We’ve got no time for fluff today, so here’s the deal: I studied Swahili for two years in university, and lived for six months in Kenya. I’ve never been fluent or advanced in Swahili, but my proficiency used to be a lot better than it is now. Soon, I’ll be headed back to east Africa, so I’m trying to bring my Swahili language skills back up to a functional level.
Whether you’re trying to review yourself, or teach yourself for the first time, I hope this can be helpful (and not too overwhelming — it is a crash course, after all, not a doctoral thesis).
Personal Subject Pronouns (I, You, We, They, He, She)
Use these are the beginnings of sentences, although they are more “optional” than in English (as the subject is often already implied according to the verb conjugation in Swahili). My old Swahili teacher (shoutout to Mme Dumeril) often translated “mimi” as “as for me, I” (instead of just “I”).
|I||You (s)||He/She||We||You (pl)||They|
Ni: The Verb “To Be” (Am, Is, Are)
Here’s a gift: the verb “to be” in Swahili, conjugated for anyone in the present tense, is simply “ni.”
|I am||You (s) are||He/She is||We are||You (pl) are||They are|
|Mimi ni||Wewe ni||Yeye ni||Sisi ni||Nyinyi ni||Wao ni|
Words About People That Start With “M-” (ie. Singular)
If you’ve heard about Swahili noun classes, that’s wonderful, but for this crash course, we’re not going to get too far into that. For now, let’s just start with Swahili words about people (nouns, specifically) which begin with the letter “m.”
- Mkenya = Kenyan person
- Mtanzania = Tanzanian person
- Mwafrika = African person
- Mmarekani = American person
- Mzungu = foreign/white person
- Mwanafunzi = student
- Mwalimu = teacher
- Mhandisi = engineer
- Msafiri = traveller
- Mwandishi = writer
- Mwanasiasa = politician
- Mkulima = farmer
Feel free to add any other vocabulary you’d like, depending on your situation and what’s useful to you.
Now, we can easily make sentences.
- Mimi ni Mmarekani = I am American.
- Yeye ni mwalimu. = She is a teacher.
- Wewe ni mwandishi. = You are a writer.
As a note: there is no separate word for indefinite pronouns in Swahili (ie. no “a” or “an” before nouns), so you can just omit it when translating.
Word About People That Start with “Wa-” (ie. Plural)
Spoiler alert: when the “m-” changes to “wa-,” the word changes from singular to plural (like adding an “s” to the end of English words).
- msafiri = traveller, wasafiri = travellers
- mkulima = farmer, wakulima = farmers
- Mkenya = Kenyan person, Wakenya = Kenyan people
So, you’ll use “m-” nouns with the singular subject pronouns (mimi, wewe, and yeye) and “wa-” nouns with the plural pronouns (sisi, nyinyi, and wao).
- Mimi ni mwanafunzi. = I am a student.
- Wao ni Watanzania. = They are Tanzanian.
- Yeye ni mhandisi. = She is an engineer.
- Nyinyi ni wanasiasa = You (all) are politicians.
Words About People That Don’t Start With “M-” or “Wa-” (Family Vocabulary)
A lot of family related words don’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and they’re their own grammatical category.
- mama = mother
- baba = father
- kaka = brother
- dada = sister
- bibi = grandmother
- babu = grandfather
- shangazi = aunt
- mjomba = uncle
- binti = daughter
- mwana = son
Possessives (My, Your, His, Her, Our, Their)
Possessives in Swahili are formed with a possessive marker (an extra word), which comes after the noun. You can think in your head that you’d say “mother my” instead of “my mother.”
The possessive marker has two parts. Let’s start with the ending, because that’s the part that translates to English. I’m writing the Swahili word with a dash in front, to remind you that this is only the second part of the word.
|My||Your (s)||His/Her||Our||Your (pl)||Their|
The beginning of the possessive marker comes from the word that is being “possessed.” For example, if you’re trying to translate “my teacher,” the first part of the possessive will come from “teacher.”
Here’s what the first part will be:
- If the word is a word about people that starts with “m-” (singular) OR “wa-” (plural), the possessive starts with “w-.”
- If the word is a family-related word that doesn’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and it’s singular, the possessive starts with “y-.”
- If the word is a family-related word that doesn’t start with “m-” or “wa-,” and it’s plural, the possessive starts with “z-.”
Here are some examples:
- mama yangu = my mother
y- from mama, -angu for “my”
- mwalimu wake = his teacher
w- from mwalimu, -ake for “his”
- binti zao = their daughters
z- from daughters, -ao for “their”
You can also use this in full sentences.
- Yeye ni dada yangu. = She is my sister.
- Wao ni wanafunzi wetu. = They are our students.
- Shangazi yako ni mhandisi. = Your aunt is an engineer.
And keep going from there!
Obviously that’s not everything you’ll ever need, but it’s a crash course! Let me know if you have questions or specific requests about other topics/sections to cover.