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Swahili Morphology A Comparison English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4637 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Swahili is an example of a Bantu language. Bantu languages belong to the South Central subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. These languages are closely related to languages used in central, east-central and southern Africa (Sands, 2009). Due to the colonial history of the countries in this area, Swahili contains many loanwords from English, Arabian, Persian Indian languages, Portuguese, German and other Bantu languages. Their origins are often hardly recognisable. The reason for this is that the structure remains Bantu. In this structure, the derivational system has an important role (Mohammed, 2001). This paper contains a description of this system and other underlying processes of Swahili morphology. In this description, we draw parallels between Swahili and English. As mentioned earlier, we know that Swahili is connected to English by its loanwords. But do the two languages have anything in common concerning morphological structure and processes?

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2 Typology

English is an inflectional language: words are modified to express their grammatical function. Swahili is a polysynthetic language: complicated sentences are expressed using a single word (Fromkin, 2000). Swahili is a Subject-Verb-Object language in which the object and the subject can be null; this may lead to insertion of a zero morpheme. In a phrase, grammatical relations like subject and object are determined by the positions they are in. This makes Swahili a position language instead of a case language. In a case language (like German) the form of the noun or pronoun changes to show the grammatical relation. The following expression illustrates the use of SVO order in Swahili (Vitale, 1981) (Note: a gloss can be found in the appendix):

(1) Juma a-li-wa-piga watoto


‘Juma hit the children’


3 Word and morpheme classes

Many Swahili words are built up by using roots and affixes. Affixes may be described in terms of the class or category of the word they combine with, and the category of word found by the root and affix combination. Whereas roots do not change, many affixes do. Swahili morphology is summarily described under the main headings: pronouns and pronominal prefixes, verbs and noun classes (Safari & Akida, 1991).

3.1 Free and bound morphemes

Whether a morpheme is bound or free, can be defined by considering their occurrence. Morphemes that can occur on their own are said to be free. Bound morphemes need to be attached to other morphemes. In English, for instance, nouns are free- and determiners are bound morphemes (Fromkin, 2000). Both bound and free morphemes occur in Swahili, but there are more bound morphemes than free morphemes. In English, certain word classes are always bound (like nouns); in Swahili one word class can contain both bound and free morphemes:

(2) baba ‘father’

samaki ‘fish’

(3) m-toto ‘child’

wa-toto ‘children’

ki-su ‘knife’

vi-su ‘knives’

The nouns in example (2) (Mohammed, 2001) are free morphemes. The nouns in example (3) are bound morphemes. The word stems -toto and -su require a prefix that gives the word a certain number and class (Givon, 2001). Adjectives, like -dogo, meaning ‘small’, also need a number- and class prefix (m-, wa-, ki-, vi-, etc.). This leads to clauses like m-dogo, which can be used to express that it is small for a child (ibid.).

3.2 Pronouns and pronominal prefixes

Pronouns in Swahili are divided into personal, possessive, demonstrative, generalising and interrogative pronouns (Myachina, 1981). Personal pronouns have a morphemic structure built out of roots plus the appropriate marker.

These independent pronouns can stand on their own and function as an object or a subject. But they are only used in selective contexts: for instance the word ni ‘am’ as in ‘I am an African’ Mimi ni Africano. Next to that, they can also emphasize the subject of the sentence. In (2i’) and (2ii’), mimi underlines the subject (Benjamin, 1998):

(4) (i) Ninataka watoto ‘I want children’

(i’) Mimi ninataka watoto ‘I (really) want children’

(ii) Nitapita posta ‘I will pass by the post office’

(ii’) Mimi nitapita posta ‘I will pass by the post office’

A pronoun can never replace a pronominal prefix, if a construction requires a pronominal prefix. A pronominal prefix must be included whether or not an independent pronoun is used. *Mimi tapita posta is an ill formed Swahili sentence.

Pronominal prefix Person

ni- 1st person singular

u- 2nd person singular

a- 3rd person singular

tu- 1st person plural

m-/mw- 2nd person plural

w-/wa- 3rd person plural

Not only does the pronominal prefix marks the person, it also marks the subject or object position. This is determined by the place of the pronoun within the verb:

(5) Wao wanaamka ‘They are waking up’ (subject)

Mimi nitawaamsha ‘I will wake them up’ (object)

3.3 Verbs

Besides subject and object markers, tense markers can be attached to Swahili verbs as prefixes. The essential component of any finite verb is (in the following order): subject prefix – tense marker – verb root. If an object prefix is inserted, the verb root always follows. A negation marker of the verb always precedes the subject prefix (Safari & Akida, 1991).

