Swahili: Unit 10 – Adjectives, Adverbs, and Syntax

UNIT OBJECTIVES

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

  • Modify adjectives beginning with consonants and vowels for nouns of all classes
  • Form and use adverbs properly
  • Form basic descriptive sentences (subject, verb, object, adjective)
  • Master the following vocabulary: Swahili Unit 10 Vocabulary

NEW CONTENT

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

ADJECTIVES

Swahili words come from several sources: the primary sources are African languages of the Bantu family. About 30% of the lexicon comes from Arabic. A small portion of words come from European or Asian languages of the Indian Ocean Basin.

The rules for adjective formation actually follow the origins of the adjectives themselves. Adjectives of Bantu origin follow the rules of basic Bantu grammar: they are formed by combining noun class prefixes with adjective stems. Adjectives of Arabic origin don’t follow these same rules–they take no prefixes. Let’s look at these rules of adjective formation in detail.

Phonetic Rules for (Bantu) Adjective Formation

Basic Prefixes for Adjectives beginning with Consonants

So, as we know, constructing most adjectives in Swahili requires the affixation of an appropriate noun class prefix to an adjectival stem. Every noun class has a particular prefix, though three noun classes (5, 9, 10) shape adjectives by the absence of an adjectival prefix (just as the nouns within these classes themselves take no noun class prefix). In fact, for nearly every class, the adjectival prefix is the same as the noun class prefix (the exceptions are classes 11 and 14).

We briefly introduced the basic adjectival prefixes in Unit 6, but let’s review them again here. Please note that these prefixes appear in the form below when affixed to adjectives that begin with consonants. For each noun class, a sample noun and sample adjective (using the stem –kubwa, which means “big”) are included:

Noun Class Sample Noun Adjectival Prefix Sample Adjective
1 mtu m- mkubwa
2 watu wa- wakubwa
3 mti m- mkubwa
4 miti mi- mikubwa
5 tunda (-) kubwa
6 matunda ma- makubwa
7 kitu ki- kikubwa
8 vitu vi- vikubwa
9 nyumba (-) kubwa
10 nyumba (-) kubwa
11 ukuta m- mkubwa
14 upendo m- mkubwa
16 mahali pa- pakubwa
17 mahali ku- kuzuri

Many people consider adjectives the be the trickiest piece of Swahili grammar to master (but master them, you will!). This is because they are the one part of speech whose rules contain significant exceptions. They are as follows:

Modifying Animate Nouns Not in Classes 1&2

As you know, there are many nouns for animate beings that do not fall in noun classes 1&2 (mama, baba, rafiki, simba, etc). Just as these nouns take the noun classes 1&2 subject prefixes for verb conjugation (mama anapika, simba wanakula), so too do adjectives used to describe them require the noun classes 1&2 adjectival prefixes (baba mkubwa, simba wakubwa).

Exceptions to Prefixes for Adjectives Beginning with Consonants

Noun Classes 9/10

Adjectives whose stems start with D, G or Z take the prefix “n-“ when describing nouns in classes 9 and 10.

  • Nyumba nzuri: Good house
  • Nyumba ndogo: Small house

Adjectives whose stems start with B, P or V take the prefix “m-” when describing nouns in classes 9 and 10:

  • Nyumba mbaya: Bad house
  • Nyumba mpya: New house

The adjective “-refu”, meaning long, is modified to “ndefu” for noun classes 9 and 10. So a ‘long journey’ is a “safari ndefu”

Prefixes for Adjectives Beginning with Vowels

If an adjective stem begins with a vowel, the adjectival prefix is modified phonetically as follows:

Noun Classes 1 & 2 (m/wa)

  • M- + -a = Mwa: Mwalimu mwaminifu (An honest teacher)
  • M- + -e = Mwe: Mtu mwema (a good/nice person)
  • M- + -i = Mwi: Mteja mwingine (another customer)

  • Wa- + -a = Wa: Walimu waminifu (honest teachers)
  • Wa- + -e = We: Watu wema (good people)
  • Wa- + -i = We: Wateja wengine (other customers)

Noun Classes 3 & 4 (m/mi)

  • M- + -e = Mwe: Mti mweupe (white tree)
  • M- + -i = Mwi: Mtihani mwingine (another test)

  • Mi- + -e = Mye: Miti myeupe (white trees)
  • Mi- + -i = Mi: Mitihani mingine (other tests)

Noun Classes 5 & 6 (-/ma)

When describing a noun in class 5 with an adjective that begins with a vowel, you use the prefix “ji-” (many nouns in class 5 start with “ji-“). The prefix is modified further in phonetic fashion:

  • Ji- + -e = Je: Gari jeusi (Black car)
  • Ji- + -i = Ji: Tunda jingine (Another fruit)

  • Ma- + -e = Me: Magari meusi (Black cars)
  • Ma- + -i = Me: Matunda mengine (Other fruits)

Noun Classes 7 & 8 (ki/vi)

  • Ki- + -e = Che: Kiatu chekundu (Red shoe)
  • Ki- + -i = Ki: Kitu kingine (Another thing)

  • Vi- + -e = Vye: Viatu vyekundu (Red shoes)
  • Vi- + -i = Vi: Vitu vingine (Other things)

Noun Classes 9 & 10: (-/-)

  • N- + -e = Nye: Nyumba nyeusi (Black house)
  • N- + -i = Nyi: Nguo nyingi (Many clothes)

Exception: N- +-ema = Njema (good)

Noun Classes 11 & 14: (u/u)

Noun classes 11&14 follow the same phonetic modification rules that noun classes 1&2 follow.

