Decolonising the Imperative Conjugation (Swahili Verbs)

I read an article recently (really sorry I don’t remember exactly what, if I find it or you know what I’m talking about, please remind me and I’ll link it) that was talking about how colonial language guides for African languages continued the colonial structure of a foreign colonialist giving commands to their African servants. So, first chapter of the guide, there would be an emphasis on basic verbs and the imperative form, is that the language-learner could give commands like “make tea” or “bring me my jacket.”

As I’m reading this, I realize that I’ve seen a lot of language guides and textbooks to African languages that start with imperatives and commands. I still see them, rather commonly, actually. It is as though the textbooks haven’t improved since the colonial era, and the first thing you should do when speaking with an African person is issue a command. I don’t have the same impression of textbooks of European languages. Those tend to start their verb lessons either with the present tense, or the verb “I like” — leading to a much more “get-to-know-you” sort of conversation.

As I’ve been doing my own Swahili review and studying, this is what I’ve been thinking about when I think about imperatives in Swahili. If I’m going to write a page about Swahili imperatives, how do I (especially as a white person) actively work to dismantle these colonial structures, and write about this grammar point in a way that doesn’t continue to perpetuate colonial thinking about the African continent?

My thought is this: focus on commands that are given not to delegate work, but instead simply to interact. Teach visitors how to say “please, sit,” so that they can give their seat on a bus to an elderly person. Have tourists learn how to say “eat, drink,” so that they can invite new friends to lunch. Explain how some polite imperatives are suggestions, and how important it is to listen to locals’ suggestions.

So, with that in mind, here we go. Let me know what you think.

Swahili Imperative Tense

The basic thing you need to know about Swahili imperatives, is that they have two basic forms: singular and plural (ie. talking to one person, or talking to a group).

If you’re talking to one person, the imperative form is just the verb (no changes). I use the exclamation point when writing to remind myself that it’s the imperative tense, so forgive me if it “sounds” like I’m shouting. Here are a few examples:

  • Ambia! = Tell! (ie. a story or gossip)
  • Ingia! = Enter! (ie. a house/room)
  • Angalia! = Look!
  • Kaa! or Keti! = Sit! Stay! (ie. be at ease, stay a while)
  • Ngoja! = Wait!
  • Karibu! = Welcome!

If you’re talking to a group, there are two rules to form the imperative:

  1. Add “ni” to the end of the verb.
  2. If the original verb ended in “a,” change the “a” to an “e.”

Here are a few examples of imperatives you might give to a group of people, conjugated with that plural ending (ni).

  • Kunyweni maji! = Drink water!
  • Simameni! = Stand up!
  • Laleni! = Go to sleep!
  • Jaribuni = Try!

Notice how kunywa, simama, and lala all end in “a,” so that changed to an “e.” Jaribu, on the other hand, didn’t end in “a,” so we just added the “ni.”

Ta-da, that’s the imperative verb form! Let’s move on to the subjunctive, which can also be used to give commands, but is generally more polite (more of a suggestion).

Swahili Subjunctive Tense

The subjunctive tense is used to give “suggestions,” which can often be used as a “polite” command. It’s formed relatively simply, as follows:

  1. To start, use the subject pronoun of whoever you’re speaking to. The most common would be “u” (for you-singular), “m” (for you-plural), and “tu” (we, for saying things like “let’s…”).
  2. If it’s in the negative, you add a “si” before the verb.”
  3. Add in the verb.
  4. If the verb ends in “a,” change it to “e.” If it doesn’t end in “a,” don’t change anything.

And that’s it! Here are several examples of how this tense can be conjugated, and situations in which it might be useful. Remember that as this tense is used to give advice, a wise language learner will be listening for this tense more than they are using it (knowing that, as a foreigner, they will likely be listening for rather than giving advice.).

Note: I’ve translated most of these as commands. They could also be translated as “should” sentences, such as “you should greet the guests” instead of “greet the guests.” In any case, it’s a polite command.

