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Swahili Noun Classes — Ultimate Cheat Sheet

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A simple cheat sheet for understanding the hardest part of Swahili Grammar — Swahili noun classes!

Screenshot of the swahili noun classes cheat sheet

This is a Swahili noun class “cheat sheet”, a brief summary of one of the hardest parts of Swahili grammar and how to use them in building sentences.

We built this for ourselves, so are sharing it in case people learning Swahili find it useful. (Here are some reasons why you should consider Swahili!)

First, here’s the Swahili noun class cheat sheet. An explanation of how the cheat sheet works, why noun classes and Swahili grammar is important, and how to use the cheat sheet are below.

In this guide…

  • The Swahili Grammar Reference Cheat Sheet (of course)
  • Figuring out what noun class a noun belongs to in Swahili
  • Noun classes explained simply
  • Frequently Asked Questions about noun classes

Learning Swahili on your own? We prefer to self-study and effectiveness all comes down to the right resources and books. Here are the two resources we would recommend for beginners.

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The Swahili Noun Class Cheat Sheet

Here’s the cheat sheet below — your complete guide to Swahili Noun Classes. But you don’t have to save this — download a copy of the cheat sheet as a PDF!

The Discover Discomfort Swahili Noun Classes and Grammar Cheat Sheet
The Discover Discomfort Swahili Noun Classes and Grammar Cheat Sheet. Download it as PDF here.

What class does a Swahili noun belong to?

The first column of the table gives example nouns in each class. For example, in the m/wa class, the example is mtu (a person) or watu (people).

But you need to figure out what noun class the word belongs to, to know how to form a sentence. In case you have forgotten, you can sometimes guess.

Here’s a quick guide to figuring out a noun class in Swahili:

ClassHow to identifyExamples
M/Wa (1/2) Words that usually start with m or wa
All people and animate objects.
All animals.
Use even when the word isn’t in the class, if it’s a person (e.g. “rafiki”)
mtu/watu (people)
mtoto/watoto (children)
simba (lion)
rafiki (friend)
M/Mi (3/4)Usually words that start with m or mi for singular or plural (e.g. “tree/s”, mti/miti)mguu/miguu (leg/s)
mti/miti (tree/s)
mkate/mikate (bread)
Ji/Ma (5/6)Words where the plural starts with ma, even if the singular doesn’t start with ji, e.g. chungwa/machungwa (“orange/s”)
Some words in this class are only in plural, e.g. maji (“water”)
chungwa/machungwa
jina/majina (name)
jibu/majibu (answer)
tunda/matunda (fruit)
tatizo/matatizo (worry)
gari/magari (car)
mafuta (oil) (pl. only)
maji (water) (pl. only)
Ki/Vi (7/8) Words start with Ki or Vi (e.g. kitabu/vitabu for “book/s”), or Ch/Vy (e.g. chakula/vyakula for “food/s”)kitu/vitu (thing/s)
kitabu/vitabu (book/s)
chakula/vyakula (food/s)
chumba/vyumba (room/s)
N (9/10)Mostly start with n (not always), e.g. ndizi (“banana”)
A lot of unclassified nouns or imported loanwords (e.g. simu, “phone”).
Words that have the same word form in singular and plural.
ndege (bird, aircraft)
ndizi (banana)
ng’ombe (cow)
barua (letter)chumvi (salt)
asubuhi (morning)
tembo (elephant)
U (11)The singular usually begins with a u.
Plurals are treated as n-class plurals.
Includes:
Uncountable nouns with no plural e.g. umeme (electricity)
Nouns based on verbs or adjectives (e.g. upendo, love)
Country names (e.g. Ufaransa) (a few exceptions)
umeme (electricity)
utoto (childhood)
uzuri (beauty)
urefu (length)
upendo (love)
uwezo (ability)
Ufaransa (France)
UChina (China)
wakati/nyakati (time)
wimbo/nyimbo (song)
Pa-Ku-MuLocations, places.
Location words that get a “ni” on the end (for “at this place), e.g. soko (“market”), sokoni (“at the market”)
Ku: Infinitive form of verbs, when used as nouns. (Classed separately, but it works like the Ku in Pa-Ku-Mu so why confuse things?). E.g. kutoka, kuimba, kuishi.
mahali (place)
marikiti (market)
nyumba (house/home)
Ku class:
kuishi (to live)
kuimba (to sing)
kula (to eat)

A Quick Overview of Swahili Noun Classes

Why do you have to learn Swahili noun classes? Because you need them to understand people speaking, and to have a conversation that flows.

