Swahili grammar

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Swahili grammar is typical for Bantu languages, bearing all the hallmarks of this language family. These include agglutinativity, a rich array of noun classes, extensive inflection for person (both subject and object), tense, aspect and mood, and generally a subject–verb–object word order.

Typology[edit]

Swahili may be described in several ways depending on the aspect being considered.

  • It is an agglutinative language. It constructs whole words by joining together discrete roots and morphemes with specific meanings, and may also modify words by similar processes.
  • Its basic word order is SVO. However, because the verb is inflected to indicate the subject and sometimes also the object, this order may be changed to emphasise certain parts of the sentence.
  • It has no grammatical case marking on the noun. Nominal roles are indicated by a combination of word order and agreement markers on the verb, with no change to the nouns themselves.
  • It has a complex grammatical gender system, but as this does not include a distinction based on natural sex, the term "noun class" is generally used instead of "gender".
  • It has head-first order with few exceptions.
  • It is a pro-drop language. Verbs may be used without explicitly specifying the subject or the object with substantives (nouns or pronouns).

Nouns[edit]

Noun classes[edit]

Swahili nouns are grouped into noun classes based on the prefix they have, with each class having a prescribed number. For example, the nouns wasichana "girls" and wasimamizi "overseers" belong to class 2, characterised by the prefix wa-, whereas kifuniko "lid, cover" and kisukari "diabetes" belong to class 7, characterised by the prefix ki-. The classes 5, 9 and 10 are frequently without any prefix. The numbers are based on the classes reconstructed for Proto-Bantu, and have corresponding classes in the other Bantu languages which can be identified by the same system of numbers. Therefore, classes that are missing in Swahili create a gap in the numbering, as is the case with classes above 18 as well as classes 12, 13, which are absent in standard Swahili (although do frequently occur in non-standard varieties).

When discussing Swahili noun classes, it is important to distinguish between (1) morphological noun classes as a quality of the noun themselves indicated by morphological features (generally prefixes), and (2) syntactic noun classes as an agreement (i.e. concord) paradigm affecting the use of other words in the sentence. Here, "noun class" is used with the former meaning. Morphological and syntactic noun classes often diverge, especially when it comes to nouns referring to people and animals which do not belong to the morphological noun class 1/2, signalled by m-wa. For more information, see concord.

The following noun classes exist:

Class Prefix before consonant Prefix before vowel Example
1 m-1 mw-1 mtu "person"
2 wa- w(a)-2 watu "people"
3 m-1 mw-1 mti "tree"
4 mi- mi- miti "trees"
5 (ji-)3 (j-)3 jicho "eye"
6 ma- ma-4 macho "eyes"
7 ki- ch-/ki-5 kitabu "book"
8 vi- vy-/vi-5 vitabu "books"
9 n-6 ny- simba "lion"
10 n-6 ny- simba "lions", funguo "keys"
11 u- u-/uw-/w-7 ufunguo "key"
14 u- u-/uw-/w-7 utu "humanity"
15 ku- ku-/kw-8 kula "eating, consuming"
16 -9 -9 mahali "place"
17
18
  1. This m- before a consonant is always syllabic /m̩/, even when the following consonant is b or v, as in mvulana "boy" [m̩.vu.ˈlɑ(ː).nɑ]. The mw- before a vowel, however, is not syllabic, as in mwalimu "teacher" [mwɑ.ˈli(ː).mu]. When the stem is only one syllable, the prefix takes the stress, as in mtu "person" [ˈm̩.tu]. Before a stem beginning with u, the prefix may appear as either mw- or mu-, as in mwuguzi / muuguzi "nurse". A few nouns, mostly loans, have mu- before a consonant, such as muziki "music", musuli "muscle" and muda "length of time" (although mziki, msuli and mda are also widespread variations). In class 3, the w is frequently absent before o as in moyo "heart" (plural: mioyo), moto "fire" (plural: mioto) and moshi "smoke".
  2. Wa- is often present only as w- when the stem begins with /a/ as in wanafunzi "students" (singular: mwanafunzi). A following i may merge with the a of this prefix, forming we- as in wezi "thieves"(singular: mwizi). The a in this prefix is generally preserved in nouns which are derived from verbs, such as waandishi "writer" (singular: mwandishi, from the verb -andika "to write"), as well as those derived from proper nouns, such as Waafrika "Africans" (singular: Mwafrika) and Waislamu "Muslims" (singular: Mwislamu)
  3. The ji- prefix occurs on nouns with monosyllabic stems, such as jiwe "stone" (plural: mawe), but is absent from longer words. This is not to be confused with the augmentative prefix ji-, which is not dropped in the plural, for example jiji "large town, city" (plural: majiji, from mji "town"). Some nouns may also simply have stems which start with ji- such as jina "name" (plural: majina). Some words whose stems begin with a vowel take the prefix j-, such as jambo "thing, affair" (plural: mambo) but others do not, such as azimio "resolution" (plural: maazimio).
  4. The prefix ma- may merge with a following i to become me- as in meno "teeth" (singular: jino).
  5. The prefixes ki- and vi- may sometimes appear before vowels, such as in kiazi "potato" (plural: viazi) rather than the possibly expected *chazi and *vyazi. It is possible to regard the stem of these words as beginning with the i (e.g. -iazi) as adjectives beginning with i simply take k- and v- prefixes in these classes.
  6. The n of the prefix is a prenasalising mutation of the following consonant and is never syllabic unless the noun would otherwise only have one syllable. It becomes m before b and v. In stems beginning with w such as -wili "two", this mutates to mb. Before vowels it is present as ny. Before d, z, j and g it is n. L and r become nd. Before other consonants, it disappears unless it needs to be syllabic to prevent the noun from having only one syllable, such as in nchi "country, land". The plural form of class 11 nouns is formed this way, dropping the u- and then applying these rules (for example ulimindimi "tongue" → "tongues", ukutakuta "wall" → "walls"), except that short nouns with a monosyllabic stem preserve the u- in the plural for reasons of stress, adding ny- before it to form the plural, such as uso "face", which becomes nyuso in the plural.
  7. The u- prefix has some variation in spelling and pronunciation before vowels.
  8. The ku- prefix becomes kw- only before a minority of stems: kwenda "to go" and kwisha "to finish".
  9. The locative classes of nouns no longer have their original pa-, ku-, m(u)-prefixes in Swahili, with these only appearing on adjectives, demonstratives and other parts of the grammar. Most nouns form their locative form by adding the suffix -ni although this cannot be added to geographical place names, many recent loans and certain other words.

Every class up to 11 can be regarded as inherently singular or plural. Odd-numbered classes are singular, even-numbered classes are plural. The plural of a noun is normally formed by switching it to the next higher class. Thus, the plural of class 1 mtu "person" is class 2 watu "people". For class 11 nouns, the plural is in class 10. Class 14 usually has no plural at all, but in rare instances class 6 is used to form a plural for these nouns, for example ugonjwa "sickness, disease", magonjwa "diseases". Class 6 also contains a lot of nouns for liquids, such as maji "water", and other nouns derived from verbs such as mazungumzo "conversation(s)". Aside from these, there are some nouns in other classes that do not change class to indicate number, such as mchana "afternoon(s)", "daytime" (class 3), vita "war(s)" (class 8), usiku "night(s)" (class 14), and these can be shown as singular or plural only by surrounding context.

In terms of meaning, groups of similar nouns tend to belong to similar noun classes. For example, nouns for people, including agent nouns, are commonly in classes 1/2, while animals are often in classes 9/10. Nouns describing plants are in class 3/4 and if they produce fruit, it will probably be in class 5/6. Abstract nouns are often in class 14, loanwords in classes 9/10 and 5/6. Many nouns for liquids are in class 6. Infinitives/gerunds of verbs are in class 15. Diminutives as well as the words for many man-made tools and languages are in class 7/8. These are only generalisations and there are exceptions in most classes.

Concord[edit]

The class of the noun determines the forms of other parts of speech that relate to it, such as verbs, adjectives, etc. This process is called agreement or concord. These other parts of speech receive their own concordant prefixes (termed "concords" for short), generally matching in class with the noun, though the prefixes themselves are not always the same. In the examples below, the left and right sides of the table show sentences with a singular and then plural subject respectively.

Class 1/2:
Mwanaume mkubwa alianguka. Wanaume wakubwa walianguka.
mwanaume m-kubwa a-li-anguk(a) wanaume wa-kubwa wa-li-anguk(a)
(CL1)man CL1-big CL1-PST-fall (CL2)men CL2-big CL2-PST-fall
"man" "big" "s/he-fell" "men" "big" "they-fell"
"The big man fell." "The big men fell."
Class 7/8:
Kitabu kikubwa kilianguka. Vitabu vikubwa vilianguka.
kitabu ki-kubwa ki-li-anguk(a) vitabu vi-kubwa vi-li-anguk(a)
(CL7)book CL7-big CL7-PST-fall (CL8)books CL8-big CL8-PST-fall
"book" "big" "it-fell" "books" "big" "they-fell"
"The big book fell." "The big books fell."
Class 11/10:
Uso mzuri unatosha. Nyuso nzuri zinatosha.
uso m-zuri u-na-tosh(a) nyuso n-zuri zi-na-tosh(a)
(CL11)face CL11-beautiful CL11-PRES-be.enough (CL10)faces CL10-beautiful CL10-PRES-be.enough
"face" "beautiful" "it-is-enough" "faces" "beautiful" "they-are-enough"
"A beautiful face is enough." "Beautiful faces are enough."

Animate nouns (i.e. those referring to people or animals) which are not in classes 1/2 generally take the agreement prefixes (concords) from classes 1/2 as if they did belong to it.

Class 7/8 Animate:
Kifaru mkubwa alianguka. Vifaru wakubwa walianguka.
kifaru m-kubwa a-li-anguk(a) vifaru wa-kubwa wa-li-anguk(a)
(CL7)rhinoceros CL1-big CL1-PST-fall (CL8)rhinoceroses CL2-big CL2-PST-fall
"rhinoceros" "big" "s/he-fell" "rhinoceroses" "big" "they-fell"
"The big rhinoceros fell." "The big rhinoceroses fell."

Animacy agreements can often distinguish different meanings of the same noun, such as ndege, which means "bird(s)" when animate and "aeroplane(s)" when inanimate.

Class 9/10 Animate:
Ndege mkubwa alianguka. Ndege wakubwa walianguka.
ndege m-kubwa a-li-anguk(a) ndege wa-kubwa wa-li-anguk(a)
(CL9)bird CL1-big CL1-PST-fall (CL10)birds CL2-big CL2-PST-fall
"bird" "big" "s/he-fell" "birds" "big" "they-fell"
"The big bird fell." "The big birds fell."
Class 9/10 Inanimate:
Ndege kubwa ilianguka. Ndege kubwa zilianguka.
ndege N-kubwa i-li-anguk(a) ndege N-kubwa zi-li-anguk(a)
(CL9)bird CL9-big CL9-PST-fall (CL10)birds CL10-big CL10-PST-fall
"bird" "big" "it-fell" "birds" "big" "they-fell"
"The big plane fell." "The big planes fell."

Animate nouns in classes 9/10 may exhibit a slight aberration from this pattern. The genitive pronominal forms -angu, -ako, -ake, -etu, -enu and -ao are frequently inflected with a group of nouns referring to close human relationships with their appropriate class 9/10 concords, regardless of the fact that they are animate (giving yangu, yako, yetu etc. in singular and zangu, zako, zetu etc. in plural). For some speakers, the same rule applies to the simple genitive preposition -a (giving ya in singular and za in plural), however for most speakers wa is used for all animate nouns regardless of number or class. Other parts of speech are unaffected by this exception.

Class 9/10 Animate:
Mama yetu mkubwa alianguka. Mama zetu wakubwa walianguka.
mama y-etu m-kubwa a-li-anguk(a) mama z-etu wa-kubwa wa-li-anguk(a)
(CL9)mother CL9-GEN.1P CL1-big CL1-PST-fall (CL10)mothers CL10-GEN.1P CL2-big CL2-PST-fall
"mother" "our" "big" "s/he-fell" "mothers" "our" "big" "they-fell"
"Our (older maternal) aunt fell." "Our (older maternal) aunts fell."
Note: The phrase mama mkubwa, literally "big mother", refers to the elder sister of one's mother.
Class 9/10 Animate:
Baba yangu wa kambo alianguka. Baba zangu wa kambo walianguka.
baba y-angu w-a kambo a-li-anguk(a) baba z-angu w-a kambo wa-li-anguk(a)
(CL9)father CL9-GEN.1S CL1-GEN non.blood.relationship CL1-PST-fall (CL10)fathers CL10-GEN.1S CL2-GEN non.blood.relationship CL2-PST-fall
"father" "my" "of" "non-blood relationship" "s/he fell" "fathers" "my" "of" "non-blood relationship" "they fell"
"My stepfather fell." "My stepfathers fell."

Nouns which follow this pattern of agreement include mama "mother(s)", baba "father(s)", ndugu "sibling(s)/relative(s)", kaka "(elder) brother(s)", dada "(elder) sister(s)", nyanya "grandmother(s)", bibi "grandmother(s)", babu "grandfather(s)", shangazi "paternal aunt(s)", shemeji "sister(s)/brother(s)-in-law", wifi "sister(s)-in-law", jamaa "relative(s)", rafiki "friend(s)", shoga "female friend of a woman", jirani "neighbour" and adui "enemy".[1]

Nouns of this group, such as rafiki "friend", may optionally take a plural prefix ma- as though belonging to class 5/6, although their concords remain the same mix of class 1/2 and 9/10.[2]

Class 9/10 Animate:
Rafiki yangu anaishi hapa. (Ma)rafiki zangu wanaishi hapa.
rafiki y-angu a-na-ishi hapa (ma)-rafiki z-angu wa-na-ishi hapa
(CL9)friend CL9-GEN.1S CL1-PRES-live here (PL.CL6)-(CL10)friend CL10-GEN.1S CL1-PRES-live here
"friend" "my" "s/he-lives" "here" "friends" "my" "they-live" "here"
"My friend lives here." "My friends live here."

