According to Carl Meinhof, the Bantu languages have a total of 22 noun classes called nominal classes (this notion was introduced by W.H.J. Bleek). While no single language is known to express all of them, most of them have at least 10 noun classes. For example, by Meinhof's numbering, Shona has 20 classes, Swahili has 15, Sotho has 18 and Ganda has 17.
Specialists in Bantu emphasize that there is a clear difference between genders (such as known from Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European) and nominal classes (such as known from Niger–Congo). Languages with nominal classes divide nouns formally on the base of hyperonymic meanings. The category of nominal class replaces not only the category of gender, but also the categories of number and case.
Critics of the Meinhof's approach notice that his numbering system of nominal classes counts singular and plural numbers of the same noun as belonging to separate classes. This seems to them to be inconsistent with the way other languages are traditionally considered, where number is orthogonal to gender (according to the critics, a Meinhof-style analysis would give Ancient Greek 9 genders). If one follows broader linguistic tradition and counts singular and plural as belonging to the same class, then Swahili has 8 or 9 noun classes, Sotho has 11 and Ganda has 10.
The Meinhof numbering tends to be used in scientific works dealing with comparisons of different Bantu languages. For instance, in Swahili the word rafiki ‘friend’ belongs to the class 9 and its "plural form" is marafiki of the class 6, even if most nouns of the 9 class have the plural of the class 10. For this reason, noun classes are often referred to by combining their singular and plural forms, e.g., rafiki would be classified as "9/6", indicating that it takes class 9 in the singular, and class 6 in the plural.
However not all Bantu languages have these exceptions. In Ganda each singular class has a corresponding plural class (apart from one class which has no singular–plural distinction; also some plural classes correspond to more than one singular class) and there are no exceptions as there are in Swahili. For this reason Ganda linguists use the orthogonal numbering system when discussing Ganda grammar (other than in the context of Bantu comparative linguistics), giving the 10 traditional noun classes of that language.
The distinction between genders and nominal classes is blurred still further by Indo-European languages that have nouns that behave like Swahili's rafiki. Italian, for example, has a group of nouns deriving from Latin neuter nouns that acts as masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural: il braccio/le braccia; l'uovo/le uova. (These nouns are still placed in a neuter gender of their own by some grammarians.)
Here is a complete list of nominal classes in Swahili:
|Class number||Prefix||Typical meaning|
|1||m-, mw-, mu-||singular: persons|
|2||wa-, w-||plural: persons (a plural counterpart of class 1)|
|3||m-, mw-, mu-||singular: plants|
|4||mi-, my-||plural: plants (a plural counterpart of class 3)|
|5||ji-, j-, Ø-||singular: fruits|
|6||ma-, m-||plural: fruits (a plural counterpart of class 5, 9, 11, seldom 1)|
|7||ki-, ch-||singular: things|
|8||vi-, vy-||plural: things (a plural counterpart of class 7)|
|9||n-, ny-, m-, Ø-||singular: animals, things|
|10||n-, ny-, m-, Ø-||plural: animals, things (a plural counterpart of class 9 and 11)|
|11||u-, w-, uw-||singular: no clear semantics|
|15||ku-, kw-||verbal nouns|
|16||pa-||locative meanings: close to something|
|17||ku-||indefinite locative or directive meaning|
|18||mu-, m-||locative meanings: inside something|
"Ø-" means no prefix. Note also that some classes are homonymous (esp. 9 and 10). The Proto-Bantu class 12 disappeared in Swahili, class 13 merged with 7, and 14 with 11.
Class prefixes appear also on adjectives and verbs, e.g.:
- Kitabu kikubwa kinaanguka. (-book -big --fall)
- ‘The big book falls.’
The class markers which appear on the adjectives and verbs may differ from the noun prefixes:
- Mtoto wangu alikinunua kitabu. (-child -my ---buy -book)
- ‘My child bought a book.’
In this example, the verbal prefix a- and the pronominal prefix wa- are in concordance with the noun prefix m-: they all express class 1 despite of their different forms.
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“The very natural tendency to use terms derived from traditional grammar like verb, noun, adjective, passive voice, in describing languages outside of Indo-European is fraught with grave possibilities of misunderstanding.”
—Benjamin Lee Whorf (18971934)