Verbs are the most important and complex element of Bambara grammar. There are some important complications created by nontransitive verbs. Many of the most common and basic verbs in Bambara take no direct object and can only be used with a postpositional object. For example, "n be taa sugu la" is literally "I go to market" and "n be be bo Ameriki" is literally "I come from America." There is another class of verbs that are superficially intransitive, such as kalanke, baarake, monike, dumunike, etc... Such verbs are distinguished by the ending "-ke" which means to do and are more properly considered as a direct object fused to a verb. The direct objects here are gerund forms of transitive verbs, which are formed by adding the suffix "-li". Thus "ka tige" is "to cut", "n be jiri tige" is "I cut trees", "tigeli" is "cutting" and "n be tigelike" is "I do cutting."
This difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is crucial when conjugating verbs in the past perfect. The formulae for the affirmative and negative present are as follows (parenthesis indicate that the term is optional depending on the construction of the verb):
- Affirmative present
- subject + be + (direct object) + verb;
Example: N be taa sugu la, N b'a don
- Negative present
- subjective + te + (direct object) + verb;
Example: N te taa sugu la, N t'a don
The formulae for affirmative present of transitive and intransitive verbs are as follows:
- Affirmative past perfect transitive
- subject + ye + direct object + verb;
Example: N y'a don, N y'a fo
- Affirmative past perfect intransitivie
- subject + verb + ra/na/la;
Example: N taara, N bora Ameriki
The formula for the negative past perfect is the same for both transitive and intransitive verbs:
- Negative past perfect
- subject + ma + (direct object) + verb;
Example: N ma taa, N m'a don
As the formulae, suggest, intrasitive verbs are slightly irregular in that the ending varies depending on the verb and follows no fixed rule. Thus the perfect past of "ka bo" is "bora" while the perfect past of "ka men" is "mena" and the perfect past of "ka fili" is "filila." The distinction between transitive and intranstive verbs also plays a crucial role in passive constructions. For example, "ka ta" is a transitive verb meaning "to take" and "N b'a ta" means "I take it", but "a be ta" means "it is taken." In general, if a transitive verb is used with a direct object, the subject is the object of the verb in the passive voice.
In addition to the present and the past perfect tenses, Bambara includes an imperfect past, a pluperfect past, a future, and a present and past progressive tense, which are formulated as follows:
- Affirmative imperfect past
- subject + tun + be + (direct object) + verb
- Negative imperfect past
- subject + tun + be + (direct object) + verb
- Affirmative pluperfect past transitive
- subject + tun + ye + direct object + verb
- Affirmative pluperfect past intransitive
- subject + tun + verb + ra/na/la
- Negative pluperfect past
- subject + tun + ma + (direct object) + verb
- Affirmative future
- subject + bena + (direct object) + verb
- Negative future
- subject + tena + (direct object) + verb
- Affirmative present progressive
- subject + beka + (direct object) + verb
- Negative present progressive
- subject + teka + (direct object) + verb
- Affirmative past progressive
- subject + tun + beka + (direct object) + verb
- Negative past progressive
- subject + tun + teka + (direct object) + verb
These tenses are not used quite the same as in English. The future tense, for example, is closer to the English construction "going to..." and indicates relatively certain events in the near future. For other future events, one uses the present. The present is generally used more to indicate general states of affairs or habitual actions. Many expressions that we place in the present, would be placed in the past perfect in Bambara. Thus, the example we used above "n t'a don" (I don't know) is rarely used in Bambara - one usually says "n m'a don" (I didn't know). Use of the present tense in this case indicates a tendency not to know and usually connotes refusal or incapacity to know. The present and past progressive are also used much less frequently in Bambara than in English and serve primarily to emphasize the immediacy of an action or its contemporaneity with another.
There is also a subjunctive construction in Bambara that is used with certain prepositions and prepositional phrases including "sani", "walasa", "ka fe ka". The subjunctive is formed in the same way as the present indicative but with "ka" in the place of "be" or "kana" in the place of "te". For example "a y'ke, walasa a fa kana sa" would mean "He did it, so that his father would not die." "Walasa" here captures the idea of "so that" or "in order that" and "his father would not die", which is in the conditional in English, is conjugated in the subjunctive in Bambara.
The past perfect, the imperfect, and the pluperfect are also used to indicate conditionality in hypothetical statements. The past perfect is used in the antecedent of a conditional statement to indicate a potential situationt that has not yet arisen. For example, to say "if he comes, call me" one would say "ni a nana, n wele" which translates literally as if he has come, call me. Here the past perfect indicates that he has not in fact come yet, but that he may come. In counterfactual conditionals, where the antecedent is a clearly false statement (usually about the past), one uses the pluperfect. Thus "if he had come, I would have called you" is translated as "ni a tun nana, n tun b'i wele". As the example suggests, the consequent of the conditional must be placed in the imperfect tense to indicate that the past action was possible rather than actual.
Verbs can also be modified with suffixes in several ways, and modified verbs constitute a substantial portion of the nouns, adjective, and adverbs in Bambara
verb + len
The suffix "-len" denotes the past participle of a verb. If the verb is transitive, the adjective denotes an object that has undergone the action, if the verb is intransitive, it indicates an object that has performed the action. Thus, as we saw above, "ka tige" is the transitive verb "to cut", so "yiri tigelen" indicates a tree that has been cut. "Ka taa", however, is the intransitive verb "to go", so "misi taalen" indicates that the cow is gone. We will discuss how to construct complete sentences using past participles later.
verb + to
The suffix "-to" corresponds roughly to the prepositional phrase "as verb-ing." Again, the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs is crucial. Thus, "yiri tigeto" means, as the tree is/was being cut, whereas "misi taato" means "as the cow is/was going." We will discuss how to form complete sentences using this construction later.
Most verbs also take indirect objects modified by a postposition. For example, "ka di", "to give" is usually constructed with "ma" in the following way: subject + direct object + di + indirect object + ma. Thus "N be wari di olu ma" means "I give money to them."
Some Bambara Verbs
- ka bó
- to come from
- ka na
- to come to
- ka taa
- to go
- ka segin
- to return
- ke kalanké
- to learn
- ka tobiliké
- to cook
- ka duminiké
- to eat
- ka sébén
- to write
- ka kó
- to shower
- ka si
- to pass the night
- ka tilen
- to pass the day
Also, "na" puts things in the past tense and "sa" at the end of a sentence gives it necessity, as in the French phrase "il faut."
The words "ka" and "man" are like the French verb "être" (to be). "ka" is positive and "man" is negative.