The following template illustrates how Swahili verbs are built (Deen, 2001):

(6) Subject Agreement- Tense- Object Agreement- Verb-suffixes – Mood

(SA) (T) (OA) (V) (M)

The object agreement is an optional item. If there is a specific direct object, the object agreement is obligatory; if the direct object isn’t specific, the object agreement can be deleted (ibid.). Mood is always the final suffix. It can either be indicative -a, subjunctive -e, or negative -i. When the suffix is indicative, the word describes ongoing actions or states, habitual actions of the present, actions and states in the past or future and imperatives. The subjunctive mainly expresses desires, possibility, necessity and requests (ibid.). In Swahili clauses, the infinitive (a prefix) is rarely used; other inflectional prefixes are used to modify the clause. We can conclude that Swahili is a bare verb language. In English, bare stems are also used without the infinitive ‘to’ like in ‘I can sing’ (Deen, 2003).This puts the two languages in the same class: they are both bare verb languages instead of root infinitive languages.

3.4 Nouns

In Swahili, every noun is assigned to a specific noun class. The noun classes are generally marked by a class prefix. Swahili nouns are inflected for gender and number by a characteristically Bantu prefix system (Vitale, 1981). Gender is grammatical and affixes mark a noun for membership in a noun class. These are, for the most part, not definable on semantic grounds. There is a certain amount of discrepancy as to which of several numbering systems should be used in the classification of the gender system.

The original Swahili classes 12 and 13 have no reflexes in present-day Swahili. In modern Swahili, nouns are categorised in far less noun classes as shown below:

Table 5: Modern Swahili noun classes (Mohammed, 2001)

Note that classes 15, 16, 17 and 18 have not been illustrated above because they do not have plural forms Nouns in classes 1/2 denote only humans (but not all humans are in class 1/2). Class 14 refers to abstract characteristics. Class 15 has verbal infinitives and classes 16 – 18 are locatives. For the remaining classes the semantic base is less obvious. For example: class 3/4 contains words denoting plants and trees, class 9/10 contains names of animals, and class 6 contains liquids (Brown & Ogilvie, 2009).

3.5 Compounding

Like in English, words in Swahili compound to make a new word or give a specific definition to a word. This process of compounding mainly occurs in Swahili by conjoining two nouns (N+N), a noun and a verb (N+V), a noun and an adjective (N+A) and a verb and a noun (V+N). In some cases, compounding can also occur with a verb and a verb (V+V) or a verb and an adjective (V+A) (Nshubemuki, 1999). Table 6 shows a number of compounded terms in Swahili. Sometimes a word or term can get a whole new definition or can function in a whole new word class:

Table 6: Compounded Swahili words (ibid.)

Elements Swahili terms (English equivalent) derived Swahili term (English equivalent)

N+N msumeno (saw) + juu (top) msumenoju (top saw)

N+V kemikali (chemical) + amsha (stimulate) amshakikemilkali

(chemical stimulation)

N+A tumba (bud) + bwete (dormant) tumbabwete (dormant


V+N tegemea (depend(ent)) + kimelea (parasite) kimeleategemezi


V+V fanya (make) + tendana (to do with) mfanyikotendani (process)

V+A pasua (saw in two) + nyofu (straight) upasuajimnyofu

(to break down timber)

4 Inflection and derivation in Swahili verbs

The template of verbs in (6) makes it clear that inflection and derivation are morphological processes occurring in Swahili. Because of the importance of these processes, we will take a closer look at prefixation, suffixation, infixion and incorporation.

4.1 Prefixation

Swahili is a prefix language where the verb stem or root is usually preceded by derivational prefixes. In turn, these derivational prefixes are preceded by inflectional prefixes (Prikola, 2001). The verbal morphology of Swahili involves many productive inflectional and derivational morphemes. The verbal prefixes are mainly inflectional. The main prefixes indicate the subject and object agreement markers and the tense markers (Seidl & Dimitriadis, 2003). To specify this, we will give an example. Look at the Swahili sentences in (7) and their proposed translation in English, shown in between apostrophes (Fromkin, 2000):

(7) Ninasoma Tunasoma

Ni-na-soma Tu-na-soma

1S-Pres-read 1Pl-Pres-read

‘I am reading’ ‘We are reading’

First of all, let’s have a look at what the two sentences above have in common. There is the verb’s head, -soma, translated in English as ‘(to) read’. In (7) -soma works as the head of the sentence, the verb root. The morpheme -soma is bound. This verb root needs affixes, so that it can be used as a word (ibid.). The affixes in (7) are indicators of tense and person. Apparently, the prefix na- is a tense marker, which, combined with the verb root -soma, means something like ‘present tense read’, here translated as ‘is’ and ‘are’. The remaining prefixes Ni- and Tu- provide information whether the person who is reading is first person singular (‘I’) or first person plural (‘We’). Looking at these examples, we can say that inflected Swahili verbs give information about tense and person. These sentences are complex verbs, because a complete sentence can be expressed by forming one word (ibid.). We can therefore say that Swahili’s subject-verb-agreement morphology takes place through prefixes.