  • Ustarehe. Relax, make yourself at home.
  • Uwamkie wageni. Greet the guests.
  • Twende! Let’s go!
  • Usisahau. Don’t forget.
  • Msikimbie! Don’t run!
  • Tushukuru. We should give thanks.
  • Niache! Let go of me! (the “ni” is an object marker for “me”)

And that’s it! I quite like the Swahili subjunctive — it’s used quite often, and is a nicer way of making suggestions than the direct imperative.

In any case, there you have it! I hope that’s a bit of an improved approached to the “command” tenses, and remember — especially as a traveller: be the type of person who listens for suggestions and the ideas of others, rather than the type who is always ordering others around.

Got any thoughts on other ways colonialism, language-learning and grammar intersect? I’d love to hear it, leave a comment below!

Swahili Verbs: A Crash Course

So, you’re going on a trip to one of the Swahili-speaking countries of eastern Africa. You want to learn a few words, to be able to communicate the basics, but don’t plan on diving into a full course. Nouns are cute, but unless you just plan on pointing at random objects and declaring “table” and “chicken,” you’re going to need some verbs.

You’re in the exact right place. Welcome to a crash course in Swahili verbs, made just for you.

I get it — you don’t want a grammar lesson. But, there’s nothing more confusing than saying “you want” when you really mean “I want”. So, allow me the teensiest little bit of grammar, and you’ll be on your way soon enough.

How Swahili Verbs Are Formed (A Grammar Lesson You Won’t Hate)

Swahili verbs have three basic parts, so when you see a verb, I want you to think “who-when-what.”

WHO

Swahili verbs usually start with the “who” — the subject. Swahili has many subject pronouns (more than English), but here, we’ll just look at six related to people.

  • ni = I
  • u = you (singular)
  • a = he/she
  • tu = we
  • m = you (plural, like ya’ll)
  • wa = they

If that’s too much, you can focus on just learning “ni = I” and “u = you,” but if you can take a few minutes and remember all six, that’ll really expand your Swahili skills without too much effort.

WHEN

Got nightmares of high school language class, and horribly complex conjugations? Welcome to your salvation. While Swahili verbs have some complex conjugations, the basic tenses are both regular and quite straightforward.

  • li = past
  • na = present
  • ta = future

You might also hear “me” being used instead of “li” for the past tense. “Me” is used for the present perfect (ie. past events which happened very recently) compared to “li” for the simple past. You can think of “me” in sentences like “I have eaten” vs. “li” in sentences like “I ate.”

WHAT

So, the last part is the “what” — what is actually happening, what verb do you want to use?

Verbs in Swahili are written with a “ku” at the beginning in the infinitive. So, simply put, “kusafiri” means “to travel,” and then (if we take away the “ku”), “safiri” means “travel.”

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER: WHO-WHEN-WHAT

So, now that you know the three parts, we can smash it all together. No, seriously – you just smash them all together, into one big word. Let’s look at an example.

NINASAFIRI: If you break it down, you’ll see we’ve got ni-na-safiri, which is literally I-present-travel. So, “I travel” in Kiswahili is “ninasafiri.”

Now, we’ll go through a set of basic verbs — the ones you’re most likely to use during your travels.

Useful Swahili Verbs, Conjugated and Ready For Action

Now, there are certain sentences you’re more likely to use than others. For example, you might say “I want” on a regular basis, but you’d rarely use “you all want.” So, as I list some useful verbs, I’ll include some of the useful possible conjugations, and leave out the less frequent versions.

Note: We haven’t gone over conjugations in the negative, but it can often be quite useful. I’ll include negatives for certain verbs, where it might be useful for you.

