I've just come across the concept of relational nouns, and I'm curious if Swahili's position-indicating words count.

In Swahili, there's a possessive particle -a that joins nouns together. For example:

  • ki-tabu ch-a mw-anafunzi C7-book C7-POSS C1-student "the student's book"
  • m-toto w-a ∅-paka C1-child C1-POSS C9-cat "kitten"
  • ch-umba ch-a ku-lala C7-room C7-POSS C15-sleep "bedroom"

This particle is also used when indicating location:

  • ∅-paka i-ko n-dani y-a ∅-sanduku C9-cat C9-is.located C9-inside C9-POSS C9-box "the cat is in the box"
  • ki-tabu ki-ko ∅-juu y-a ∅-meza C9-book C9-is.located C9-above C9-POSS C9-table "the book is on the table"

Does this make words like ndani and juu "relational nouns"? If not, why not? I've traditionally heard them called "adverbs", and the entire phrase does seem to act as an adverb, but the relation-words have grammatical gender (and trigger agreement) which I would never expect from an adverb.

P.S. The C#- in the gloss indicates grammatical gender marking; Swahili has too many genders to make up a new abbreviation for each one.

P.P.S. I'm only interested in these relational words; Swahili can indicate location in other ways, such as using genders 16-18, but those aren't important here.

  • The word mpaka seems to mean boundary but also until. Is that an example of what you're talking about? Feb 25, 2021 at 19:19

3 Answers 3


Words like ndani "inside" and mbele "front" don't (usually¹) get referred to as "relational nouns". However, the morpheme -a you mention in your question (which has many duties in Swahili) is sometimes called a "relational stem".

I think the reason that, for example, üst(-ün-de) "(on) top (of)" and iç(-in-de) "inside (of)" in Turkish get referred to as relational nouns and juu etc. don't is most likely because in Swahili these form phrases whereas in Turkish they are whole words.

Having said that, this is still somewhat arbitrary because in Japanese (if you consider case markers particles rather than suffixes) the term relational noun gets used even though the noun and case marker (somewhat analogous to Swahili -a , I suppose) constitute separate words (i.e. noun and particle).

On the other hand, since Swahili doesn't really have a case system to speak of (locative prefixes notwithstanding) but Japanese does, that could be why "relational noun" gets used there (cf. Turkish, too).

It's also important to note that just because we might not expect adverbs to take agreement doesn't necessarily mean that the fact that they do means they're not adverbs. Think of prepositions in Celtic languages, for instance; usually we don't expect adpositions to agree with their dependent, but in Irish or Welsh they do and are nevertheless still adpositions.

¹ I'm not sure they ever do or have been - I can't say for definite!


I'm a native speaker of Swahili. I've tried looking for an English word to describe the -a, but kind of cannot come up with one since Kiswahili is primarily taught in Swahili. It is indeed a "mofimu" (morpheme, I guess), and has many uses mainly in conjugating words to bring out different meanings, in the case of your examples, it does indeed show possession in the first sentences, the second batch is more complex.

Taken together "ndani ya" and "juu ya" (not just "ndani" or "juu") they are prepositions(in Swahili Vihusishi) a conjugation of the word relation(uhusiano in Swahili), they describe the relationship between things e.g PS the Ngeli (I guess what you're referring to as gender) of paka is A-WA; that of living things , so the correct sentence structure is Paka ako ndani ya sanduku. ... literally (the) cat is inside (the) box

However just like in English Prepositions can be used as adverbs. Taken alone "ndani" and "juu" are adverbs of place (vielezi vya mahali) e.g Paka ako ndani. ..... (the) cat is inside ...... here it is an adverb

I don't know much about relational nouns but from the little I've picked up, I don't think Swahili expressly has Relational nouns.

  • Instead of Paka ako ndani ya sanduku, I guess you can more easily say paka amo sandukuni Jun 5, 2020 at 12:37

Traditionally, they are not generally called "relational nouns", but this is probably simply down to the fact that it is simply not the current tradition. (Traditions in Swahili teaching terminology are calling the applicative voice the "prepositional", calling non-initial prefixes "infixes" although Swahili lacks true infixes, and calling the middle-voice/mediopassive suffix the "stative extension" in spite of it predominantly having dynamic uses.)

