Swahili language: Wikis


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Swahili Language
Spoken in  Burundi
 Congo DR
Total speakers First language: 5–10 million[citation needed]
First and second language: 50+ million[2]
Language family Niger-Congo
Writing system Latin, Arabic
Official status
Official language in  African Union
Regulated by Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (Tanzania)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sw
ISO 639-2 swa
ISO 639-3 variously:
swa – Swahili (generic)
swc – Congo Swahili
swh – Coastal Swahili
Maeneo penye wasemaji wa Kiswahili.png

     Coastal areas where Swahili or Comorian is the indigenous language,      official or national language,      and trade language. As a trade language, Swahili extends some distance further to the northwest.

Swahili (Kiswahili) is a Bantu language spoken by various ethnic groups that inhabit several large stretches of the Indian Ocean coastline from northern Kenya to northern Mozambique, including the Comoros Islands.[3] Although only 5-10 million people speak it as their native language,[2] Swahili is also a lingua franca of much of East Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a national or official language of four nations, and is the only language of African origin among the official working languages of the African Union.



Swahili is a Bantu language that serves as a second language to various groups traditionally inhabiting parts of the East African coast. About 35% of the Swahili vocabulary derives from the Arabic language, gained through more than twelve centuries of contact with Arabic-speaking traders. It also has incorporated Persian, German, Portuguese, English and French words into its vocabulary through contact during the last five centuries. Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three countries, Tanzania, Kenya, and Congo (DRC), where it is an official or national language. The neighboring nation of Uganda made Swahili a required subject in primary schools in 1992—although this mandate has not been well implemented—and declared it an official language in 2005 in preparation for the East African Federation. Swahili, or other closely related languages, is spoken by nearly the entire population of the Comoros and by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Rwanda, northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. [4] and the language was understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf.[5] In the Guthrie non-genetic classification of Bantu languages, Swahili is included under Zone G.

Although originally written in Arabic script, Swahili orthography is now based on the Latin alphabet that was introduced by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators. The text shown here is the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer.[6]

The name 'Kiswahili' comes from the plural sawāḥil (سواحل) of the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل), meaning "boundary" or "coast" (used as an adjective to mean "coastal dwellers" or, by adding 'ki-' ["language"] to mean "coastal language"). (The word "sahel" is also used for the border zone of the Sahara ("desert")).

The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711, in Arabic-script, they were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are now preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India[7]. Another ancient written document is an epic poem in the Arabic script titled Utendi wa Tambuka ("The History of Tambuka"); it is dated 1728. The Latin alphabet has become standard under the influence of European colonial powers.

Methali (e.g."“Haraka haraka haina baraka — Hurry hurry has no blessing"". http://www.kiswahili.net/3-reference-works/proverbs-and-riddles/proverbs-and-riddles-east-african.html. ), i.e. “wordplay, risqué or suggestive puns and lyric rhyme, are deeply inscribed in Swahili culture, in form of Swahili parables, proverbs, and allegory”.[8] Methali is uncovered globally within ‘Swah’ rap music. It provides the music with rich cultural, historical, and local textures and insight.


"Kiswahili" is the Swahili word for the Swahili language, and this is also sometimes used in English. 'Ki-' is a prefix attached to nouns of the noun class that includes languages (see Noun classes below). Kiswahili refers to the 'Swahili Language'; Waswahili refers to the people of the 'Swahili Coast'; and Uswahili refers to the 'Culture' of the Swahili people. See Bantu languages for a more detailed discussion of the grammar of nouns.


Swahili is unusual among sub-Saharan languages in having lost the feature of lexical tone (with the exception of the numerically important Mvita dialect, the dialect of Kenya's second city, the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa).


Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. The pronunciation of the phoneme /u/ stands between International Phonetic Alphabet [u] and [o]. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. The vowels are pronounced as follows:

  • /ɑ/ is pronounced like the "a" in father
  • /ɛ/ is pronounced like the "e" in bed
  • /i/ is pronounced like the "i" in ski
  • /ɔ/ is pronounced like the "o" in American English horse, or like a tenser version of "o" in British English "lot"
  • /u/ is pronounced between the "u" in rude and the "o" in wrote.