Non-Bantu Adjectives

Several of the most frequently used Swahili adjectives are of non-Bantu (Arabic) origin. When we use these adjectives, we do not modify them with noun class prefixes.

Some key examples:

Safi: Clean – Eneo safi / A clean area

Ghali: Expensive – Bei ghali / An expensive price

Rahisi: Easy/cheap – Lengo rahisi / An easy goal

Bora: High quality/Excellent/Better – Maisha bora / Better life

Key Modifiers: -ingi, -ingine

Two particularly important adjectives are –ingi (many) and –ingine (other). As we have already seen from examples above, The construction of these adjectives follows the basic adjectival rules, but given their frequency of use (and the challenge of remembering all the different rules for constructing adjectives that begin with vowels), it’s worth separating these two out.  The constructions are as follows:

Noun Class Sample Noun Adjectival Prefix -ingi (many) -ingine (other)
1 mtu m- mwengine/mwingine*
2 watu wa- wengi wengine
3 mti m- mwingine
4 miti mi- mingi mingine
5 tunda (-) jingine / lingine**
6 matunda ma- mengi mengine
7 kitu ki- kingi (only used with “chakula”) kingine
8 vitu vi- vingi vingine
9 nyumba (-) nyingine
10 nyumba (-) nyingi nyingine or zingine
11 ukuta m- mwingine
14 upendo m- mwingine
16 mahali pa pengi pengine
17 mahali ku kwingi kwengine

*You will occasionally encounter “mwingine” used for nouns in class 1

**You will often (even most commonly) hear people use “lingine” rather than “jingine” for class 5, though “jingine” may be more technically accurate.

Some more examples:

Noun Classes 1 &2

Mzee mwengine: Another elder
Mama mwengine: Another mother

Wazee wengine: Other elders
Wakulima wengi: Many farmers

Noun Classes 3 & 4

Mkopo mwingine: Another loan

Mtihani mwingine: Other exams

Mikopo mingine: Other loans

Mitihani mingi: Many exams

Noun Classes 5 & 6

Shamba lingine: Another farm

Zao lingine: Another crop

Mashamba mengine: Other farms

Mazao mengi: Many crops

Noun Classes 7 & 8

Kitabu kingine: Another book

Kitenge kingine: Another kitenge

Vitabu vingine: Other books

Vitenge vingi: Many kitenges

Noun Classes 9 & 10

Siku nyingine: Another day

Wiki nyingine: Another week

Siku nyingine: Other days

Wiki nyingi: Many weeks

Noun Class 11

Ufunguo mwingine: Another key

Noun Class 14

Utaratibu mwingine: Another system

Note: When used together, -ingi comes before -ingine: watoto wengi wengine wanacheza mpira

ADVERBS

Swahili adverbs function almost identically to adjectives. Within a sentence, we place adverbs immediately after the verb it describes. The number of adverbs that are used is very limited; in fact most of the most commonly used adverbs come from adjective stems: –zuri (well/good), –baya (badly), –gumu (difficult), rahisi (easy). Just as with adjectives, some adverbs require a prefix modification. To modify adjective stems as adverbs, we attach the prefix “vi-” to the stem. For those adverbs that do not require stems, we leave them as they are:

Ulifanya vizuri: You did well

Alipanga vibaya: He planned poorly

Mtihani ulikuwa rahisi: The exam was easy

Mnakimbia haraka! You are running fast!

Don’t forget that we can use “sana” and “tu” to modify both verbs and adverbs. So for example, we could say:

Amesoma sana: He has really studied a lot

Mmezoea haraka sana: You all have acclimated very quickly!

Nenda polepole tu: Just go slowly!

Endelea tu: Just continue

SYNTAX

Key rules to remember:

  • Adjectives come after the objects they describe: mtoto mdogo
  • Associatives always come last in a sentence: shamba kubwa la shule
  • Possessives come before adjectives: Gari langu jekundu
  • Demonstratives come immediately after the object they refer to: nyumba hii kubwa
  • -ote and -o-ote come before other adjectives: matango yote mabovu / wanafunzi wote wengine
  • -ingine and -ingi come before other adjectives: masomo mengine magumu

CONCLUDING ADVICE

It will take a lot of time and practice to get some of the adjectives down. Be disciplined, and push yourself to get them right from the start, because it’s very easy to develop bad and lazy habits with adjectives.

EXERCISES

Swahili Unit 10 Worksheet

Swahili Unit 10 Worksheet Answers

One comment

  1. Hi, great website gave learned a lot, just still bit confused regarding noun classes 16 17 and 18???

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