By the end of this unit, you should be able to:
- Distinguish and form singular and plural forms of nouns in 12 noun classes
- Master the following vocabulary: Swahili Unit 4 Vocabulary
Here’s the lecture audio, if you’d like to listen along:
In this summer curriculum, we’re going to emphasize two pillars of Swahili grammar. The first is STROVE—the system of verb conjugation—which you no doubt have already mastered. The second are noun classes, which you will master now.
Every Swahili noun belongs to a “class”, which determines how that noun modifies verbs, adjectives, and other grammatical entities. There are 16 classes of Swahili nouns, each distinguished by the prefix that is attached to the “stems” of every noun in that class—every noun in a given class takes the same prefix. Nearly all of these classes can be broken into singular/plural pairs: nouns in class 2 are the plural of those in class 1, nouns in class 4 plural of those in 3, etc.
About half of the Swahili noun classes are meaningful semantic groups—the nouns within those classes all have a lot in common (e.g. living things, kinds of plants, etc). The other half of the noun classes are not meaningful semantic groups—the nouns within these classes don’t have a whole lot in common.
“Agreement” among nouns, verbs, and adjectives is the key to the Swahili language, and noun classes themselves determine that agreement.
The only secret to learning these noun classes is doing the hard work of memorization. It will take time, but you will get them. And once you do, the Swahili language will make a whole lot more sense.
We’ll be building a chart to keep track of all the many ways noun classes shape the language around them. We’ll start simply by noting the different classes, and the noun class prefixes that distinguish them. There are technically 18 classes of Swahili nouns, but only 16 are actually used. For our purposes now, we’ll introduce 15 of those 16 noun classes, but really only use 12.
Noun Class Prefix
|1||m- / mw-||Mtu (person)||Living things (s)|
|2||wa-||Watu (people)||Living things (p)|
|3||m- / mw-||Mti (tree)||Trees and other (s)|
|4||mi-||Miti (trees)||Trees and other (p)|
|5||– (no prefix) / ji-||Tunda (fruit)||Fruits and groups (s)|
|6||ma-||Matunda (fruits)||Fruits and groups (p)|
|7||ki / ch||Kitu (thing)||Things (s)|
|8||vi- / vy-||Vitu (things)||Things (p)|
|9||– (no prefix)||Nyumba (house)||No category (s)|
|10||– (no prefix)||Nyumba (houses)||No category (p)|
|11||u-*||Ukuta (wall)||No category (s)|
|14||u-||Upendo (love)||Big concepts|
|16||[pa-]**||[mahali] (place)||Specific place|
|17||[ku-]**||[mahali] (place)||General place|
|18||[m-]**||[mahali] (place)||Internal place|
*Plurals of nouns in class 11 are considered to be in class 10. Example: the plural of ukuta (wall) is kuta (walls)
**Noun classes 16,17,18 are unique, in that they don’t actually have distinct nouns within them. The general noun associated with these classes is “mahali,” a word of Arabic-origin that means “place.” The function of these noun classes only appears through the modification of other parts of speech when talking about “place.” This may be confusing now, so don’t worry too much about these classes. We’ll come back to them later.
When you look up a noun in Swahili dictionaries, you’ll often see the singular noun as the primary entry, with the plural prefix in parentheses after the word. So, say you want to look up the word for “person.” You find the entry to be:
Person: mtu (wa)
Since you will have memorized all the noun classes, you’ll immediately know from the prefixes that mtu belongs to noun class 1, so its plural must be watu, belonging to noun class 2 (distinguished by the prefix “wa”).
Another example would be:
Fruit: tunda (ma)
Again, seeing the plural prefix should clue you immediately to what noun class tunda belongs to: if the plural form takes the prefix ma- then the plural must be in noun class 6. That means the singular (tunda) must be noun class 5.
Some examples of nouns in each noun class:
NOUN CLASSES 1/2
- Mtu / watu: Person / People
- Mwalimu/ walimu: Teacher(s)
- Mwanafunzi / wanafunzi: Student(s)
- Mzee / wazee: Elder(s)
- Mtoto / watoto: Child / Children
Now let’s practice. Fill in the blanks below, then listen to the audio to see if you were right:
Singular: Mkulima (Farmer)
Singular: Mwanaume (Man)
Singular: Mwanamke (Woman)
*Note: this one is a little tricky, because the noun “mwanamke” is actually a composite word, made up of two nouns, each in class 1: mwana, which means “offspring” and mke, which means “wife.” To form the plural, you need to adjust the plural in each of these two component nouns. It’s a cool and curious example of the beautiful structure of the Swahili language.
Plural: Wavulana: Boy(s)
Plural: Wasichana: Girl(s)
NOUN CLASSES 3/4
- Mti / miti: Tree(s)
- Mkate / Mikate: Bread(s)
- Mkopo / mikopo: Loan(s)
Singular: Mtihani (Exam)
Singular: Mwembe (Mango tree)
Plural: Michungwa (Orange trees)
NOUN CLASSES 5/6
Note: Nearly all nouns in class five take no prefix. There are, however, a handful of “irregular” nouns that take the prefix “ji” in the singular, which changes to “ma” in the plural.