Swahili has no diphthongs; in vowel combinations, each letter is pronounced separately. Therefore the Swahili word for "leopard", chui, is pronounced /tʃu.i/, with hiatus.


Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
/ palatal
Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/   n /n/ ny /ɲ/ ng’ /ŋ/
Stop prenasalized mb /mb/   nd /nd/ nj /ɲɟ/~/ndʒ/ ng /ŋɡ/
implosive b /ɓ/   d /ɗ/ j /ʄ/ g /ɠ/
tenuis p /p/   t /t/ ch /tʃ/ k /k/
aspirated (p /pʰ/)   (t /tʰ/) (ch /tʃʰ/) (k /kʰ/)
Fricative prenasalized mv /ɱv/   nz /nz/    
voiced v /v/ (dh /ð/) z /z/   (gh /ɣ/)
voiceless f /f/ (th /θ/) s /s/ sh /ʃ/ (kh /x/) h /h/
Trill     r /r/    
Approximant     l /l/ y /j/ w /w/


  • The nasal stops are pronounced as separate syllables when they appear before a plosive (e.g. mtoto [m.to.to] 'child', nilimpiga [ni.li.m.pi.ɠa] 'I hit him'), and prenasalized stops are decomposed into two syllables when the word would otherwise have one (e.g. mbwa [m.bwa] 'dog'). However, elsewhere this doesn't happen: ndizi ('banana') has two syllables, [ndi.zi], as does nenda [ne.nda] (not *[nen.da]; 'go').
  • The fricatives in parentheses, th dh kh gh, are borrowed from Arabic. Many Swahili speakers pronounce them as [s z h r], respectively.
  • Swahili orthography does not distinguish aspirated from tenuis consonants. When nouns in the N-class begin with plosives, they are aspirated (tembo [tembo] 'palm wine', but tembo [tʰembo] 'elephant') in some dialects. Otherwise aspirated consonants are not common. Some writers mark aspirated consonants with an apostrophe (t'embo).
  • Swahili l and r are merged for many speakers (the extent to which this is demonstrated generally depends on the original mother tongue spoken by the individual), and are often both realized as alveolar lateral flap /ɺ/, a sound between a flapped r and an l (this is also found in Japanese).

Noun classes

In common with all Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes, counting singular and plural as distinct according to the Meinhof system, with most Bantu languages sharing at least ten of these. Swahili employs sixteen: six classes that usually indicate singular nouns, five classes that usually indicate plural nouns, a class for abstract nouns, a class for verbal infinitives used as nouns, and three classes to indicate location.

class semantics prefix singular translation plural translation
1, 2 persons m-/mu-, wa- mtu person watu persons
3, 4 trees, natural forces m-/mu-, mi- mti tree miti trees
5, 6 groups, aug Ø/ji-, ma- jicho eye macho eyes
7, 8 artifacts, dim ki-, vi- kisu knife visu knives
9, 10 animals, loanwords, other Ø/n-, Ø/n- ndoto dream ndoto dreams
11, 10 extension u-, Ø/n- ua fence, yard nyua fences
14 abstraction u- utoto childhood

Nouns beginning with m- in the singular and wa- in the plural denote animate beings, especially people. Examples are mtu, meaning 'person' (plural watu), and mdudu, meaning 'insect' (plural wadudu). A class with m- in the singular but mi- in the plural often denotes plants, such as mti 'tree', miti trees. The infinitive of verbs begins with ku-, e.g. kusoma 'to read'. Other classes are more difficult to categorize. Singulars beginning in ki- take plurals in vi-; they often refer to hand tools and other artifacts. This ki-/vi- alteration even applies to foreign words where the ki- was originally part of the root, so vitabu "books" from kitabu "book" (from Arabic kitāb "book"). This class also contains languages (such as the name of the language Kiswahili), and diminutives, which had been a separate class in earlier stages of Bantu. Words beginning with u- are often abstract, with no plural, e.g. utoto 'childhood'.