In addition, animals of classes 9/10 generally take class 1 agreement throughout the singular, but may take 10 agreement on pronominal genitive words in the plural.

Class 9/10 Animate:
Ng'ombe wenu amekufa. Ng'ombe zenu wamekufa.
ng'ombe w-enu a-me-ku-f(a) ng'ombe w-enu a-me-ku-f(a)
(CL9)cow CL1-GEN.1P CL1-PRF-EXT-die (CL9)cows CL1-GEN.1P CL1-PRF-EXT-die
"cow" "our" "s/he-has-died" "cows" "our" "s/he-has-died"
"Our cow is dead." "Our cow is dead."
Class 9/10 Animate:
Rafiki yangu anaishi hapa. (Ma)rafiki zangu wanaishi hapa.
rafiki y-angu a-na-ishi hapa (ma)-rafiki z-angu wa-na-ishi hapa
(CL9)friend CL9-GEN.1S CL1-PRES-live here (PL.CL6)-(CL10)friend CL10-GEN.1S CL1-PRES-live here
"friend" "my" "s/he-lives" "here" "friends" "my" "they-live" "here"
"My friend lives here." "My friends live here."

Another departure from the rule of animate nouns taking concords in classes 1/2 occurs on occasion with diminutives and augmentatives, whereby using concords of the class the noun belongs to (5/6 for augmentatives, 7/8 for diminutives) emphasises the dimunition or augmentation.

Class 1 (neutral): Class 7 (diminutive):
Mpenzi wake anaishi hapa. Kipenzi chake kinaishi hapa.
mpenzi w-ake a-na-ishi hapa kipenzi ch-ake ki-na-ishi hapa
(CL1)lover CL1-GEN.3S CL1-PRES-live here (CL7)lover CL7-GEN.3S CL7-PRES-live here
"His/her boyfriend/girlfriend/lover lives here." "His/her sweetheart/darling lives here."

Locative classes[edit]

A locative noun is a derived noun that indicate a location associated with the base noun from which it is derived. The change in meaning can translate to a variety of English prepositions indicating location, such as "in", "at", "on", "to" or "from", and is thus quite general in meaning, with the exact meaning of the phrase generally being determined by the verb.

The Arabic loan noun mahali "place" (and its variations: pahali, mahala and pahala) is the only noun which inherently belongs to the locative class. Other nouns can be made locative by adding the suffix -ni to the end, although this is not available for proper nouns referring to places, any animate nouns, recent loanwords and some other arbitrary nouns.

Because locative nouns constitute three classes of their own, they cannot take the usual concords of the noun they have been derived from. The concords themselves show in which one of the locative classes the noun is being used. Class 16 is marked by concords based on pa- and indicates specific location. Class 17, with concords based on ku- indicates a more general location. Class 18 has concords based on mu- and indicates internal location.

  • nyumba ya Rehema "Rehema's house" (class 9)
  • nyumbani kwa Rehema "at/to/from Rehema's house" (class 17)
  • chumba cha Daudi "Daudi's room" (class 7)
  • chumbani mwa Daudi "in/into/out of Daudi's room" (class 18)

Apposition / Compounding[edit]

The equivalent of compound words are usually formed using the genitive construction such as mpira wa kikapu "basketball" (literally "ball of basket"). This is similar to the compounding process found in many languages such as French fin de semaine "weekend" (literally "end of week").

There are also many compounds which do not use the genitive preposition -a. In these cases, two (or more) nouns are simply placed side by side.

The word order is the reverse of most compounds in English, with the head always preceding the modifiers in Swahili; in other words, the first noun describes what it is, and any subsequent noun narrows or specifies that description. For example, the class 9/10 noun punda "donkey(s)" is followed by the class 4 noun milia "stripes" to mean "zebra". Whereas in English, a hypothetical equivalent compound would place the noun for the stripes first and also require the singular: "stripe-donkey", the word for "donkey" appears first in Swahili.

There is a good deal of variation among different authors as to whether the nouns are written together, hyphenated or separated and thus the word for "zebra(s)" may appear as any of pundamilia, punda-milia or punda milia.

A few common compound words have irregular plural forms because number marking occurs on both elements. The word mwanamke "woman" becomes wanawake "women" in plural. Similarly, mwanamume "man" becomes wanaume "men" in plural, although the singular form mwanaume is also common. These two nouns are formed from the word mwana "son, daughter", which is commonly used in compounds to essentially mean "person", followed by the words mke "wife" (plural: wake) and mume "husband" (plural: waume) respectively.

Pronouns[edit]

Pronouns behave in many ways like nouns, having both plural and singular forms, being present in the full range of noun classes but no inflection for case, meaning that, for instance, there is no difference between we and us, which are both sisi.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns occur in two forms: an independent form, which is used as a word alone, and a combining stem, which is used when combined with words such as na "with, and" and ndi- "it is". The independent form consists, in all cases except for wao, of a reduplication of a syllable. Nyinyi, however, may alternatively be dissimilated to ninyi. These pronouns also have a separate genitive (possessive) stem, which is the combining stem that is used when a genitive prefix is added.

Class Independent Combining

suffix

Genitive
suffix
"all"
1st sing. mimi -mi -angu
2nd sing. wewe -we -ako
3rd sing. yeye -ye -ake
1st plur. sisi -si -etu (sisi) sote
2nd plur. nyinyi, ninyi -nyi -enu (nyinyi) nyote
3rd plur. wao -o -ao (wao) wote

Note that the sex/gender of referents is not distinguished, with yeye capable of meaning either "he" or "she". These pronouns are, however, restricted to use with animate referents, i.e. people or animals, so it does not generally mean it. The genitive form -ake has no such restriction and may mean "his", "hers" or "its" depending on context.

Swahili is a pro-drop language. As the verb usually already includes prefixes to indicate the subject and object, personal pronouns aren't strictly needed, and are mostly used for emphasis. The exceptions to this include cases when the copula ni (or its negative counterpart si) is used, as well as with the habitual form of the verb, which lacks subject prefixes.

In informal speech, when pronouns are unstressed, they may appear in a reduced form, such as mi or mie for mimi. This mainly occurs when the pronoun is not added only for emphasis, but is needed (e.g. mi ni "I am", informally), and this also frequently occurs where the first person singular subject prefix ni- is dropped in casual speech before -na-. For example, standard (mimi) ninajua "I know" often occurs as (mi) najua in spoken Swahili.

Determiners[edit]

Determiners in Swahili are capable of being used adjectivally (with a noun) or pronominally (standing in for an absent noun). The inflection of Swahili determiners resembles that of verbs.

Articles[edit]

There are no articles in Swahili. A word such as kitabu "book" may be taken to mean either "the book" or "a book" depending on context. If the distinction must be made demonstratives or adjectives may be used to provide various shades of meaning such as kitabu hicho "that (aforementioned) book", kitabu kimoja "one book", kitabu fulani "some (particular) book", kitabu chochote "any book (at all)".

Demonstrative[edit]

The demonstratives in Swahili may be used either as adjectives, with a noun, or as pronouns, standing alone. They occur in three types:

  • Proximal ("this, these"), referring to something near the speaker. It is formed by prefixing the verbal concord with hV- where "V" stands for a vowel identical to the vowel of the next syllable.
  • Distal ("that, those"), referring to something far from both speaker and listener. It is formed by suffixing -le to the verbal concord.
  • Medial/Referential ("the aforementioned"), referring to something that has been previously mentioned. It may also refer to something nearer to the listener than the speaker. It is formed by replacing the final vowel of the proximal demonstrative with the o (with consonant changes such as ki becoming ch etc.).

There is one pronoun of each type for each noun class. There is also a combining form that appears suffixed on certain other words such as na and ndi-. This combining form is identical to the relative marker for each class.

Class Proximal Distal Medial /

Referential

Combining
1 huyu yule huyo -ye
2 hawa wale hao -o
3 huu ule huo -o
4 hii ile hiyo -yo
5 hili lile hilo -lo
6 haya yale hayo -yo
7 hiko kile hicho -cho
8 hivi vile hivyo -vyo
9 hii ile hiyo -yo
10 hizi zile hizo -zo
11 huu ule huo -o
14 huu ule huo -o
15 huku kule hucho -ko
16 hapa pale hapo -po
17 huku kule hucho -ko
18 humu mle humo -mo

The demonstratives may stand alone, as true pronouns, but may also be used in combination with a noun, much like "this" and "that" in English. The demonstrative generally follows the noun but it can also precede. Before a noun, it often takes on a slightly more article-like role.

Other determiners[edit]

The words -ote "all", -o-ote "any", -pi "which" and -enyewe "-self", "-selves", appear with prefixes following the verbal inflection pattern. In older texts, -o-ote was frequently written as two words (e.g. ye yote, vyo vyote) however it is now more frequently written together. For the sake of comparison, the following table also includes the genitive and ornative prepositions -a and -enye as well as the verbal subject prefixes for each class. Note that class 1 has the most irregularity and diversity of form.

Determiners Prepositions Verbal Prefix
Class -ote

"all"[3]

-o-ote

"any"

-pi

"which"[3]

-enyewe

"self", "selves"

-a

"of"

-enye

"having"

Subject
1 yeyote yupe mwenyewe wa mwenye a- / yu-
2 wote 1 wowote wepi 2 ( / wapi[4]) wenyewe wa wenye wa-
3 wote wowote upi wenyewe wa wenye u-
4 yote yoyote ipi yenyewe ya yenye i-
5 lote lolote lipi lenyewe la lenye li-
6 yote yoyote yapi yenyewe ya yenye ya-
7 chote chochote kipi chenyewe cha chenye ki-
8 vyote vyovyote vipi 3 vyenyewe vya vyenye vi-
9 yote yoyote ipi yenyewe ya yenye i-
10 zote zozote zipi zenyewe za zenye zi-
11 wote wowote upi wenyewe wa wenye u-
14 wote wowote upi wenyewe wa wenye u-
15 kote / kwote kokote / kwokwote kupi kwenyewe kwa kwenye ku-
16 pote popote wapi 4 ( / papi[4]) penyewe pa penye pa-
17 kote / kwote kokote / kwokwote kupi kwenyewe kwa kwenye ku-
18 mote / mwote momote / mwomwote mpi [5] mwenyewe mwa mwenye m(u)-
  1. The 1st and 2nd person plural have their own forms for "all", namely sote and nyote. These may be used with or without the pronoun: sisi sote or simply sote can mean "all of us", "we all". When used with the form wote, the meaning is "both": sisi wote "both of us", "we both".
  2. The irregular form wepi is used to avoid clashes with the word wapi meaning "where".
  3. The word vipi may be used to ask "which" of class 8 nouns (e.g. vitabu vipi? "which books?"), but, as is typical for class 8, can also be understood adverbially, following a verb to mean "how?".
  4. The usual word for "where" or "which place" is wapi, however some sources list a regular form papi.

Adjectives[edit]

The term "adjective", as applied to Swahili and most other Bantu languages, usually applies only to a rather restricted set of words. However, in the wider sense, it can refer to any word that modifies a noun. The wider sense is used here. Adjectives in the stricter Bantu sense are referred to as "true adjectives" in this article. True adjectives in Swahili may be divided into two categories: inflecting adjectives, which take a prefix indicating the noun class of their referent, and invariable adjectives, which do not take a prefix.

All adjectives have one thing in common: they all follow the noun they modify, and, aside from the plain adjectives, require some kind of prefix whose class matches the preceding noun. The different types of adjectives reflect the different prefixes that are used:

  • Inflecting adjectives are true adjectives which are prefixed with an adjective concord.
  • Plain adjectives are true adjectives which do not take concord prefixes.
  • Relatives are relativised verbs which can be used as adjectives.
  • Genitives are phrases consisting of a noun introduced by the genitive preposition -a.
  • Ornatives are phrases consisting of a noun introduced by the ornative preposition -enye.

Inflecting Adjectives[edit]

Inflecting adjectives are words which describe a noun or pronoun and take the following prefixes, which are very similar to the prefixes found on nouns. This distinguishes them from determiners, which take prefixes similar to those on verbs. The most notable departure from the nominal inflection pattern among inflecting adjectives is the replacement of the nominal u- prefix in class 11 (and generally also 14) with the adjectival m- prefix. The locative classes also carry prefixes, unlike the locative nouns they refer to.

Most inflecting adjectives have stems beginning with a consonant. Of those that begin with a vowel, almost all of these have stems that begin with either e (for example, -ekundu "red") or i (e.g. -ingi "many, much"). A very small minority of adjectives begin with other vowels, but these happen to refer only to animate referents and thus only have forms in classes 1 and 2, for example: -ovu "evil, wicked", which is mwovu in class 1 and waovu in class 2.

Nominally prefixed
Class Before Consonant Replacing i Replacing e
1 m- mwi- mwe-
2 wa- we- we-
3 m- mwi- mwe-
4 mi- mi- mye-
5 (ji-)1 ji- je-
6 ma- me- me-
7 ki- ki- che-
8 vi- vi- vye-
9 n-2 nyi- nye-3
10 N-2 nyi- nye-3
11 m- mwi- mwe-
14 m-/u-4 mwi-/wi-4 mwe-/we-4
15 ku- kwi- kwe-
16 pa- pe- pe-
17 ku- kwi- kwe-
18 mu- mwi- mwe-
  1. The ji- prefix only occurs on the adjective -pya "new" in order to make sure it has more than one syllable so that the antepenult can be stressed.
  2. The N- prefix in classes 9 and 10 exhibits considerable variation. On adjectives with stems of more than one syllable, it only appears as a prenasalisation of the following consonants: bmb, dnd, gng, jnj, lnd, rnd, vmv, wmb, znz. Elsewhere, it disappears. In addition, the monosyllabic adjective stem -pya "new" has the form mpya, whereby the m- constitutes the stressed syllable.
  3. The adjective -ema "good, kind, nice" has the irregular form njema in class 9 and 10 instead of the expected form *nyema.
  4. In modern standard Swahili, adjectives in class 14 take the prefix m(w)-, however, in an earlier stage of the language, they took the prefix u-/w- which is still preserved in some idiomatic phrases but has otherwise disappeared, marking the almost complete merge of classes 11 and 14.