4.2 Suffixation

In Swahili, the verbal suffixes show derivation which can be very productive. Derivational morphemes increase the vocabulary, but their occurrence is not related to sentence structure (ibid.). The most productive and frequently used derivational morphemes are the causative, passive, stative, applicative and reciprocal ones. They function as an extension of the verb. Swahili verbs can carry some derivational suffixes, but are bound to a specific order after the verb root. Some derivational suffixes (such as the causative and applicative) add an argument, some absorb an argument and some leave the number of arguments unchanged (S&D, 2003).

4.3 Infixion and incorporation

In the passive form, we see that infixes can occur in Swahili verbs (Buell, 2002):

(8) kitabu hakitasomwa

kitabu ha- ki- ta- som- w- a

7.book neg- 7.subj- Fut- read- Pass- default.vowel

‘the book won’t be read’

In (8) we see that the -w- functions as an infix for the passive. As shown above, incorporation of pronouns occurs in Swahili. The pronouns are incorporated within the verb. Infixion in negating infinitival nouns can occur as well. Here the infinitival noun shows an act of doing (and is derived from a verb) and therefore shows no number. Infixion of the grammatical particle -to- gives a negation to the infinitival noun. To make this clear, we will give an example (Mohammed, 2001):

(9) kutokuja


5 Heads and hierarchy

The head of a word is the element that contains the category and other properties of the word itself (Lieber, 1981). There are different theories concerning head and hierarchy. Williams’ theory assumes that the category of the items and their composition are attached to syntactic features (Williams, 1981). In other words, the prefixes give information about number and class and syntactically modify the mother node. An example (Droste, 1989):

(10) shind root

shind-a ‘to conquer’ (verbal)

shind-i / shind-aji / shind-e ‘the conqueror’ (person)

m-shind-I / m-shind-aji / m-shind-e ‘who is conquered’

wa-shind-I / wa-shind-aji plural

(11) M-tu ‘person’

Wa-tu ‘persons’

Ji-tu ‘giant’

Ma-ji-tu ‘giants’

Ki-tu ‘thing’

vi-tu ‘things’

In English we see the same phenomenon:

(11) play Inf + -(e)d P ‘played’

Dog Sg + -s Pl ‘dogs’

Ugly Adj + -er Com ‘uglier’

The fact that the suffix here functions as the head leads to a contradiction in the analysis of the right head rule in the word shind. According to Selkirk, prefixes are markers for plural, tense and person. In m-shind-i, the suffix -i is the head and the nominalizer, the root -shind- is an unmarked non-head and the non-head m- is marked for class and number to be percolated. In m-tu the root -tu percolates its inherent nominal category, whereas the prefix again stands for number and class (Selkirk, 1984). According to Selkirk, suffixes in Swahili are responsible for the category of a word:

(12) A-li-vi-chom-a

Sg sub. – P-Pl-root-V

A-li-vi = non heads (but they show SA, TA and OA)

chom= root

-a = head

In English, the head always comes at the right most end of a word and determines the category or word class of the word. As mentioned above, we can conclude that in Swahili grammar membership of a word category is always determined by the right-hand morpheme. Williams noticed that the category of the items and the compositions are attached to syntactic features. Williams’ formulation of the right head rule therefore can be maintained.

6 Variation in morphology

In Swahili, there can be variation in morphology. In the following, we will take a closer look at the occurrence of allomorphy, free variation and portmanteau in Swahili.

6.1 Allomorphy and free variation

Allomorphs are morphemes that can be realized in different ways, while maintaining their meaning (Fromkin, 2000). In English, we see this in the word ‘pills’, which is pronounced as /pillz/, while the plural is usually formed by adding an consonant /-s/. Swahili also has allomorphs. For instance, the past tense markers -li and -ku. They are both used to express past tense, but differ in form. In passive verbs, the following allomorphs are used: -w, -liw, -iw and -w. For the causative verb, the allomorphs -sh, -esh, -sh, -z, -ez and -z (Mohammed, 2001). We see the same phenomenon with nouns. A word from noun class 1 takes mu- as a prefix, but when a class 1 noun starts with a vowel, the prefix changes to m- or mw- (Zawawi, 1979).