A fifth class begins with n- or m- or nothing, and its plural is the same. Another class has ji- or no prefix in the singular, and takes ma- in the plural; this class is often used for augmentatives. When the noun itself does not make clear which class it belongs to, its concords do. Adjectives and numerals commonly take the noun prefixes, and verbs take a different set of prefixes.

singular     plural
mtoto mmoja anasoma watoto wawili wanasoma
child one is reading children two are reading
One child is reading Two children are reading
kitabu kimoja kinatosha vitabu viwili vinatosha
book one suffices books two suffice
One book is enough Two books are enough
ndizi moja inatosha ndizi mbili zinatosha
banana one suffices bananas two suffice
One banana is enough Two bananas are enough

The same noun root can be used with different noun-class prefixes for derived meanings: human mtoto (watoto) "child (children)", abstract utoto "childhood", diminutive kitoto (vitoto) "infant(s)", augmentative toto (matoto) "big child (children)". Also vegetative mti (miti) "tree(s)", artifact kiti (viti) "chair(s)", augmentative jiti (majiti) "large tree", kijiti (vijiti) "stick(s)", ujiti (njiti) "tall slender tree".

Semantic motivation

Although the Swahili noun class system is technically grammatical gender, there is a difference from the grammatical gender of European languages: In Swahili, the class assignments of nouns is still largely semantically motivated, whereas the European systems are mostly arbitrary. However, the classes cannot be understood as simplistic categories such as 'people' or 'trees'. Rather, there are extensions of meaning, words similar to those extensions, and then extensions again from these. The end result is a semantic net that made sense at the time, and often still does make sense, but which can be confusing to a non-speaker.

Take the ki-/vi- class. Originally it was two separate genders: artifacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils & hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12). Examples of the first are kisu "knife"; kiti "chair", from mti "tree, wood"; chombo "vessel" (a contraction of ki-ombo). Examples of the latter are kitoto "infant", from mtoto "child"; kitawi "frond", from tawi "branch"; and chumba (ki-umba) "room", from nyumba "house". It is the diminutive sense that has been furthest extended. An extension common to many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish is English). For example, there is kijani "green", from jani "leaf" (compare English 'leafy'), kichaka "bush" from chaka "clump", and kivuli "shadow" from uvuli "shade". A 'little bit' of a verb would be an instance of an action, and such instantiations (usually not very active ones) are also found: kifo "death", from the verb -fa "to die"; kiota "nest" from -ota "to brood"; chakula "food" from kula "to eat"; kivuko "a ford, a pass" from -vuka "to cross"; and kilimia "the Pleiades", from -limia "to farm with", from its role in guiding planting. A resemblance, or being a bit like something, implies marginal status in a category, so things that are marginal examples of their class may take the ki-/vi- prefixes. One example is chura (ki-ura) "frog", which is only half terrestrial and therefore marginal as an animal. This extension may account for disabilities as well: kilema "a cripple", kipofu "a blind person", kiziwi "a deaf person". Finally, diminutives often denote contempt, and contempt is sometimes expressed against things that are dangerous. This might be the historical explanation for kifaru "rhinoceros", kingugwa "spotted hyena", and kiboko "hippopotamus" (perhaps originally meaning "stubby legs").

Another class with broad semantic extension is the m-/mi- class (Bantu classes 3/4). This is often called the 'tree' class, because mti, miti "tree(s)" is the prototypical example, but that doesn't do it justice. Rather, it seems to cover vital entities which are neither human nor typical animals: trees and other plants, such as mwitu 'forest' and mtama 'millet' (and from there, things made from plants, like mkeka 'mat'); supernatural and natural forces, such as mwezi 'moon', mlima 'mountain', mto 'river'; active things, such as moto 'fire', including active body parts (moyo 'heart', mkono 'hand, arm'); and human groups, which are vital but not themselves human, such as mji 'village', perhaps msikiti 'mosque', and, by analogy, mzinga 'beehive/cannon'. From the central idea of tree, which is thin, tall, and spreading, comes an extension to other long or extended things or parts of things, such as mwavuli 'umbrella', moshi 'smoke', msumari 'nail'; and from activity there even come active instantiations of verbs, such as mfuo "metal forging", from -fua "to forge", or mlio "a sound", from -lia "to make a sound". Words may be connected to their class by more than one metaphor. For example, mkono is an active body part, and mto is an active natural force, but they are also both long and thin. Things with a trajectory, such as mpaka 'border' and mwendo 'journey', are classified with long thin things, as in many other languages with noun classes. This may be further extended to anything dealing with time, such as mwaka 'year' and perhaps mshahara 'wages'. Also, animals which are exceptional in some way and therefore don't fit easily in the other classes may be placed in this class.

