Noun Classes: An Introduction and Practicing Possessive Agreements

Noun Classes:

The noun classes (ngeli) in Swahili are word groups that have similar patterns and take on the same agreement systems in phrases/sentences.

A summarized list of the noun classes as follows:

Ngeli ya kwanza (Noun class 1)

  • M-/Mw- (rarely – Mu-)
  • Nominal prefix – kiambishi awali cha jina
  • Some non-class 1 words use class 1 agreements because they refer to people / animals
  • Pronouns which refer to people are in class 1

Ngeli ya pili (Noun class 2)

  • Plural of class one
  • Start with wa-

Ngeli ya tatu (Noun class 3)

  • Singular
  • Begin with m-
  • Almost all singular noun in reference to plants are here; and other objects
    • o Mkutano (meeting)

Ngeli ya nne (Noun class 4)

  • Plural of class 3
  • Begin with mi-

Ngeli ya tano (Noun class 5)

  • Singular; inanimate objects/abstract ideas
  • Many begin with j-, ji-
  • However many aren’t recognizable
    • Hitaji (need, requirement)
    • Shetani (Satan)
    • Duka (Shop)
  • A few refer to people; but use class one agreements
    • o Polisi (police), daktari (doctor)

Ngeli ya sita (Noun class 6)

  • Plurals of 5; begin with ma-
  • Those that refer to people often use class 2 agreements
  • Some have no class 5 equivalents
    • Mazingira (environment)
    • Maisha (life)
    • Mazishi (burial)

Ngeli ya saba (Noun class 7)

  • Singular; inanimate objects, abstract ideas, languages
  • Some people, agree with 1
    •  Kipofu
  • Sometimes you can add prefix ki- to make it smaller
    • Mtoto (child) – kitoto
    • Mbuzi (goat) – kibuzi
    • Embe (mango) – kiembe

Ngeli ya nane (Noun class 8)

  • Plural of 7
  • Vi- or vy-
    • Vyakula (foods, meals)
  • The people in this category agree with 2

Ngeli ya tisa (Noun class 9)

  • Singular; no recognizable nominal prefix
  • Inanimate objects, abstract ideas
    • Safari (journey, trip), kazi (work)
  • Proper nouns in reference to places are also class 9
    • Tanzania
    • Zuhura (Venus)
    • Amerika
  • Many are adopted words (maneno yaliyotoholewa)
    • Kompyuta
    • Sayari (planets, from Arabic)
  • Animals, some people, treated grammatically like 1
    • Simba (lion), baba (father), mbwa (dog)

Ngeli ya kumi (Noun class 10)

  • Plural of 9 and 11
  • Not really showing plural (look for context)

Ngeli ya kumi na moja (Noun class 11)

  • Singular; u-
    • Ukuta (wall), udevu (beard), ulimi (tongue)

Ngeli ya kumi na nne (Noun class 14)

  • Abstract ideas; look like 11; only singular; begin with u-
  • Uhuru (freedom); ujamaa (familyhood, socialism); umoja (unity)

Ngeli ya kumi na tano (Noun class 15)

  • Refer to actions; gerunds/infinitives – vitenzijina
  • Ku-
    • Kusoma (studying)
    • Kufanya (doing)
    • Kupiga (hitting)

Ngeli ya kumi na sita (Noun class 16)

  • Locatives / places (Majina ya mahali)
    •  Add –ni
      • Nyumbani (at/in the house)
      • Chumbani (at/in the room)

Ngeli ya kumi na saba (Noun class 17)

  • Places, general, distant from speaker
    • Mjini (in the city), nchini (in the country)

Ngeli ya kumi na nane (Noun class 18)

  • Places inside or close to another object
    • Mfukoni (in the bag)
    • Kichwani (in the head)
  • 16, 17, 18 look the same / look for context clues

Putting Agreements into Action

Possessive Pronouns  (Vimilikishi, kimilikishi)

Class Possessive Prefix Swahili Example English Translation
1 w- Wangu Mine
2 w- Wangu Mine
3 w- Wangu
4 y- Yangu
5 l- Langu
6 y- Yangu
7 Ch- Changu
8 Vy- Vyangu
9 y- Yangu
10 z- Zangu
11 w- Wangu
14 w- Wangu
15 Kw- Kwangu
16 p- Pangu At my place
17 Kw- Kwangu At my place
18 Mw- Mwangu Inside my place


Possessive Adjectives


Class Possessive Prefix Swahili Example English Translation
1 w- Wa Juma Juma’s
2 w- Wa Mine
3 w- Wa
4 y- Ya
5 l- La mwalimu The teacher’s
6 y- Ya
7 Ch- Cha daktari The doctor’s
8 Vy- Vya
9 y- Ya rais The president’s
10 z- Za
11 w- Wa
14 w- Wa
15 Kw- Kwa Musa Musa’s
16 p- Pa Sudi Sudi’s
17 Kw- Kwa At …
18 Mw- Mwangu In …


Thompson, Katrina Daly, and Antonia Yétúndé Fọlárìn Schleicher. Swahili learners reference grammar. Madison, WI: NALRC Press, 2006.


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