Swahili: Unit 7 – Counting and Swahili Time


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

  • Count to a billion in Swahili
  • Describe numbers of objects for nouns of all classes
  • Tell Swahili Time
  • Master the following vocabulary: Swahili Unit 7 Vocabulary


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


Basic Numbers

1: Moja 40: Arobaini
2: Mbili 50: Hamsini
3: Tatu 60: Sitini
4: Nne 70: Sabini
5: Tano 80: Themanini
6: Sita 90: Tisini
7: Saba 100: Mia (mia moja)
8: Nane 1000: Elfu (elfu moja)
9: Tisa 100,000: Laki
10: Kumi 1,000,000: Milioni
20: Ishirini 1,000,000,000: Bilioni
30: Thelathini

Composite Numbers

When forming composite numbers, pronounce every place (e.g., ones, tens, hundreds, etc.) distinctly, with a “na” (and) before the ones place (or the last place ‘in use’). The number 49, then, is said as, “forty and nine.” Here are some examples — 21: ishirini na moja // 32: thelathini na mbili // 43: arobaini na tatu // 54: hamsini na nne // 65: sitini na tano // 76: sabini na sita // 87: themanini na saba // 98: tisini na nane. 

Multiple hundreds are pronounced “hundred two” or “hundred three,” etc. For example, 200: mia mbili // 300: mia tatu // 400: mia nne // 800: mia nane. 

The same rule applies for multiple thousands, hundred thousands, millions, etc. For example, 5000: elfu tano // 12,000: elfu kumi na mbili // 60,000: elfu sitini // 400,000: laki nne // 7,000,000: milioni saba. 

More complex numbers combine all these rules. For example, 249: mia mbili arobaini na tisa // 928: mia tisa ishirini na nane // 1,364: elfu moja mia tatu sitini na nne // 8,723: elfu nane mia saba ishirini na tatu // 19,284: elfu kumi na tisa mia mbili themanini na nne // 53,981: elfu hamsini na tatu, mia tisa themanini na moja // 125,728: laki moja elfu ishirini na tano mia saba ishirini na nane // 500,200: laki tano (na*) mia mbili.

*As in English, you’ll often hear people add the “na” before the final consequential place: “Laki tano na mia mbili” rather than “laki tano mia mbili.” Both are correct, just as “five hundred thousand two hundred” and “five hundred thousand and two hundred” are both correct.

Let’s practice. How would you say the following numbers? Check your answers against the audio.





















Fun as it is to just count, numbers will be most useful to you when they function as adjectives to indicate the number of objects being described:”5 mangos,” “1000 shillings,” “8 spoons,” etc. There are two important rules to remember when using numbers to answer the question -ngapi? (how many?):

1) The number (or any other adjective) always comes after the object being described. So, 1000 shillings is, “shilingi elfu moja.”  Two seeds (yay!) is “mbegu mbili.”

2) Certain numbers, when used as adjectives, must be modified with the adjectival prefix for the class of the noun being described. The numbers that take adjectival prefixes are: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8. Don’t ask me why this is. This is a good time to introduce the basic adjectival prefixes for all noun classes (much more to come on adjectives later):

Noun Class Sample Noun Basic Adjectival Prefix
1 mtu m-
2 watu wa-
3 mti m-
4 miti mi-
5 tunda (-)
6 matunda ma-
7 kitu ki-
8 vitu vi-
9 nyumba (-)
10 nyumba (-)
11 ukuta m-
14 upendo m-

So, when using the numbers 1,2,3,4,5, and 8 as adjectives, you must affix the appropriate adjectival prefix to them, as in the following examples: Mtu mmoja : One person // Kitabu kimoja: One book

When affixing an adjectival prefix to “mbili”, the stem changes to “wili,” so we get: Matunda mawili : Two fruits // Mikate miwili : Two breads

None of the other number stems change when used as adjectives. So: Nyumba tatu : Three houses (remember, noun class 10 has no adjectival prefix!) // Wanafunzi watatu : Three students // Viti vinne : Four chairs // Miti minne : Four trees // Mashamba matano : Five farms // Wazee watano : Five elders // Mazao manane: Eight crops // Vitu vinane: Eight things

When using any of the other numbers as adjectives, you do not have to add a prefix: Viti sita: Six chairs // Watu tisa: Nine people // Majiko ishirini: Twenty stoves // Walimu mia moja: One hundred teachers

Note: You will sometimes hear Swahili purists use the adjectival prefixes within complex numbers. So, rather than saying “watu kumi na mbili” (12 people) they will say “watu kumi na wawili.”