The adjective -ingine "other", is sometimes given inflections prefixes of the type found with determiners, following a verbal rather than a nominal pattern. Most notably, the forms lingine in class six, ingine or yingine in class 9 and zingine in class 10 may be heard. Some speakers also use an e in these classes: jengine, lengine, nyengine, yengine and zengine sometimes occurring. These forms are regarded as non-standard, although they may be commonly heard. The standard forms of each are jingine for class 6 and nyingine for classes 9 and 10.[6][7]

The numerals -moja "one", -wili "two", -tatu "three", -nne "four", -tano "five" and -nane "eight", as well as all numbers that end with these words, take prefixes as inflecting adjectives do.

  • mtu mmoja "one person", watu wawili "two people", watu ishirini na mmoja "twenty-one people", watu ishirini na wawili "twenty-two people"
  • kitabu kimoja "one book", vitabu viwili "two books", vitabu ishirini na kimoja "twenty-one books", vitabu ishirini na viwili "twenty-two books"
  • nyumba moja "one house", nyumba mbili "two houses", nyumba ishirini na moja "twenty-one houses", nyumba ishirini na mbili "twenty-two houses"

Invariable adjectives[edit]

Invariable adjectives are mostly loanwords from Arabic, such as safi "clean", ghali "expensive", although loanwords from other languages are also present, such as faini, from English "fine". Nouns placed as modifiers after other nouns may also be regarded as invariable adjectives, such as msichana kiziwi "Deaf girl", which has a class 1 prefix m- and a class 7 prefix ki-. Numbers loaned from Arabic: sita "six", saba "seven" and tisa "nine", ishirini "twenty", etc., as well as the native Bantu number kumi "ten", function as invariable adjectives. The interrogative adjective gani "what kind of" or, colloquially, "which" is also invariable.

  • watu tisa "nine people"
  • vitabu tisa "nine books"
  • nyumba tisa "nine houses"

Relatives[edit]

Relatives are verbs used as adjectives by being relativised using a relative prefix (or suffix) which agrees with the noun's class.

Person

/ Class

Present

Positive

Past

Positive

Future

Positive

Tenseless

Negative

Tenseless

Positive

1st sing. ninaye- niliye- nitakaye- nisiye- ni-...-ye
2nd sing. unaye- uliye- utakaye- usiye- u-...-ye
1st plur. tunao- tulio- tutakao- tusio- tu-...-o
2nd plur. mnao- mlio- mtakao- msio- m(w)-...o
1 anaye- aliye- atakaye- asiye- a-...-ye
2 wanao- walio- watakao- wasio- wa-...-o
3 unao- ulio- utakao- usio- u-...-o
4 inayo- iliyo- itakayo- isiyo- i-...-yo
5 linalo- lililo- litakalo- lisilo- li-...-lo
6 yanayo- yaliyo- yatakayo- yasiyo- ya-...-yo
7 kinacho- kilicho- kitakacho- kisicho- ki-...-cho
8 vinavyo- vilivyo- vitakavyo- visivyo- vi-...-vyo
9 inayo- iliyo- itakayo- isiyo- i-...-yo
10 zinazo- zilizo- zitakazo- zisizo- zi-...-zo
11 unao- ulio- utakao- usio- u-...-o
14 unao- ulio- utakao- usio- u-...-o
15 kunako- kuliko- kutakako- kusiko- ku-...-ko
16 panapo- palipo- patakapo- pasipo- pa-...-po
17 kunako- kuliko- kutakako- kusiko- ku-...-ko
15 mnamo- mlimo- mtakamo- msimo- m(w)-...-mo

These are frequently used in Swahili and make up for the relative paucity of true adjectives. For example, there are no true adjectives equivalent to the English adjectives "open" and "dead", however the verbs kufa "to die" and kufunguliwa "to be opened", when relativised, convey these meanings. Examples of this in use:

  • ndege aliyekufa "dead bird" (bird which died)
  • ndege waliokufa "dead birds" (birds which died)
  • mlango uliofunguliwa "open door" (door which was opened)
  • milango iliyofunguliwa "open doors" (doors which were opened)
  • dirisha lililofunguliwa "open window" (window which was opened)
  • madirisha yaliyofunguliwa "open windows" (windows which were opened)

Genitive adjectives[edit]

Another construction which makes up for the paucity of true adjectives in Swahili is the genitive construction using the genitive preposition -a. The prefixes that this preposition takes are outlined here.

In many cases, the noun introduced in a genitive adjective phrase receives an additional ki- prefix, such as -a kimataifa "international" (from mataifa "nations") and -a kihistoria "historic" (from historia "history").

Ornative construction[edit]

Yet another construction which makes up for the paucity of true adjectives in Swahili is the ornative construction using -enye. Some examples of adjectival phrases with -enye include -enye nguvu "strong" (with strength), -enye nywele fupi "short-haired" (having short hair), and -enye senta moja "concentric" (having one centre). The forms of -enye as well as some more examples of use can be seen here.

Verbs[edit]

Like nouns, verbs are formed by adding prefixes to a basic stem. However, unlike the prefixes of nouns, verbal prefixes are not a fixed part of the verb, but indicate subject, object, tense, aspect, mood and other inflectional categories. Normally, verbs are cited in dictionaries in the stem form, often with a hyphen to indicate that prefixes are added, such as -sema "say", -andika "to write", -la "to eat". It is also possible to use the infinitive/gerund form which begins with ku- or, for a couple of verbs only, kw-, such as kusema "to say", kuandika "to write", kula "to eat".

Overview of verb structure[edit]

Prefixes are always attached in a fixed order; the object prefix always comes last, immediately before the verb stem, while the subject prefix comes before the object prefix. Most of the time, a tense, aspect, mood or polarity prefix may intervene between the subject and object prefix, or be placed before the subject prefix. A common mnemonic used by learners of Swahili for the order of parts of a verb is STROVE.

  • Subject prefix
  • TAM prefix (or usually Tense prefix)
  • Relative prefix
  • Object prefix
  • Verb stem
  • Extension(s) (meaning "derivative suffix(es)"), or, more broadly Ending (including also the inflectional suffixes -i and -e).

In learner materials, all types of prefixes other than the subject prefixes are frequently, erroneously referred to as infixes. It should, however, be noted that the term infix, as used by linguists, refers only to a morpheme (≈ part of a word) that is inserted within another morpheme, not simply in between other morphemes within a word. Under the strict definition of the word, Swahili does not make use of infixes.

Here is an example of a verb with all slots filled:

nilipokupikia
S T R O V E
ni- -li- -po- -ku- -pik(a)* -i(a)*
1S- -PST- -CL16.REL- -2S- -cook -APPL
"I" "earlier" "when" "you" "cook" "for"
"when I cooked for you"

* This "(a)" appears when this is the final element of the word and is otherwise dropped.

Most of the time, verbs will not have all slots filled. Here are some other examples.

anakupenda
S T R O V E
a- -na- -ku- -pend(a)
3S- -PRS- -2S- -love
"s/he" "now" "you" "love"
"s/he loves you"
nipe
S T R O V E
-ni- -p(a)* -e
-2S- -give- -SBJV
"me" "give" "should/must"
"give me"
hatuwezi
S T R O V E
hatu- -wez(a) -i
NEG.1P- -be.able -NEG.PRES
"we cannot" / "we are unable"
"not we" "can" "not now"
hawalishwi
S T R O V E E E
hawa- -l(a) -ish(a) -w(a) -i
NEG.3P- -eat -CAUS -PASS -NEG.PRES
"not they" "eat" "make" "be done" "not now"
"they do not get fed"

There are a number of derivational suffixes (frequently termed 'extensions') which can be added to the end of verbs to derive new meanings, some of which have been shown above.

Inflection groups[edit]

There are three basic inflection groups which differ only very slightly from one another:

  1. common verbs
  2. short verbs
  3. loan verbs

Common verbs are the largest group of verbs in Swahili. In their infinitive form, they consist of three or more syllables and end with -a. All verbs of native Bantu origin end with -a, including the short verbs mentioned below. Some examples of common verbs are kuanguka "to fall", kufanya "to do, to make", kuona "to see", kuwaza "to think", kusaidia "to help". The final -a is replaced with another vowel in certain grammatical contexts, becoming -i in the present negative, and -e in the subjunctive and imperative forms involving an object prefix. The plural address marker -ni also triggers this final -a to become -e.

Short verbs are those which, in their infinitive form, consist of only two syllables, such as kula "to eat", kunywa "to drink", kuja "to come", kupa "to give". The verbs kwenda "to go" and kwisha "to finish" may belong to this group, although it is also common for these verbs to be conjugated as common verbs (as kuenda and kuisha). Because the stems of most of these verbs, once the infinitive prefix ku- is removed, are monosyllabic, these are frequently termed monosyllabic verbs, however this is problematic as the final -a of Bantu verbs is often not considered to be part of the root (meaning that roots of many of these verbs consists of only a single consonant or consonant cluster, such as -p- "give"). Furthermore, when the final -a is considered part of the stem, this excludes -enda and -isha, which generally conjugate in a similar way to the other short verbs. The short verbs are all native Bantu verbs ending in -a and undergo the same -i and -e alterations as the common verbs. Additionally, they are characterised by the insertion (or retention) of the syllable -ku- in certain verb forms. This intrusive -ku- (which may be glossed as EXT for "extension") prevents the penultimate stress from falling on certain TAM prefixes (-na-, -me-, -li-, -ta-, -sha-, -nge-, -ngeli-) and relative prefixes, which are inherently unable be stressed. This -ku- disappears in verb forms where the stress is allowed to fall on a subject or object prefix, or on certain other TAM prefixes (-a-, hu-, -ki-, -ka-, -ku-, -si-). (The TAM prefix -ja- can be regarded as belonging to either group, depending on the speaker.) Because the initial stem vowel of -enda and -isha takes the stress, this explanation does not sufficiently fit, however it should suffice to say that the distribution of their -kw- extension, among speakers who use it, is identical to that of the -ku- extension in other short verbs.

The Loan verbs, also frequently called "Arabic" verbs, are those which do not end in -a in the infinitive. Not all verbs, from Arabic are in this group, however, such as kusaidia, which is an Arabic loan which happens to end in -a and is thus declined as a common verb. Likewise, not all Loan verbs come from Arabic, such as kukisi "to kiss" and kuripoti "to report", which are from English. What these verbs share in common is that they are all loan-words and none of them end in -a. The consequence of this is that they do not take the suffixes -e and -i that the verbs ending in -a do, which occasionally results in ambiguity, such as in si-ku-sahau-Ø which could either mean "I did not forget" (NEG.1S-NEG.PST-forget-Ø) or "I do not forget you" (NEG.1s-2s-forget-PRES.NEG).

Subject and object concords[edit]

Both the subject and, when applicable, the object of the verb are indicated by prefixes or concords attached to the verb stem. Swahili is a pro-drop language: explicit personal pronouns are only used for emphasis, or with verb forms that do not indicate subject or object. When a noun is used as the subject or object, then the concord must match its class. Animate nouns (referring to a person or animal) are an exception and these occur with concords of the noun classes 1 (singular) or 2 (plural). The subject concord must always be present, except in the infinitive, habitual and imperative forms. The object concord is generally optional; although some sources maintain that it must always be used with animate objects, this appears not to be the case as counter-examples are commonplace. Whether it is used or not appears to have to do with animacy, specificity and definiteness as well as pragmatic considerations of emphasis.

Six different forms of verbal concord exist.

For the subject, there are both negative and positive forms, while there are only positive forms for objects. The negative subject concords are formed by prefixing the syllable ha- to the beginning, except for the irregular forms si- (instead of *hani-), hu- (instead of *hau-) and ha- (instead of *haa-) which are used, respectively, for first, second and third person singular animate subjects.

Additionally, in (the third person singular of) noun class 1, the prefix yu- is used instead of a- as the subject of a locative copula. (This yu- can also be seen in the demonstratives.) The negative form of yu- is formed regularly, by appending the prefix ha-.

Before the present 'indefinite' marker -a-, subject concords are shortened to just a consonant or consonant cluster in a similar manner to the prefix which occur on the genitive preposition -a.

Object concords are generally the same as the positive subject concord, although there are a few exceptions for instances involving animate referents; 2nd person singular and plural, as well as 3rd person singular (class 1) all have different forms for subject and object concord.

Positive Negative
Person

/ Class

Subject

Verb

Subject

Locative

Object Subject

before -a-

Subject

Verb

Subject

Locative

1st sing. ni- n- si-
2nd sing. u- ku- w- hu-
1st plur. tu- tw- hatu-
2nd plur. m(w)- wa- mw- ham-
1 a- yu- m(w)- ha- hayu-
2 wa- w- hawa-
3 u- w- hau-
4 i- y- hai-
5 li- l- hali-
6 ya- y- haya-
7 ki- ch- haki-
8 vi- vy- havi-
9 i- y- hai-
10 zi- z- hazi-
11 u- w- hau-
14 u- w- hau-
15 ku- kw- haku-
16 pa- p- hapa-
17 ku- kw- haku-
18 m(u)- mw- ham(u)-
reflexive ji-

Examples:

  • Tunakwenda sasa. "We are going now."
  • Sisi tunakwenda sasa. "We are going now." (with emphasis)
  • Ninamwona. "I see him/her."
  • Ninamwona yeye. "I see him/her." (with emphasis)
  • Ninampa zawadi. "I give him/her a gift."