  1. kuomba (to ask for, request): ninaomba (I am asking for, often used as “could I please have), tunaomba (we are asking for)
  2. kuenda/kwenda (to go): tunaenda (we are going), nilienda (I went), nitaenda (I will go), siendi (I don’t/won’t go)
  3. kutaka (to want): ninataka (I want), sitaki (I don’t want), unataka (do you want), wanataka (they want)
  4. kuhitaji (to need): unahitaji (you need), ninahitaji (I need)
  5. kusafiri (to travel): wanasafiri (they travel), ninasafiri (I travel)
  6. kurudi (to come back): ninarudi (I’m coming back), tunarudi (we’re coming back), utarudi (you will come back)
  7. kupenda (to like/love): ninapeda (I like), unapenda (you like)
  8. kulala (to sleep): umelala (you have slept), nitalala (I will sleep)
  9. kutembelea (visit): nimetembelea (I have visited), utatembelea (you will visit)
  10. kula (to eat): nimekula (I have eaten), sili (I don’t eat), tunakula (we eat)

As I’m writing this, I am sure there are more things that could do with a further explanation, if you’re interested. I’ll leave it there for now, to keep this a quick traveller’s guide, but please comment if there’s anyt

One Backpack (Beginner’s Swahili Reading Practice)

With a trip to eastern Africa soon approaching, I’ve been working to dust off my very rusty (and, at this point, frankly quite mediocre) Swahili. Regardless of the current condition of my language skills, work pays off, so it’s time to but in the elbow grease!

So, I’ve written the following passage in Kiswahili, as a writing exercise for myself. It’s quite basic, but I figured it could be decent reading practice (just like it was good writing practice for me). If you’re also a beginner, hopefully this is good practice, and if you’re fluent/advanced, please feel free to comment with any suggestions/corrections!

“Mfuko wa Begani Mmoja” (One Backpack)

Kwa safari yangu ya Afrika Mashariki, nina mfuko wa begani mmoja. Katika mfuko, nina nguo, sabuni, vitabu, na kilalio. Sina nguo nyingi, kwa sababu mfuko si mkubwa sana. Nitabeba mfuko mwenyewe wakati wa safari hiyo, kwa hiyo sitaki mfuko mkubwa.

Kabla ya safari, wasafiri wanafikiri mengi kuhusu mifuko yao. Lakini, baada ya safari kuanza, hawafikiri juu ya mifuko yao. Mifuko si muhimu sana, na mimi nimechoka kufikiri juu ya mifuko yangu! Nimechoka kusubiri. Niko tayari kwenda, na ninataka kupata ndege!

For my trip to East Africa, I have one backpack. In the backpack, I have clothing, soap, books, and a sleeping bag. I do not have a lot of clothing, because the bag is not very big. I will carry the bag myself during the trip, so I do not want a heavy bag.

Before a trip, travellers think a lot about their bags. But, after the trip starts, they don’t think about their bags. Bags are not so important, and I am tired of thinking about my bag! I am tired of waiting. I am ready to go, and I just want to get on the plane!

ትግርኛ (Tigrinya) Language-Learning Resources

Lately, it seems as though all search results for Tigray come back with “war,” but Tigray also has a rich history as a cultural, religious, and artistic hub (not to mention the gorgeous landscapes).

Here are a few resources for anyone interested in learning Tigrinya, the language of Tigray (the northern region of Ethiopia) and parts of Eritrea. Tigrinya is a Semitic language, closely related to Amharic, and is written using a script that is very, very similar to the Amharic script (with a few extra letters)

Basic Phrases/Phrasebooks

  • Omniglot has their standard phrasebook, which is often a good place to start (everything is written in English letters and Tigrinya’s script).
  • Eritrea.be has a solid set of basic phrases, questions, and vocabulary (albeit only transcribed into English, and not written in the Tirgrinya script).

Basic Vocabulary Sets

  • UCL’s website has the Tigrinya numbers, with audio recordings to help your pronunciation.
  • Geez Experience has a great collection of vocabulary sets, with audio recordings, available on their site. Some pages seem to still be under construction, but still a great resource.
  • Memhr also has a great collection of organised vocabulary sets, with some practice exercises as well.
  • This Tigrinya Picture Dictionary (PDF) is a great tool for beginners, and is easy to print to study offline.

Basic Grammar Guides

  • Memhr also has a good set of basic grammar lessons on their site, along with their vocabulary sets.
  • Swarthmore’s Wiki has a good run-down of some grammar topics for the experienced language-learner, but it’s not very intuitive for beginners.

