Swahili, also known as Kiswahili (translation: language of the Swahili people), 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 south-eastern Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, some parts of Malawi, Somalia, Zambia, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Comorian, spoken in the Comoros Islands, is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Swahili, though other authorities consider it a distinct language.
|Native to||Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bajuni Islands (part of Somalia), Mozambique (mostly Mwani), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Comoros, Mayotte, Zambia, Malawi, and Madagascar|
|Estimates range from 2 million (2003) to 150 million (2012)|
L2 speakers: 90 million (1991–2015)
Official language in
areas where Swahili or Comorian is the indigenous language
official or national language
as a trade language
The exact number of Swahili speakers, be it native or second-language speakers, is unknown and a matter of debate. Various estimates have been put forward and they vary widely, ranging from 100 million to 150 million. Swahili serves as a national language of the DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. 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. In 2018, South Africa legalized the teaching of Swahili in South African schools as an optional subject to begin in 2020.
A significant fraction of Swahili vocabulary derives from Arabic, in part conveyed by Arabic-speaking Muslim inhabitants. For example, the Swahili word for "book" is kitabu, traceable back to the Arabic word كتاب kitāb (from the root K-T-B "write"). However, the Swahili plural form of this word ("books") is vitabu, rather than the Arabic plural form كتب kutub, following the Bantu grammar in which ki- is reanalysed as a nominal class prefix, whose plural is vi-.
Swahili is a Bantu language of the Sabaki branch. In Guthrie's geographic classification, Swahili is in Bantu zone G, whereas the other Sabaki languages are in zone E70, commonly under the name Nyika. Local folk-theories of the language have often considered Swahili to be a mixed language because of its many loan words from Arabic, and the fact that Swahili people have historically been Muslims. However, historical linguists do not consider the Arabic influence on Swahili to be significant enough to classify it as a mixed language, since Arabic influence is limited to lexical items, most of which have only been borrowed after 1500, while the grammatical and syntactic structure of the language is typically Bantu.
Its old name was Kingozi, but as traders came from Arab countries, their vocabulary intermingled with the language. It was originally written in Arabic script.
The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 in the Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India.
Its name comes from Arabic: سَاحِل sāħil = "coast", broken plural سَوَاحِل sawāħil = "coasts", سَوَاحِلِىّ sawāħilï = "of coasts".
Since Swahili was the language of commerce in East Africa, the colonial administrators wanted to standardize it. In June 1928, an interterritorial conference attended by representatives of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, and Zanzibar took place in Mombasa. The Zanzibar dialect was chosen as standard Swahili for those areas, and the standard orthography for Swahili was adopted.
Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Kenya, Tanzania, and the DRC) where it is an official or national language. In 1985, with the 8–4–4 system of education, Swahili was made a compulsory subject in all Kenyan schools. Swahili and closely related languages are spoken by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Comoros, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda. The language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea in the 20th century.
Some 80 percent of approximately 62 million Tanzanians speak Swahili in addition to their first languages. The five eastern provinces of the DRC are Swahili-speaking. Nearly half the 81 million Congolese reportedly speak it. Swahili speakers may number 120 to 150 million in total.
Swahili is among the first languages in Africa for which language technology applications have been developed. Arvi Hurskainen is one of the early developers. The applications include a spelling checker, part-of-speech tagging, a language learning software, an analysed Swahili text corpus of 25 million words, an electronic dictionary, and machine translation between Swahili and English. The development of language technology also strengthens the position of Swahili as a modern medium of communication.
Swahili in Religious and Political Identity in East Africa
Swahili in East Africa has over time gained influence over how East Africans view themselves; this observation is particularly true of Swahili speakers in the region. As some scholars have observed, there have been ways in which Swahili's involvement in the development of nationhood in a Swahili-speaking country like Kenya has had an influence over how the people view themselves. For instance, in Kenya, the multiplicity of ethnic tribal communities and identities have, through Swahili, found ways of seeing themselves as a body of distinct groups who share a common geographical area—through the implementation of ideas, concepts and theological language such as from Islam. Such ideas are visible in how Swahili itself in a country like Kenya adapted language such as sheria, umma and binadamu to describe the law, the commonality of all people as Kenyans of equal standing before the law, as well as people who theologically trace their ancestry to Adam as the progenetor of all humanity.
