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 '21 at 19:19

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
    – OmarL
    Jun 5 '20 at 12:37

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