- Jiko / majiko: Stove(s). Careful–this looks like it could be an irregular noun, but it isn’t!
- Shamba / mashamba: Farm plot(s)
- Zao / mazao: Crop(s)
- Vuno / mavuno: Harvest(s)
- Jicho / macho: Eye(s)
- Yai / mayai: Egg(s)
Singular: Tunda (Fruit)
Singular: Rafiki (Friend)
*Note: the plural form of rafiki, with a noun class 6 prefix attached to it, refers to a large group of friends. You will also hear people treat rafiki as a class 9/10 noun, if they are referring to a single friend or a smaller, definite number of friends (also rafiki)
Plural: Maembe: Mangos
Plural: Machungwa (Oranges)
NOUN CLASSES 7/8
- Kitu / vitu: Thing(s) or Object(s)
- Kiti / viti: Chair(s)
- Kitabu / vitabu: Book(s)
- Chakula / vyakula: Food(s)
Singular: Kikombe (Cup)
Singular: Choo (Toilet)
*Note: Swahili developed as a spoken, not written language, so written forms of words were created as approximations of the way words sounded. Once upon an imaginary time, the pronunciation of choo may have been kioo (“kee-o-oh”), but that’s awkward so the syllables got slurred together, producing the first syllable “cho-oh.” There are several nouns in class 7 for which this same rule applies, so they have a “ch” prefix rather than a “ki” prefix. The same happens in the plural–you’ll see “vy” prefixes rather than “vi.” Be not afraid of them.
Plural: Vitalu (Nurseries)
NOUN CLASSES 9/10
- Sukari (-): Sugar
- Kazi (-): Work
- Mbegu (-): Seed(s)
- Mvua (-): Rain
Note: Mbegu and mvua are a little tricky, as they both appear to begin with an “m” prefix, indicating they could be noun class 1 or 3. Don’t be fooled! This is a good reminder that with noun classes will require a good amount of memorization and practice to master.
Singular: Sabuni (Soap)
Singular: Bustani (Garden)
*Pro tip from alumna Project Coordinator Patricia Cashen (Kijungumoto ’12-13), “When Tanzanians don’t know the class of a particular noun, they’ll often use it as a 9/10 noun. This is not something you should do, but this is something you will hear. Dedication to using noun classes correctly can earn you more respect from community members.”
NOUN CLASS 11/10
- Ukuta / kuta: Wall(s)
- Uso / nyuso: Face(s)
- Upepo / pepo: Wind(s) / Breeze(s)
*Note: This is by far the least common of all the noun classes.
Singular: Ufunguo (Keys)
Singular: Unyayo (Footprint)
NOUN CLASS 14
- Ushirikiano (-): Unity or Participation
- Umoja (-): Oneness
- Upendo: Love
- Ufahamu: Understanding
- Ujamaa: Familyhood
- Uhuru: Freedom
- Urembo: Beauty
There’s only one Love!
BONUS SECTION FOR GRAMMAR NERDS
Noun “stems” are a lot like verb roots—in fact, some noun stems grow directly out of certain verb roots. Like verb roots, noun stems have a fixed general meaning, but that meaning can by modified by different prefixes to them.
For example, the word for person is mtu: “m” is the prefix for noun class 1, and indicates an animate thing. “-tu” is the noun stem, meaning something like “personhood.”
Kitu is the word for “things”—objects that belong to people. “Ki” is the noun class prefix for class 7, and it indicates material objects. “-tu” is the same verb stem from mtu, still meaning something like “personhood”. Put “ki” and “-tu” together, and you have a new noun meaning “material objects related to people.”
Utu is the word for the concept of personhood. “U” is the prefix for noun class 14, which contains philosophical concepts. “-tu” is that same old stem, still meaning something like personhood. So, “Utu” means the philosophical concept of personhood.
Three different words, all formed by attaching different noun class prefixes to the same stem. Awesome, right?
Mastering Swahili noun classes is essential to learning the language, and the only way to do it is to study, study, study, practice, practice, practice. As you steadily increase your vocabulary, be extra-conscious of noun classes. As you’ll see, the class of a noun shapes the behavior of everything grammatically connected to it.
Activity 1: Dialogue + Comprehension Questions
1) How would you characterize the greetings?
2) Watakula chakula gani leo jioni?
3) Jemsi ataleta nini?
4) Nani atasonga ugali?
5) Jemsi is concerned that Hashimu might need which items?
Activity 2: Changing between singular and plural.
The audio file contains 7 sentences. Listen to the sentence, then say the sentence aloud, but change the object to the corresponding singular or plural. You will be given about 5 seconds to answer before hearing the correct answer.
The audio file contains 5 sentences. Listen to the sentence, then say the sentence aloud, but change the subject and verb to the corresponding singular or plural. You will be given about 5 seconds to answer before hearing the correct answer.