Further Resources (Intermediate/Advanced)

  • Goethe-Verlag has an extensive collection of Tigrinya conversational situations on their website, with audio recordings.
  • u/dorinodino on Reddit has posted this Google Drive with some cool resources for listening in Tigrinya, as well as a document with a variety of sentences translated between English and Tigrinya.
  • Aethiopica has a cool article about using proverbs for language-learners. The second half of the article is full of Tigrinya proverbs organised to support different language-learning points, which is an amazing resource for the intermediate Tigrinya-learner.

As always, if you know of any other resources that should be added to this list, please let me know! Happy language-learning.

Resources for Learning Ge’ez/Fidel (Amharic/Tigrinya Script)

Ge’ez (also known as “fidel”) is the writing system used to write Amharic, Tigrinya, and several other Ethiopian (and Eritrean) languages. It’s technically an abugida (not an alphabet). While alphabets use one letter per sound, an abugida uses one character per consonant, which is modified according to the vowel sound which follows. The result is that there are a LOT of characters, but they follow a regular pattern, making them rather satisfying to learn!

Here are some resources you can use, made for adults (not children or younger students) looking to learn to read/write.

  1. So Many Fidels: This printable ebook has everything you need — pronunciation guides, handwriting practice, and even exercises to help you read and write Amharic words, in fidel. I wrote this book to be the reading/writing guide I wish I’d had when learning Amharic. Of course, I’ve got author bias, but it is truly one of the most user-friendly, detailed, practice-filled tools out there.
  2. Amharic Tutor: This is a website where you can click on the different fidels to hear them pronounced. It’s a great tool in the beginning to familiarize yourself with the sounds and patterns of the script.
  3. Amharic Beginnings: This is a printable review sheet, where you can practice re-writing the individual letters into the chart.
  4. T is for Timhirt: This workbook provides little explanation, but is another option for printouts if you’d like to practice writing and re-writing individual letters

There are also an abundance of Youtube videos to go over the sounds of each letter. Good luck with your language-learning!

On Self-Acceptance (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.2)

If there’s anything harder than accepting your own faults, it’s accepting your own regressions. For those who have lost certain capacities due to injury or illness, the phrase “I used to be able to” holds so much pain. Of course, whether physical or otherwise, we all have lost capacities, and will continue to do so. That’s what being human is — a progress of gaining and losing, growing and shrinking in different ways. To become anything is an active process, and there is no stagnation. Either we rise or we fall — we cannot stay, poised in midair.

The hardest thing about catching yourself from that falling, however, is admitting that you were falling in the first place. To improve, we need to admit fault. We need to admit that we were not as good as we once were. We need to admit that we don’t actually remember that basic vocabulary word, that we don’t know things we used to, that this is harder than we expected it to be. Moreover, the fact that it’s harder than we expected is okay. It’s okay that we’re not as good as we once were — that’s why we’re here, working on it.

Mimi ni mwanafunzi mzuri. I am a good student.
Mimi si mwanafunzi mbaya. I am not a bad student.

There’s a certain peace to be found in starting a Duolingo course from the beginning, especially for a language I already (at one point in my life) knew. It’s a similar feeling to sitting in a classroom full of children, squeezing yourself into a tiny desk, and peering up at the teacher, wide-eyed like you used to do. As children, we were a lot gentler with ourselves. Kindergarteners generally don’t chastise themselves for not being better at math, so I strive to be a kindergartener in my own mind. I experience, I listen, I take satisfaction in the slow and steady progress of moving through this learning, without worrying about how or how fast or why I’m not already better. I allow myself to be excited for small successes — the single vocabulary word I get correct, that difficult sentence that pings green (especially if I thought I got it wrong). The sentences are simple, but they stick.

Patience, kid. You’ve got this. It’s all a process; just keep grinding.

On Attrition (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P.1)

If someone asks me how many languages I know, I really don’t know how to answer. “They come quickly, and leave quickly,” I tell them, and it’s true. I study languages fast, and reach proficiency quickly. This usually happens when I’m living in a country where the language is spoken. Then, when I leave, it slowly starts to melt, dripping away until it’s gone. It’s almost like the remnant is a smell — something I recognise, and can place, but it’s not quite the same as eating it again.