The other classes also have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive.[9] In short,

  • Classes 1-2 include most words for people: kin terms, professions, ethnicities, etc., including translations of most English words ending in -er. They also include a couple generic words for animals: mnyama 'beast', mdudu 'bug'.
  • Classes 5-6 have a broad semantic range of groups, expanses, and augmentatives. Although interrelated, it is easier to illustrate if broken down:
    • Augmentatives, such as joka 'serpent' from nyoka 'snake', lead to titles and other terms of respect (the opposite of diminutives, which lead to terms of contempt): Bwana 'Sir', shangazi 'aunt', fundi 'craftsman', kadhi 'judge'.
    • Expanses: ziwa 'lake', bonde 'valley', taifa 'country', anga 'sky'
      • from this, mass nouns: maji 'water', vumbi 'dust' (and other liquids and fine particulates which may cover broad expanses), kaa 'charcoal', mali 'wealth', maridhawa 'abundance'
    • Collectives: kundi 'group', kabila 'ethnic group', jeshi 'army', daraja 'stairs', manyoya 'fur, feathers', mapesa 'small change', manyasi 'weeds', jongoo 'millipede' (large set of legs), marimba 'xylophone' (large set of keys)
      • from this, individual things found in groups: jiwe 'stone', tawi 'branch', ua 'flower', tunda 'fruit' (also the names of most fruits), yai 'egg', mapacha 'twins', jino 'tooth', tumbo 'stomach' (cf. English "guts"), and paired body parts such as jicho 'eye', bawa 'wing', etc.
      • also collective or dialogic actions, which occur among groups of people: neno 'a word', from kunena 'to speak' (and by extension, mental verbal processes: wazo 'thought', maana 'meaning'); pigo 'a stroke, blow', from kupiga 'to hit'; gomvi 'a quarrel', shauri 'advice, plan', kosa 'mistake', jambo 'affair', penzi 'love', jibu 'answer', agano 'promise', malipo 'payment'
      • From pairing, reproduction is suggested as another extension (fruit, egg, testicle, flower, twins, etc.), but these generally duplicate one or more of the subcategories above
  • Classes 9-10 are used for most typical animals: ndege 'bird', nswi 'fish', and the specific names of typical beasts, birds, and bugs. However, this is also the 'other' class, for words which don't fit in well elsewhere, and about half of the class 9-10 nouns are foreign loanwords. Loans may be classified as 9-10 because they lack the prefixes inherent in other classes, and most native class 9-10 nouns have no prefix. Thus they do not form a coherent semantic class, though there are still semantic extensions from individual words.
  • Class 11 (which takes class 10 for the plural) are mostly nouns with an "extended outline shape", in either one dimension or two:
    • mass nouns which are generally localized rather than covering vast expanses: ugali 'porridge', wali 'cooked rice'
    • broad: ukuta 'wall', ukucha 'fingernail', upande 'side' (≈ ubavu 'rib'), wavu 'net', wayo 'sole, footprint', ua 'fence, yard', uteo 'winnowing basket',
    • long: utambi 'wick', utepe 'stripe', uta 'bow', ubavu 'rib', ufa 'crack', unywele 'a hair'
      • from 'a hair', singulatives of nouns, which are often class 6 ('collectives') in the plural: unyoya 'a feather', uvumbi 'a grain of dust', ushanga 'a bead'
  • Class 14 are abstractions, such as utoto 'childhood' (from mtoto 'a child') and have no plural. They have the same prefixes and concord as class 11, except optionally for adjectival concord.
  • Class 15 are verbal infinitives.
  • Classes 16-18 are locatives. The Bantu nouns of these classes have been lost; the only permanent member is the Arabic loan mahali 'place(s)'. (Though in Mombasa Swahili, the old prefixes survive: pahali 'place', mwahali 'places'.) However, any noun with the locative suffix -ni takes class 16-18 agreement. The distinction between them is that class 16 agreement is used if the location is intended to be definite ("at"), class 17 if indefinite ("around") or involves motion ("to, toward"), and class 18 if it involves containment ("within"): mahali pazuri 'a good spot', mahali kuzuri 'a nice area', mahali muzuri (it's nice in there).