Because the 2nd person plural object prefix -wa- is the same as the object prefix for class 2 (3rd person plural object), a word such as ninawaona may ambiguously mean "I see you all" or "I see them." These two possibilities may be disambiguated by placing the pronoun after the verb: ninawaona ninyi / wao. Very frequently, however, the suffix -eni is appended to the verb to indicate that the second person plural is meant: ninawaoneni "I see you all." This suffix causes the final a of Bantu verbs to shift to e. On loan verbs, this suffix is simply -ni. Some speakers use the prefix -ku- (otherwise indicating 2nd person singular) with the suffix -(e)ni, as in ninakuoneni "I see you all."

The reflexive prefix only occurs as an object, and refers back to the subject of the sentence. It is equivalent to English forms like myself, yourself, himself and so on.

  • ninajitetea "I defend myself"
  • anajiona "he sees himself" (idiomatically, may mean: "he is conceited")

Infinitive[edit]

The infinitive is a verbal noun, and belongs to class 15, which is reserved specifically for infinitives. It is marked by the prefix ku-. It may occur in the same contexts as other nouns and may, occasionally, even be derived into the locative classes by means of attaching the suffix -ni, as in kuangukani "in falling" (i.e. "while falling"). It corresponds to the English infinitive or gerund. Infinitives cannot take subject, relative or TAM prefixes, but they may take object prefixes.

Formation of the infinitive
common verbs short verbs Loan verb
Affirmative ku___a ku___a ku___
ku[OBJ]___a ku[OBJ]___a ku[OBJ]___
Negative kuto(ku)___a kutoku___a kuto(ku)___
kuto(ku)[OBJ]___a kuto(ku)[OBJ]___a kuto(ku)[OBJ]___

The negative infinitive is derived from the verb kutoa "to subtract", "to not do", although it is rarely encountered in its full form for this use. The additional -ku- in brackets is the infinitive marker of the original verb, although it may be omitted as long as stress rules allow.

Examples
Verb Affirmative infinitive Negative infinitive
-wa kuwa "to be, being" kutokuwa "not to be, to not be, not being"
-nywa kunywa "to drink, drinking" kutokunywa "not to drink, to not drink, not drinking"
-nywa kuyanywa "to drink it, drinking it" (class 6) kuto(ku)yanywa "not to drink it, to not drink it, not drinking it"
-ona kuona "to see, seeing" kuto(ku)ona "not to see, to not see, not seeing"
-ona kumwona "to see her/him" kuto(ku)mwona "not to see, to not see, not seeing her/him"
-fanya kufanya "to do/make" kuto(ku)fanya "not to do/make, to not do/make, not doing/making"
-sahau kusahau "to forget" kuto(ku)sahau "not to forget, to not forget, not forgetting"

Tenses, aspects and moods[edit]

For the sake of simplicity, the following verb forms may be referred to as "tenses" as they often are in learner materials, but it should be remembered that many of these are not grammatical tenses in the technical sense but may instead be aspects or moods. All together, Tense, Aspect and Mood may be abbreviated as TAM.

The following table shows a summary of TAM forms which will be discussed in further depth below. Brackets indicate optional elements and slashes indicate alternative elements of which either (but not both) may fill the same slot in the verb. The column labelled 'final vowel' is only relevant for "short" and "common verbs", with "loan verbs" remaining invariable here with the exception of the -ni suffix added to indicate 2nd person plural address. In any TAM form, when the object is 2nd person plural, this -(e)ni prefix may also occur, but this is not shown in this table.

Summary of TAM forms
Tense, Aspect,

Mood

Subject TAM Relative Object

/ Extension

Verb

STEM

Final Vowel 2P Relative
Indicative

Basic

Tenses

Past SUB -li- (REL) (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Past Negative NEG.SUB -ku- (OBJ) STEM -a
Perfect SUB -me- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Perfect Negative NEG.SUB -ja- (OBJ) / (EXT) STEM -a
Present 'Definite' SUB -na- (REL) (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Present 'Indefinite' SUB* -a- (OBJ) STEM -a
Present Habitual hu- (OBJ) STEM -a
Present Negative NEG.SUB (OBJ) STEM -i
Future SUB -ta- (-ka-REL) (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Future Negative NEG.SUB -ta- / -to- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Relative

Forms

Tenseless Relative SUB (OBJ) STEM -a- REL
Tenseless Negative Relative SUB -si- REL (OBJ) STEM -a
Contextual

Tenses

Situational SUB -ki- (OBJ) STEM -a
Consecutive SUB -ka- (OBJ) STEM -a
Irrealis Irrealis Present SUB -nge- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Irrealis Present Negative 1 SUB -singe- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Irrealis Present Negative 2 NEG.SUB -nge- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Irrealis Past SUB -ngali- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Irrealis Past Negative 1 SUB -singali- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Irrealis Past Negative 2 NEG.SUB -ngali- (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Imperatives

and

Subjunctives

Imperative Singular (- OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Imperative Singular + OBJ OBJ STEM -e
Imperative Plural (OBJ) STEM -e- -ni
Subjunctive SUB (OBJ) STEM -e
Subjunctive Negative SUB -si- (OBJ) STEM -e
Expeditive

Imperatives

and

Subjunctives

Expeditive Subjunctive SUB -ka- (OBJ) STEM -e
Exp. Imperative Singular ka- (OBJ) STEM -e
Exp. Imperative Plural ka- (OBJ) STEM -e- -ni

* Note that the 'indefinite' present -a- causes the form of the subject marker to change as outlined above.

Imperative[edit]

The imperative mood is used to issue direct commands. It can occur either alone or with an object prefix. The presence of an object prefix (including the reflexive ji-) causes the final -a of Bantu verbs to become -e. Note that the ji- prefix of reflexive verbs is an object prefix, meaning, for example, that the imperative of -jifunza "to learn" is jifunze "learn!" and not *jifunza.

Formation of the imperative
Common verbs Short verbs Loan verb
Singular ___a ku___a ___
[OBJ]___e [OBJ]___e [OBJ]___
Plural ___eni ku___eni ___ni
[OBJ]___eni [OBJ]___eni [OBJ]___ni

The plural form, with the suffix -ni, is used when addressing multiple people.

The following verbs have irregular imperatives, regular forms may be heard, particularly by non-native speakers and particularly in Kenya, and regular forms may be interpreted as less polite:

  • kuja "to come": njoo (pl. njooni)
  • kwenda "to go" : nenda (pl. nendeni)
  • kuleta "to bring": lete (pl. leteni)

The verb -acha may informally be given the imperative form wacha (pl. wacheni).

Additionally, the verb kuwa "to be" has an irregular imperative form: iwe (pl. iweni), although this is rarely used and more frequently replaced by a regular imperative form kuwa (pl. kuweni) or used in the subjunctive ("polite imperative") form: uwe (pl. mwe).[8]

Examples (singular then plural)
Verb Alone With object
-nywa Kunywa! Kunyweni! "Drink!" Yanywe! Yanyweni! "Drink it!" (class 6)
-angalia Angalia! Angalieni! "Look!" Mwangalie! Mwangalieni! "Look at her!"
-saidia Saidia! Saidieni! "Help!" Nisaidie! Nisaidieni! "Help me!"
-jibu Jibu! Jibuni! "Answer!" Nijibu! Nijibuni! "Answer me!"
-jifunza N/A Jifunze! Jifunzeni! "Learn!"

There is no actual negative imperative form. The equivalent is achieved with the negative subjunctive. The formation of this is outlined below, but for the sake of completeness the negative equivalents of the above examples are given here.

Examples (singular then plural)
Verb Alone With object
-nywa Usinywe! Msinywe! "Don't drink!" Usiyanywe! Msiyanywe! "Don't drink it!" (class 6)
-angalia Usiangalie! Msiangalie! "Don't look!" Usimwangalie! Msimwangalie! "Don't look at her!"
-saidia Usisaidie! Msisaidie! "Don't help!" Usinisaidie! Msinisaidie! "Don't help me!"
-jibu Usijibu! Msijibu! "Don't answer!" Usinijibu! Msinijibu! "Don't answer me!"
-jifunza N/A Usijifunze! Msijifunze! "Don't learn!"

Present tenses[edit]

There are two present tenses in Swahili. These are sometimes termed the "definite present" (with -na-) and the "indefinite present" (with -a-). In modern, standard Swahili, however, there is no great difference in meaning between these two forms as the "indefinite present" is more or less obsolete and rarely used other than its frequent appearance in media headlines.[9] A distinction between these two forms is not made in the negative, with both forms being negated the same way.

Formation of the present tense
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
"definite present" [SUBJ]na___a [SUBJ]naku___a [SUBJ]na___
[SUBJ]na[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]na[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]na[OBJ]___
"indefinite present"

(almost obsolete)

[SUBJ*]a___a [SUBJ*]a___a [SUBJ*]a___
[SUBJ*]a[OBJ]___a [SUBJ*]a[OBJ]___a [SUBJ*]a[OBJ]___
negative present [NEG.SUBJ]___i [NEG.SUBJ]___i [NEG.SUBJ]___
[NEG.SUBJ][OBJ]___i [NEG.SUBJ][OBJ]___i [NEG.SUBJ][OBJ]___

* Although rarely used, the "indefinite present" adds a small complication to the presentation of Swahili grammar as the -a- marking the tense causes the subject concords to undergo reduction in the same manner as the prefixes of the genitive preposition -a. This is outlined above.

In informal Swahili, it is very common for the first person singular concord ni- to collapse into the -na- of the definite present tense marker and become inaudible (and unwritten). The distinction between the "definite" and "indefinite" present tense forms appears to vanish in the first person as both begin with a na-, however short verbs retain their -ku- extension in the -na- tense and lose it in the -a- tense, allowing this distinction to still be felt, such as in (ni)nakula "I eat", in the -na- present tense, versus nala "I eat", in the -a- present tense.

Examples ("definite", "indefinite, negative)
Verb Example Notes
-enda Anakwenda. "She goes" / "She's going." (Anaenda is also used.)
Aenda. "She goes."
Haendi. "She doesn't go." / "She isn't going."
-la (Ni)nakula. "I eat." / "I am eating." Short verb: -ku- prevents -na- from being stressed
Nala. "I eat." Short verb: -a- has no problem taking stress.
Sili. "I'm not eating." / "I don't eat." Short verb: si-, like all subject/object prefixes, can take stress
-andika Unaandika. "You write." / "You are writing."
Waandika. "You write." May also mean "They write." U- + a- = wa-; wa- + -a- = wa-
Huandiki. "You don't write." / "You aren't writing."
-sahau Tunajibu. "We answer" / "We are answering."
Twajibu. "We answer."
Hatujibu. "We don't answer." / "We are not answering." Loan verb, no -a suffix to be changed to -i.

Habitual[edit]

The habitual verb form is unusual in that it does not allow subject prefixes to appear on it. The prefix hu- is added to the beginning of the verb and short verbs do not need their -ku- extension.

Formation of the habitual
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive future hu([OBJ])___a hu([OBJ])___a hu([OBJ])___

The habitual indicates repeated, habitual occurrence of an action (habitual aspect) or something occurring as a timeless general rule (gnomic aspect). Because subject prefixes are absent, personal pronouns are very frequently used to indicate the subject.

Ng'ombe hula nyasi.
ng'ombe hu-l(a) nyasi
head(s).of.cattle(CL9/10) HAB-eat grass(CL10)
"cow(s)" "eat(s), as a rule" "grass"
"Cows eat grass." / "A cow eats grass."
Sisi hunywa pombe kila wikendi.
sisi hu-nyw(a) bia kila wikendi
1P HAB-drink beer(CL9/10) every weekend(CL9)
"we" "drink(s), as a rule" "beer" "every" "weekend"
"We drink beer every weekend."

The habitual aspect with hu- is often replaced by the present with -na- in everyday use, the sisi hunywa of the above example then being replaced with tunakunywa. Some speakers instead use the non-standard habitual suffix -ga or -nga which has entered Swahili from other Bantu languages spoken in East Africa, giving tunakunywaga or tunakunywanga. The habitual aspect with hu- is, however, very commonly used in proverbs dealing with eternal truisms.

Haba na haba hujaza kibaba.
haba na haba hu-ja(a)-z(a) kibaba
insignificant COM insignificant HAB-become.full-CAUS 1.56.litre.container(CL7)
"little" "and" "little" "fills, as a rule" "container"
"Little by little, a cup is filled."
(Roughly equivalent to "Slow and steady wins the race," or "A penny saved is a penny earned.")

Past[edit]

The past tense is used in Swahili to talk about actions or states in the past, whether in the near or the distant past. It is formed with the prefix -li-. Its negative equivalent is formed with the negative subject prefix plus -ku-. The positive tense marker -li- cannot take stress and triggers the use of the extension -ku- (or -kw-) where necessary. The negative tense marker -ku- can take stress, meaning that an additional -ku- extension is not needed.

Formation of the past tense
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive past [SUBJ]li___a [SUBJ]liku___a [SUBJ]li___
[SUBJ]li[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]li[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]li[OBJ]___
negative past [NEG.SUBJ]ku___a [NEG.SUBJ]ku___a [NEG.SUBJ]ku___
[NEG.SUBJ]ku[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ku[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ku[OBJ]___
Examples
Verb Example Notes
-enda Alikwenda. "She went." Alienda is also used.
Hakwenda. "She didn't go." The -kw- marks the negative past and cannot be dropped. Hakuenda may also be encountered.
-la Nilikula. "I ate." Short verb: -ku- prevents -li- from being stressed
Sikula. "I didn't eat." The -ku- marks the negative past and cannot be dropped.
-andika Uliandika. "You wrote."
Hukuandika. "You didn't write."
-jibu Tulijibu. "We answered."
Hatukujibu. "We didn't answer."

Perfect[edit]

The perfect indicates an action or situation which occurred in the past, similarly to the past tense, however the focus of the utterance is on the relevance of this past action to the present moment. For example, the word nimepika "I have cooked" describes a past action with present relevance (i.e. the food is ready now) whereas nilipika "I cooked" describes a past action with no implication of any relevance to the present (the food may have been eaten long ago, or not).

