As you know, linguists group Swahili nouns into different noun classes based on the form they take in the singular and plural and the agreements they take with other parts of speech. Some Swahili grammar books and teachers refer to these noun classes by their prefixes, e.g. the m-/wa- class, as in the following table.
|Class name||Example nouns|
|m-/wa-||mtu / watu|
|m- / mi-||mti / miti|
|ji – / ma-||jina / majina|
|ki- / vi-||kitabu / vitabu|
|n- / n-||njia / njia|
|u- / n-||ulimi / ndimi|
I prefer to refer to noun classes by their number, which has the advantage of making it easier to talk about them in Swahili, e.g. ngeli ya kwanza ‘the first noun class, Class 1’, has fewer exceptions (e.g. you don’t need to deal with the fact that “the ji-/ma- class” includes lots of nouns that don’t start with ji-), and makes them comparable to noun classes in other Bantu languages if you ever decide to learn one. So I refer to nouns using the following chart:
|Class number||Example noun|
When you learn a new noun, the important thing is to know both its singular and plural forms. Referring to its noun class is a short hand way of doing this. Nouns that refer to animate beings sometimes are referred to as belonging to more than one noun class. For example:
ng’ombe 9/10 & 1/2 cow
The numbers 9/10 tell you that the singular and plural are the same, while the numbers 1/2 tell you that it takes agreement with parts of speech from class 1/2:
Ng’ombe mzuri anakula. The beautiful cow is eating.
If you need more review of noun class, see the chart in the back of Hinnebusch & Mirza’s Kiswahili textbook, or the chapter on noun class in my grammar book.
Recommended further reading
Hinnebusch, Thomas J., and Sarah Mirza. 1998. Kiswahili, Msingi Wa Kusema Kusoma Na Kuandika (Swahili, a Foundation for Speaking, Reading, and Writing). Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
Thompson, Katrina Daly, and Antonia Folarin Schleicher. 2001. Swahili Learners’ Reference Grammar. Madison, Wis.: NALRC Press.