Swahili: Unit 3 – Verb Conjugation in All Basic Tenses and Basic Questions

UNIT OBJECTIVES

By the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  • Identify components of conjugated verbs in all basic tenses (present, simple past, past perfect, future)
  • Ask and answer basic questions in all tenses (who, what, where)
  • Master the following vocabulary: Swahili Unit 3 Vocabulary

NEW CONTENT

Here’s the lecture audio, if you’d like to listen along:

VERB CONJUGATION: ALL BASIC TENSES

In the last unit, we introduced the rules of Swahili verb conjugation, focusing on the concept of verb “construction” using the S-T-V-E blocks: Subject prefix, Tense marker, Verb Root, and verb End. You learned to identify and conjugate verbs in their infinitive form and in the present tense.

Now let’s learn to conjugate verbs in all basic tenses. The great news is that the S-T-V-E rules of constructing verbs are hard and fast: to conjugate a verb in any tense, all we need to do is plug in the appropriate tense marker in the right place. And the right place is always directly after the subject prefix.

So, the only difference between a verb conjugated in the present tense and in the past tense is the particular tense marker used:

Ninaenda: I am going

Becomes

Nilienda: I went

Let’s break each of these down:

Ninaenda: Ni-na-end-a

  • Ni: Subject prefix (1st person singular)
  • -na-: Tense marker (present tense)
  • -end-: Verb root
  • -a: Basic verb end

Nilienda: Ni-li-end-a

  • Ni: Subject prefix (1st person singular)
  • -li-: Tense marker (past tense)
  • -end-: Verb root
  • -a: Basic verb end

To change the tense of a verb, all we ever need to change is the tense marker! All the other components of the verb structure remain the same.

Let’s look at the rest of the tenses:

Tense

Tense Marker

Simple Past -li-
Past Participle -me-
Future -ta-
Conditional/Continuing -ki-
Conditional (would) -nge-

All we need to do to learn to conjugate in different tenses is memorize these different tense markers!

Kuenda: To go

Ninaenda: I am going

Nilienda: I went

Nimeenda: I have gone

Nitaenda: I will go

Nikienda: If I go

Ningeenda: I would go

You will need to master the simple past, past perfect, and future tenses. We have introduced the conditional tenses so that you can be familiar with the markers, but you are not yet expected to master them at this point.

Let’s combine our knowledge of tense markers and subject prefixes to create all the basic conjugations of verb “-elewa” (understand) with human subjects. These are the:

Infinitive

Ku-elew-a: Kuelewa (to understand)

Present Tense

Ni-na-elew-a: Ninaelewa (I understand)

U-na-elew-a: Unaelewa (You understand)

A-na-elew-a: Anaelewa (He/she understands)

Tu-na-elew-a: Tunaelewa (We understand)

M-na-elew-a: Mnaelewa (You all understand)

Wa-na-elew-a: Wanaelewa (They understand)

Simple Past Tense

Ni-li-elew-a: Nilielewa (I understood)

U-li-elew-a: Ulielewa (You understood)

A-li-elew-a: Alielewa (He/she understood)

Tu-li-elew-a: Tulielewa (We understood)

M-li-elew-a: Mlielewa (You all understood)

Wa-li-elew-a: Walielewa (They understood)

Past Perfect Tense

Ni-me-elew-a: Nimeelewa (I have understood)

U-me-elew-a: Umeelewa (You have understood)

A-me-elew-a: Ameelewa (He/she has understood)

Tu-me-elew-a: Tumeelewa (We have understood)

M-me-elew-a: Mmeelewa (You all have understood)

Wa-me-elew-a: Wameelewa (They have understood)

Future Tense

Ni-ta-elew-a: Nitaelewa (I will understand)

U-ta-elew-a: Utaelewa (You will understand)

A-ta-elew-a: Ataelewa (He/she will understand)

Tu-ta-elew-a: Tutaelewa (We will understand)