Verb affixation

Swahili verbs consist of a root and a number of affixes (mostly prefixes) which can be attached to express grammatical persons, tense, and subordinate clauses, which require a conjunction in languages such as English.

Verbs of Bantu origin end in '-a' in the indicative. This vowel changes to indicate the subjunctive and negation.

In most dictionaries, verbs are listed in their indicative root form, for example -kata meaning 'to cut/chop'. In a simple sentence, prefixes for grammatical tense and person are added, as ninakata 'I cut'. Here ni- means 'I' and na- indicates a specific time (present tense unless stated otherwise).

Verb conjugation

ni- -na- kata
1sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'I am cutting (it)'

Now this sentence can be modified either by changing the subject prefix or the tense prefix, for example:

u- -na- kata
2sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'You are cutting'
u- -me- kata
2sg PERFECT cut/chop
'You have cut'

The animate/human subject and object prefixes, with the m-/wa- (human class) in the third person, is:

Subject prefixes
Person Sg. Pl.
1st ni- tu-
2nd u- m-
3rd a- wa-
Object prefixes
Person Sg. Pl.
1st -ni- -tu-
2nd -ku- -wa- (-mu-)
3rd -m- -wa-

In Standard Swahili, 2pl and 3pl objects are both -wa-. However, in Nairobi Swahili, 2pl is -mu-.

The most common tense prefixes are:

Tense and mood prefixes
-a- gnomic (indefinite time)
-na- definite time (often present progressive)
-me- perfect
-li- past
-ta- future
hu- habitual (does not take subject prefix)
-ki- conditional

The indefinite (gnomic tense) prefix is used for generic statements such as "birds fly", and the vowels of the subject prefixes are is assimilated. Thus nasoma means 'I read', although colloquially it is also short for ninasoma.

Persons in gnomic tense
1st na- twa-
2nd wa- mwa-
3rd a- wa-
na- soma
1sg:GNOM read
'I read'
mwa- soma
2pl:GNOM read
'You (pl) read'


ni-ki-nunua nyama wa mbuzi soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo.
'If I buy goat meat at the market, I'll cook today.'

The English conjunction 'if' is translated by -ki-.

A third prefix is the object prefix. It is placed just before the root and refers a particular object, either a person, or rather as "the" does in English:

a- na- mw- ona
3sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see
'He (is) see(ing) him/her'
ni- na- mw- ona mtoto
1sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see child
'I (am) see(ing) the child'

The -a suffix listed by dictionaries is the positive indicative mood. Other forms occur with negation and the subjunctive, as in sisomi:

si- som- -i
1sg.NEG:PRES read NEG
'I am not reading/ I don't read'

Other instances of this change of the final vowel include the subjunctive in -e. This goes only for Bantu verbs ending with -a; Arabic-derived verbs do not change their final vowel.

Other suffixes are placed before the end vowel, such as the applicative -i- and passive -w-:

wa- na- pig -w -a
'They are being hit'


Swahili phrases agree with nouns in a system of concord, though if the noun refers to a human, they accord with noun classes 1 & 2 regardless of noun class. Verbs agree with the noun class of their subjects and objects; adjectives, prepositions, and demonstratives agree with the noun class of their nouns. In Standard Swahili (Kiswahili sanifu) and in areas such as Zanzibar where Swahili is the native language the system is rather complex; however, it is drastically simplified in many local variants where Swahili is not the native language, such as in Nairobi.

In Nairobi, concord reflects only animacy. Human subjects and objects trigger a-, wa- and m-, wa- in verbal concord, while non-human subjects and objects—of whatever class—trigger i-, zi-, and infinitive verbs vary between standard ku- and reduced i-.[10] ("Of" is animate wa and inanimate ya, za.) In Standard Swahili, human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger animacy concord in a-, wa- and m-, wa-, while non-human subjects and objects trigger a variety of gender-concord prefixes.