Unlike the majority of Niger-Congo languages, Swahili lacks contrastive tone (pitch contour). As a result of that and the language's shallow orthography, Swahili is said to be the easiest African language for an English speaker to learn.
|Nasal||m ⟨m⟩||n ⟨n⟩||ɲ ⟨ny⟩||ŋ ⟨ng'⟩|
|Stop||prenasalized||ᵐb ⟨mb⟩||ⁿd ⟨nd⟩||ⁿdʒ ⟨nj⟩||ᵑɡ ⟨ng⟩|
|ɓ ~ b ⟨b⟩||ɗ ~ d ⟨d⟩||ʄ ~ dʒ ⟨j⟩||ɠ ~ ɡ ⟨g⟩|
|voiceless||p ⟨p⟩||t ⟨t⟩||tʃ ⟨ch⟩||k ⟨k⟩|
|Fricative||prenasalized||ᶬv ⟨mv⟩||ⁿz ⟨nz⟩|
|voiced||v ⟨v⟩||(ð ⟨dh⟩)||z ⟨z⟩||(ɣ ⟨gh⟩)|
|voiceless||f ⟨f⟩||(θ ⟨th⟩)||s ⟨s⟩||ʃ ⟨sh⟩||(x ⟨kh⟩)||h ⟨h⟩|
|Approximant||l ⟨l⟩||j ⟨y⟩||w ⟨w⟩|
Some dialects of Swahili may also have the aspirated phonemes /pʰ tʰ tʃʰ kʰ bʰ dʰ dʒʰ ɡʰ/ though they are unmarked in Swahili's Orthography. Multiple studies favor classifying prenasalization as consonant clusters, not as separate phonemes. "[I]n some Arabic loans (nouns, verbs, adjectives) emphasis or intensity is expressed by reproducing the original emphatic consonants /dˤ, sˤ, tˤ, zˤ/ and the uvular /q/, or lengthening a vowel, where aspiration would be used in inherited Bantu words."
Swahili is currently written in the Latin alphabet. There are two digraphs for native sounds, ch and sh; q and x are not used, 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 different enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.
Several Swahili consonants do not have equivalents in Arabic, and for them, often no special letters were created unlike, for example, Urdu script. 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:
|Swahili in Arabic Script||Swahili in Latin Alphabet|
|ـب||ـبـ||بـ||ب||b p mb mp bw pw mbw mpw|
|ـج||ـجـ||جـ||ج||j nj ng ng' ny|
|ـر||ر||r d nd|
|ـط||ـطـ||طـ||ط||t tw chw|
|ـظ||ـظـ||ظـ||ظ||z th dh dhw|
|ـغ||ـغـ||غـ||غ||gh g ng ng'|
|ـف||ـفـ||فـ||ف||f fy v vy mv p|
|ـق||ـقـ||قـ||ق||k g ng ch sh ny|
That was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors so 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, , 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'.
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 aliyeniambia "he who told me".
Swahili nouns are separable into classes, which are roughly analogous to genders in other languages. For example, just as suffix <-o> in Spanish marks masculine objects, and <-a> marks feminine ones, so, in Swahili, prefixes mark groups of similar objects: <m-> marks single human beings (mtoto 'child'), <wa-> marks multiple humans (watoto 'children'), <u-> marks abstract nouns (utoto 'childhood'), and so on. Similar prefixes must be used on verbs and particles in agreement with the governing noun in a phrase. This is a characteristic feature of all the Bantu languages of sub-Saharan Africa, and traces of it are also found in the Niger-Congo languages of West Africa.
