The Swahili Language

The Swahili language, or Kiswahili is a Bantu language and the mother tongue of the Swahili people.

This is a brief introduction to some of the most important grammatical concepts of the Swahili language, which will help in learning the Swahili phrases on Surface Languages.


Definite and indefinite articles do not exist in Swahili. Instead the meaning of a word within a sentence must be provided by the context.

So 'mtoto' means 'child', 'a child' or 'the child'


Nouns in Swahili are split into seven classes. Generally, the appropriate class for a noun can be discovered by looking at the first letter(s) of the noun - its prefix. An example, is the word 'mtoto' which means 'child'. This belongs to the M class.

Nouns in Swahili have singular and plural (but no article).

The prefixes in the singular and plural can differ and this is illustrated with the Swahili word for 'child'. The plual of 'mtoto' is 'watoto' meaning 'children'. The prefix (which dictates the class to which the word belong to) is now 'wa'. For this reason nouns belonging to this class ares commonly referred to as the M/WA class.

So, as opposed to English and other Romance languages, nouns in Swahili change at the beginning, and where an English speaker would add an 's', a Swahili speaker prefixes the noun with the appropriate noun prefix or marker.

The different noun classes have different prefixes and not all differ between the singuar and plural. For example, the N class of nouns (which is the biggest and includes Arabic and Swahili loan words), has the same prefix for singular and plural. The Swahil (an N class noun) for 'cat' is 'paka' and this can mean 'cat', 'cats', 'a cat', 'the cat' and so on.


Adjectives always come after the noun, so in Swahili 'good dog' is 'dog good'.

Adjectives in Swahili agree with the nouns, apart from adjectives of Arabic origin.

In European languages, a noun agrees with an adjective by changing its ending, so in French the adjective 'beautiful' is either 'beau', 'bel', 'belle', 'beaux' or 'belles' depending on the noun. In Swahili the adjective changes its prefix to agree with the noun.

Two commonly used Swahili adjective (stems) are 'baya' meaning bad and 'zuri' meaning good. Using these with 'mtu' an m class noun e.g. mtu mzuri 'a good person' and mtu mbaya 'a bad person'. The adjective prefix is m. However, the prefix used depends on the class that the noun belongs to.

So, again using 'mtu' (an m class noun but this time with dogo 'small' : mtu mdogo a small man.

But, using nyumba, (which is an n class noun meaning house) the prefix used by the adjective changes giving: nyumba ndogo 'a small house'.


Swahili verbs are often given in the stem form in dictionaries

Two examples of verb stems are lala 'sleep' and sema 'speak'. Various markers are then added or prefixed to the verb stem to change the meaning. One such prefix is ku which is equivalent to the english infinitive or 'to' form of the verb. So:

ku + verb stem gives the infinitive, which is illustrated with kulala 'to sleep' and kusema 'to speak'.

Verbs in Swahili must end in a suffix and this is shown with the verb 'kujua' meaning to know (verb stem 'jua').

ku (verb prefix)
ju (verb stem)
a (suffix)

The suffix isn't always 'a' and verbs of Arabic origin (see History of Swahili) end in 'e', 'i' or 'u'.

Different verb prefixes alter the meaning of the verb in different ways - for example by changing the tense. For example:

me + verb stem gives the idea of a perfect tense.

It is important to be aware that there is not an exact correlation between tenses in English and Swahili).

na + verb stem gives the present continuous and an example using the Swahili word nuana 'to buy' is ninanuana.