The passive in 2 Bantu languages

In an earlier post, I explained 3 features of the passive construction, focusing on English. This post summarises how 2 Bantu languages (Swahili and Chichewa) implement those 3 features. It also mentions the stative, a construction that is somewhat similar.

Background: Bantu languages

The Bantu group of languages has many members, spoken in the southern half of Africa. The most widely spoken Bantu language is Swahili (sometimes called Kiswahili). It is spoken in many countries of east Africa, having official status in some of them, and being used as a second language (a lingua franca) by many people in the region. The name Swahili comes from the Arabic word sawahil, meaning ‘coasts’.

Chichewa is spoken mainly around the Great Rift Valley. It is the national language of Malawi and is also spoken in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Outside Malawi, the name Chinanye is also used.

In Bantu languages, such as Swahili and Chichewa:

  • nouns are classified into about 18 classes—rather like genders found in many Indo-European languages. A prefix attached to the front of a noun shows the noun’s class. The examples given below include nouns from classes 1, 7 and 9 (Swahili) and 2 and 6 (Chichewa).  
  • verbs consist of a verb stem, preceded by various prefixes and followed by various suffixes. Prefixes, the verb stem and suffixes occur in the following order in sentences (1) to (4) below:
    SM (subject marker, eg 1SM shows that the verb’s subject is in class 1)-tense (eg past / present)-verb stem-pass [if the verb is passive]-final vowel (fv).   

Background: passive

In my earlier post https://languagemiscellany.com/2022/03/what-is-the-passive, I explained that the passive construction:

  • deletes or demotes the subject of the corresponding active verb.
  • in some languages, promotes the direct object of the corresponding active verb so that it becomes the subject of the corresponding passive verb.
  • in some languages, marks the passive verb explicitly to show that it is passive.

I also noted there that:

  • the English passive does all 3 of those things.
  • English marks the passive verb by inserting the auxiliary verb be (in the appropriate tense) and using the past participle of the main verb. As we will see below, Swahili and Chichewa do not use an auxiliary verb and a participle. Instead, they both mark the passive verb by inserting a suffix after the verb stem and before the final vowel.

Swahili

In Swahili, the passive construction:

  • deletes the subject of the corresponding active verb entirely, or demotes it into a prepositional phrase headed by the word na (‘by’).
  • promotes the direct object of the corresponding active verb so that this noun becomes the subject of the corresponding passive verb.
  • marks the passive verb with the passive suffix -w (sometimes -liw or -lewa). Thus, passive verbs end in -wa and the corresponding active verbs end in -a.

Sentence (1) is active and sentence (2) is a corresponding passive sentence.

(1) mwalimua-li-som-abarua
1.teacher1SM-past-read-pass-fv9.letter
the teacher read the letter
(1) active sentence: Swahili

The subject of sentence (1) is mwalimu (teacher), a class 1 noun. The verb contains 4 components (morphemes):

  • a-: a subject marker, showing that the subject is a class 1 noun.
  • li-: a prefix marking the past tense
  • som: the stem of the verb itself, meaning ‘read’
  • -a: a final vowel

The object barua (a class 9 noun) follows the verb. In some cases (though not here), the verb could also bear an object marker, which would appear after the tense prefix (li-) and before the stem of the verb.

(2) baruai-li-som-w-a(na mwalimu)
9.letter9SM-past-read-pass-fv(by 1.teacher)
the letter was read by the teacher
(2) passive sentence: Swahili

Converting active sentence (1) to passive sentence (2) made the following changes:

  • the subject (mwalimu) of the corresponding active verb has become optional. It may be omitted entirely. If it appears, it is demoted from its original position before the verb down into a phrase headed by na (‘by’).
  • the direct object (barua) of the active verb in sentence (3) has become the subject of the corresponding passive verb. As subject, it appears before the verb. In addition, the subject marker marks the verb as having a subject that is a class 9 noun.
  • the passive morpheme -w marks the verb as passive. It appears after the stem of the verb (som) and before the final vowel (-a).

A curious lexical asymmetry

Perrott (1976) reports a surprising detail about the verb oa, meaning ‘marry:

  • the subject of the active form can only be the man.
  • the subject of the passive form olewa can only be the woman.

Perrott also notes that the causative form oza (‘make marry’) describes what the priest does at the wedding ceremony.

Chichewa

In Chichewa, the passive construction:

  • deletes the subject of the corresponding active verb entirely, or demotes it into a phrase headed by the word ndí (‘by’).
  • promotes the direct object of the corresponding active verb so that it becomes the subject of the corresponding passive verb.
  • marks the passive verb with the passive suffix -idw (or -edw).

