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!