(13) muuguzi ‘nurses’

(14) mwezi ‘thieves’

Because there is an underlying rule to this change, this is conditioned allomorphy.

As we have seen, Swahili nouns take various class prefixes according to the class they belong. The noun class system is not as strict as implied. There are many words that do not fit in one of these classes based on a semantic characterization. There is variation which is illustrated in atypical, flexible, irregular, and un-prefixed nouns. A variation for the use of the noun classes is nominal derivation, by shifting nouns from one class to the other. For example, shifting nouns into class 7/8 denotes diminutive -kitoto ‘a small child’- while class 6 can be used to express a group of individuals, and not only the plural form: fisi (class 10) ‘hyenas’, mafisi (class 6) ‘a pack of hyenas’ .

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But not only the classification of the noun class can vary. There is also variation in the noun prefixes. Sometimes two noun classes share the same prefix, but do not share the same noun class. For example, the regular prefix in classes 1 and 3 is m- . Some agreements are the same for both classes, and some are not. This can depend on the phonological form of the prefix rather than the syntactic-semantic characteristics of the noun class (Alcock & Ngorosho, 2002).

6.2 Portmanteau

A morpheme that contains multiple meaningful elements, is called a portmanteau. These different elements of meaning cannot be segmented within the morpheme (Fromkin, 2000). For instance, in English, the verb ‘is’ represents third person, singular, present tense and the lexeme ‘be’. Portmanteaus also occur in Swahili. In the expression tu-li-wa-lim-ish-a, meaning ‘We made them cultivate’, the morpheme tu represents second person, plural and subject. In the same example, the morpheme wa represents first person, plural, object (Katamba, 1994). It is clear that in both cases, different phi-features are expressed in one morpheme. Therefore, we can conclude that they are portmanteaus.

7 Reduplication

Swahili contains morphological reduplication. This means that all or a part of a word is copied (completely or partial) to show a change in meaning or usage. An example of reduplication is monosyllabic reduplication (Akinlabi, 1995). In this case the reduplicated morpheme is phonologically similar in order to produce disyllabic words. This is total reduplication:

(15) ba-ba ‘father’

bu-bu ‘dumb person’

lu-lu ‘pearl’

kwi-kwi ‘hiccup’

A native consonant (C) plus a vowel (V) can be reduplicated, therefore this CV-structure is reduplicated. In some cases there is also a prefix involved. This prefix is responsible for the class of the word:

(16) m-dudu ‘an insect’

Neither monosyllabic stems such as ba or bu, nor trisyllabic stems such as bababa or bububu has the meaning of a disyllabic form like baba or bubu (ibid.).

Monosyllabic reduplication is also found in six personal independent pronouns, as shown in table 1 and in (17) below:

(17) Mimi ‘I’

Sisi ‘We’

Wewe ‘You’ (Sg)

Nyinyi ‘You’ (Pl)

Yeye ‘S/he’

These pronouns are only meaningful when they are combined with another morpheme. Trisyllabic reduplication of a monosyllabic word like in (18) shows us partial reduplication (Akinlabi, 1995).

(18) -eupe ‘white’ Nyeupe pepepe ‘very (snow) white’

-eusi ‘black’ Nyeusi tititi ‘very (pitch) black’

-fa ‘die’ Kufa fofofo ‘die completely’

Different meanings can occur when (parts of) words are reduplicated as shown in the monosyllabic, disyllabic and trisyllabic words in (19):

(19) Kaka ‘brother’

Kakaka ‘variety of vegetable’

Kakakaka ‘hastily’

In English, reduplication is not a regular process of word formation. It can occur though:

Exact reduplication; ‘papa, mama, goody-goody, never-never’

Ablaut reduplication; ‘zig-zag, ping-pong, flip-flop’

Rhyme reduplication; ‘razzle-dazzle, boogie-woogie, hodge-podge’

8 Problems in morphological analysis

While making this paper, we found some problems in analyzing Swahili morphology. In the following paragraphs we will look at some of these difficulties.

8.1 Zero morphemes

While analyzing Swahili expressions difficulties may occur because of the existence of zero morphemes (Ø). Zero morphemes are morphemes that are neither pronounced, nor written, but do have a certain function. They can be applied in different ways. In Swahili, Ø can occur in verbs, nouns and subjects.