Swahili noun-class concord
NC Semantic
-C, -V
Subj. Obj -a Adjective
-C, -i, -e[* 1]
1 person m-, mw- a- m- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
2 people wa-, w- wa- wa- wa wa-, we-, we-
3 tree m- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
4 trees mi- i- ya mi-, mi-, mye-
5 group, aug ji-/Ø, j- li- la ji-/Ø, ji-, je-
6 groups, aug ma- ya- ya ma-, mi-, me-
7 tool, dim ki-, ch- ki- cha ki-, ki-, che-
8 tools, dim vi-, vy- vi- vya vi-, vi-, vye-
9 animals, 'other',
N- i- ya N-, nyi-, nye-
10 zi- za
11 extension u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
10 (plural of 11) N- zi- za N-, nyi-, nye-
14 abstraction u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
or u-, wi-, we-
15 infinitives ku-, kw-[* 2] ku- kwa- ku-, kwi-, kwe-
16 position -ni, mahali pa- pa pa-, pi-, pe-
17 direction, around -ni ku- kwa ku-, kwi-, kwe-
18 within, along -ni mu- mwa mu-, mwi-, mwe-
  1. ^ Most Swahili adjectives begin with either a consonant or the vowels i- or e-, which are listed separately above. The few adjectives which begin with other vowels do not agree with all noun classes, since some are restricted to humans. NC 1 m(w)- is mw- before a and o, and reduces to m- before u; wa- does not change; and ki-, vi-, mi- become ch-, vy-, my- before o but not before u: mwanana, waanana "gentle", mwororo, waororo, myororo, chororo, vyororo "mild, yielding", mume, waume, kiume, viume "male".
  2. ^ In a few verbs: kwenda, kwisha

Swahili time

Swahili clock as provided by the Kamusi Project

(East African) Swahili time runs from dawn to dusk, rather than midnight to midday. 7am and 7pm are therefore both one o'clock while midnight and midday are six o'clock. Words such as asubuhi 'morning', jioni 'evening' and usiku 'night' can be used to demarcate periods of the day, for example:

  • saa moja asubuhi   ('hour one morning')   7:00 a.m.
  • saa tisa usiku   ('hour nine night')  3:00 a.m.
  • saa mbili usiku   ('hour two night')   8:00 p.m.

More specific time demarcations include adhuhuri 'early afternoon', alasiri 'late afternoon', usiku wa manane 'late night/past midnight', 'sunrise' macheo and 'sunset' machweo.

At certain times there is some overlap of terms used to demarcate day and night, e.g. 7:00 p.m. can be either saa moja jioni or saa moja usiku.

Other relevant phrases include na robo 'and a quarter', na nusu 'and a half', kasarobo/kasorobo 'less a quarter', and dakika 'minute(s)':

  • saa nne na nusu   ('hour four and a half')   10:30
  • saa tatu na dakika tano   ('hour three and minutes five')   five past nine
  • saa mbili kasorobo   ('hour two less a quarter')   7:45
  • saa tatu kasoro   ('a few minutes to nine')

Swahili time derives from the fact that the sun rises at around 6am and sets at around 6pm everyday in the equatorial areas where most Swahili speakers live.

Dialects of Swahili and languages closely related to Swahili

This list is based on Nurse, Derek, and Hinnebusch, Thomas J. Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history.

Dialects of Swahili

Modern standard Swahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect spoken in Zanzibar town. There are numerous dialects of Swahili, some of which are mutually unintelligible, including the following.[11]

Old dialects

  • Chimwiini was traditionally spoken around the Somali town of Barawa. In recent years, most of its speakers have fled to Kenya to escape civil war. Whether Chimwiini is Swahili or a distinct language is a question that provokes division within each of the following groups: linguists specializing in Swahili, Chimwiini speakers, and speakers of other Swahili dialects.
  • Kitikuu, also called Kigunya and Kibajuni, spoken on the coast and islands on both sides of the Somalia-Kenya border and in the northern part of the Lamu archipelago.
  • Kiamu: spoken in and around the island of Lamu (Amu).
  • Kimvita: the major dialect of Mombasa (also known as "Mvita", which means "war", in reference to the many wars which were fought over it), the other major dialect alongside Kiunguja.
  • Kingare: subdialect of the Mombasa area.
  • Chijomvu: subdialect of the Mombasa area.
  • Chichifundi: dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
  • Kivumba: dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
  • Kipemba: local dialect of the island of Pemba.
  • Kiunguja: spoken in Zanzibar City and environs on Unguja (Zanzibar) Island. Other dialects occupy the bulk of the island.
  • Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi: the countryside dialects of the island of Zanzibar. Kimakunduchi is a recent renaming of "Kihadimu"; the old name means "serf", hence it is considered pejorative.
  • Kimrima: spoken around Pangani, Vanga, Dar es Salaam, Rufiji and Mafia Island.
  • Kimgao: formerly spoken around Kilwa and to the south.
  • Kimwani: spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
  • Kichagga: spoken by the Chagga people who are living around the Kilimanjaromountain in northern Tanzania.