The perfect is formed in the positive with the prefix -me-. The negative is formed with the negative subject prefix plus -ja-. As with the present and past tenses, the positive present marker -me- cannot take the word stress and triggers the appearance of the -ku- extension in short verbs, but the negative marker -ja- is able to be stressed. Some speakers may use the extension -ku- with -ja-.

Some sources describe the -ja- form as containing more of an implication of "not yet" than a simple negation of the -me- form, however the word bado "still", "not yet" may be used to indicate this explicitly where necessary.

Formation of the perfect tense
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive perfect [SUBJ]me___a [SUBJ]meku___a [SUBJ]me___
[SUBJ]me[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]me[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]me[OBJ]___
negative perfect [NEG.SUBJ]ja___a [NEG.SUBJ]ja(ku)___a [NEG.SUBJ]ja___
[NEG.SUBJ]ja[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ja[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ja[OBJ]___
Examples
Verb Example Notes
-enda Amekwenda. "She has gone/been." Ameenda is also used.
Hajaenda. "She hasn't gone/been."
-la Nimekula. "I have eaten." Short verb: -ku- prevents -me- from being stressed
Sijala. "I haven't eaten." Sijakula may also be encountered.
-andika Umeandika. "You have written."
Hujaandika. "You haven't written."
-jibu Tumejibu. "We have answered."
Hatujajibu. "We haven't answered."

Inchoative verbs, such as kuchoka "to get tired", which describe the entering of a state, are used in the perfect to indicate being in the state in question. Compare for example: ninachoka "I am becoming tired"; nimechoka "I have become tired", i.e. "I am tired." For more information and examples, see the section on inchoative verbs below.

Some speakers may replace the sequence of prefixes a-me- with ka- with more or less the same meaning. This may derive from the consecutive tense marker.[10]

Paka wangu amepotea. Paka wangu kapotea.
paka w-angu a-me-pote(a) paka w-angu ka-pote(a)
(CL9)cat(s) CL1-GEN.1S CL1-PRF-get.lost (CL9)cat(s) CL1-GEN.1S CL1.PRF-get.lost
"cat" "my" "s/he-has-gotten-lost" "cat" "my" "s/he-has-gotten-lost"
"My cat is lost." "My cat is lost."

Anterior -sha-[edit]

The anterior marker -sha- (or sometimes -kwisha-) is a relatively new TAM marker that derives diachronically from the verb kwisha "to finish, to run out". It is most commonly (and perhaps least controversially) used directly after the perfect marker -me-. It often imparts the meaning of "already", emphasising the completeness of the action.

Asante, nimeshakula.
asante ni-me-sha-ku-l(a)
thank.you 1S-PRF-ANT-EXT-eat
"thank you" "I have already eaten"
"No thank you, I have already eaten."

The anterior marker -sha- is also used with other TAM markers, simply sitting after them within the TAM slot. It may also on occasion be used on its own, with a function more or less equivalent to the perfect -me-. These uses may not be regarded as standard Swahili. It is frequently used with the situational marker -ki- where it indicates a situation in which the action has been completed.

Ukishapata kazi, utakuwa na pesa za kutosha.
u-ki-sha-pat(a) kazi u-ta-ku-w(a) na pesa z-a ku-tosh(a)
2S-SITU-ANT-get work(CL9) 2S-FUT-EXT-be COM money(CL10) CL10-GEN INF(CL15)-suffice
"once you get" "work" "you will be" "with" "money" "of" "to suffice"
"Once you get a job, you will have enough money."

Future[edit]

The future tense is formed in Swahili with the prefix -ta-. The negative form is indicated simply by using the negative subject prefix, with -ta- being used here as well. A number of speakers, however, use -to- in the negative future. This may be derived by analogy from the -to- of the negative infinitive, and may also disambiguate between positive and negative where the only difference otherwise would be an h- at the beginning of the negative word. For example, atakuja "s/he will come" vs. hatakuja "s/he will not come" (or hatokuja). Because second language speakers in many areas have trouble with pronouncing and distinguishing /h/, the optional change from -ta- to -to- in the negative can provide a failsafe indication when a negative meaning is intended.

-Ta- (and likewise -to-) cannot take the word stress whether in positive or negative and thus causes the appearance of the -ku- extension in short verbs.

Formation of the future tense
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive future [SUBJ]ta___a [SUBJ]taku___a [SUBJ]ta___
[SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___
negative future

(usual)

[NEG.SUBJ]ta___a [NEG.SUBJ]taku___a [NEG.SUBJ]ta___
[NEG.SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ta[OBJ]___
negative future

(variant)

[NEG.SUBJ]to___a [NEG.SUBJ]toku___a [NEG.SUBJ]to___
[NEG.SUBJ]to[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]to[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]to[OBJ]___
Examples
Verb Example Notes
-enda Atakwenda. "She will go." Ataenda is also used.
Hatakwenda. "She won't go." Hataenda is also used.
-la Nitakula. "I will eat." Short verb: -ku- prevents -ta- from being stressed
Sitakula. "I won't eat." Short verb: -ku- prevents -ta- from being stressed
-andika Utaandika. "You will write."
Hutaandika. "You won't write."
-jibu Tutajibu. "We will answer."
Hatutajibu. "We won't answer."

Subjunctive[edit]

The subjunctive (sometimes referred to as an optative) expresses hypothetical situations, wishes and requests. It is also used as a complement to certain auxiliary verbs and conjunctions. The subjunctive is indicated by the lack of any Tense-Aspect-Mood prefix and the change of the final -a, where present, to -e-. The so-called "Arabic verbs" do not undergo this change and the subjunctive form is made simply by omitting any tense marker. The negative subjunctive is indicated by adding the syllable -si- into the tense slot, with the positive subject prefix being used rather than the negative.

Formation of the subjunctive
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive subjunctive [SUBJ]___e [SUBJ]___e [SUBJ]___
[SUBJ][OBJ]___e [SUBJ][OBJ]___e [SUBJ][OBJ]___
negative subjunctive [SUBJ]si___e [SUBJ]si___e [SUBJ]si___
[SUBJ]si[OBJ]___e [SUBJ]si[OBJ]___e [SUBJ]si[OBJ]___
Examples
Verb Example
-enda Aende. "He should go." / "... him to go" / "... that he go"
Asiende. "He shouldn't go." / "... him not to go" / "... that he not go"
-la Nile. "I should eat." / "... me to eat" / "... that I eat"
Nisile. "I shouldn't eat." / "... me not to eat" / "... that I not eat"
-andika Uandike. "You should write." / "... you to write" / "... that you write"
Usiandike. "Don't write!" / "You shouldn't write." / "... you not to write" / "... that you not write"
-sahau Tusahau. "Let's forget!" / "We should forget." / "... us to forget" / "... that we forget"
Tusisahau. "Let's not forget." / "We shouldn't forget." / "... us not to forget" / "... that we not forget"

The subjunctive is frequently used following the equivalents of modal verbs, verbs indicating wishes, suggestions, recommendations and other constructions.

Nilimwambia aende. Nilimwambia asiende.
ni-li-mw-ambi(a) a-end(a)-e ni-li-mw-ambi(a) a-si-end(a)-e
1S.SBJ-PST-3S.ANIM.OBJ-tell 3S.ANIM.SBJ-go-SBJV 1S.SBJ-PST-3S.ANIM.OBJ-tell 3S.ANIM.SBJ-NEG-go-SBJV
"I told her to go." / "I told her she should go."

"I told him to go." / "I told him he should go."

"I told her not to go." / "I told her she should not go."

"I told him not to go." / "I told him he should not go."

Tutawaomba wakae. Tutawaomba wasikae.
tu-ta-wa-omb(a) wa-ka(a)-e tu-ta-wa-omb(a) wa-si-ka(a)-e
1P.SBJ-FUT-3P.ANIM.OBJ-request 3P.ANIM-sit-SBJV 1P.SBJ-FUT-3P.ANIM.OBJ-request 3P.ANIM-NEG-sit-SBJV
"We will ask them to sit." "We will ask them not to sit."
Ninataka uje. Sitaki uje. Ninataka usije.
ni-na-tak(a) u-j(a)-e si-tak(a)-i u-j(a)-e ni-na-tak(a) u-si-j(a)-e
1P.SBJ-PRES-want 2S.SBJ-come-SBJV NEG.1P.SBJ-want-NEG.PRES 2S.SBJ-come-SBJV 1P.SBJ-PRES-want 2S.SBJ-NEG-come-SBJV
"I want you to come." "I don't want you to come." "I want you not to come."

An equivalent of "must" or "have to" is formed with ni lazima "it is necessary", or simply lazima "necessarily" followed by the subjunctive.

(Ni) lazima ulale Si lazima ulale (Ni) lazima usilale
(ni) lazima u-lal-e si lazima u-lal-e (ni) lazima u-si-lal-e
(COP) necessary 2S.SBJ-sleep-SBJV NEG.COP necessarily 2S.SBJ-sleep-SBJV (COP) necessary 2S.SBJ-NEG-sleep-SBJV
"You must sleep."

"It is necessary that you sleep."

"You don't have to sleep."

"It is not necessary that you sleep."

"You must not sleep."

"It is necessary that you not sleep."

The subjunctive may be used on its own with a second person subject as a more polite alternative to an imperative. As there is no negative imperative, forms beginning with usi- and msi- may also be interpreted as such.

Toka. Utoke. Usitoke.
Ø-tok(a)-Ø u-tok(a)-e u-si-tok(a)-e
IMP-got.out-2S.SBJ 2S.SBJ-go.out-SBJV 2S.SBJ-not-go.out-SBJV
"Go away."

"Get lost."

"You should go away!"

"Can you (please) go away!"

"Don't go away!"

"You should not go away!"

Situational[edit]

The situational, simultaneous or conditional tense is formed with the TAM prefix -ki-. This prefix may take stress and thus the extension -ku- does not appear with short verbs in the situational verb form.

There is, strictly speaking, no negative form of the situational, however, in conditional sentences, the relative verb form using -sipo- is quite close in meaning to a negative equivalent of -ki- and it will be given here as it may prove helpful. Note that the -ku- extension does appear with -sipo- as the -po-, like all relative syllables, is unable to be stressed.

Formation of the situational
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive situational [SUBJ]ki___a [SUBJ]ki___a [SUBJ]ki___
[SUBJ]ki[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ki[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ki[OBJ]___
negative situational

(conditional only)

[SUBJ]sipo___a [SUBJ]sipoku___a [SUBJ]sipo___
[SUBJ]sipo[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]sipo[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]sipo[OBJ]___

The situational verb form is used to indicate a simultaneous action or situation of subordinate importance that provides the temporal or contextual background for the main verb in the sentence. It is somewhat equivalent to the English conjunctions "if" and "when", but it also forms the equivalent of adverbial participle clauses. If needed for clarity or emphasis, a word meaning if, such as kama, ikiwa or endapo may be added to the beginning of the clause (which allows the speaker to choose a different TAM marker). The word ikiwa is itself the situational form of the verb -wa "to be", with the class 9 subject prefix i-, literally meaning on its own essentially "if it is".

(Kama) ukitaka kuja, utapaswa kulipa.
(kama) u-ki-tak(a) ku-j(a) u-ta-pas(a)-w(a) ku-lip(a)
(if) 2S.SBJ-SITU-want INF(CL15)-come 2S.SBJ-FUT-behoove-PASS INF(CL15)-pay
("if") "if you want" "to come" "you will be behooved" "to pay"
"If you want to come, you will have to pay."
(Kama) usipotaka kuja, hutapaswa kulipa.
(kama) u-si-po-tak(a) ku-j(a) hu-ta-pas(a)-w(a) ku-lip(a)
(if) 2S.SBJ-NEG-CL16.REL-want INF(CL15)-come NEG.2S.SBJ-FUT-behoove-PASS INF(CL15)-pay
("if") "if you don't want" "to come" "you will not be behooved" "to pay"
"If you don't want to come, you will not have to pay."
Wanajeshi wawili walikuja wakikimbia, wote wawili wakibeba upanga.
wanajeshi wa-wili wa-li-ku-j(a) wa-ki-kimbia w-ote wa-wili wa-ki-beb(a) upanga
soldiers(CL2) CL2-two CL2.SBJ-PST-EXT-come CL2.SBJ-SITU-run CL2-all CL2-two CL2.SBJ-SITU-carry machete(CL11)
"soldiers" "two" "they came" "(they) running" "all" "two" "(they) carrying" "machete"
"Two soldiers came running, both of them carrying a machete."

The situational may appear in compound progressive tenses.

Tulipofika, alikuwa akila kwa pupa haraka iwezekanavyo.
tu-li-po-fik(a) a-li-ku-w(a) a-ki-l(a) kwa pupa haraka i-wezekan(a)-vyo
1P.SBJ-PST-CL16.REL-arrive CL1.SBJ-PST-EXT-be CL2.SBJ-SITU-eat INST greed(CL9) quickly CL9.SBJ-be.possible-CL8.REL
"when we arrived" "he was" "(he) eating" "with" "greed" "quickly" "as it is possible"
"When we arrived, he was (in the middle of) eating greedily as quickly as possible."

Consecutive[edit]

The consecutive or narrative tense is formed with the TAM prefix -ka-. This prefix may take stress and thus the extension -ku- does not appear with short verbs in this form.

Formation of the consecutive
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive consecutive [SUBJ]ka___a [SUBJ]ka___a [SUBJ]ka___
[SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___

The consecutive tense is mainly used with the past tense -li- in narrating a sequence of events whereby -li- is used for the first verb and -ka- for subsequent verbs. It roughly carries the meaning "and then" and makes the use of na "and" or halafu / kisha "then" essentially redundant. Where context is clearly past, a narrative may also be begun with -ka-.

Alipomwona nyoka, alivua shati akalitupa juu ya nyoka akamkanyaga.
a-li-po-mw-on(a) nyoka a-li-vua shati a-ka-li-tup(a) juu y-a nyoka a-ka-m-kanyag(a)
CL1-PST-CL.16.REL-CL.1-see snake(CL9) CL1-PST-take.off shirt(CL5) CL1-CNSC-CL5-throw top(CL9) CL9-GEN snake(CL9) CL1-CNSC-CL1-trample
"when he saw it" "snake" "he took off" "shirt" "he then threw it (the shirt)" "on top" "of" "snake" "he then trampled it (the snake)"
"Upon seeing the snake, he took off his shirt, threw it over the snake and then trampled on it."