8.1.1 Zero morphemes: verbs

When a verb is negated, the subject prefix is preceded by a negation marker si-, which replaces the pronominal subject prefix ni- and ha-. For instance, ‘I didn’t eat’ is sikukula in Swahili. Besides the pronominal subject prefix, the tense marker also changes, when the verb is negated. Some tense markers become null (Ø). These are the affirmative tense markers -a- (present simple), -na- (present continuous) and -hu- (present habitual) (Safari & Akida, 2003). An example (Lot Publications, 2010):

(20) ha-wa-ø-imb-i


‘They do not sing’

8.1.2 Zero morphemes: nouns

Looking at the noun classes in table 4, we see that nouns like fruits or produce of plants take the affix ma- in plural, but there is no affix to express the singular form. Therefore, the singular form takes a zero morpheme, as illustrated in (20) (Mohammed, 2001):

(21) Ø chungwa ‘an orange’ machungwa ‘oranges’

Ø ua ‘a flower’ mauwa ‘flowers’

The zero morpheme indicates that the word is singular. Besides the class that is shown in the example, there are many more classes that take a zero morpheme to differentiate between plural and singular. When we compare this to English, we see that in English, a singular noun is most likely to be preceded by a determiner and the plural form is often locked into the word (‘an apple’ – ‘apples’). But there are some nouns that carry a zero morpheme. For instance: the word ‘fish’ remains the same when the plural form is derived from the singular noun. In the plural form, a zero morpheme is the most right morpheme. This silent morpheme is placed here to distinguish between plural and singular nouns.

8.1.3 Zero morphemes: null subject and null objects

In some Swahili clauses, the subject or object is marked by a zero morpheme: the morpheme that marks the person and number of the subject or object is not written nor pronounced. The subject can be absent (22), as well as the object (23) (Deen, 2002):

(22) a – na – m – pend – a Mariam

SA3s – Pres- OA3s – like- Ind Mariam

‘He likes Mariam’

(23) a – na – m – pend – a

SA3s- Pres – OA3s – like – Ind

‘He likes her’

We can recognise the phi features of subject and object, looking at the subject- and object agreement within the verb. Swahili is a null subject language, whereas in English, subject dropping is less common (ibid.). In English, the subject can be dropped in informal communication (24). However, there are many restrictions: the subject can not be dropped in questions (25); stressed subjects can not be omitted (26); subject pronoun drop is not permitted in embedded clauses (27) (Weir, 2009):

(24) Don’t think I can make it tonight.

(25) *Are Ø going to the party?

(26) A: Who runs this place?

B: * Run this place.

(27) *Ø Don’t think Ø should go.

8.2 Stem marker -ku-

An other difficulty in analyzing Swahili morphology is the infinitival marker ku. As mentioned in the infinitival noun example in (9), some verbs in Swahili require the insertion of the morpheme -ku-. In negative infinitives, this would mean that there are two infinitival markers:

(28) ku-to-ku-j-a


‘not to come’

In his article ‘A lexical treatment for stem markers in Swahili’, Marten claims that the general analysis of the second -ku- in example (28) as a stem marker. A stem marker should be inserted when the tense markers cannot carry stress. The analysis of -ku- as a stem marker in example (28), implies unjustly that there are two infinitival markers in negative infinitives (Marten, 2002). It is clear that there is more than one way to analyze the morpheme -ku-.

8.3 Word boundaries

In Swahili, it is difficult to determine word boundaries. We can detect a boundary by looking at the verb template as given earlier in paragraph 3.3. Another important element in determining word boundaries, is stress (Zwart, 1997).

9 Conclusion

In this paper we gave a description of Swahili morphology and where possible, drew parallels between Swahili and English. There are some broad similarities between the two languages. Swahili and English share the same (bare verb-) language class. Both languages are right headed languages, even though in Swahili a finite vowel can be placed after the head. Many of the morphological processes that occur in Swahili, occur in English as well. However, the degree to which these processes occur, differs. In Swahili, inflection and derivation have a more decisive role than in English. The fact that Swahili nouns (which can be placed in different noun classes) are often bound and need a prefix, unlike in English, where most nouns are free, illustrates this. Reduplication is another phenomenon that occurs more often in Swahili than in English. In Swahili, even personal pronouns are reduplications. The use of zero morphemes, portmanteaus and allomorphs is also more common in Swahili than in English.

Swahili has some characteristics that cannot be related to English, like the problem of analyzing the stem marker -ku- and the determining of word boundaries. Another example is the way verbs are built. The verb template in Swahili differs from the verb template in English. The underlying cause of many of the differences between the languages is their typology: Swahili is a polysynthetic language, English is an inflectional language. The difference in typology is an important explanation for the difference in the occurrence of many of the morphological processes.


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