The ki-/vi- class historically consisted of two separate genders, artefacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils and hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12/13), 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.
- Classes 1–2 include most words for people: kin terms, professions, ethnicities, etc., including translations of most English words ending in -er. They include a couple of 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 'language/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', samaki 'fish', and the specific names of typical beasts, birds, and bugs. However, this is the 'other' class, for words not fitting 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 that are generally localized rather than covering vast expanses: uji '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)', but 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).
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.
-C, -i, -e
|1||person||m-, mw-||a-||m-||wa||m-, mwi-, mwe-|
|2||people||wa-, w-||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-, me-, me-|
|7||tool, DIM||ki-, ch-||ki-||cha||ki-, ki-, che-|
|8||tools, DIM||vi-, vy-||vi-||vya||vi-, vi-, vye-|
|N-||i-||ya||N-, nyi-, nye-|
|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-||ku-||kwa-||ku-, kwi-, kwe-|
|16||position||-ni, mahali||pa-||pa||pa-, pe-, pe-|
|17||direction, around||-ni||ku-||kwa||ku-, kwi-, kwe-|
|18||within, along||-ni||mu-||(NA)||mwa||mu-, mwi-, mwe-|
- Most Swahili adjectives begin with either a consonant or the vowels i- or e-, listed separately above. The few adjectives beginning 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".
- In a few verbs: kwenda, kwisha
Dialects and closely related languages
This list is based on 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:
- Kimwani is spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
- Chimwiini is spoken by the ethnic minorities in and around the town of Barawa on the southern coast of Somalia.
- Kibajuni is spoken by the Bajuni minority ethnic group on the coast and islands on both sides of the Somali–Kenyan border and in the Bajuni Islands (the northern part of the Lamu archipelago) and is also called Kitikuu and Kigunya.
- Socotra Swahili (extinct)
- Sidi, in Gujarat (extinct)
The rest of the dialects are divided by him into two groups:
- Mombasa–Lamu Swahili
- Kiamu is spoken in and around the island of Lamu (Amu).
- Kipate is a local dialect of Pate Island, considered to be closest to the original dialect of Kingozi.
- Kingozi is an ancient dialect spoken on the Indian Ocean coast between Lamu and Somalia and is sometimes still used in poetry. It is often considered the source of Swahili.
- Chijomvu is a subdialect of the Mombasa area.
- Kimvita is 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 is the subdialect of the Mombasa area.
- Kimrima is spoken around Pangani, Vanga, Dar es Salaam, Rufiji and Mafia Island.
- Kiunguja is spoken in Zanzibar City and environs on Unguja (Zanzibar) Island. Kitumbatu (Pemba) dialects occupy the bulk of the island.
- Mambrui, Malindi
- Chichifundi, a dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
- Kivumba, a dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
- Nosse Be (Madagascar)
- Pemba Swahili
- Kipemba is a local dialect of the Pemba Island.
- Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi are the countryside dialects of the island of Zanzibar. Kimakunduchi is a recent renaming of "Kihadimu"; the old name means "serf" and so is considered pejorative.
- Mafia, Mbwera
- Kilwa (extinct)
- Kimgao used to be spoken around Kilwa District and to the south.
In Somalia, where the Afroasiatic 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.
- 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, pp. 733–735
Benji Wald, 1994, "Sub-Saharan Africa", Atlas of the World's Languages, Routledge, pp. 289–346, maps 80, 81, 85
- Hinnebusch, Thomas J. (2003). "Swahili". In William J. Frawley (ed.). International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195139778.
First-language (L1) speakers of Swahili, who probably number no more than two million
- Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
Congo Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
Coastal Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
Makwe at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
Mwani at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Swahili (G.40)". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
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After Arabic, Swahili is the most widely used African language but the number of its speakers is another area in which there is little agreement. The most commonly mentioned numbers are 50, 80, and 100 million people. [...] The number of its native speakers has been placed at just under 20 million.
- Nurse and Hinnebusch, 1993
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