Most of the initial elements of Swahili "compound prepositions" are quite transparently derived from nouns. Ndani and nje both possess the typical prenasalising prefix of class 9/10 and then take class 9 agreement on -a. Then there are cases like miongoni mwa, where the first element has the locative suffix -ni, which triggers agreement with the locative classes 16, 17 and 18 and we indeed find that the mwa includes the class 18 locative agreement.

Other examples that are quite transparently nominal, as the base noun from which they are derived is still in common use:

  • usoni pa "in the face of", "on the surface of", "in front of"
  • ukingoni mwa "on the edge of", "on the brink of"
  • mvunguni mwa "under".

Of course, in many languages that use relational nouns, such as Turkish and Māori, the noun itself is marked with a preposition or a case that indicates that it is being used as an adjunct, for example the kei marking roto in the Māori example and the -de marking iç- in the Turkish example below.

kei      roto         ahau i       te     whare 
PRES.LOC inside.space 1S   REL.LOC DEF.SG house
"I'm inside the house".

evin içindeyim
ev   -2n  iç          -4(n)   -d2 -(y)4m
house-GEN inside.space-POSS.3S-LOC-COP.1S

*Roto ahau i te whare and **evin içiyim are ungrammatical with the intended sense, however that is roughly equivalent to the structure we find in Swahili.

(When the relational location noun in Māori is in the predicate, marked by tensed prepositions, the subject usually stands before the remaining noun phrase. The morpheme iç- is bound in Turkish, always occurring with a possessive suffix. The numbers I have used in the morphemic breakdown indicate different vowel harmony classes: 2 = e/a; 4 = i/ı/ü/u.)

One argument to say that the Swahili equivalent are adverbs, not nouns, is that they are not themselves marked as locative through a case or a preposition. For example, "inside" is just ndani ya, not *katika ndani ya. However, this touches on a more general difficult in Swahili to test what is a noun and what is an adverb; unmarked nouns in Swahili can also be used adverbially.

This is most noticeable for locative nouns. The locative ending, -ni changes the class of the noun to one of the locative classes, C16, C17 or C18, but nouns in these classes can be subjects, objects or adjuncts with no additional marking associated with their use as adjuncts. I'll show it with hapa "here", which is a demonstrative in class 16 (essentially meaning "this (precise) place") rather than a noun, but it illustrates the issue nicely as it can be used as subject, object or as an unmarked adjunct.


Hapa panapendeza. "It's nice here." "This place is nice.


Ninapapenda hapa. "I like it here." "I like this place."


Tutalala hapa. "We will sleep here." "We will sleep in this place."

This is not restricted to locative class demonstratives and nouns (mahali and those ending in -ni) and also applies to place names and, in certain cases, other nouns without any locative marking and which keep their non-locative class.

Another example is the classes ki- (C7) and vi- (C8) which are frequently used as adverbs and adjectives, both with and without additional marking with -a depending on the word.

Then there are cases of voice changing operations applied to verbs, where noun phrases that one would expect to be excluded are still present, unmarked, as though modifying the verb in a way that provides scope or context to the meaning. Sorry that I have expressed that in a rather wishy-washy way and cannot think of any examples of that. I'll come back to that if there is interest, and if I have the points to comment by then.

As an example of this class of word, the word juu is regarded by dictionaries as both an adverb meaning "up", "up high" and a class 9 noun meaning "top" in Swahili. It comes from Proto-Bantu *ìgʊ̀dʊ̀, meaning "sky" or "top" (and, incidentally, is cognate to the word "Zulu") and, in Swahili, it has changed from C5 (where it would be *juu la) to C9 (giving juu ya), possibly (my own speculation) by analogy to other "relational nouns" such as ndani and nje. Because the consonant /ɟ/ at the beginning of juu can be prenasalised, I would expect it to have the form *njuu if it had switched to C9 in the stage of Swahili's development before the prenasalising prefix stopped being productively applied to members of C9/C10, so I suspect it changed class relatively recently, although, again, this is just my speculation.

In any case, it clearly fits within the nominal system as it can be used as subject, object. Its additional ability to be used unmarked as an adjunct lends to its interpretation as an adverb, but does not set it apart from other nouns which can do likewise in Swahili. Drawing a hard line between nouns and adverbs in Swahili is tricky.

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