Cultural Note on Relative Importance of Time

One of the most common distinctions people (both Tanzanian and foreigners) make about the difference between Tanzanian culture and our own regards punctuality. Simply put, we tend to place a high value on it, and Tanzanians do not. Meetings in Tanzania just never seem to start on time. There is a real cultural difference here, but it’s also one that can be slightly overblown. After all, it’s harder to be punctual when you don’t own any time-keeping device, as is the case for many of our friends and Partners. But the debate does offer an important window into the way the modes of economic production shape culture. In a subsistence economy, time is not money. In a true capitalist economy, it is. The economy of rural Tanzania exists somewhere in between these two zones, a fact reflected in attitudes towards time: people recognize the importance of time, but as the legacy of subsistence culture remains strong, most Tanzanians still do not value it as much as we tend to.

The Swahili Clock

To top this all off, the Swahili method of telling time lends itself well to jokes about lack of punctuality—the Swahili clock actually runs six hours behind our own.  We divide our days into two 12-hour cycles of “a.m.” and “p.m.” according to the 12 o’clocks (midnight and noon). The Tanzanian clock is based instead on 12-hour cycles according to the hours of sunrise and sunset, which happen at 7:00am and 7:00pm every day. So 7:00am (Sunrise) marks hour one of the daytime on the Swahili clock: saa moja (“saa” means hour). 7:00pm (Sunset) is hour one of the nighttime: saa moja again.

The clock proceeds accordingly:
7:00am/pm = saa moja
8:00am/pm = saa mbili
9:00am/pm = saa tatu
10:00am/pm = saa nne
11:00am/pm = saa tano
12:00am/pm = saa sita
1:00am/pm = saa saba
2:00am/pm = saa nane
3:00am/pm = saa tisa
4:00am/pm = saa kumi
5:00am/pm = saa kumi na moja
6:00am/pm = saa kumi na mbili

Rather than distinguishing times by a.m. and p.m., Swahili speakers distinguish according to the period of day. A rough breakdown:
Saa kumi na moja hadi (until) saa nne (5:00am-10:00am): Asubuhi (morning)
Saa nne hadi saa kumi (10:00am – 4:00pm): Mchana (day)
Saa kumi hadi saa moja (4:00pm – 7:00pm) : Jioni (evening)
Saa tatu hadi saa kumi na moja (8:00pm – 5:00am): Usiku (night)

8:00am = saa mbili asubuhi
12:00pm = saa sita mchana
6:00pm = saa kumi na mbili jioni
10:00pm = saa nne usiku

Telling the exact time

So, “ni saa ngapi?”–“what time is it?”

In the first 30 minutes of an hour, you combine the current hour and minutes (note that multiples of 15 minutes are special). 7:10am: Saa moja na dakika kumi asubuhi (the first hour and ten minutes of the morning)
9:15am: Saa tatu na robo (the third hour and a quarter of the morning)
10:27am: Saa nne na dakika ishirini na saba mchana (the fourth hour and twenty seven minutes of the daytime)
3:30pm: Saa tisa na nusu mchana (the ninth hour and a half of the daytime)

In the last 30 minutes of the hour, you read the time as a statement of subtraction from the coming hour, using “kasoro” to indicate “less than”:
7:40am: Saa mbili kasoro dakika ishirini asubuhi (twenty minutes short of the second hour of the morning)
9:45pm: Saa nne kasorobo usiku (A quarter short of the fourth hour of the night).

Since most people in villages don’t have clocks, you’ll rarely discuss time with minute precision. But it’s good to know the rules.

Tardiness is unprofessional!


Listening comprehension questions for Unit 7 dialogues are in the worksheet.

Swahili Unit 7 Worksheet

Swahili Unit 7 Worksheet Answers

Swahili Unit 7 Dialogue 1

Swahili Unit 7 Dialogue 2


  1. Asante sana! Your program is the best we have found online for learning Swahili and we are wondering if there are MP3 CDs available with your lessons. Thank you again for all you are doing to help us learn this beautiful language.

    1. Thank you! Unfortunately the only audio available is already on the website. Happy to know it’s helpful to you

      1. blockquote, div.yahoo_quoted { margin-left: 0 !important; border-left:1px #715FFA solid !important; padding-left:1ex !important; background-color:white !important; } To let you know, in the Swahili: Unit 2 – Personal Pronouns And Verb Conjugation In Present Tense, near the bottom of the page on the written lesson before the Practice Activities, it is quoted here, “Another example, using the verb kutaka (to want).” The verb root -tak- has (sleep) in parentheses and it should be (want) instead.

        Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

  2. Thank you for the information, we will correct the quote as soon as possible.

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