4.3 Classes 5 and 9

For reasons that will become apparent, it is useful to discuss Class 5 together with Class 9. First, a few remarks about morphology. Historically, nouns of Class 5 used to have a distinctive prefix, reconstructed as phonologically conditioned allomorphs *jI and *I for Proto-Sabaki by N&H (p. 338). However, in most Swahili dialects the prefix (now j- or ji-) has been retained only before vowel-initial and monosyllabic noun stems, which are comparatively infrequent, and indeed it is recognizable as a prefix only with the monosyllabic stems[16]. Thus most nouns of Class 5 have a zero prefix, and in this respect they are indistinguishable from most nouns of Class 9 (cf. Table 1 in Section 2.1 above)[17]. The grammatical distinction between Classes 5 and 9 is maintained not by differences in the form of the noun, but by differences in pluralization and agreement patterns: Class 5 nouns have the prefix ma- in the plural, whereas those of Class 9 do not change in the plural; the pronominal agreement for Class 5 is li-, and that for Class 9 is i-.

However, even these criteria for distinguishing between Classes 5 and 9 collapse in the case of nouns denoting animate beings. In Swahili there is a special set of agreement markers, called "animate agreements", that are used with all animate nouns, regardless of their class prefix. Because of this the animate nouns of Classes 5 and 9 are distinguished neither by their prefix (usually zero in both cases) nor by the associated agreements. The tenuous nature of the 5/9 distinction for animates is reflected in a breakdown of the difference in pluralization: many animate nouns with zero prefix may either have ma- or remain invariable in the plural (e.g. rafiki 'friend', plural either marafiki or rafiki). Because the class affiliation of prefixless nouns denoting animates is ambiguous at best, I will leave these aside in my discussion of the semantic structure of Class 5.

The fact that Classes 5 and 9 most commonly have a zero prefix might lead one to expect that these classes would be especially hospitable to loanwords, particularly words whose initial syllable does not resemble a recognizable class prefix, a point that has been made by several Swahili scholars. Zawawi (1979:127) suggests that such nouns may first be incorporated into Class 9, and may later be recategorized as Class 5 (the latter has the advantage of distinguishing singular from plural). Eastman (1991:61ff.) argues the reverse: that loanwords start out in Class 5 and are later recategorized as 9. N&H (1993) do not argue for one direction over the other, but point out that loanwords often fluctuate between these two classes (p. 355). They also suggest that Classes 5 and 9 have received more loanwords than the other noun classes (p. 309), and that the semantic structures of both 5 and 9 have been equally distorted, resulting in classes that function as semantic "catchalls" (p. 320). From a communicative point of view, such an outcome would seem to be inefficient: whereas it would be useful to have a single semantically miscellaneous class to serve as home for nouns that do not readily fit into any of the other classes, it seems superfluous, indeed confusing, to have two such classes. And in fact, the data from the Johnson dictionary show a different picture. First, the numbers. Here is a breakdown of the percentages of loanwords in the various classes in my database (using only nouns whose class assignment is unambiguous in Johnson 1939, and ignoring class markers used exclusively to form plurals):

Table 2. Allocation of loanwords to noun classes.

Class     Prefix    Total # Nouns  Total # Loans  % Loans

1         m-        334            75             22.5%
3         m-        852            167            19.6%
5         zero      656            166            25.3%
6         ma-       136            22             16.2%
7         ki-       657            55             8.4%
9         zero      1277           690            54%            
11        u-        260            73             28.1%

[Data from Johnson 1939]

It turns out that the proportion of loanwords in Class 5 is approximately equal to that of Classes 1 and 11, both of which have identifiable prefixes. On the other hand, over half the words in Class 9 are loanwords, a far greater proportion than any other class. These numbers support Zawawi's contention that Class 9 "has now become an open class hosting all those words that come into the language which are not marked semantically or syntactically" (1979:134).

Further support for the claim that Class 9 functions as a residual, semantically miscellaneous category can be found in discourse data. For one thing, "nonce" nouns, i.e. words or expressions that would not normally be classed as nouns but are being treated grammatically as entities in special contexts, are associated with the grammatical agreements of Class 9. For example:

'Karibu!' Najum alimsikia Bwana Msa akijibu 'Hodi' y-ake.