M-ta-elew-a: Mtaelewa (You all will understand)

Wa-ta-elew-a: Wataelewa (They will understand)

Let’s practice with some new verbs:

Kujifunza: To learn

Kutoka: To come from

Kunununa: To buy

How would you say the following? Check your answers against the audio:

I learned:

We will learn:

You all have learned:

I am coming from:

She came from:

They have come from:

You are buying:

They bought:

We will buy:

MONOSYLLABIC VERBS 

There is one very important set of verbs that operate in a slightly irregular way. These are “monosyllabic verbs”–those verbs whose verb roots are just a single consonant sound (no vowels). Here are five monosyllabic verbs that you will use frequently, presented below in infinitive form:

Kuja: To come

Kula: To eat

Kunywa: To drink

Kufa: To die

Kupa: To give

When conjugating monosyllabic verbs in the basic affirmative tenses (-na-, -li-, -me-, -ta-), the infinitive “ku” remains affixed to the verb root. Some examples:

Present Tense

Ni-na-(ku)j-a –> Ninakuja (I am coming)

U-na-(ku)l-a –> Unakula (You are eating)

How would you say, “They are drinking?”

Simple Past Tense

A-li-(ku)f-a –> Alikufa (He died)

M-li-(ku)w-a –> Mlikuwa (You all were)

How would you say, “I ate?”

Past Perfect

Tu-me-(ku)nyw-a –> Tumekunywa (We have drunk)

U-me-(ku)p-a –> Umekupa (You have given)

How would you say, “They have died?”

Future Tense

Ni-ta-(ku)l-a –> Nitakula (I will eat)

M-ta-ka-(ku)j-a–> Mtakuja (You all will come)

How would you say, “You all will be?”

KUWA: TO BE

The most frequently used monosyllabic verb is kuwa: “to be.” The conjugation of “kuwa” in the present tense is irregular. In the present tense, the conjugation of “kuwa” for all subjects is simply “Ni.”  I am, you are, he is, she is, it is, etc. All are just “ni.” So, to say “I am a teacher,” you would say, “mimi ni mwalimu.” “You are a teacher would be,” “wewe ni mwalimu.” Very easy. The verb follows the normal conjugation format, though, as other monosyllabic verbs for all other affirmative tenses:

U-li-(ku)w-a –> Ulikuwa : You were

A-ta-(ku)w-a –> Atakuwa: He will be

Wa-me-(ku)w-a –> Wamekuwa: They have been

KUWA NA: TO HAVE

To say “to have,” we combine “kuwa” (to be) and “na,” the conjunction meaning “with”, “and”, or “by”. The conjugation for the constructed verb is irregular.

In the present tense, we simply combine the subject prefix with “na” in a single word:

Mimi nina: I have

Wewe una: You have

Yeye ana: He/she has

Sisi tuna: We have

Ninyi mna: You all have

Wao wana: They have

When conjugating “kuwa na”in the all other tenses, we return to the normal rules of conjugation, and the “na” is separated from the conjugated verb:

Mimi nilikuwa na: I had

Yeye atakuwa na: He/she will have

Ninyi mmekuwa na: You all have had

ANSWERING BASIC QUESTIONS (WITH SENTENCES!)

One of the cool things about Swahili-a virtue of the STROVE system of verb conjugation-is that you can have fully functional sentences with 1 or 2 words.

Let’s look at some simple sentences, in the form of Q&As that you will engage in often in Tanzania.

First, here are the basic interrogatives (question words) to know:

Question Word

Meaning

Nani? Who?
Nini? What?
Lini? When?
Wapi? Where?
Kwa nini? Why?
Gani? Which?
Ngapi? How many?
-je? (attached to end of verb) How?

Questions are indicated by intonation, or by the inclusion of “je” at the start of a sentence (not to be confused with the “-je” that gets affixed to the end of verbs to ask, “how is this verb done.”) When asking a question in Swahili, the question word generally comes at the end of the phrase.  So a basic Swahili question sentence is: “Je, unaenda wapi?” Where are you going?

