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To -ku- or not to -ku-

In this course we have learned six monosyllabic Swahili words: kuja, kufa, kula, kunywa, kupa, kuwa.

These are tricky, because sometimes one has to keep the -ku- and sometimes not. Since I’m still struggling with this, I wrote down a short summary (which I'm happy to share here) of what I think is the correct way to -ku- or not to -ku-.

The -ku- is retained in the following, direct tenses (provided that there is no object infix).

Tunakunywa chai: We are drinking tea

Tulikunywa chai: We drank tea

Tumekunywa chai: We have drunk tea

Tutakunywa chai: We will drink tea

But: Tulikinywa: We drank it (i.e. the tea). Btw, note that kupa (to give) is one of the three verbs in Swahili that always requires an infix, e.g. Alitupa simu yake, she gave us her phone.

It is also retained with -mesha, -nge, -singe and the relatives -o and -ye

Tumeshakunywa chai: We have already drunk tea

Tungekunywa chai: We would drink tea

Tusingekunywa chai: We would not drink tea

Anayekunywa chai: He who is drinking tea

Wanaokunywa chai: Those who are drinking tea

And in the imperative (sing. / pl.): Kunywa chai / Kunyweni chai: Drink tea

The -ku- is dropped in the following tenses:

Negative present: Hatunywi chai: We are not drinking tea

Negative immediate past: Hatujanywa chai: We have not drunk tea

Negative past: Hatukunywa chai: We didn’t drink tea [the -ku- here is the marker for the negative past!]

Subjunctive: Tunywe chai: We should drink tea

Conditional -ki-: Tukinywa chai: If we drink tea (or while we drink tea).

Habitual: (Sisi) hunywe chai: We (usually) drink tea.

Narrative -ka-: Kwanza tulikunywa kahawa, tukanywa chai: First we drank coffee, then we drank tea.

Machieng, please correct me and complete where necessary! Btw, are there any other monosyllabic words that were not taught in this course?

April 30, 2019



Instance 1: for the monosyllabic transitive verbs e.g. kunywa, kula, kupa, a prefix/infix is always needed for it to make sense, i.e. they never stand on their own (e.g. 'tumela' or 'tumenywa' do not exist). These prefixes/infixes will be one of 2 things; either '-ku-' or an object infix.

  • If the object is a person (usually for kupa), the verb prefix/infix will always be the object infix,
  • if the object is in the 2nd person, singular, the object infix it’s still ‘-ku-’
  • for imperative commands, the prefix ‘Ku-’ is retained.

Instance 1 - kunywa, kula, kupa

Subject Object (Concord singular/plural) -ku- Object infix Translation
Sisi Chai (I/I) Tunakunywa chai Tunainywa chai We are drinking (the) tea
Yeye Mayai (Li/Ya) Anakula mayai Anayala mayai She/he is eating (the) eggs
Wewe Sisi (Ni/Tu) Does not apply Umetupa maji You have given us water
Mimi Wewe (Ku/Wa) Does not apply Nitakupa zawadi I will give you a gift
Nyinyi Keki (I/Zi) Kuleni keki! Does not apply Eat (the) cake(s)!

The same applies for -mesha, -nge, -singe and the relatives -o and -ye

Tumeshakunywa chai: We have already drunk tea (OR Tumeshainywa chai)

Tungekunywa chai: Had we drunk tea (OR Tungeinywa chai)

Tusingekunywa chai: Had we not drunk tea (OR Tusingeinywa chai)

Anayekunywa chai: He who is drinking tea (OR Anayeinywa chai)

The -ku- may or may not be dropped for the tenses below. It’s more common than not to drop the ‘-ku-’, though, especially for negative past tense in the 3rd person, where ordinarily the 'ku' would show up twice

Negative present: Hatunywi/Hatukunywi chai: We are not drinking tea

Negative immediate past: Hatujanywa/Hatujakunywa chai: We have not drunk tea

Negative past: Hakunywa chai: She/she didn’t drink tea [the -ku- here is the marker for the negative past. You can say 'hakukunywa, but it's uncommon. Fun fact: there's a difference in inflection between the prefix 'Ha-' in hakunywi (he/she is not drinking) versus hakunywa (he/she did not drink); the latter has a higher inflection. Think of how you'd say 'infidelity' versus 'infidel']

Subjunctive: Tunywe/Tukunywe chai: We should drink tea

Conditional -ki-: Tukinywa/Tukikunywa chai: If we drink tea (or while we drink tea).