Sentence (3) is active and sentence (4) is a corresponding passive sentence.

(3) alenjea-ku-phík-ámaûngu
2-hunters2SM-pres-cook-fv6-pumpkins
the hunters are cooking pumpkins
(3) active sentence: Chichewa

The subject of sentence (3) is alenje (the hunters), a class 2 noun. The verb contains 4 components (morphemes):

  • a-: a subject marker, showing that the subject is a class 2 noun.
  • ku-: a prefix marking the present tense
  • -phík-: the stem of the verb itself, meaning ‘cook’
  • -a: a final vowel

The object maûngu (a class 6 noun) follows the verb. In some cases (though not here), the verb could also bear an object marker, which would appear after the present tense prefix (ku-) and before the stem of the verb. If the object marker is present, the object itself does not have to follow the verb.    

(4) maûngua-ku-phík-ídwa-á(ndí álenje)
6-pumpkins6SM-pres-cook-pass-fv(by 2.hunters)
the pumpkins are being cooked (by the hunters)
(4) passive sentence: Chichewa

Converting active sentence (3) to passive sentence (4) made the following changes:

  • the subject (álenje) of the active verb has become optional. It may be omitted entirely. If it appears, it is demoted from its original position before the verb down into a phrase headed by ndí (‘by’).
  • the direct object (maûngu) of the active verb in sentence (3) has become the subject of the corresponding passive verb. As subject, it appears before the verb. In addition, the subject marker marks the verb as having a subject that is a class 6 noun. (In this particular case, the subject marker a- has the same form for both the class 6 noun (maûngu) and the class 2 noun (álenje)).
  • the passive morpheme -idw marks the verb as passive. It appears after the stem of the verb and before the final vowel.

Passive on intransitive verbs in Chichewa

Chombo (2004) notes that the Chichewa passive suffix can combine with intransitive verbs, and not only with transitive verbs. When combined with intransitive verbs, it indicates that the subject does not control the activity. For example, kodz-a means ‘urinate; its passive, kodz-édw-a means ‘involuntary urination’. Similarly, f-a means ‘die’ and its passive f-édw-a means ‘be in bereavement’.

More on statives in Chichewa

Chombo (2004) discusses in detail further differences between the stative and the passive in Chichewa.

Statives in Swahili and Chichewa

Both Swahili and Chichewa have another verb form, the stative, which has some similarities with the passive. The stative form of Chichewa verbs is marked by the suffix -k (or -ek). The passive form in sentence (4) is repeated here, together with its stative counterpart, sentence (5).

(4) maûngua-ku-phík-ídw-a(ndí álenje)
(5) maûngua-ku-phík-ík 
(5) stative sentence: Chichewa

The stative differs from the passive as follows:

  • The stative never permits the subject of the corresponding active verb to appear. In contrast, the passive permits its appearance optionally (marked by the preposition ndí).
  • The subject of the stative can only be a noun that is a ‘patient’ of the verb.  In contrast, the subject of the passive can play a wider range of roles: a patient, beneficiary, instrumental, locative or cause.

In Swahili, the stative form contains the suffix -ik or -ek. Sentence (6) is a passive sentence and sentence (7) is a corresponding stative form.

(6) KikombeKi-me-vunj-w-a(na mtoto)
7-cup7SM-PERF-break-pass-fv(by child)
the cup has been broken (by the child)
(6) passive sentence: Chichewa
(6) KikombeKi-me-vunj-ik-a
7-cup7SM-PERF-stat-fv
the cup has been (is) broken
(7) stative sentence: Chichewa

In sentences (6) and (7), the prefix me- marks the perfect tense.

English makes a somewhat similar distinction between:

  • a past participle used as an adjective in describing a state: the window was broken (in a broken state); and
  • the passive form of the verb, describing an action: the shop became broken at 18.00.   

Sources

Chichewa (Bantu), by Sam A Mchombo in The Handbook of Morphology, edited by Andre Spencer and Arnold M Zwicky (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics, 1998)

The Syntax of Chichewa, by Sam Mchombo (2004)

Swahili, by DV Perrott, Teach Yourself Books, 15th edition, 1976)

Languages of the World: an Introduction, by Asya Pereltsvaig (3rd edition, 2020)

Swahili and the Bantu Languages, by Benji Wald in The Major Languages of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, edited by Bernard Comrie (1990)

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