There is, strictly speaking, no negative form of the situational, however the negative subjunctive may occasionally be used for this purpose.[11]

Niliduwaa, nisiwe na la kusema.
ni-li-duwa(a) ni-si-w(a)-e na l-a ku-sem(a)
1S-PST-be.dumbfounded 1S-NEG-be-SBJV COM CL5-GEN INF(CL15)-say
"I was dumbfounded" "and then was not" "with" "(word) of" "to say"
"I was dumbfounded and (then) didn't have anything to say."

Expeditous[edit]

The consecutive marker -ka- may combine with the final -e of the subjunctive mood to form the expeditous.

Formation of the expeditous
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive expeditous [SUBJ]ka___e [SUBJ]ka___e [SUBJ]ka___
[SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___e [SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___e [SUBJ]ka[OBJ]___

The expeditous verb form is essentially the same as the subjunctive in meaning except with the added meaning of "and" or "then" introduced by the consecutive marker -ka-.

Tulimpeleka kule Misri akawe balozi wetu katika nchi hiyo.
tu-li-m-pelek(a) kule Misri a-ka-w(a)-e balozi w-etu katika nchi hiyo
1P-PST-CL1-send DEM.CL17.DIST Egypt CL1-CNSC-be-SBJV ambassador(CL5) CL1-GEN.1P in country(CL9) DEM.CL9.MED
"we sent him" "there" "Egypt" "that he then become" "ambassador" "our" "in" "country" "that aforementioned"
"We sent him to Egypt (for him) to be our ambassador in that country."

The word akawe in the above sentence could also be replaced with ili awe "in order that he be" or simply the subjunctive awe "that he be" (or "(for him) to be" in more natural contemporary English), but the -ka- added to this word emphasises his becoming an ambassador immediately following his being dispatched.

The expeditous verb form is frequently used with imperatives (and "polite imperatives" in the subjunctive), again indicating roughly "and then".

Uende mbele yangu ukawe mkamilifu.
u-end(a)-e mbele y-angu u-ka-w(a)-e m-kamilifu
2S.SBJ-go-SBJV front.side(CL9) CL9-GEN.1S 2S.SBJ-CNSC-be-SBJV CL1-perfect
"go" "in front" "of me" "and be" "perfect"
"Go in front of me and be perfect."

The subject prefix may be dropped when used with the imperative.

Nenda kamwambie ukweli.
nenda (u-)ka-mw-ambi(a)-e ukweli
go.IMP.2S (2S.SUBJ-)CNSC-CL1.OBJ-tell-SBJV truth(CL14)
"go" "and tell her" "truth"
"Go and tell her the truth!"

Irrealis[edit]

There are two irrealis verb forms, one which may be called "present irrealis" (marked by -nge-) and one which may be called "past irrealis" (marked by -ngali-). The standard means of forming the negative is to use -si- in the TAM slot, forming -singe- and -singali-. Some speakers, however, particularly in speech influenced by southern dialects,[12] negate the irrealis verb forms instead by using the negative subject concords.

Formation of the present irrealis
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive present

irrealis

[SUBJ]nge___a [SUBJ]ngeku___a [SUBJ]nge___
[SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___
negative present

irrealis

[SUBJ]singe___a [SUBJ]singeku___a [SUBJ]singe___
[SUBJ]singe[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]singe[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]singe[OBJ]___
negative present

irrealis (variant)

[NEG.SUBJ]nge___a [NEG.SUBJ]ngeku___a [NEG.SUBJ]nge___
[NEG.SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]nge[OBJ]___
Formation of the past irrealis
Common Verb Short Verb Loan verb
positive past

irrealis

[SUBJ]ngali___a [SUBJ]ngaliku___a [SUBJ]ngali___
[SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___
negative past

irrealis

[SUBJ]singali___a [SUBJ]singaliku___a [SUBJ]singali___
[SUBJ]singali[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]singali[OBJ]___a [SUBJ]singali[OBJ]___
negative past

irrealis (variant)

[NEG.SUBJ]ngali___a [NEG.SUBJ]ngaliku___a [NEG.SUBJ]ngali___
[NEG.SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___a [NEG.SUBJ]ngali[OBJ]___

Both the irrealis forms are used to discuss hypothetical situations, generally within conditional sentences. Both the protasis (if-clause) and apodosis (then-clause) may have an identical structure with the protasis appearing first. In order to disambiguate or emphasise, such as if the clauses are in the reverse order, a word for "if" (kama, ikiwa, endapo) may precede the protasis.

Ningependa kukuona tena.
ni-nge-pend(a) ku-ku-on(a) tena
1S.SBJ-IRR-like/love INF(CL15)-2S.OBJ-see again
"I would like" "to see you" "again"
"I would like to see you again"
(Ikiwa) ningekuwa ndege, ningekunyea kichwa.
(i-ki-w(a)) ni-nge-ku-w(a) ndege ni-nge-ku-ny(a)-e(a) kichwa
(CL9-SITU-be) 1S-IRR-EXT-be bird(CL9) 1S.SUBJ-IRR-2S.OBJ-defecate-APPL head(CL7)
"if (it is)" "if I were" "bird" "I would defecate on you" "head"
"If I were a bird, I would defecate on your head."
(Kama) ningalijua hiyo, nisingalikuja hapa.
(kama) ni-ngali-ju(a) hiyo ni-si-ngali-ku-j(a) hapa
(if) 1S-IRR.PST-know DEM.CL9.MED 1S-NEG-IRR.PST-EXT-know DEM.CL16.PROX
("if") "if I had known" "that aforementioned" "I would not have come" "here"
"If I had known that, I would not have come here!"

In the usage of many speakers, the distinction between the present and past irrealis forms is somewhat blurred so that the final example above may commonly be spoken as "(Kama) ningejua hiyo, nisingekuja hapa." which, speaking strictly, could be interpreted as "If I knew that I would not come here."

Relative verb forms[edit]

There are five verb templates which can be used to create relative clauses. The three simple tenses PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE may only be relativised in their positive sense. In addition to these, there is a tenseless positive form and a tenseless negative form. For all other verb forms, relative clauses must be formed by a periphrastic relative using amba-.

The following table shows the structure of the verb templates, notably the positioning of the relative morpheme, here labelled "REL". Note in the following table that the marker for the future tense is -taka- with a following relative morpheme, rather than the simple -ta- which occurs otherwise.

Tense, Aspect,

Mood

Subject TAM Relative Object

/ Extension

Verb

STEM

Final Vowel Relative
Indicative

Basic

Tenses

Past SUB -li- REL (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Present SUB -na- REL (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Future SUB -taka- REL (OBJ) / EXT STEM -a
Relative

Forms

Tenseless Relative SUB (OBJ) STEM -a- REL
Tenseless Negative Relative SUB -si- REL (OBJ) STEM -a

The relative morpheme takes one of many forms to indicate the class of its referent. The relative morpheme for each class is identical to its combining pronominal form which appears with na- and ndi-. Aside from class 1, the form of each can be achieved by placing o (the so-called "o of reference")

Class Relative

Morpheme

1 -ye
2 -o
3 -o
4 -yo
5 -lo
6 -yo
7 -cho
8 -vyo
9 -yo
10 -zo
11 -o
14 -o
15 -ko
16 -po
17 -ko
18 -mo

'To be'[edit]

In most languages with a verbal copula, the equivalent of the verb 'to be', it is this verb that exhibits the most irregularity and the most diversity of form. Swahili is no exception. Outside of the present tense, the Swahili verb -wa (infinitive kuwa) is almost entirely regular, inflecting as other short verbs do. In the present tense, however, there is a distinction made between a copular of essence versus a copula of state or location. This is similar to the distinction between ser and estar in Spanish and Portuguese, however, in Swahili, this distinction largely vanishes outside of the present tense. There are also irregular relativised forms for the present tense as well as an irregular unique continuative form.

Essence[edit]

Invariable copula[edit]

The invariable copula ni is used, in the present tense, to express that two noun phrases (the subject and complement) refer to one and the same referent:

  • Mimi ni Bahati. "I am Bahati."
  • Dunia ni sayari tunapoishi. "Earth is the planet we live on."

It is also used to express membership of a class (a subset relationship):

  • Wao ni wanasayansi. "They are scientists."
  • Jua ni nyota. "The sun is a star."
  • Miti ni mimea mikubwa. "Trees are large plants."

It may also introduce an adjective or equivalent phrase describing a relatively permanent characteristic.

  • Babake ni mrefu sana. "Her father is very tall."
  • Mji huyu ni mdogo. "This town is small."
  • Misuli yako ni kama chuma. Your muscles are like steel.

The negative form si can be used in all the same situations with a negative meaning:

  • Wewe si Bahati. "You are not Bahati."
  • Jua si sayari. "The sun is not a planet."
  • Pomboo si wadogo. "Dolphins are not small."

Because ni and si do not provide any information about the subject, personal pronouns, usually only necessary for emphasis, frequently appear. Compare the typical use of irregular present tense with that of the entirely regular past tense where the subject prefixes make personal pronouns redundant and used only for emphasis.

Present Past
Number Person Positive Negative Positive Negative
Singular 1st mimi ni mimi si nilikuwa sikuwa
I am I am not I was I was not
2nd wewe ni wewe si ulikuwa hukuwa
you are you are not you were you were not
3rd yeye ni yeye si alikuwa hakuwa
s/he is s/he is not s/he was s/he was not
Plural 1st sisi ni sisi si tulikuwa hatukuwa
we are we are not we were we were not
2nd nyinyi ni nyinyi si mlikuwa hamkuwa
you are you are not you were you were not
3rd wao ni wao si walikuwa hawakuwa
they are they are not they were they were not

A sentence begun with ni or si without an overtly marked pronoun is typically translated with the subject "it" in English. With plural context, "they" may be meant.

  • Ni asubuhi sasa. "It's morning now."
  • Ni vigumu kulala. "It's difficult to fall asleep."
  • Ni wanene sana. "They're very fat."

On occasion, the invariable copula may follow regular forms of kuwa in other tenses. In the following example, the ni could also be left out.

Kwa kweli, huyo alikuwa ni kondoo wa kukodiwa.
kwa kweli huyo a-li-ku-w(a) ni kondoo w-a ku-kodi-iw(a)
INST true DEM.MED.CL1 CL1-PST-EXT-be COP sheep(CL9) CL1-GEN INF(CL15)-rent-PASS
"by" "true" "that, aforementioned" "s/he was" "is" "sheep" "of" "being rented"
"In truth, that was a rented sheep."
Emphatic copula[edit]

The emphatic or focusing copula ndi- places its subject in focus, emphasising that it is that particular referent and not another. The emphatic copula takes suffixes matching the person and noun class of the referent. These suffixes are the same as those which combine with na. In the first and second persons, the third person suffixes are frequently used.

Person

/ Class

Positive Negative Translation
1st sing. ndimi, ndiye simi, siye "it is (not) I"
2nd sing. ndiwe, ndiye siwe, siye "it is (not) you"
1st plur. ndisi, ndio sio, (sisi)* "it is (not) we"
2nd plur. ndinyi, ndio sinyi, sio "it is (not) you"
1 ndiye siye "it is (not) s/he"
2 ndio sio "it is (not) they"
3 ndio sio "it is (not) it"
4 ndiyo siyo "it is (not) they"
5 ndilo silo "it is (not) it"
6 ndiyo siyo "it is (not) they"
7 ndicho sicho "it is (not) it"
8 ndivyo sivyo "it is (not) they", "it is (not) so"
9 ndiyo siyo "it is (not) it"
10 ndizo sizo "it is (not) they"
11 ndio sio "it is (not) it"
14 ndio sio "it is (not) it"
15 ndiko siko "it is (not) it"
16 ndipo sipo "it is (not) (t)here"
17 ndiko siko "it is (not) around (t)here"
18 ndimo simo "it is (not) in (t)here"

* The form sisi "it is not us" is not frequently used as it is identical to the pronoun sisi "we", "us". Instead it is virtually always replaced with sio.

Forms of the emphatic copula are frequently equivalent to a definite phrase in translation and are followed by relative verb forms as in the following example:

Mimi ndiye niliyewaona kwanza.
mimi ndi-ye ni-li-ye-wa-on(a) kwanza
1S FOC.COP-CL1 1S-PST-REL.CL1-CL2-see first
"I" "am the one" "(I) who saw them" "first"
"I'm the one who saw them first."

Compare the above with the non-emphatic version of the same sentence:

Niliyewaona kwanza.
ni-li-wa-on(a) kwanza
1S-PST-CL2-see first
"I saw them" "first"
"I saw them first."

Location[edit]

Location is indicated in the present tense by prefixing the subject concord to one of the locative clitics -po, -ko and -mo. The class 1 subject concord a- (negative: ha-) is however replaced with yu- (negative: hayu-).

The three clitics, -po, -ko and -mo correspond to the locative classes 16, 17 and 18 respectively and indicate "definite", "indefinite" and "internal" location respectively. For example, wapo means essentially "they are here/there", wako means "they are around here/there" and wamo means "they are in here/there".

