|Native to Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Mozambique (mostly Mwani), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Uganda, Comoros, Mayotte and the margins of Zambia, Malawi, Madagascar, and South Sudan|
Native speakers 2 million to 15 million (2012) L2 speakers: 50 to 100 million
Language family Niger–Congo Atlantic–Congo Benue–Congo Southern Bantoid Bantu Northeast Coast Bantu Sabaki Swahili
Writing system Latin script (Roman Swahili alphabet), Arabic script (Arabic Swahili alphabet) Swahili Braille
Official language in Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Comoros, African Union, East African Community
Regulated by Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (Tanzania), Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa (Kenya)
Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and the first language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and southeastern Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The closely related Comorian language, spoken in the Comoros Islands, is sometimes considered a dialect.
- Colonial period
- Current status
- Noun classes
- Semantic motivation
- Verb affixation
- Dialects and closely related languages
- Old dialects
- Historically recent varieties
- Other regions
Estimates of the total number of Swahili speakers vary widely, from 50 million to over 100 million. Swahili serves as a national language of three nations: Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shikomor, the official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is related to Swahili. Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and officially recognised as a lingua franca of the East African Community.
A significant fraction of Swahili vocabulary is derived from Arabic through contact with Arabic-speaking Muslim inhabitants of the Swahili Coast.
Swahili is traditionally regarded as being the language of coastal areas of Tanzania and Kenya. It was formalised after independence by presidents of the African Great Lakes region but first spoken by natives of the coastal mainland. It spread as a fisherman's language to the various islands surrounding the Swahili Coast. Traders from these islands had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 2nd century A.D., and Swahili began to spread along the Swahili Coast from at least the 6th century. There is also cultural evidence of early Zaramo people settlement on Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam in present-day Tanzania.
Clove farmers from Oman and the Persian Gulf farmed the Zanzibar Archipelago.
The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 A.D. in the Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are now preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India.
After Germany attached the region known as Tanganyika (present-day mainland Tanzania) for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide prevalence 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 sought to facilitate their rule over colonies where the inhabitants spoke dozens of different languages and so the colonial authorities selected a single local language, which they hoped the natives would find acceptable. Swahili was the only good candidate in the two colonies.
In the aftermath of Germany's defeat in the First World War, it was dispossessed of all its overseas territories. Tanganyika fell into British hands. The British authorities, with the collaboration of British Christian missionary institutions that were 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 inter-territorial conference took place at Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardising Swahili. 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.
Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)) where it is an official or national language. In 2016 it was made a compulsory subject in all Kenyan schools.
Swahili, or other closely related languages, is spoken by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, the Comoros, Rwanda, northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, and the language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf in the 20th century.
Some 80 percent of approximately 49 million Tanzanians speak Swahili in addition to their first languages.
Kenya's population is comparable as well, with a greater part of the nation being able to speak Swahili. Most educated Kenyans are able to communicate fluently in Swahili since it is a compulsory subject in school from grade one to high school and a distinct academic discipline in many of the public and private universities.
The five eastern provinces of the DRC are Swahili-speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it.
Swahili speakers may number 120 to 150 million.
Methali (e.g. Haraka haraka haina baraka – Hurry hurry has no blessing), i.e. "wordplay, risqué or suggestive puns and lyric rhyme, are deeply inscribed in Swahili culture, in form of Swahili parables, proverbs, and allegory".
Kiswahili is the Swahili word for the language and is also sometimes used in English. The name Swahili comes from the plural sawāḥil (سواحل) of the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل), meaning "boundary" or "coast", used as an adjective meaning "coastal dwellers". (The same word is the origin of the term Sahel.) With the prefix ki-, it means "coastal language", ki- being a prefix attached to nouns of the noun class such as languages.
Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. Pronunciation of /u/ is between International Phonetic Alphabet [u] and [o]. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress, but they are pronounced in full as follows:
Swahili only has diphthongs on the combination of semivowels and vowels; however, if the combination of two full vowels such as the Swahili word for "leopard", chui, each vowel is pronounced separately, pronounced like /tʃu.i/, with two syllables.
Standard Swahili has also two semivowels, y (/j/) and w (/w/). They are used to make diphthongs, as in the passive form of verbs (kupendwa, to be loved, from kupenda, to love). Other examples can be mpya, new, pronounced /ˈm̩.pja/, and mbwa, dog, pronounced /ˈm̩.ɓwa/.
Swahili is currently written in a slightly defective alphabet using the Latin script; the defectiveness comes in that it does not distinguish aspirated consonants, but in some dialects, pronunciation does not distinguish them anyway. (These were, however, distinguished as kh etc. in the old German colonial Latin alphabet.) There are two digraphs for native sounds, ch and sh; c is not used apart from unassimilated English loans and, occasionally, as a substitute for k in advertisements. There are also several digraphs for Arabic sounds not distinguished in pronunciation outside of traditional Swahili areas.
The language used to be written in the Arabic script. Unlike adaptations of the Arabic script for other languages, relatively little accommodation was made for Swahili. There were also differences in orthographic conventions between cities and authors and over the centuries, some quite precise but others defective enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.
Vowel diacritics were generally written, effectively making the Swahili-Arabic script an abugida. /e/ and /i/, /o/ and /u/ were often conflated, but in some orthographic, /e/ was distinguished from /i/ by rotating the kasra 90° and /o/ was distinguished from /u/ by writing the damma backwards.