Historically recent idioms

  • Kingwana: spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sometimes called Copperbelt Swahili, especially the variety spoken in the south.
  • Sheng: a sort of street slang, this is a blend of Swahili, English, and ethnic languages spoken in and around Nairobi in informal settings. Sheng originated in the Nairobi slums and is considered fashionable and cosmopolitan among a growing segment of the population.

The rise of Swahili to regional prominence

There is as yet insufficient historical or archaeological evidence to allow one to state exactly when and where either the Swahili language or the Swahili culture emerged. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the Swahili speaking people have occupied their present territories, hugging the Indian Ocean, since well before 1000 CE. Arab traders are known to have had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 6th Century CE, and Islam began to spread along the East African Coast from at least the 9th Century.

People from Oman and the Persian Gulf settled the Zanzibar Archipelago, helping spread both Islam and the Swahili language and culture with major trading and cultural centers as far as Sofala (Mozambique) and Kilwa (Tanzania) to the south, and Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, Barawa, Merca, Kismayu and Mogadishu (Somalia) in the north, the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Starting about 1800, the rulers of Zanzibar organized trading expeditions into the interior of the mainland, up to the various lakes in the continent's Great Rift Valley. They soon established permanent trade routes and Swahili speaking merchants settled in stops along the new trade routes. For the most part, this process did not lead to genuine colonization. But colonisation did occur west of Lake Malawi, in what is now Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, giving rise to a highly divergent dialect.

After Germany seized the region known as Tanganyika (present day mainland Tanzania) for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide (but shallow) dissemination of Swahili, and soon designated Swahili as a colony-wide official administrative language. The British did not do so in neighbouring Kenya, even though they made moves in that direction. The British and Germans both were keen to facilitate their rule over colonies with dozens of languages spoken by selecting a single local language that hopefully would be well accepted by the natives. Swahili was the only good candidate in these two colonies.

In the aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War I, it was dispossessed of all its overseas territories. Tanganyika fell into British hands. The British authorities, with the collaboration of British Christian missionary institutions active in these colonies, increased their resolve to institute Swahili as a common language for primary education and low level governance throughout their East African colonies (Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya). Swahili was to be subordinate to English: university education, much secondary education, and governance at the highest levels would be conducted in English.

One key step in spreading Swahili was to create a standard written language. In June 1928, an interterritorial conference was held at Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardizing Swahili.[12] Today's standard Swahili, the version taught as a second language, is for practical purposes Zanzibar Swahili, even though there are minor discrepancies between the written standard and the Zanzibar vernacular.

Current situation

At the present time, some 90 percent of approximately 39 million Tanzanians speak Swahili.[13] Kenya's population is comparable, but the prevalence of Swahili is lower, though still widespread. Most educated Kenyans are able to communicate fluently in Swahili, since it is a compulsory subject in school from grade one. The five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (to be subdivided in 2009) are Swahili speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it;[14] and it is starting to rival Lingala as the most important national language of that country. In Uganda, the Baganda generally don't speak Swahili, but it is in common use among the 25 million people elsewhere in the country, and is currently being implemented in schools nationwide in preparation for the East African Community. The usage of Swahili in other countries is commonly overstated, being common only in market towns, among returning refugees, or near the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. Even so, Swahili is probably second only to Hausa of West Africa as the sub-Saharan indigenous language with the greatest number of speakers, and Swahili speakers may number some five to ten percent of the 750 million people of sub-Saharan Africa (2005 World Bank Data).[1]

Many of the world's institutions have responded to Swahili's growing prominence. It is one of the languages that feature in world radio stations such as the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, China Radio International, Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa.

