A few weeks back, I was asked by an Egyptian friend what I find so exciting about Swahili, Kikuyu and Sheng’ and I picked the noun class system as a case in point. I almost got carried away explaining to him the whole dance of the prefixes (kikombe changu kimejaa)! Had time not crept upon us, he would not have escaped the tale of the flexible verbs and their superpowers: causative, passive, reflexive…
Does anyone else get high on this stuff?
The actual post:
As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, Sheng’ displays a simplified noun class system as compared to Swahili, which means that strict rules of prefix agreement are not always enforced. But things are not as simple as the word ‘simplified’ would suggest. Just like it freely borrows and adapts vocabulary from several Kenyan languages, Sheng’ also derives some of its grammatical structures from various sources other than its matrix language, Swahili.
Whereas it has disappeared from Swahili, the diminutive noun class ka /tu exists in Sheng’ probably as a transposition from Kikuyu. In Kikuyu we have kaana – twana (a small child – small children) where ka/tu denotes the small size of a person or an object. In Sheng’, using the prefix ka- and the Swahili word for child toto, we can say katoto (a small child) or katoto kadogo for emphasis1. Kademu / tudemu (young or slim girl / young or slim girls) is another example of this construction where demu apparently comes from ‘dame’.
And here is where it gets confusing for the Swahili speaker: whereas in Swahili ki– can be a diminutive2 (e.g. kisanduku: a small box, kijiwe: a small stone), it is the opposite in Sheng’! The prefix ki– may be used in Sheng’ to convey the idea of large size : this augmentative is believed to be derived from Kikuyu as well. The use of the augmentative prefix can often be replaced by an adjectival construction though.
1dogo already conveys the smallness and merely reinforces the diminutive prefix. Mtoi is another common word for child.
2 Both in Sheng’ and in Swahili, another meaning of the prefix Ki– is ‘in the manner of’.
Bazes and their Shibboleths: Lexical variation and Sheng’ speakers identity in Nairobi, a compelling study by Peter Githinji of Ohio University.