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Please note this is only a very brief introduction to the Swahili language. Sorry but we are unable to accept individual requests for translation.

Swahili is a derivative of the Bantu language and remains loyal to Bantu grammar, however its vocabulary has been influenced by Arabic (through culture and trade) and more recently by English (through technology). The word swahili comes from the Arabic word for coast, since the language developed along the East African coast where several distinctive dialects still remain. Swahili has been described as "One of the twelve great languages of the world" and is spoken by millions of people in Central and Eastern Africa.

One of Swahili's most welcome aspects is that its pronounciation is straightforward compared to many other languages. It is not a "click" language like IsiXhosa which relies heavily on clicking noises (like tutting "tsk tsk"), nor is it a "tone" language like Chinese where changes in pitch are just as important as consonants and vowels. The alphabet is simple and has no accented characters. However the construction of Swahili words can be complex since it makes heavy use of morphemes rather than use the periphrastic approach of English (see below for an explanation).

Languages can use "inflection" to modify the meaning of words by adding or changing "morphemes" (the smallest meaning-bearing parts of a word). For example in English we can modify the word walk to have walkable, walked, walker, walking. However English makes relatively little use of this and tends towards a periphrastic approach (using more words and relying on sentence syntax). For example the single Swahili word nimekisoma needs four words when translated into the English sentence I have read it. The full scale of such complexity is beyond the scope of this introduction but some examples may demonstrate the possibilities in Swahili: if they had rested, they could not have got tired translates as wangalipumzika wasingalichoka and I should not have been as nisingalikuwa (broken down into morphemes as ni-si-nga-li-ku-wa).

Nouns

There are eight classes of noun, named after their most common prefixes, which can be generally grouped as follows: M/WA for people (mtu=man); M/MI for "things" including trees and plants (mgomba=banana plant); N for animals, fruit and foreign words (ndege=bird); KI/VI for objects (kisu=knife); MA for "things" including pluralised nouns (maziwa=milk); U for abstract and uncountable nouns (ukubwa=size and unga=flour); KU for infinitives (kusoma=to read) and PA for place (mahali=place).

The class name indicates the usual prefix for singular/plural nouns, so example plurals would be: watu=men, migomba=banana plants, ndege=birds, visu=knives, mayai=eggs. From this you can see that N class nouns often have the same singular and plural prefix (usually n- but sometimes m- if followed by a -b or -v), and that MA class nouns only take their prefix (ma-) in plural. Some MA nouns take a j/ji- prefix in the singular if only one syllable or beginning with a vowel. Some U class nouns may change when pluralised depending on their origin.

Many words change their spelling depending on the presence of certain letters. The M/WA class word mwezi=thief (really an mw- rather than m- prefix and hence the true noun stem -ezi is seen to begin with a vowel) loses the a of wa- to have the plural wezi=thieves. KI/VI class words use CH/VY prefixes for noun stems starting with a vowel, hence chumba=room and vyumba=rooms.

The PA class contains the single word mahali, however agreement takes one of three forms depending on whether the place is specific (takes pa- prefix), indefinite or moving (takes ku- prefix) or inside something (takes mu- prefix).

The same noun can appear in different classes and have different meanings. For example -mtu becomes mtu=man, jitu=giant and umtu=manhood. Nouns can be forced into other classes to provide "diminutives" and "augmentives". The KI/VI class makes them diminutive (mto=river becomes kijito=stream) and the MA class makes them augmentive (watu=men becomes majitu=giants). There are also techniques to make a noun diminuitive even if it already belongs to the KI/VI class.

Adjectives

Adjectives generally agree (concord) with their noun, for example kisu kikali=sharp knife (-kali=sharp) and mtu mdogo=small man (-dogo=small). However one important rule is that people and animals should concord with the M/WA class even if they belong to another class (for example paka=cat is an N class noun yet paka wadogo=small cats).

Adjectives follow their noun so one big knife is kisu kikubwa kimoja (knife big one). Also note how Swahili uses "prefixation" to cause agreement by adding to the beginning of the adjective stem (ki-kubwa and ki-moja). The presence of certain letters can change spelling (as seen with nouns), so for M/WA agreement the adjective mwema=good (sing.) becomes wema=good (pl.) rather than waema.

Possessive adjectives take the stems -angu (my), -ako (your sing.), -ake (his/her/its), -etu (our), -enu (your pl.), -ao (their). For example my book is kitabu changu (note ch-angu rather than ki-angu because of the leading vowel).

Verbs

Verbs are built by taking the verb stem and adding prefixes to indicate the subject, tense and sometimes an object. Some prefixes will themselves be prefixed so we refer to "infixes" (essentially prefixes in the middle of a word). The subject prefixes (for persons) are ni- (I), u- (you sing.), a- (s/he), tu- (we), m- (you pl.), wa- (they). The basic tense infixes are -me- (perfect), -li- (past), -a- and -na- (simple present and present), -ta- (future). The object infixes (for persons) are -ni- (me), -ku- (you sing.), -m- (him/her), -tu- (us), -wa- (you pl.), -wa- (them). The object infixes meaning it/them for other non-person classes are: M/MI = -u/i-, KI/VI = -ki/vi-, N = -i/zi-. Personal pronouns are mimi (I), wewe (you sing.), yeye (s/he), sisi (we), ninyi (you pl.), wao (they).

For example I have read it translates as nimekisoma (ni-me-ki-soma where -soma=read).

Negative tenses (often based around an ha- prefix) have subject prefixes (for persons) of si- (I), hu- (you sing.), ha- (s/he), hatu- (we), ham- (you pl.), hawa- (they). One negative tense is called the "not yet" (haja-) tense which allows for expressions such as Ndizi hazijatosha for There are not yet enough bananas.

Conditional and present-participle tenses use a -ki- infix, and a form of narrative tense uses the -ka- infix. Imperatives are usually the plain verb stem, for example soma! means read!. Reflexives may be built using the -ji- infix and reciprocals use an -ana suffix.

And Finally...

The Swahili day (siku) is really two twelve-hour slots starting at sunrise and again at sunset, so 08:00 is saa mbili (the second hour) - add the words ya mchana or ya usiku to express daytime or night-time. Swahili days themselves are numbered from Friday (based on the Mohammedan calendar) with Monday being jumatatu (juma=week and tatu=three).

The simple -a suffix can take a prefix to make the common word of (agreeing with the object, not the possessor). For example Watu wa Kenya - The people of Kenya.

The verb kuwa=to have can be used with PA class prefixes for indicate something exists (kuna wanyama=there are animals). Add the ha- prefix for negation (kakuna pesa=there is no money). Hence the word hapana=no.


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