Swahili has a lot of rules. Most of these rules revolve around noun classes, which are a bit like grammatical gender in many other languages (more on this below).

Noun classes affect everything in Swahili:

  • Adjectives
  • Demonstratives
  • Verbs
  • Modifiers (such as “the thing that”)

But what is a “noun class”? I found most explanations confusing, so want to explain it in simple terms first.

Swahili Noun Classes Explained Simply

There are lots of complicated descriptions of noun classes, so this is a simple introduction to noun classes.

Swahili noun classes work a lot like gender in German, French or Spanish. In Spanish, “the house is beautiful” is la casa es hermosa, but “the lake is beautiful” is el lago es hermoso. (I boldfaced the parts that changed.)

In Swahili, it’s not just the adjectives and demonstratives that change, verbs, modifiers and particles in also all change.

For example, look at the few sentences below. I’ve boldfaced the most important parts that change. These are just a few examples.

English sentenceNoun class of key wordSwahili sentence
All the tools that we need are on the tabletools = vyombo (vi of ki/vi class)Vyombo vyote tunavyohitaji viko mezani.
That’s the thing that broke yesterday.thing = kitu (ki of ki/vi class)Vile ni kitu ambacho kilivunjika jana.
These are the people what wanted to stay here.people = watu (wa of m/wa class)Hawa ni watu ambao walitaka kukaa hapa.
My cat’s name is Whiskers.cat = paka (m of m/wa class)
name = jina (ji of ji/ma class)
Jina la paka wangu ni Whiskers.
This motorcycle is broken, but that car works.motorcycle = pikipiki (n class)
car = gari (ji of ji/ma class)
Pikipiki hii haifanyi kazi, lakini gari lile linafanya kazi.

It’s tempting to ignore noun classes (see the FAQ section below), but I think it’s actually the best place to start. Get it over with, and build a foundation for Swahili, learn to understand people, and then go learning how to use them. It will make your life easier.

Frequently-Asked Questions about Swahili Noun Classes

Do Swahili speakers know about noun classes?

Generally, Swahili speakers do not know what a noun class is unless they’re formally educated in Swahili.

For example, Kenyans living in Nairobi are generally educated in English, as English is one of the two “official” languages of Kenya.

Kenyans take a Swahili class in school, and maybe even do a minor in university. If they do study it in university, they’ll be very well-educated in Swahili grammar, and also know most foreigners will have no idea what a noun-class is (so usually will say “Swahili is hard” and give some examples of why).

The above is aside from Kenyans in Mombasa or elsewhere on the Swahili coast, who likely speak Swahili as a mother tongue.

Similarly, Tanzanians who have studied Swahili at a university level will be very familiar with the concept of Swahili noun classes.

However, most Swahili speakers aren’t really clear on why some words and sentences are some ways. They’ll just know “this is how you say this”. It’s like how in French nobody knows what the passé composé is, but every French student does.

Why do you have to learn Swahili noun classes?

The most important reason to learn Swahili noun classes isn’t that you have to use them, it’s because you have to understand other people when they’re speaking Swahili.

You can make yourself understood in Swahili even if you get the noun classes wrong (or ignore them… but don’t!). But even if you do ignore noun classes you have to learn to recognise them and eventually use them. 

For example, you have to know that “wangu”, “yangu” and “langu” all mean “my”, just for different nouns. And you have to know that:

  • “kitu kizuri ambacho kipo hapa” means “the nice thing that is here”, whereas
  • “gari nzuri ambalo lipo hapa” means “the nice car that is here”

See — in English, only one word changed, but in Swahili nearly every word changed. You have to understand both. After learning to understand, you can get them wrong as you wish.

How many Swahili noun classes are there?

There are different ways of counting noun classes. Some say there are more than eighteen, but you can also just say there are five or six, but split into singular/plural forms.

I personally think this is the easiest way to think about it. E.g. ji/ma is one class, but with a singular and plural form. Thinking this way makes it easy to pair singular with plural forms of words.

Do you need to study noun classes in Swahili or can you ignore them?

It’s tempting to ignore Swahili noun classes like you would ignore genders in German or cases in Russian.

But if you ignore Swahili noun classes, people will be tempted to not speak with you. All the sentences you say will just sound wrong and grate on people’s ears. People will understand you, but it will cause unnecessary friction.

The better approach is to learn sentences, rather than individual words. Use the above table only if you can’t think of which noun class to use.

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Carsten
Carsten
6 months ago

Hi,
thanks for the great cheat sheet. I am just wondering about your “object prefix”. Shouldn´t these be called “subject prefixes” as the subject determines the verb form?
Keep on the great work!
Carsten