Several Swahili consonants do not have equivalents in Arabic, and for them, often no special letters were created unlike, for example, in Persian and Urdu scripts. Instead, the closest Arabic sound is substituted. Not only did that mean that one letter often stands for more than one sound, but also writers made different choices of which consonant to substitute. Here are some of the equivalents between Arabic Swahili and Roman Swahili:
That was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors such as to distinguish aspiration and /p/ from /b/: پھا /pʰaa/ 'gazelle', پا /paa/ 'roof'. Although it is not found in Standard Swahili today, there is a distinction between dental and alveolar consonants in some dialects, which is reflected in some orthographies, for example in كُٹَ -kuta 'to meet' vs. كُتَ -kut̠a 'to be satisfied'. A k with the dots of y, ڱ, was used for ch in some conventions; ky being historically and even contemporaneously a more accurate transcription than Roman ch. In Mombasa, it was common to use the Arabic emphatics for Cw, for example in صِصِ swiswi (standard sisi) 'we' and كِطَ kit̠wa (standard kichwa) 'head'.
Word division differs from Roman norms. Particles such as ya, na, si, kwa, ni are joined to the following noun, and possessives such as yangu and yako are joined to the preceding noun, but verbs are written as two words, with the subject and tense–aspect–mood morphemes separated from the object and root, as in aliye niambia "he who asked me".
In common with all other Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes (counting singular and plural separately, according to the Meinhof convention), with most Bantu languages sharing at least ten. 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.
Nouns beginning with m- in the singular and wa- in the plural denote animate beings, especially people: mtu, meaning 'person' (plural watu), mdudu, meaning 'insect' (plural wadudu). A class with m- in the singular but mi- in the plural often denotes plants: mti 'tree', miti trees. The infinitive of verbs begins with ku-: kusoma 'to read'. Other classes are more difficult to categorize. Singulars beginning in ki- take plurals in vi- and often refer to hand tools and other artefacts. The ki-/vi- alteration even applies to foreign words if the ki- was originally part of the root: vitabu "books" from kitabu "book" (from Arabic kitāb "book"; Arabic itself deals similarly with Alexandria). This class also contains languages (such as the name of the language Kiswahili) and diminutives, which was a separate class in earlier stages of Bantu. Words beginning with u- are often abstract, with no plural: 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.
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)", artefact kiti (viti) "chair(s)", augmentative jiti (majiti) "large tree", kijiti (vijiti) "stick(s)", ujiti (njiti) "tall slender tree".
The ki-/vi- class historically consisted of two separate genders, artefacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils and hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12), which were conflated at a stage ancestral to Swahili. Examples of the former 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 diminutives in many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish in 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 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 is 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. However, it seems to cover vital entities 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', 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'. Animals exceptional in some way and so not easily fitting in the other classes may be placed in this class.
The other classes have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive. In short,
Swahili verbs consist of a root and a number of affixes (mostly prefixes) that 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).'I am cutting (it)'
This sentence can be modified by changing either the subject prefix or the tense prefix:'You are cutting' 'You have cut'
The animate/human subject and object prefixes, with the m-/wa- (human class) in the third person, are these:
In Standard Swahili, 2pl and 3pl objects are both -wa-. However, in Nairobi Swahili, 2pl is -mu-.
The most common tense prefixes are these:
The indefinite (gnomic tense) prefix is used for generic statements such as "birds fly", and the vowels of the subject prefixes are assimilated. Thus, nasoma means 'I read', although colloquially, it is also short for ninasoma.'I read' 'You (pl) read'
Conditional:ni-ki-nunua nyama ya ng'ombe soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo. 'If I buy cow meat at the market, I'll cook it 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:'He (is) see(ing) him/her' '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:'I am not reading/ I don't read'
Other instances of this change of the final vowel include the subjunctive in -e. That 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-:'They are being hit'
Swahili phrases agree with nouns in a system of concord, but if the noun refers to a human, they accord with noun classes 1-2 regardless of their 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), based on the dialect spoken in Zanzibar, the system is rather complex; however, it is drastically simplified in many local variants where Swahili is not a native language, such as in Nairobi. In non-native Swahili, 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-. Infinitives vary between standard ku- and reduced i-. ("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-, and non-human subjects and objects trigger a variety of gender-concord prefixes.
Dialects and closely related languages
This list is based Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history.
Modern standard Swahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect spoken in Zanzibar Town, but there are numerous dialects of Swahili, some of which are mutually unintelligible, such as the following:
Maho (2009) considers these to be distinct languages:
The rest of the dialects are divided by him into two groups:
Maho includes the various Comorian dialects as a third group. Other authorities consider Comorian to be a Sabaki language, distinct from Swahili.
Historically recent varieties
In Somalia, where the Afro-Asiatic Somali language predominates, a variant of Swahili referred to as Chimwiini (also known as Chimbalazi) is spoken along the Benadir coast by the Bravanese people. Another Swahili dialect known as Kibajuni also serves as the mother tongue of the Bajuni minority ethnic group, which lives in the tiny Bajuni Islands as well as the southern Kismayo region.
In Oman, an estimated 22,000 people speak Swahili. Most are descendants of those repatriated after the fall of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.