Positive Negative
Person

/ Class

Definite Indefinite Internal Definite Indefinite Internal
1st sing. nipo niko nimo sipo siko simo
2nd sing. upo uko umo hupo huko humo
1st plur. tupo tuko tumo hatupo hatuko hatumo
2nd plur. mpo mko mmo hampo hamko hammo
1 yupo yuko yumo hayupo hayuko hayumo
2 wapo wako wamo hawapo hawako hawamo
3 upo uko umo haupo hauko haumo
4 ipo iko imo haipo haiko haimo
5 lipo liko limo halipo haliko halimo
6 yapo yako yamo hayapo hayako hayamo
7 kipo kiko kimo hakipo hakiko hakimo
8 vipo viko vimo havipo haviko havimo
9 ipo iko imo haipo haiko haimo
10 zipo ziko zimo hazipo haziko hazimo
11 upo uko umo haupo hauko haumo
14 upo uko umo haupo hauko haumo
15 kupo kuko kumo hakupo hakuko hakumo
16 papo pako pamo hapapo hapako hapamo
17 kupo kuko kumo hakupo hakuko hakumo
18 mpo mko mmo hampo hamko hammo

Under a very strict prescriptive viewpoint, the classes should not be mixed, for instance nipo hapa "I am here" is regarded as correct but niko hapa "I am here" is regarded as incorrect. There is, however, a broad tendency for many speakers to prefer forms with -ko over the other forms, such that niko hapa is very common.

State[edit]

Relative forms[edit]

Continuative[edit]

'To have'[edit]

Compound tenses[edit]

Inchoative verbs[edit]

A large number of Swahili verbs indicate the process of entering a state. For example, the verbs kulewa ("to get drunk"), kuchoka ("to become tired") and kuchelewa ("to become late") describe the respective changes to state from "not drunk" to "drunk", from "not tired" to "tired" and from "not late" to "late". These may be regarded as inherently inchoative verbs. There is, however, no equivalent stative verb for each one that would describe being in the state of having completed that process, i.e. "to be [state]". Stative meanings such as "be drunk", "be tired" and "be late" are formed by using these inchoative verbs with the perfect marker -me- (or, in the negative, -ja-). Many words which are present in English as adjectives have no corresponding adjective in Swahili and are expressed by means of inchoative verbs.

Examples
Base verb Inchoative Stative
-fa Anakufa. "He dies / is dying." Amekufa. "He is dead." ( = "He has died.")
-choka Ninachoka. "I become / am becoming tired." Nimechoka. "I am tired." ( = "I have become tired.")
-vaa Tunavaa viatu. "We put / are putting on shoes." Tumevaa viatu. "We are wearing shoes." ( = "We have put on shoes.")
-kasirikia Ananikasirikia. "He gets / is getting angry with me." Amenikasirikia. "He is angry with me." (= "He has become angry with me.")
-jaa Bafu inajaa. "The bath fills / is filling up." Bafu imejaa. "The bath is full." (= "The bath has filled up.")
-funguliwa Mlango unafunguliwa. "The door is (being) opened." Mlango umefunguliwa. "The door is open." (= "The door has been opened.")
-iva Chakula kinaiva. "The food cooks / is cooking." Chakula kimeiva. "The food is cooked."
-simama Wanasimama. "They get / stand / are getting up." Wamesimama. "They are standing up / on their feet." (= "They have stood up.")
-keti Anaketi. "She sits / is (in the process of) sitting down." Ameketi. "She is sitting down / seated." (= "She has sat down.")

When using inchoative verbs, compound tenses must be used to talk about states occurring at times other than the present.

Base verb Inchoative Stative
-lala Wanalala "They fall / are falling asleep." Wamelala. "They are asleep / sleeping." ( = "They have fallen asleep.")
Walilala. "They fell asleep." Walikuwa wamelala. "They were asleep / sleeping." ( = "They had fallen asleep.")
Watalala. "They will fall asleep." Watakuwa wamelala. "They will be asleep / sleeping." ( = "They will have fallen asleep.")
-amka Ninaamka "I wake / am waking up." Nimeamka. "I am awake." ( = "I have woken up.")
Niliamka. "I woke up." Nilikuwa nimeamka. "I was awake." ( = "I had woken up.")
Nitaamka. "I will wake up." Nitakuwa nimeamka. "I will be awake." ( = "I will have woken up.")
-fa Wanakufa "They die / are dying." Wamekufa. "They are dead." ( = "They have died.")
Walikufa. "They died." Walikuwa wamekufa. "They were dead." ( = "They had died.")
Watakufa. "They will die." Watakuwa wamekufa. "They will be dead." ( = "They will have died.")

Derived verbs[edit]

New verbs are readily created from simple verbs by attaching various suffixes (often called extensions) to the stem to get different shades of meaning by altering grammatical voice. Note that the final -a of common and short verbs only appears at the very end of the verb and is dropped before any suffixes.

Reciprocal[edit]

The reciprocal suffix -ana adds the meaning "each other" to the verb.

  • -penda "to love" → -pendana "to love each other"
  • -andikia "to write to" → -andikiana "to write to each other"
  • -pata "to get, receive" → -patana "to reconcile"
  • -piga "to hit" → -pigana "to fight", "to hit each other"

The subject of a reciprocal verb is generally plural, however a singular subject may be used, often followed by na and an additional referent.

Wanaume walipigana mitaani.
wanaume wa-li-pig(a)-an(a) mitaa-ni
neighbours(CL2) CL2-PST-hit-RECIP streets-LOC(CL16/17/18)
"men" "they fought each other" "on the streets"
"The men fought (each other) on the streets."
Nilipokuwa mvulana, nilipigana na yeyote aliyenikasirisha
ni-li-po-ku-w(a) mvulana ni-li-pig(a)-an(a) na ye-y-ote a-li-ye-ni-kasirish(a)
1S-PST-CL16.REL-EXT-be boy(CL1) CL2-PST-hit-RECIP COM CL1.REL-CL1-ALL CL1-PST-CL1.REL-1S-make.angry
"when I was" "boy/young man" "I fought (each other)" "with" "anyone" "who made me angry"
"When I was a young man, I got in fights with anyone who made me angry."

Applicative[edit]

The applicative suffix, frequently called the 'prepositional extension' in learning resources, adds one of various meanings to a verb usually represented by a preposition in English such as "to", "for", "in", "with" or even "from". The form of the applicative suffix varies, depending on vowel harmony and the reappearance of the /l/ which disappeared from an older stage of Swahili between the final two vowels.

Applicative suffix on common verbs:
Consonant-final

root

(Consonant + -a)

Vowel-final

root

(Vowel + -a)

Preceding syllable

has /a/, /i/, /u/ or /m̩/

-ia -lia
Preceding syllable

has /e/ or /o/

-ea -lea
  • -andika "to write" → -andikia "to write to"
  • -zungumza "to converse" → -zungumzia "to converse about", "to discuss"
  • -nunua "to buy" → -nunulia "to buy for"
  • -soma "to read" → -somea "to read to/for"
  • -kojoa "to urinate" → -kojolea "to urinate on/in/against"

Loan verbs usually form their applicative forms by removing their final vowel and replacing it with either -ia or -ea according to the same rules.

  • -rudi "to return" → -rudia "to return to"
  • -samehe "to forgive" → -samehea "to forgive (sb.) for (sb.)"
  • -hesabu "to count", "to consider" → -hesabia "to count for", "to ascribe"

Causative[edit]

The causative suffix is added to verbs to indicate a person or thing causing another person or thing to perform the action of the original verb. There are a few ways in which causatives are formed. The most common and productive causative suffix is -isha, which follows the same rules of vowel harmony as the applicative suffix.

Applicative suffix on common verbs:
Consonant-final

root

(Consonant + -a)

Vowel-final

root

(Vowel + -a)

Preceding syllable

has /a/, /i/, /u/ or /m̩/

-isha -lisha
Preceding syllable

has /e/ or /o/

-esha -lesha
  • -hama "to move (away)" → -hamisha "to banish; transfer; displace"
  • -chelewa "to be late" → -chelewesha "to delay; make late"
  • -soma "to read; study" → -somesha "to teach"
  • -kopa "to borrow" → -kopesha "to lend"
  • -weza "to be able" → -wezesha "to enable"
  • -enda "to go" → -endesha "to make go; drive (a vehicle)"
  • -vaa "to put on (clothes); dress (oneself)" → -valisha "to dress (somebody else)"
  • -ongea "to speak" → -ongelesha "to make speak"

Short verbs have no preceding vowel so have to be learnt individually.

  • -fa "to die" → -fisha "to put to death; kill; destroy"; cf. the underived verb -ua "to kill"
  • -la "to eat" → -lisha "to feed (someone/something)"
  • -nywa "to drink" → -nywesha "to give (someone/something) water to drink"

Loan verbs, except those ending in -au, remove their final vowel before adding these suffixes.

  • -fahamu "to understand" → -fahamisha "to make understand"
  • -rudi "to return; go back; come back" → -rudisha "to return (something); give back; bring back"
  • -tii "to obey" → -tiisha "to make obey; subdue; dominate; subjugate"
  • -furahi "to become happy" → -furahisha "to make happy; gladden"
  • -starehe "to relax" → -starehesha "to entertain; put at ease"
  • -sahau "to forget" → -sahaulisha "to make forget"

These suffixes may also be added to verbs and nouns to create causative verbs from them.

  • imara "strong" (adjective) → -imarisha "to strengthen (something); fortify"
  • -fupi "short" (adjective) → -fupisha "to shorten (something)"
  • tayari "ready" (adjective) → -tayarisha "to prepare (something); to make ready"
  • bora "better" (adjective) → -boresha "to improve (something); to make better"
  • safi "clean" (adjective) → -safisha "to clean (something)"
  • sababu "cause; reason" (noun) → -sababisha "to cause"
  • lazima "obligation" (noun) → -lazimisha "to force; compel"
  • orodha "list" (noun) → -orodhesha "to list; to make a list"
  • huzuni "sadness" (noun) → -huzunisha "to make sad; sadden"
  • hakika "certainty" (noun) → -hakikisha "to make sure; make certain; assure"

There is a less common causative suffix -iza or -eza which appears with some words. Often there is more than derivation from the same word, sometimes with different meanings.

  • -penda "to like; love" → -pendeza "to please; be nice; be attractive"; cf. -pendesha "to cause to like/love"
  • -lipa "to pay" → -lipiza "to take vengeance/revenge on; to make (somebody) pay (figuratively)"; cf. -lipisha "to charge a fee; to make (somebody) pay (literally)"

There is another means of deriving causative verbs and which results from an earlier -y- in the language. This -y- suffix combined with consonants and changed their pronunciation, palatalising or "softening" them. The following table outlines the common sound changes.

consonant becomes:
-t- -sh-
-k-
-l- -z-
-n- -ny-
-p- -fy-
-w- -vy-

In many cases, more than one of these suffixes may be used to derive different verbs from a single verb, formed by various means. In some cases, such as with -onyesha "to show", two causative suffixes may appear together.

  • -ona "to see" → -onya "to warn"; cf. -onyesha "to show" (also: -onesha)
  • -ogopa "to fear; be afraid/scared of" → -ogofya "to frighten; to be scary"; cf. -ogopesha "to frighten; to be scary" (no difference in meaning)
  • -pona "to heal; to get better; to recover" (intransitive) → -ponya "to heal (somebody); to make recover"; cf. -ponyesha "to heal (somebody); to make recover" (no difference in meaning)
  • -pita "to pass" → -pisha "to give way; make room for; allow to pass"; cf. -pitisha "to make pass"
  • -lala "to lie down; fall asleep" → -laza "to house; provide with accommodation; lay sb. down; admit (somebody to hospital)"; cf. -lalisha "to put (somebody) to bed"
  • -lewa "to get drunk/inebriated" → -levya "to intoxicate" (of a drug); cf. -lewesha "to get (somebody) drunk"

Verbs that end with -ka very frequently exchange this to -sha to form the causative, however this is much less common when the preceding syllable contains e or i.

  • -amka "to wake up" (oneself) → -amsha "to wake (somebody) up"
  • -chemka "to boil" (intransitive) → -chemsha "to boil (something); to make boil" (the m in this word is syllabic, derived from earlier "-mu-", so the e does not belong to the preceding syllable)
  • -waka "to shine, to catch fire" → -washa "to set on fire; light; switch on; start (e.g. a car)"
  • -choka "to become tired" → -chosha "to tire; be tiring; be tiresome; be boring"
  • -kumbuka "to remember" → -kumbusha "to remind"
  • -andika "to write" → -andikisha "to make write"
  • -cheka "to laugh" → -chekesha "to make laugh; amuse; be funny"

Because most of the word-final sequences of more than one vowel come from the deletion of an l that was present in an earlier stage of the language (and often preserved in many dialects and related languages), many verbs which today end in a sequence of two vowels are made by (removing the final -a) and adding -za. This -z- results from the palatalisation ("softening") process outlined above. which was applied to the -l- in these verbs. The -l- was subsequently lost but the -z- was not.

  • -tangaa "to become widely known" → -tangaza "to announce; proclaim; publicise"
  • -kataa "to refuse" → -kataza "to forbid"; cf. -katalisha "to make (somebody) refuse"
  • -tembea "to (go for a) walk" → -tembeza "to take for a walk; to walk (e.g. a dog)"
  • -kimbia "to run (away from)" → -kimbiza "to chase (away); pursue"
  • -jaa "to fill; become full" → -jaza "to fill; make full"

Passive[edit]

The passive suffix is generally -wa.

  • -jenga "to build" (whence Jenga) → -jengwa "to be built"
  • -sema "to say" → -semwa "to be said"
  • -danganya "to deceive" → -danganywa "to be deceived"

Verb stems that end with l or either of the semivowels w or y (but not ny as that is a single consonant written with two letters, as illustrated by -danganywa above) take a suffix -iwa; if the preceding syllable contains e or o, it will be -ewa instead.

  • -pwaya "to pound" → -pwayiwa "to be pounded"
  • -chovya "to immerse" → -chovyewa "to be immersed"
  • -doya "to investigate" → -doyewa "to be investigated"
  • -gawa "to share; divide" → -gawiwa "to be shared; be divided"
  • -tawala "to govern; rule" → -tawaliwa "to be governed; be ruled"

Verbs whose ending in one of the front vowels plus a, (i.e. the sequences -ea and -ia) usually simply add -wa.

  • -ambia "to tell (someone)" → -ambiwa "to be told" (of someone)
  • -tegemea "to rely on" → -tegemewa "to be relied on"
  • -zuia "to prevent" → -zuiwa "to be prevented"

A few words of this group, however, add -lewa (after an e) or -liwa (after i), resulting from the earlier .

