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Swahilian Ninataka

Week 21, Episode 42

Swahili is a Bantu language, literally "people" language. It is one of the most widely spoken languages on the African continent—after Arabic, and also a popular choice for people who wish to learn an African language.

When it comes to African languages, because of the huge territory, vast amount of ethnicities, and thousands of years of isolation between tribal groups, the data about them gets messy. There are thousands of languages, many of which are yet to be classified. So here I just show some approximate numbers and facts just to get you to know Swahili a bit better.

By the way, two African languages from the North Africa—Hebrew and Arabic—we've already covered! You haven't realized it, have you? :)

As I mentioned in the previous episode, today's Swahili is written in the Latin script. It means that the Swahili alphabet looks exactly like the English one, except it doesn't have letters q and x. There are also 9 pairs of consonants that represent one sound (digraphs): ch, dh, gh, kh, ng’, ny, sh, th, ng (ch and sh are used in English too).

Add to that simple pronunciation of the vowels (like in Spanish: a = ah, o = oh, e = eh, i = ee, u = oo), and you can read in Swahili right away!

The tricky part of Swahili, as of all Bantu languages, is noun classes (ngelin-geh-lee). You see, nouns do not just divide by gender in Swahili, each of them belongs to one of the 16 classes (it seems like a lot, but years ago there were 22 of them), which determine how that noun modifies verbs, adjectives, and other grammatical entities.

The class membership of a noun can be recognized, in most cases, by the noun prefix. "Agreement" among nouns, verbs, and adjectives—concord—is the key to the Swahili language, and noun classes themselves determine that agreement.

Swahili verbs are always "constructed"—they are built, piece by piece, according to a permanent design. There are six basic building blocks that can be used to construct a Swahili verb. They are:

S: Subject Prefix

T: Tense Marker Prefix

R: Relative Object Infix

O: Direct Object Infix

V: Verb Root

E: Verb End

Each individual "block" has its own variants, but whenever you are building a verb, the individual blocks are always combined in the following order: S-T-R-O-V-E. For example:

With just 4 prefixes to indicate tenses you can start using all 4 Swahilian tenses in your speech:

  • na - Present - Ninataka - I want
  • me - Perfect - Nimetaka - I have wanted
  • li - Past - Nilitaka - I wanted
  • ta - Future - Nitataka - I will want

Well, you might want to make negative sentences too, which you will need another prefixes for. Each pronoun has its own: si/hu/ha/hatu/ham/hawa. In the Present tanse the verb also changes the ending:

  • -- - Present - Sitaki - I don't want
  • ja - Perfect - Sijataka - I have not wanted
  • ku - Past - Sikutaka - I did not want
  • ta - Future - Sitataka - I will not want

There are no articles in Swahili, no genitive, ablative, or dative cases, no verb conjugations (but prefixes); adjectives and possesive pronouns normally follow the nouns they refer to.

So the key to Swahili is memorizing the noun classes and practicing them together with verbs and adjectives... a lot! I know, sounds like a lot of job, and it is, but once you start, it won't seem that impossible. At least, the reading part is covered and words themselves are crazy fun—I mean, calling your elder brother "kaka" (kah-kah), your sister-in-law "wifi" (looks like wi-fi, but pronounced as "wee-fee") and your loving fiancé "mchumba" (m-choom-bah) will put a smile on your face, for sure :)

More mambo (what is "mambo"?) in the next episode! :)

Tutaonana! (Too-ta-oh-nah-nah) See you!

" Ninataka your likes! Like me now!"

Read more about Swahili and other languages at

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