This and That in Swahili: Introduction to Demonstratives

Swahili doesn’t have a few common words we’re used to in English, and getting your head around the absence of any it, a or the can be confusing at first. But don’t worry – Swahili has words for this and that. In fact, it has dozens of them.

In English, we use this (or these) if we’re referring to objects right in front of us, and that (or those) for everything else. Swahili is similar, but differentiates between that (near) and that (far). And, of course, the noun classes come to play here too.

In short, the word this is derived from the noun class prefix that you’d attach to the front of a verb. Take the Ji-Ma class, for example. In the singular form, the prefix for the Ji-Ma class is li-. To make the word this, you add the letter h– to the vowel in the noun class prefix, then the prefix itself. Given li-, it’ll look like: h- + i + li = hili. In plural, the Ji-Ma class would look like: h + a + ya = haya. M-Mi class also follows this rule, but due to having only one letter in either singular or plural prefixes looks slightly different. For instance, this tree becomes mti huu, and these trees becomes miti hii. The only exception to this rule is in the singular of the M-Wa class, which, for lack of a better explanation, is huyu, as in mtu huyu (this person). To practice these words, form the word this with each noun class. Then do it ten times fast.

After mastering how to say this, learning that (near) should be simpler. Simply replace the last letter of this with –o. For example, hili becomes hilo. However, due to differences in how words sound with –o at the end, two forms of that (near) are irregular: hawa becomes hao and hii becomes hiyo.

And finally, that/those (far) comes from taking the noun class prefix and adding it to the suffix –le. Again, M-Wa singular is an exception, adding yu– to -le. Thus to go from this to that (near) to that (far) with Ji-Ma singular would be: hili –> hilo –> lile. If you can do this with every noun class, then ten times fast, you’ll be a Swahili pro in no time.

For further reading, this site has a chart of all the forms of this and that described above:

Swahili: Unit 6 (Part 1) – Demonstratives and Direct Commands


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