[Abdulla 1968:7]

'Come in!' Najum heard Bwana Msa answering his 'hello'.

Here hodi, a greeting used to announce one's presence, is being treated as a possessed entity; the 3rd person singular possessive pronoun -ake is marked by (the prevocalic allomorph of) the agreement prefix of Class 9. Similarly, "nonce borrowings", i.e. lexical items from another language that have not (yet) been used with sufficient frequency to be regarded as established loans (cf. Poplack, Sankoff, and Miller 1988), are associated with Class 9 agreements if they denote inanimate objects, unless there are semantic or phonological reasons for putting them in another class [18]. In a list of examples containing wordforms that do not appear in the Taasisi (1981) dictionary, from the Helsinki electronic corpus of Standard Swahili books and newspapers, the vast majority are treated as Class 9 [19]. Examples include terms like probationary appointment, aluminium sulphate, land rover, knock out (in boxing), kansa (=cancer), katalogi, abbreviations such as B.B.C., A.N.C., acronyms such as NASACO, etc.

Given the miscellaneous nature of Class 9, there would be little point in trying to create a semantic network for it. No doubt there are semantic regularities in the inherited vocabulary of Class 9, but there is no reason to expect these to extend to the loanwords that by now outnumber the inherited words, or to the nonce forms just discussed. However, the designation of Class 9 as the residual member of the class system should not be interpreted as a breakdown of the semantic coherence of the system as a whole-- quite the contrary. It is the very existence of Class 9 that helps maintain the coherence of the rest of the system despite the challenge of assimilating loanwords into Swahili grammar.

Now on, or back, to Class 5.

To view representative examples of nouns in each semantic category, click on that portion of the diagram.

Denny and Creider (1976) include Proto-Bantu Class 5 in the set of "configurational" classes, i.e. "prefixes which classify according to the spatial configuration of the objects classified" (p. 3). Within this group they oppose 5 to 9, the former defined as "solid shape", the latter as "outline shape", but both sharing the feature "non-extended" (i.e. "rounded, protruded, bunched, humped, etc.", p. 5). In Swahili it appears that 3-dimensionality is indeed a salient aspect of Class 5, and a large number of the terms denoting solid 3-dimensional objects, protrusions, swellings, and lumpy substances are reconstructed for Class 5 all the way back to Common Bantu. What seems to be an innovation is the inclusion of terms for containers and hollow spaces in Class 5 as well. Although some of the terms for 3-dimensional containers are reconstructed for Proto-Sabaki by N&H (1993) and are apparently inherited from Common Bantu (ganda 'husk, rind, shell'; bia 'earthenware vessel', jiko 'fireplace, hearth'), a larger number are reconstructed for Proto-Sabaki only, have reconstructions that are dubious, are derived from verbs, or have changed their class affiliation from 9 to 5 (koo 'throat', ziga 'vessel for burning embers', kaka 'empty shell', zizi 'cattle enclosure', gamba 'outer shell'). The same is true of terms for hollow spaces, only one of which (kwapa 'armpit') is reconstructed back to Common Bantu.

A second major difference between the semantic structure of Class 5 in Swahili and that described by Denny and Creider (1976) for Proto-Bantu is the inclusion of terms for broad, flat surfaces and things with broad parts. In this case there is more support for the pre-Swahili existence of the subdomain within Class 5 (terms for 'leaf', 'lake', 'hoe', and 'axe' are reconstructed to Common Bantu), but here, too, the domain seems to have been extended in more recent times. Several of the terms have moved to Class 5 from other classes (para 'bald patch' and panga 'machete', both from 11; kafi 'paddle', from 9), some fluctuate between Class 5 and another class (konde 'cultivated field', also 9; kosi 'nape of neck', also 7); others are reconstructed to Proto-Sabaki only (tanga 'sail', kuti 'coconut leaf', paa 'roof').

The most productive semantic category within Class 5 is the category of terms for fruits. As pointed out by most Swahili grammars, there is a regular relationship between Class 5 and Class 3: a noun stem with the prefix of Class 3 designates a plant, and the same stem in Class 5 designates the associated fruit (for example, mpapai (3) 'papaya plant'/papai (5) 'papaya fruit', mmumunye (3) 'gourd plant'/mumunye (5) 'gourd', etc.). Loanwords also follow this pattern (e.g. mlimau (3) 'lemon tree'/ limau (5) 'lemon', from Hindi).

