Like most Bantu languages, Setswana contains many noun classes. While English doesn't really have noun classes (other than singluar and plural), French could be said to contain four noun classes (masculine singular, masculine plural, feminine singular, feminine plural) which each have their own agreements for adjectives etc.
It is possible to be understood in Setswana without getting all the noun class agreements correct, and some people may find it easier to pick up the different subject markers by ear over time. However, the following brief description is given to assist the learner who wants to understand the grammar behind the language.
Setswana has around 16 noun classes. The following is based on the noun classification system for Bantu languages developed by Carl Meinhof.
Class 1 and 2 (mo- ba-)
- These are all for people (though not all people words are in these classes). Class 1 is for singular (motho = person, moruti = teacher) while Class 2 is plural (batho = people, baruti = teachers).
- Also in class 1 are Proper nouns (eg names Nthati, Sarah etc) and kinship terms eg ngwana=child, mme = mother, rre mogolo = grandfather etc.
- Also in class 2 is BoSarah = Sarah & company/friends, and plural kinship terms eg bana=children
- These nouns take the subject markers which we have seen already (ke,o,o,re,le,ba)
Class 3 and 4 (mo- me-)
- These classes are non personal nouns, in particular trees and some parts of the body
- These nouns take subject marker o and e
Class 5 and 6 (le- ma-)
- These classes contain words for professions, many of which have undesirable associations
- These nouns take subject marker le and a
Class 7 and 8 (se- di-)
- Includes nouns for disability, languages and culture
- These nouns take subject marker se and di
Class 9 and 10 (- di-)
- This is the "junk class" in which most imported words from other languages fall.
- It also includes many of the animal nouns
- These nouns take subject marker e and di
Class 11 and 12 (lo- di-)
- This class includes natural phenomena and also long objects
- These nouns take subject marker lo and di
- Class 12 takes all the same agreements as Class 10, and is therefore omitted from some guides
Class 14 (bo-)
- These are called collective nouns, such as:
- These nouns take subject marker bo
Class 15 (go -)
- These are nouns formed from infinitive verbs (gerunds), such as go ya=to eat, go ithuta=to learn etc. For example in the sentence "to learn is good" "to learn" is a noun which would be in this class
- These nouns take subject marker go
Class 16,17,18 (fa-, ko- mo-)
- The final classes are called the locative classes and are to do with location
- They are beyond the scope of the beginner's course !