Practice listening to and answering the questions below. Note that in the examples below, questions are implied through intonation and the use of interrogatives. Use the vocabulary you already know to get creative! Once you’ve answered the question, listen to the sample answers and check your own verb conjugation against the sample.

Q: Unaitwa nani?  // Who are you called (what is your name?)

A:

Q: Unatoka wapi? // Where are you coming from?

A:

Q: Mlifanya nini jana? // What did you all do yesterday?

A:

Q: Mama atanunua nini? // What will Mama buy?

A:

Q: Wamepika nini? // What have they cooked?

A:

CONCLUDING ADVICE

Now that you can ask questions of and answered for any human subject, practice having mini-conversations with yourself–in the mirror, in the shower, as you walk down the street, on the bus, in the park. The more you practice these conjugations, the more fluid it becomes! Plus, the more you’re stared at by strangers, the more prepared you are for your celebrity life in Tanzania!

PRACTICE ACTIVITES

Activity 1: 

Swahili Unit 3 Worksheet

Swahili Unit 3 Worksheet Answers

Activity 2:  Call a fellow PC. Greet them, then have a conversation including at least five of the following question words (wapi, lini, nini, gani, kwa nini, nani, ngapi?)

Activity 3: Listen and translate the following passages into English.

Passage #1: John

Passage #2: Neema

Passage #3: David

Passage #4: Grandfather

Passage #5: Alfred

12 comments

  1. Pierre Gaudissart · · Reply

    very well designed section. Progression just right!

  2. David · · Reply

    This is AWESOME!

    1. Thanks, David! We’re glad you’re enjoying it!

  3. thank you very cause am very learned good and get understo
    od

  4. Under monosyllabic verbs, future tense, the example is:
    M-ta-ka-(ku)j-a–> Mtakuja (You all will come)

    Why is ‘ka-‘ there? Should it be:
    M-ta-(ku)j-a–> Mtakuja (You all will come)

  5. The tense name ‘past participle’ is used in the table at the beginning of this unit but it changes to ‘past perfect’ in the list below the table. I think it is sometimes called ‘perfect’ in later course units.

    In English at least, the ‘perfect’ (or present perfect) would be the right term for “I HAVE been” and the ‘past perfect’ (or pluperfect) would be the term for “I HAD been”.
    The ‘past participle’ would be “BEEN”. But maybe that doesn’t apply in Swahili?

    The correct term ‘present perfect’ is confusing because we are talking about something that has happened in the past but is relevant to the present and may happen again in the future. (For example, “I have made three comments so far on this excellent course.”)

    So is it possible for you to change the term to ‘perfect’ throughout the course texts when presenting the tense marker “-me-“? (The audio files wouldn’t matter as much.)

  6. Jospin Smith · · Reply

    Okay thanks the best teacher.am very understood but there are many things i wanna know? how do they conjugate some verbs in past perfect(continious),future(continious,perfect)?

    1. Hi Tony. Unfortunately we currently don’t have a system to give online assistance but past conjugations can be found throughout the curriculum. Hope this is helpful.

  7. This is really super. Thank you so much for making this blog. It is just what I was looking for. You understand well what people need to cover to learn. Asante sana.

    1. Thank you so much, we are very happy to know it’s helpful to you 🙂

  8. Good Afternoon.
    Great course am enjoying a lot. Small remark 🙂 if allowed:
    I just did Swahili Unit 3 worksheet. in part 6 (translations)
    Question k. You have asked for salt.
    in the answers sheets is sais:She is asking for salt: Anaomba sabuni

  9. Don Schwidde · · Reply

    Good Afternoon. Your course is a God-send. I forgot how to download your Lecture Audio under New Content to a MP3 file to my jump drive. It helps to listen to it later.

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