  • -tia "to put in" → -tiliwa "to be put in"
  • -lea "to bring up; raise" → -lelewa "to be brought up, raised"
  • -pokea "to receive" → -pokewa / -pokelewa "to be received" (both alternatives possible)

As Swahili does not distinguish between the sequences /ua/ and /uwa/ or /oa/ and /owa/, the passive ending -wa would be inaudible on verbs, so the -liwa and -lewa endings are used instead.

  • -oa "to get married" (of a man) → -olewa "to get married" (of a woman)
  • -toa "to emit; publish; add; subtract; remove" → -tolewa "to be emitted; be published; be added; be subtracted; removed" (These verbs are auto-antonyms!)
  • -nunua "to buy" → -nunuliwa "to be bought"

Note that the verb -ua "to kill" has an irregular passive form: -uawa, although the regular -uliwa is occasionally used.

The Kiunguja dialect, specifically the variant of it spoken in Zanzibar City, which has been made the standard dialect, goes a step further than many other dialects, requiring also that all verbs ending in -aa be passivised with the suffix -liwa even though the difference between /ɑɑ/ and /ɑwɑ/ is perfectly distinct.

  • -zaa "to give birth to; sire" → -zaliwa "to be born" (dialectically also -zawa)
  • -vaa "to put on (clothing)" → -valiwa "to be put on"
  • -kaa "to sit; stay; reside" → -kaliwa "to be inhabited; be occupied; be settled; be sat upon; be stayed in"

The short verbs have passive forms that must be learnt separately. In each case, the passive form is one syllable longer and falls into the category of common verbs and thus does not receive the extension -ku- anywhere in its conjugation.

  • -la "to eat" → -liwa "to be eaten"
  • -nywa "to drink" → -nywewa "to be drunk"
  • -pa "to give to" → -pewa "to be given; to receive"
  • -nya "to shit; drop (rain)" → -nyewa "to be shat; be dropped"
  • -cha "to fear; revere" → -chiwa "to be feared; revered"

Most loan-verbs simply add -wa.

  • -hitaji "to need" → -hitajiwa "to be needed"
  • -kodi "to rent; hire" → -kodiwa "to be rented; be hired"
  • -samehe "to forgive" → -samehewa "to be forgiven"
  • -dai "to claim" → -daiwa "to be claimed"

If a loan-verb ends with a consonant followed by -u, this u becomes an i

  • -laumu "to blame" → -laumiwa "to be blamed"
  • -jaribu "to try" → -jaribiwa "to be tried"

Loan-verbs which end in -au add -liwa

  • -sahau "to forget" → -sahauliwa "to be forgotten"

Verbs ending in -uu lose one u and replace it with -liwa.

  • -nukuu "to copy; transcribe; transliterate" → -nuku-liwa "to be copied; be transcribed; be transliterated"

The agent in a sentence with a passive verb does not need to be included in the sentence. The passive verb, however, does explicitly allude to the existence of an agent, in contrast to the mediopassive below. When the agent is included in the sentence, it is introduced by the preposition na, which is here the equivalent of the English "by", although in other contexts it is more usually equivalent to "and" or "with".

Mediopassive[edit]

The mediopassive suffix is added to a transitive verb in order to promote its object to the role of subject without the implication of an agent. The form of the suffix involves ends in -ka and generally the harmonic i or e before it, although this may be dropped in verbs with a vowel final root; alternatively, the lost l of final vowel combinations may reappear and act as a buffer for the harmonic i or e.

Mediopassive suffix on common verbs
Consonant-final

root

(Consonant + -a)

Vowel-final

root

(Vowel + -a)

Preceding syllable

has /a/, /i/, /u/ or /m̩/

-ika -ka, -lika
Preceding syllable

has /e/ or /o/

-eka -ka, -leka
  • -vunja "to break (something)" → -vunjika "to break" (intransitive)
  • -pika "to cook (something)" → -pikika "to cook" (intransitive)
  • -elewa "to understand (something)" → -eleweka "to be understood"
  • -sikia "to hear" → -sikika "to be heard; be audible"
  • -kaa "to sit; stay; inhabit" → -kalika "to be inhabited; be inhabitable"
  • -zoea "to get used to; grow accustomed to" → -zoelika "to become customary"

As with the other derivational suffixes (or "extensions"), loan verbs generally lose their final vowel before adding -ika or -eka according to vowel harmony rules. The exceptions are those ending in -au which use -lika'.

  • -haribu "to spoil (something); ruin; destroy" → -haribika "to spoil; get spoiled; get ruined; get destroyed"
  • -sahau "to forget" → -sahaulika "to cook" (intransitive)
  • -kebehi "to ridicule; make fun of" → -kebehika "to get ridiculed; get made fun of"

In learner materials, the mediopassive suffix generally erroneously described as the "stative extension" despite the fact that the resulting verbs do not generally fulfil the requirements stative: namely that they describe unchanging states.[13] For example, the mediopassive verb -vunjika "to break; go to pieces" contrasts with its source verb -vunja "to break; make go to pieces", not in the quality of being either stative or dynamic — both are dynamic, describing a process that changes over time — but in that the subject of -vunjika is equivalent to the object of -vunja, and the subject of -vunja is completely absent from a clause with -vunjika. In this respect, mediopassive verbs are the same as passive verbs, however they are distinguished by their incompatibility with any mention of an agent. Compare the following three examples.

Active transitive verb (dynamic):
Juma alivunja dirisha.
Juma a-li-vunj(a) dirisha
[male name] CL1-PST-break(TR) (CL5)window
"Juma" "s/he broke" "window"
"Juma broke the window."
Passive transitive verb (dynamic):
Dirisha lilivunjwa (na Juma).
dirisha li-li-vunj(a)-w(a) (na Juma)
(CL5)window CL5-PST-break(TR)-PASS (COM [male name])
"window" "it was broken" ("by Juma")
"The window was broken (by Juma)."
Mediopassive verb (dynamic):
Dirisha lilivunjika.
dirisha li-li-vunj(a)-ik(a)
(CL5)window CL5-PST-break(TR)-MEDIOPASS
"window" "it broke"
"The window broke."

Mediopassive verbs often have the appearance of being stative when used in the perfect. However, this is a function of the perfect, which focuses on the present relevance of a past action, rather than a function of the mediopassive itself. For example, the sentence "Dirisha limevunjika," means either "The window has broken," or "The window is broken." What is being said is that the window broke in the past, but that the effects of this action are still relevant in the present. The verb itself, -vunjika, does not describe the state of being broken, but rather the dynamic process of changing from "whole; in tact" to "broken; in pieces". The perfect -me- here indicates that we are concerned with the state after the dynamic process.

Reversive[edit]

Suffix stacking[edit]

Suffixes can be stacked upon each other to make quite long verb stems with specific meanings. The passive suffix must always be last in Swahili.

  • -andika "to write" → -andikwa "to be written"
  • -andika "to write" → -andikisha "to cause to write" → -andikishwa "to be caused to write"
  • -andika "to write" → -andikia "to write to" → -andikiwa "to be written to"
  • -andika "to write" → -andikia "to write to" → -andikiana "to write to each other" → -andikianisha "to cause to write to each other" → -andikianishwa "to be caused to write to each other"

Here is another rather more implausible example:

  • -la "to eat"
-lika "to be edible"
-likia "to be edible to"
-likiana "to be edible to each other"
-likianisha "to cause to be edible to each other"
-likianishwa "to be caused to be edible to each other"

Prepositions[edit]

Comitative na[edit]

Genitive -a[edit]

The genitive preposition -a (sometimes termed a "connector", "possessive" or "associative" preposition) has a similar role to that of the genitive case of some other languages. It indicates the possessor, or a more general association, and roughly corresponds in meaning to the English preposition "of". It receives a prefix that agrees with the preceding noun's class. For example:

  • kitabu cha mwanafunzi "the student's book" ("book of student")
  • vitabu vya mwanafunzi "the student's books" ("books of student")

The equivalent of English compound nouns are often formed with genitive constructions, such as taa ya barabarani "traffic light", "street light", which is literally equivalent to "light of road-LOC".

The personal pronouns each have their own genitive stem, for example:

  • kitabu chake "his/her book"

The genitive preposition is formed from the subject concord of verbs (which you can see here), plus -a. There are some sound changes that happen. U- and i- become their equivalent semivowels w- and y- respectively. After consonants, this y is generally dropped although ki- and vi- become ch- and vy-. The class 1 verbal concord a- is an exception, being replaced with w- in the genitive construction.

Class Verbal subject concord Genitive preposition Rule
1 a- / yu- wa exception
2 wa- wa wa+a → a deleted
3 u- wa u+a → u becomes w
4 i- ya i+a → i becomes y
5 li- la li+a → i deleted
6 ya- ya ya+a → a deleted
7 ki- cha ki+a → ki becomes ch
8 vi- vya vi+a → i becomes y
9 i- ya i+a → i becomes y
10 zi- za zi+a → i deleted
11 u- wa u+a → u becomes w
14 u- wa u+a → u becomes w
15 ku- kwa ku+a → u becomes w
16 pa- pa pa+a → a deleted
17 ku- kwa ku+a → u becomes w
18 mu- mwa mu+a → u becomes w

kwa[edit]

The word kwa is a very frequently encountered preposition in Swahili. It may be regarded as either the class 15 or class 17 variant of -a. Where there is no 15 or class 17 antecedent, its function is adverbial, relating to the action expressed by the sentence rather than to a particular noun within it. It may be equivalent to a wide variety of prepositions in English, but it possibly frequently equivalent to an instrumental use of "by (means of)", "using" or "with". In standard Swahili, it may indicate a location associated with an animate referent, but is replaced by kwenye for inanimate referents.

  • Tulikuja kwa miguu. "We came on foot." (Literally: "We came by feet.")
  • Alirudi kwa Rehema. "She returned to Rehema's (place)."

Ornative -enye[edit]

The ornative preposition -enye essentially means "having" or "with" and takes the same prefixes as the genitive -a with the exception of class 1, where it receives the prefix mw- instead of w-. The word -enye is followed by a noun.

Class noun ornative noun translation literal translation
1 mwanaume mwenye nguvu a strong man man having strength
2 wanaume wenye nguvu strong men men having strength
3 mto wenye mamba a crocodile-infested river river having crocodiles
4 mito yenye mamba crocodile-infested rivers rivers having crocodiles
5 gari lenye magurudumu matatu a three-wheeled car car having three wheels
6 magari yenye magurudumu matatu three-wheeled cars cars having three wheels
7 kisiwa chenye wakazi an inhabited island an island having inhabitants
8 visiwa vyenye wakazi inhabited islands islands having inhabitants
9 nyumba yenye chumba kimoja a one-room house house having one room
10 nyumba zenye chumba kimoja one-room houses houses having one room
11 uso wenye tabasamu a smiling face face having smile
14 upendo wenye kina deep love love having depth
15 kwenye
16 mahali penye giza (in/to/from) a dark place place having darkness
17 kwenye
15 mwenye

kwenye[edit]

katika[edit]

compound prepositions[edit]

Syntax[edit]

Word order in clauses[edit]

Clause types[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Fidèle,, Mpiranya, (2015). Swahili grammar and workbook. London: Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 9781315750699. OCLC 878224907.
  2. ^ Fidèle,, Mpiranya, (2015). Swahili grammar and workbook. London: Routledge. p. 26. ISBN 9781315750699. OCLC 878224907.
  3. ^ a b J., Hinnebusch, Thomas (1998). Kiswahili, msingi wa kusema kusoma na kuandika = Swahili, a foundation for speaking, reading, and writing. Mirza, Sarah M. (2nd ed.). Lanham, Md.: University Press of America. p. 230. ISBN 0761809724. OCLC 37836788.
  4. ^ a b Beat, Wandeler,. Lehrbuch des Swahili für Anfänger. Leiser, Jan, Helmut Buske Verlag GmbH (3., unveränderte Auflage ed.). Hamburg. p. 124. ISBN 9783875487497. OCLC 926151457.
  5. ^ Mdari, Angelina; Ngala, Gladwell (2008). Peak Revision KCPE Kiswahili. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Educational Publishers Ltd. p. 81. ISBN 9966-25-449-8.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Gromova, Nelly (2008). "MASWALI MACHACHE YA USANIFISHAJI WA KISWAHILI (JINGINE AU LINGINE?)" (PDF). Swahili Forum. 15: 115–120.
  7. ^ Fidèle,, Mpiranya, (2015). Swahili grammar and workbook. London: Routledge. p. 37. ISBN 9781315750699. OCLC 878224907.
  8. ^ D. V., Perrott (1971). Swahili: A complete working course. London, United Kingdom: Teach Yourself Books. p. 71. ISBN 0340058234.
  9. ^ Rieger, Dorothee. "SWAHILI AS A TENSE PROMINENT LANGUAGE. PROPOSAL FOR A SYSTEMATIC GRAMMAR OF TENSE, ASPECT AND MOOD IN SWAHILI" (PDF). Swahili Forum. 18 (2011): 114–134.
  10. ^ Mpiranya, Fidèle (2015). Swahili grammar and workbook. London: Routledge. p. 44. ISBN 9781315750699. OCLC 878224907.
  11. ^ Comrie, Bernard (2009). The World's major languages. Comrie, Bernard, 1947- (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 895. ISBN 9780203301524. OCLC 282550660.
  12. ^ Comrie, Bernard (2009). The World's major languages. Comrie, Bernard, 1947- (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 894. ISBN 9780203301524. OCLC 282550660.
  13. ^ Seidl, Amanda; Dimitriadis, Alexis (2003). "Statives and reciprocal morphology in Swahili" (PDF). Typologie des langues d’Afrique et universaux de la grammaire. 1: Approches transversales, domaine bantou: 239–284.

External links[edit]

  • Summary of Swahili grammar at [1]
  • English-Swahili Swahili-English dictionary with a database of translation examples at [2]