I studied Swahili for two years, as a college student. The real adventure of my Swahili-learning journey was that my Swahili classes were actually conducted in French, which is already my second language.In any case, I studied a lot on my own, and reached a good level of proficiency. My final presentation was a discussion of the migration crisis in Europe, in Swahili, as an example of what sorts of topics I was capable of discussing in the language.

Then, I moved to Kenya for six months. While my work environment was in English, I used Swahili every day. I lived in a rural area, and English was uncommon. I used Swahili when I hitch-hiked to town, when I went to the market, when I bought anything, ate anything, talked to anyone outside of work. I used to joke that I worked in English, but lived in Swahili.

However, when I left Kenya, my Swahili atrophied. My language-learning focus shifted to Amharic, and then Somali. The Swahili I once knew began drip, drip, dripping out of my brain. Linguistic atrophy, I believe they call it. Now, I can hardly form a sentence — a truly painful realization.

Now, I am in Somaliland, trying to learn Somali and Arabic simultaneously, while already working to maintain my Amharic and French. It’s enough — it really is — but there’s always this nagging in the corner of my mind, urging me to fix up my Swahili, to dust off the vocabulary and return to the language. It wouldn’t be that hard, my brain tells me. Just some elbow grease. Put in the work.

So, I’ve started using Duolingo. Believe me, this is a strange thing for me to say. I’ve never been all that interested in the platform, as I see language connected to place and experience. Learning a language without in-person practice, without specific vocabulary words I’m searching for, communication gaps I need to fill — strange concept, at least in my mind. The idea that Duolingo will feed me a pre-determined vocabulary list, regardless of which words I actually want or don’t want to learn… I just don’t love it.

However, as a review tool — a tool to maintain a language I used to know? To go back and remind me of words I’d hidden in the attic of my brain? To dust off the cobwebs? To get that daily routine going, to keep it from slipping away again? This is working great. I’m surprised at how well this is working. I think it’s the routine, the mindlessness of it. As long I just do it, it happens. There’s so little to think about, so few excuses to get in the way of actually just putting in the elbow grease. Strangely enough, while the mindlessness is what kept me away from learning a new language on Duolingo, the mindlessness is what’s keeping me there to re-learn a language I already knew.

On being the one to stumble.

We have language exchange for an hour, twice a week. We sit at a picnic table, speaking English for the first half hour and Somali for the second half hour. In English, I wear my “encouraging” face, nodding with eyebrows raised, while she sputters and stumbles around absentee vocabulary. In Somali, I sputter and she encourages, repeating sentences so slowly they cease to connect — just a list of words I struggle to grasp.

I appreciate her, though. We have a sort of mutual understanding, which is surprisingly hard to come by. We both recognise that the other has thoughts and ideas far beyond what is expressible in a foreign tongue. I can see it in her eyes, the way they search and consider and crinkle around the edges when the right word doesn’t come. She can see it in my hands, in how they tense and flatten with frustration when I can’t transform my thought into Somali. We just sit there, looking at each other, trying to guess what the other wants to say. 

It must be something incredible, I think. She is already an incredible speaker in English, even though she’s missing basic words like “stone” and “roof.” To understand her in Somali would be beyond striking, and that has become my motivation. I don’t care about buying things in the market, or answering the phone — no, no. I just want to learn Somali to understand her ideas, the ones that just won’t cooperate in English.

I listen — ii gu celi? — and then listen again. I can tell she’s continuing our conversation about justice, but I lose her in translation. My response is feeble, but I’m glad for the chance to try. Otherwise, our interactions would be defined by English. I would always be fluent, and she would always have to stumble.

Do They Not See The Birds? (Thoughts from Arabic Class, P.1)

I’ve started attending Arabic classes twice a week — one class for standard Arabic, and one class for Qur’an.

