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Noun Classes

Many (if not most) languages distinguish between singular and plural. In English, most of the plural forms come from adding an s to the end of a noun (the plural of "dog" is "dogs"), but there are many exceptions to this general rule (the plural of "goose" is "geese" and the plural of "fish" is "fish"). This distinction affects the way we use words, as it is ok to say "the dog runs" but it is incorrect to say "the dogs runs."

Many languages create categories for their nouns. For example, in Spanish nouns are either feminine or masculine: the Spanish word for dog, perro, is a masculine noun, and the word for table, mesa, is a feminine noun. This does not mean that Spanish speakers think all dogs are male, or that tables are inherently female, but, similar to plurals, it does affect the way they use these words. The word "the" in spanish is el before a masculine noun, and la before a feminine noun, and it is grammatically incorrect to refer to "the table" as el mesa.

Class Example
1 umntu
2 abantu
3 umthi tree
4 imithi trees
5 igama word
6 amagama words
7 isikhova owl
8 izikhova owls
9 into thing
10 izinto
11 ulwimi language
14 ubuntu humanity
15 ukutya food

Linguists refer to this second artificial category as grammatical gender, and while with most European languages grammatical genders are associated with actual genders, in other languages they are not. Such is the case with languages in the Bantu language family. In fact, in Xhosa, plural and grammatical gender all get wrapped up into one concept: noun classes.

Noun Classes in Xhosa

There are thirteen noun classes in Xhosa. The noun classes 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 are all singular nouns, and their plurals are the noun classes 2, 4, 6, 8, and 101. Some of the noun classes are consistent, as noun class 1 only includes people, and loan words tend to be in noun class 9. Also, noun classes 14 and 15 don't have plurals: noun class 14 includes abstract nouns such as "humanity", and noun class 15 includes nouns that come from verbs (the Xhosa word for "food" comes from the verb "to eat").

You may have noticed by now that there is no noun class 12 or 13. Historically, there was, and this noun class still exists in other languages in the Bantu language family, but it no longer exists in Xhosa (similar to the way English no longer has masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns).

One other feature worth pointing out is that in Xhosa, changes happen at the beginning of words, instead of at the end. For example, to make the plural of "tree" in English, I add an "s" to the end of the word (trees). To get the plural of "umthi" in Xhosa, I remove the "um" from the beginning, and add "imi" to the end of the word (imithi). This isn't limited to nouns, as verbs work the same way. If I want to combine "dog" with "run," I add an "s" to the end of the word "run" (and say "the dog runs). In Xhosa, if if want to combine "inja" with "baleka," I add an "i" to the beginning of the word "baleka" (and say "inja iyabaleka").

1Noun Class 10 serves as the plural for both Noun Class 9 and Noun Class 11.
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