See also


  1. ^ Ethnologue list of countries where Swahili is spoken
    Thomas J. Hinnebusch, 1992, "Swahili", International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Oxford, pp. 99-106
    David Dalby, 1999/2000, The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities, Linguasphere Press, Volume Two, pg. 733-735
    Benji Wald, 1994, "Sub-Saharan Africa", Atlas of the World's Languages, Routledge, pp. 289-346, maps 80, 81, 85
  2. ^ a b Lutz Marten, "Swahili", Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed., 2006, Elsevier
  3. ^ Prins 1961
  4. ^ Nurse & Thomas Spear (1985) The Swahili
  5. ^ Adriaan Hendrik Johan Prins (1961) The Swahili-speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast. (Ethnologue)
  6. ^ http://wikisource.org/wiki/Baba_yetu
  7. ^ E.A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves in East Central Africa, London, 1975, pp. 98-99 ; T. Vernet, "Les cités-Etats swahili et la puissance omanaise (1650-1720), Journal des Africanistes, 72(2), 2002, pp. 102-105.
  8. ^ Lemelle, Sidney J. “‘Ni wapi Tunakwenda’: Hip Hop Culture and the Children of Arusha.” In The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture, ed. by Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle, 230-54. London; Ann Arbor, MI Pluto Pres
  9. ^ See here for details.
  10. ^ Kamil Ud Deen, 2005. The acquisition of Swahili.
  11. ^ H.E.Lambert 1956, 1957, 1958
  12. ^ Whiteley 1969: 80
  13. ^ Brock-Utne 2001: 123
  14. ^ Kambale, Juakali (2004-08-10). "DRC welcomes Swahili as an official AU language". Mail & Guardian. http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx?articleid=134530&area=/breaking_news/breaking_news__africa/. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 


  • Ashton, E. O. Swahili Grammar: Including intonation. Longman House. Essex 1947. ISBN 0-582-62701-X.
  • Brock-Utne, Birgit. 2001. Education for all — in whose language? Oxford review of education, 27(1): 115-134.
  • Chiraghdin, Shihabuddin and Mathias Mnyampala. Historia ya Kiswahili. Oxford University Press. Eastern Africa. 1977. ISBN 0-19-572367-8
  • Contini-Morava, Ellen. Noun Classification in Swahili. 1994.
  • Lambert, H.E. 1956. Chi-Chifundi: A Dialect of the Southern Kenya Coast. (Kampala)
  • Lambert, H.E. 1957. Ki-Vumba: A Dialect of the Southern Kenya Coast. (Kampala)
  • Lambert, H.E. 1958. Chi-Jomvu and ki-Ngare: Subdialects of the Mombasa Area. (Kampala)
  • Marshad, Hassan A. Kiswahili au Kiingereza (Nchini Kenya). Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. Nairobi 1993. ISBN 9966-22-098-4.
  • Nurse, Derek, and Hinnebusch, Thomas J. Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history. 1993. Series: University of California Publications in Linguistics, v. 121.
  • Prins, A.H.J. 1961. The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast (Arabs, Shirazi and Swahili). Ethnographic Survey of Africa, edited by Daryll Forde. London: International African Institute.
  • Prins, A.H.J. 1970. A Swahili Nautical Dictionary. Preliminary Studies in Swahili Lexicon - 1. Dar es Salaam.
  • Whiteley, Wilfred. 1969. Swahili: the rise of a national language. London: Methuen. Series: Studies in African History.

External links

Swahili language edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dictionaries and grammar

Simple English

The Swahili language is a language widely spoken in East Africa. In the Swahili language its name is Kiswahili. It is a Bantu language.

The Swahili language is spoken in a wide area from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique and the whole of Kenya(EACU). There are about five million first-language speakers and fifty million second-language speakers. Swahili has become a language with which people can communicate within East Africa and the surrounding areas.

The Swahili language began to be spoken by the Swahili people who live on the coast of East Africa and on the islands near the coast, including Zanzibar, which is now a part of Tanzania. Swahili is an official language in Tanzania and Kenya. It has been influenced by many other languages like the Arabic language.

Swahili Vocabulary

The words below are examples of the Swahili language.

  • yes - ndiyo
  • no - hapana
  • okay - sawa
  • City - muji
  • Country - inchi

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