Swahili is an agglutinative language of East Africa with complex verbal morphology. This page documents the grammatical details of the conjugation of Swahili verbs. For derivational forms, see Appendix:Swahili verbal derivation.
Note that in this page, the noun classes have been given in terms of the standard numbers used in linguistic analysis, but the treatment of Swahili nouns on Wiktionary actually follows a slightly different system; see Appendix:Swahili noun classes for more.
Overview of conjugational paradigms
Broadly speaking, there are three paradigms for conjugation, which will be called normal verbs, Arabic verbs, and monosyllabic verbs on this page. There is also a copular verb, which is a very irregular monosyllabic verb. Normal verbs always end in -a, Arabic verbs end in any other vowel, and monosyllabic verbs end in -a and usually have a monosyllabic stem (the exceptions are -isha and -enda, the latter of which has moved to the normal verbs in colloquial speech). The finite verb form is constructed as follows:
subject concord + TAM marker + (object concord) + stem
The concord is a morpheme which allows for agreement based on noun class in a specified semantic role. The object concord only appears for transitive verbs, and is optional for them. The habitual, subjunctive, and imperative forms are technically TAM, but are not marked in the TAM slot.
For normal verbs, the final vowel -a can be replaced in various contexts (as with -i for the negative present, with -e for the subjunctive, with -eni for the imperative plural, etc). Arabic verbs end with a vowel other than -a, and it is invariant.
Monosyllabic verbs treat the infinitive with ku- as the stem when building certain inflected forms, due to the fact that the penultimate syllable is always stressed in Swahili verbs. Some infixes cannot take stress, and the inserted -ku- takes the stress instead. The only infixes which can take stress are -ku-, -ki-, -ka-, -si-, hu-, -a-, all subject and object concords, and (for most speakers) -ja-. All forms that would otherwise stress a syllable other than those listed will add ku- to the stem.
- In speech, this class is often simply (ha)m- except before vowels and syllabic nasals.
|TAM||Past||Present||Future||Present conditional||Past conditional||Conditional contrary to fact||Perfect||"already"||"if/when"||Consecutive||Gnomic||"not yet"||"if not"|
- ^ The 1st and 2nd person forms can optionally be extended to -li- can be nali-, twali-, wali-, mwali- (using -ali- with the same collapse of the prefixes as -a-).
- ^ The 1s nina- can be optionally collapsed to na-.
- ^ Note that the gnomic, because it starts with a vowel, causes a collapse of the subject concord. The positive pronominal forms are 1sg. n-, 2sg. w-, 3sg. Ø-, 1pl. tw-, 2pl. mw-, 3pl. w-. The class concords collapse as they do to form the syllabic onset in the inflected forms of -a.
- ^ The final -i replaces the final vowel in normal and monosyllabic verbs, but there is no change in the final vowel of Arabic verbs.
- These forms take positive subject concords. Alternatively, their negative forms can be expressed with negative subject concords and the positive forms of the conditional markers.
Some grammarians regard -ja- as the negative form of -me- and -sipo- as the negative form of -ki-, but the uses of these tenses is subtly different, and thus can be considered as independent. The negative present can also be viewed as the negative form of the gnomic.
The "if/when" marker, -ki-, can also be used analogously to a present active participle in European languages, so Watu wakiimba can be translated as "the people when they are singing" as well as "the singing people", depending on context. The "if not" marker, -sipo-, takes positive subject concords.
The conditional TAM markers, though theoretically distinct, are often used interchangeably in colloquial Swahili. The marker -ngeli- is not used in literary Standard Swahili at all, and all conditional forms may be used to denote actions contrary to fact. The inferred tense ultimately depends on the temporal context of the sentence, not the specific conditional form used.
All the class object concords are the same as for the subject, except class 1 is -m-.
- For verbal stems that begin with a vowel, this becomes -mw-.
- ^ Two other ways of expressing this exist, using the suffix -eni with either the second-person singular or the second-person plural object concord.
Some verbs may take on an idiomatic meaning when used reflexively; this is not considered to be derivational, but instead is marked in lemma entries with the context label (reflexive).
The habitual is a TAM form that is not marked in the TAM slot, used to indicate an action that is performed customarily. The prefix hu- is placed as a prefix, and nothing besides the object concord can be added. There is no negative habitual.
The negative infinitive is formed with kuto-, and for monosyllabic verbs this is prefixed to the full positive infinitive. Older or dialectal texts may use kutoku-, kutoa-, or other similar forms instead for all verbs.
The imperative is used for orders. The singular is simply the bare stem; the plural replaces the final vowel -a with -eni (but is simply stem + -ni for the imperative plural of Arabic verbs). Monosyllabic verbs preserve the ku- at the beginning of the stem in the imperative forms. A few verbs have irregular or defective imperatives.
The imperative can take object concords, but then the singular has the final vowel change to -e. It takes no other concords or markers.
The negative imperative is formed by prefixing the imperative with si-, but is rare or dialectal (in modern Standard Swahili, it is usually supplanted by the negative subjunctive).
The subjunctive is technically a TAM marker, but is treated separately because it is not marked in the usual TAM slot. However, it cannot coexist with any other TAM marking on the verb except the consecutive -ka-. Some uses of the subjunctive are semantically imperative, and may be considered hortatory or "polite imperative" uses.
The final vowel changes to -e for normal and monosyllabic verbs; Arabic verbs undergo no change.
The negative subjunctive has -si- immediately after the subject prefix, which is the same prefix used for the positive subjunctive.
The relative forms of the verb are used to make relative clauses in literary Swahili, but are less common in modern colloquial Swahili, in which relative clauses are constructed with the pronoun amba-. The relatives depend on a special morpheme sometimes referred to as the “-o of reference”.
|-o of reference||ye||ye||ye||o||o||o|
|-o of reference||ye||o||o||yo||lo||yo||cho||vyo||yo||zo||o||ko||po||ko||mo|
The relative can be tensed or tenseless (general). When it is tensed, the -o of reference is placed immediately after the TAM marker. The only TAM markers that can be used with a relative are: past -li-, present -na-, and future -taka- (which replaces the usual future form -ta- for relative forms only).
The general relative is independent of TAM, and therefore always lacks a TAM marker. This form takes the “-o of reference” at the end, as a suffix following the final vowel -a.
The negative relative is always general (tenseless, without a TAM marker), and inserts the -o of reference immediately after -si-, which in turn is placed immediately after the positive subject concord.
All relative forms can also take object concords. Certain relative forms are still in common use in colloquial Swahili: the locative classes of the general relative are often used on the copula, and class 16 and class 8 are often used with tensed relatives on other verbs, to denote the time at which something is done and the manner in which something is done, respectively.
Some tenses are expressed with periphrastic constructions, using various auxiliary verbs. The principal such verbs are:
- -kuwa, followed by a conjugated verb (usually with -ki- or -na-), indicating the progressive TAM.
- -isha, followed by an infinitive or bare verb stem, meaning "already" (with a collapsed form -mesha- used as a TAM marker)
- -ja, followed by an infinitive, future, or subjunctive, meaning "going to"
- -enda in the perfect or past, followed by an infinitive or bare verb stem, meaning "just at that time" or "just now", depending on the temporal context
- -weza, followed by an infinitive, meaning "be able to", "be possible that"
- -pata, followed by an infinitive or bare verb stem, meaning "get to, get the chance to" (and "never be able" in the negative)
- -taka, followed by an infinitive or bare verb stem, meaning "be about to"
- E. O. Ashton (1947), Swahili Grammar (Including Intonation), 2nd ed.
- M. A. Mohammed (2001), Modern Swahili Grammar