, if he has time. When it becomes known whether or not he has time, then the result can be confidently stated:

Akiwa na nafasi, atakwenda. or conversely,
Asipokuwa na nafasi, hatakwenda. If he doesn't have time, he won't go. The result or consequence can be known and stated as soon as the condition is known.

B. Condition expressed with the NGE tense:

Angekuwa na nafasi angekwenda. If he had time, he would go. This is an imagined, unreal condition. The condition is known: he does not have time. But this is implied rather than stated: Angekuwa na nafasi, if he had time; in other words, Sorry, he doesn't have time, but if he had... angekwenda, he would go. Since he doesn't have the time, presumably he will not go. Both condition and consequence are in the present time frame.

C. Condition expressed with the NGALI tense:

Angalikuwa na nafasi angalikwenda. If he had had time, he would have gone. The whole situation is unreal and impossible of realization because it was all in past time. The condition that existed in that past time is known: he did not have time - implied rather than stated by the clause angalikuwa na nafasi, if he had had time. If that condition could have been changed, then he would have gone, angalikwenda. Now there is no possibility of such a result because the time has passed.

62 A COMPARISON OF KA AND KI TENSES AND INFINITIVE KU

When two activities are mentioned in the same sentence, it is possible to indicate the order of events simply by choice of verb form without making additional explanations:

KA indicates consecutive action (paragraph 55)
Nilikula nikasoma. I ate and (after that) I read.

KI indicates simultaneous activity (paragraph 56)
Nilikula nikisoma. I ate (while at the same time) reading.

KU infinitive has no time implication of any sort (paragraph 65.A.2)
Nilikula na kusoma. I ate and read (those were my activities).

Compare these sentences:

Tulilima tukasikia njaa. We cultivated and then were hungry.
Tulilima tukisikia njaa. We cultivated while feeling hungry.
Tulilima na kusikia njaa. We cultivated and felt hungry (those were two of our experiences).

 

Thanks to Cindy Lunsford for assistance preparing this page for the Web.
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