In Qur’an class, the student beside me reads the verses out loud with a fluency I have yet to achieve, repeating longer and longer sections of the verse until she can recite the verse in its entirety. Like much in life, there is a method to the learning, and she is an expert in the process. It comes out in breaths, not sentences. Exhale, and there is a verse. Quick inhale, and the recitation resumes.

Standard Arabic class, on the other hand, is stilted for all of us. It’s strange, somehow, like learning a language we already know — me, having already studied it, and the others, having recited in it for their entire lives. We read quickly, beyond thinking about the pronunciation of individual letters. Yet, we still stumble on basic grammar, asking the teacher what the difference between “he” and “she” is.

Yes, of course, we nod vigorously as she re-explains what we knew all along, somewhere inside. This learning is like digging up treasures we buried ourselves and then forgot the locations of.

Pieces of both classes echo in my mind at the end of the week, an alternating chorus.

What is your name? Where are you from?
The knowledge is only with Allah.

What is your nationality?
Do they not see the birds above them with wings spread and folded in?
Her brother is an engineer.
Return your vision to the sky. Do you see any breaks?

Fluency still feels like a distant horizon, but there is some poetry in not fully understanding.

Bilingual Reading Practice for African Languages

As a language-learner, trying to read in your target language is great practice! For those who already have some basis in the language, it can really help you hone your skills. For those with less experience, it’s a great way to immerse yourself (especially when real-life immersion isn’t possible).

That being said, it’s also really challenging! Sometimes, if you don’t understand what a text is saying, it’s easy to get lost and simply give up. Since Google Translate doesn’t support many African languages (or at least not well), it’s hard to figure out what a confusing sentence means.

That’s why bilingual reading practice (where the passage is available in both your L1 and your L2, both your first and second languages) is so helpful. You can read, and then check that you understood. Read, and then use the translation to figure out what that weird sentence meant. Read, and then deduce some new grammar rules based on the translation.

So, for your language-study needs, here are a few (online, free) bilingual reading resources. Happy reading!

  • Nalibali has MANY stories on their website, available in various South African languages: English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, and Xitsonga. For language-learners, this would be for the intermediate level.
  • Bilingual-Picturebooks has a really cool tool where you can search for books by language, and then generate a book by selecting the two languages you’d like — super cool! As far as African languages, they have books in Luganda, Pulaar, Siswati, and Tigrinya.
  • Global Storybooks has a cool tool where you can select books by country, and then toggle each page between the languages of that country. For example, the Kenya page allows readers to flip back and forth between Swahili and English versions. Plus, it includes audio! Countries/languages include CAR (Sango, Peul, Zandé), Gabon (Fang, Myene, Punu, Nzebi, Mbere, Shira), Ghana (Dagbani, Dagaare, Ewe, Frafra, Ga, Gonja, Hausa), Guinea (Fulani, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle), Kenya (Swahili, Ekegusi, Gikuyu, Kikamba, Maa, Ng’aturkana, Olukhayo, Oromo, Samburu, Somali), Madagascar (Malagasy), Mali (Arabic, Bambara, Bomu, Tieyaxo Bozo, Toro so Dogon, Maasina Fulfulde, Mamara Senoufo, Kita Maninkakan, Soninke, Koyraboro Senni, Syenara Senoufo, Tamasheq, Xaasongasango), Mauritius (Kreol), Nigeria (Pidgin, Fulfulde, Hausa, Kanuri, Yoruba, Zarma), South Africa (isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siSwati, Tshivenda, Ndebele), Sierra Leone (Limba, Mende, Temne), Rwanda (Kinyarwanda, Swahili), Tanzania (Maa, Swahili), Uganda (Swahili, Acholi, Adhola, Alur, Aringa, Ateso, Kakwa, Khayo, Kinyarwanda, Lubukusu, Luganda, Lugbarati, Lukhonzo, Lumasaaba, Lunyole, Lusoga, Ma’di, Runyankore, Rutooro), Zambia (Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi, Tumbuka), as well as the relevant foreign languages (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Gujrati, Mandarin, etc.) for each country.

If you know of any other bilingual reading resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to the list!