Habitual: (Sisi) hunywa/hukunywa chai: We (usually) drink tea.

Narrative -ka-: Kwanza tulikunywa kahawa, tukanywa/tukakunywa chai: First we drank coffee, then we drank tea.

Exceptions - kufa, kuja, kuwa

Things get interesting here. These verbs typically don’t involve objects, and as such will never carry an object prefix/infix. Things to note:

  • for present tense and present habitual tense, you can exclude 'ku' and only have the subject prefix and the verb stem. The tense infix is not included, so if your sentence is not in present tense and you want to exclude 'ku', an auxiliary verb is needed.
  • Alternatively, you can still retain the infix ‘-ku-’.
Subject -ku- Sans ‘-ku-’ Translation
Wao Wageni wanakuja kesho Wageni waja kesho The guests are coming tomorrow
Yeye Mwambie akuje Mwambie aje Tell her/him to come
Wao Wanyama wanakufa zizini Wanyama wafa zizini Animals are dying in the pen
Yeye Yesu alikuwa akufe kisha afufuke Yesu alikuwa afe kisha afufuke Jesus was to die, then resurrect
Yeye Mwajiriwa hukuja saa moja Mwajiriwa huja saa moja The employee comes (in) at seven o’clock

This is also true for negative present tense:

(these are the above sentences, negated)

-ku- Sans ‘-ku-’
Wageni hawakuji kesho Wageni hawaji kesho
Mwambia asikuje Mwambie asije
Wanyama hawakufi zizini Wanyama hawafi zizini
Mwajiriwa hakuji saa moja Mwajiriwa haji saa moja

For the Jesus sentence, the negative would be ‘hakuwa akufe/hakuwa afe’, rather than ‘alikuwa asife’.

As for kuwa:

  • in present habitual tense, it is ‘huwa’ (for all persons).
  • For other forms of present tense, it can be a little convoluted, since ‘to be’ can take on many forms, depending on the context.
  • In past tense, you keep ‘ku’ in the affirmative, and you can either drop or retain ‘-ku-’ for their negations.
  • For future tense, the ‘ku’ is retained, for both the affirmative and negative
  • For conditional tenses, 'ku' is retained
Tense Affirmative Translation Negative Translation
Past tense Nilikuwa Mombasa juzi I was in Mombasa yesterday Sikukuwa Mombasa juzi/Sikuwa Mombasa juzi I wasn’t in Mombasa yesterday
Future tense Nitakuwa Mombasa kesho I will be in Mombasa tomorrow Sitakuwa Mombasa kesho I will not be in Mombasa tomorrow
Past conditional Ningalikuwa Mombasa tungalionana Had I been in Mombasa, we would have seen each other Nisingalikuwa Mombasa tusingalionana Had I not been in Mombasa we would not have seen each other

I’ll stop there since that’s A LOT of info. Hopefully it somewhat made sense. Let me know if you need clarification!


Thanks! I'll need some time to digest all this information!

To answer your question in the first line: they are called transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that can (or must) take an object (to give, to take, etc.). Opposite: intransitive verbs (to swim, to run).


thank you! Google was not helpful LOL

I edited this in a rush, so I'll just go through and make sure what I wrote makes sense. I tend to have long-winded sentences


and to answer your last question, I can't think of any more monosyllabic verbs other than the ones you mentioned


Just came across another (transitive) monosyllabic verb: kunya. A word we didn't learn in this course :)


yeah...we don't use that in polite conversation. :D

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