The category 'fruit' is productive also in the second sense: it is the basis for several kinds of semantic extension, most notably with respect to shape and size. Fruits are typically 3- dimensional, round, large (in their mature, desirable state), and can be viewed either as solid objects or as containers (skin contains fruit meat as well as seeds). Hence the extension to protrusions, swellings, lumpy substances, 3-dimensional containers, and hollow spaces (by association with containers). These associations-- growth/swelling and containment especially--in turn motivate a more abstract extension, to large things in general. And in fact a noun stem normally associated with any of the other classes, if put in Class 5, acquires the connotation of large size, sometimes negatively evaluated as clumsy or ungainly.

The use of Class 5 to derive augmentatives apparently can be traced at least as far back as Proto-Northeast Coast Bantu (N&H 342); elsewhere in the Bantu family there are specialized classes for this purpose (classes 20, 21 and 22), for which there is no evidence in PNEC (N&H 346). As in the case of the use of Class 7 to derive diminutives, this function may be seen as a natural extension from the size associated with prototypical members of the class.

It is also worth making a further point in this regard. Some might find it counterintuitive that manufactured objects-- baskets, cooking vessels, and the like, which form the nucleus of Class 7-- would have the connotation of small size whereas fruits and vegetables-- which are, after all, "objectively" smaller than many manufactured objects-- would have the connotation of large size. However, this situation simply reinforces one of the central findings of recent research on linguistic categorization: that human beings classify things in the world linguistically according to their human, culturally mediated perspective, not according to "objective" characteristics of the things themselves. Manufactured objects are "small" in relation to the human body: they can be easily picked up and manipulated. Fruits are "large" in relation to their earlier stages of growth, and it is when they become large that they are of most value to humans. Each of these size connotations is "logical" in its own way, even if the resulting categorization conflicts with size as determined by objective measuring principles.

Finally, a word about borrowings. I mentioned earlier that Class 9 acts as the "default" class for loanwords, unless there are semantic or phonological reasons to put these in another class. A look at the loanwords in the Class 5 diagram shows that the meanings of these fit in with the overall semantic patterns of the class. The data from the Helsinki corpus showed only a few cases of recent loanwords consistently receiving Class 5 agreement rather than that of Class 9. For example, much of the vocabulary of sports is derived from English: terms like pointi, raundi (=round), timu (=team), ligi (=league) are used regularly in Swahili newspapers, and are treated as Class 9. I found three exceptions, all soccer terms: goli 'goal' (in soccer), benchi 'bench' (also in soccer), and shuti 'shot', all with agreement of Class 5. These terms differ in their frequency: goli is very common, whereas I only have one example each of the other two, so it is impossible to tell whether their association with Class 5 is a regular pattern or is motivated by their specific contexts of use. Anyway, it is not hard to find semantic motivations for connecting these words with Class 5. For goli, two motivations can be found: the association of Class 5 with large, important things (goals are the point in soccer), and the prior existence in Class 5 of the nearly synonymous inherited word bao. This term denotes a large board used for a special purpose, especially a playing board for the chess-like game metonymically called bao, and by extension is applied to victory in a game. In fact, bao is also used in sports reporting to mean 'goal'. The term benchi may also be associated with bao, since one of the senses of bao is 'bench or table'. As for shuti, in the example where it is used it refers to a successful shot, i.e. one that scores a goal, so it too is connected to importance and victory.

In summary, it seems that Class 5 in Swahili has retained its semantic integrity in spite of having lost its prefix in most contexts, and in spite of the potentially destabilizing effects of loanwords. The semantic structure of 5 has probably been influenced by the development of 9 as residual member of the class system, however. If Denny and Creider (1976) are correct in claiming that "non-extended, outline figure" was a feature of Class 9 in Proto-Bantu, then the expansion of 5 into this domain could be motivated not only by the internal structure of 5 (fruits as containers), but also by the loosening of internal coherence in 9.

[Section 4.4]