Swahili #1

Swahili has for a long time been a language I have wanted to learn. Recently I decided to turn that wish into reality by buying the most recomended book I managed to find on the interwebs: simplified Swahili by Wilson, P.M..

The book seems well structured and simple enough, but there are no audio recodrings made. This is however but a small issue. In the preface the author claims that the book in its entirety can be covered in about two to three months, doing one chapter a day. I myself think that this is a reasonable estimate if  you simply aim to cover the material. Learning all the vocabulary contained however will take more time.

I've already completed the first chapters:

Chapter 1 - Pronunciation

This is moslty straightforward. The following list presents some special consonants:

  • sh - ʃ: like sh in English
  • ch - : like ch in English
  • kh - x: like ch in loch
  • gh - ɣ: vocalized version of the above
  • th - θ: like the th in thank
  • dh - ð: like the th in this
  • h  - h: a sound made by aspiration, like h in Norwegian

Chapter 2 - Greetings

The author mentions the importance of greetings and preprogramed replies, these are almost part of a ritual.

Greetings

The standard Swahili greeting is jambo:

  • Jambo!
  • Jambo!

You might additionally add in a title, almost as in French:

  • Bwana for a man
  • Mama for a woman
  • Mtoto for a child
  • Jambo Mama!
  • Jambo Bwana!

After thses simple greetings, more elaborate versions are then exchanged:

  • Hujambo? - Sijambo! (singular)
  • Hamjambo? - Hatujambo! (plural)
  • Hujambo?
  • Sijambo!

Note: To fast forward a bit I'll mention that the prefixes in front of jambo are the negative subejct prefixes for the first noun class.

Person Prefix English equivalent
1st singular si- I don't ....
2nd singular hu- You don't ...
1st plural ham- We don't ...
2nd plural hatu- You don't ...

So in that sense you are literaly asking "You don't have any problem", and replying "No, I don't have any problems".

Arabic greetings

  • Sabalkheri - Sabalkheri (Good morning)
  • Masalkheri - Masalkheri (Good evening)

After greeting questions

These often takes the form of

Habari ya ... ? - What is the news of ... ?

Examples from the book are:

  • Habari ya safari? - What is the news of the journey?
  • Habari ya kazi? - What is the news of work?
  • Habari ya nyumbani? - What is the news of home
  • Habari za siku nyingi? - What is the news of many days?
  • Habari za watoto? - What is the news of the children?

The answer to these should always be Nzuri or Njema witch both means good, the author recomends sticking with Nzuri. This is aparently a cultural thing, and even if you don't know understand what a speaker says, but heard that it started with Habari ya; answer Nzuri!

Chapter 3 - "Infinitives"

These aren't really infinitives but verb-nouns, but since their usage mostly correspond to the English infinitive this term is used in the book.

All Swahili infinitives start with ku-, examples:

  • kufanya - to do, make
  • kufika - to to arrive
  • kununua - to buy

Now reading this chapter it seems like the Swahili verbal system is divided into three categories of verbs that follow slightly different rules: bantu verbs, single syllable verbs and arabic verbs.

Chapter 4 - Imperatives

In this chapter an overview of various infinitives are given.

Chapter 5 - M,WA class

Nouns in Swahili are not divided into genders as is common in other Indoeuropean languages but is rather divided into seven (eight) so called noun classes. Some of these are arbitrary in nature, others are more restrictive in their contents.

In the begining this might seem a little odd, I for sure didn't totally get how it worked upon reading this chapter the first time. Hust like with math though, taking a break of some days and reading it again helps a lot.

I will however say that it makes more sense in light of the concord system that is widely used in Swahili in place of the typical conjugations of for example Spanish and Russian. In brief this means that verbs have to be marked in a way that partially reveals the class of its subject and object. So... to each class belongs a set of rules for changing the concord of verbs.

The first class covered is the M,WA class. This class uses the m(w)- prefix in the singular and wa in the plural. In the singular a w is inserted when the root begins with a vowel. Examples:

  • mtoto - watoto (child)
  • mganga - waganga (doctor)
  • mwana - wana (son/daughter)
  • mwalimu - walimu (teacher)
  • mwenyeji - wenyeji (inhabitant)
  • mwizi - wezi (thief)

Take note of the vowel mergers that happens when the vowel from the plural prefix wa- interfaces witht the vowel in the root:

  • a + a = a
  • a + e = e
  • a + i = e

These are mentioned to be common by the book.

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