Learning Swahili Noun Classes… with Fruit

Like other languages, Swahili has different classes of nouns that require different agreements. In English, we have plural and singular nouns that require agreement, e.g. the singular “He is” turns into “They are” in the plural form. However, many languages have different types of nouns that require agreement that have no parallels in the English language. Swahili, for instance, has nine noun classes – 18 if you differentiate between plural and singular forms. More, these noun classes require agreement with adjectives, verbs, adverbs and conjunctions, and conjugating words in Swahili to agree with noun class can feel frustrating early on. The bad news is there is no silver bullet to instantly master noun classes. The good news is that anybody can do it with a little practice.

At first, words seem randomly sorted into their noun classes, but on closer inspection they share many similarities. Most borrowed words, from English or elsewhere, fall into one class; most animals are in another; and even the Ki- in Kiswahili denotes a class common to the names of all languages. However, I’ve found that the most useful classes for getting a hang of conjugations are the classes used for most fruit and trees.

These are the Ji-Ma and M-Mi classes, respectively. The Ji-Ma class tends to cover words of things and concepts of use to humans – manufactured products, produce, parts of the body and certain concepts. M-Mi covers the words for trees, plants and other parts of the body. Let’s take a look at how these words are formed, and how their noun classes change the words around them:


English Swahili
The fruit of Wisconsin grew. _Tunda la Wisconsin lilikua.
The fruits of Wisconsin grew. Matunda ya Wisconsin yalikua.
The tree of Wisconsin grew. Mti wa Wisconsin ulikua.
The trees of Wisconsin grew. Miti ya Wisconsin ilikua.


Here we see nouns, conjunctions and verbs agreeing with each other, with all the agreements underlined. In the Ji-Ma class (or really, blank-Ma, as most words in this class don’t have the Ji-prefix), the singular conjunction of is la, and the past tense verb grew, –likua, is prefixed with li. It helps that when these words are agreeing they sound more alike: Blank-la-li, Ma-ya-ya, M-wa-u, Mi-ya-i. With practice, hearing a ya sound after the hum-like m sound in mti may make alarm bells go off in your head.

While these noun classes refer to both the words for fruit and trees, they refer to types of them as well. Swapping in the Swahili words for fruit, including parachichi (avocado), chungwa (orange) or tofaa (apple), the above table could look like this:


English Swahili
The orange of Florida grew. _Chungwa la Florida lilikua.
The oranges of Florida grew. Machungwa ya Florida yalikua.
The orange tree of Florida grew. Mchungwa wa Florida ulikua.
The orange trees of Florida grew. Michungwa ya Florida ilikua.


A quick way to learn these noun class agreements is to make notecards with various fruits, various fruit trees, conjunctions, posessives and verbs. Randomly select a card for fruit or fruit tree, a conjunction and object or possessive, and verb then make a sentence as quickly as possible. In rapid succession translate and conjugate sentences like “My avacodo trees were cut” or “The apple of the farm was planted.” Eventually, you’ll be conjugating almost unconsciously.


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