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Swahili

The Swahili language, also known as Kiswahili, is one of the two most widely spoken African languages, alongside Hausa.

With an estimated 50 million speakers (compared to Hausa’s estimated 25 million), Swahili’s significance on the African continent is impossible to underestimate. The development of the Swahili language, with its powerful Arab and colonial influences, make it an intriguing point of study for both historians and linguists.

Classification of the Swahili Language

Swahili is classified as a member of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo subfamily of the African language family. The African languages are all native to Africa, and scholars have estimated that approximately 2,000 distinct languages exist on the continent.

The close relationship shared by many of the Benue-Congo languages, spoken primarily in southern and central Africa, has been acknowledged for more than a century. These languages are widely known as “Bantu” languages – a word which translates to “the people” in many Benue-Congo languages. Other important Bantu languages include the Zulu and Xhosa languages of South Africa, Rundi language of Burundi, and the Kikuyu language of Kenya.

Early History of the Swahili Language: Arab Influence

The Arabic language has had a significant influence on Swahili and played a major part in the actual development of the Swahili language. This stems from the centuries of contact between inhabitants of the eastern coast of Africa and Arabic traders.

It was under Arab influence that Swahili developed to become the primary language of areas of the east African coast. By the 19th century Swahili had come to serve as a common language for a significant number of Bantu-speaking tribal groups.

Inland Migration of the Swahili Language

Starting in the early 19th century, the Swahili language began to migrate further inland along with the Arab ivory and slave caravans that used primarily Swahili as a language of communication. These trade caravans traveled as far west as Congo and north to Uganda, disseminating the Swahili language as they went.

European Colonization and the Swahili Language

Rather than suppressing the use of Swahili, European colonialists chose to adopt the language, continuing its use as a common tool of communication. Both German and British colonial administrations tended to encourage the use of Swahili in public schools, civil service and other government areas, thereby further aiding the spread of the language.

German colonial powers were especially zealous in their adoption of the Swahili language, making extensive use of Swahili as the administrative language of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). This policy had long-lasting effects still apparent today as Swahili was declared the national language of post-independence Tanzania.

Development of the Written Swahili Language

The oldest known example of written Swahili dates to the early 18th century. Swahili was initially written in an Arabic script thanks to east African people’s contact with Arab traders. Efforts to standardize the Swahili language were undertaken by British colonial authorities in the 1930s.

Working with local Africa scholars and writers, British authorities determined that the Kiunguja dialect of Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania should serve as the basis for a standard Swahili, both spoken and written. Since this time, standard Swahili has been written using a Latin alphabet, and this script is still utilized in publishing and educational institutions today.

Swahili Language Today

Map of Tanzania

The Swahili language is currently spoken on the eastern coast of Africa in an area ranging from the Lamu Island of Kenya in the north to southern Tanzania. It is most commonly found in Tanzania, Kenya, Congo and Uganda.

Swahili serves as the official language of public administration and education in Tanzania. It serves similar purposes in Uganda and Kenya, alongside the English language. In the Congo, Swahili serves as one of four languages of government and public administration, although French is primarily used for these purposes.

Swahili is also spoken in other African countries, notably in areas of Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, the Comoros Islands, and Mozambique. A number of Swahili-speaking immigrant communities of the East African diaspora also can be found in the Gulf countries, Europe and North America.

Dialects of the Swahili Language

An estimated 15 primary Swahili dialects are in existence, in addition to various forms of pidgin Swahili.

There are three dominant dialects. The first, Kiunguja, is spoken on Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania, and serves as the basis for the standard Swahili language. The other two primary dialects are Kimvita (which is spoken in Mombasa and Kenya) and Kiamu (which is spoken on the Kenyan island of Lamu and adjacent coastal areas).

Loanwords in the Swahili Language

Thanks to east Africa’s long history of contact with the Arab-speaking world, the Swahili language contains an enormous number of words borrowed from Arabic. Among these loanwords is the word “Swahili” itself, which comes from an Arabic word that literally translates to “of the coast.”

Most of the loanwords taken from Arabic deal with areas such as business, trade and religion. Although most of these Arab language loanwords still exist in the Swahili language, English has come to replace Arabic as the primary source for borrowed words in the Swahili language.

Swahili Literature

Early Swahili fictional literature consisted primarily of narratives based on indigenous oral tales, Arabic stories, and translations of European works. A notable figure who helped move Swahili literature to a more modern era was the writer Shaaban Robert, a popular Tanzanian poet, novelist and essayist.

Later Swahili language literature included a broader variety of topics, from detective stories to serious novels dealing with modern topics such as industrialization, westernization, and post-independence societies in Africa. Since the 1960s, Swahili language literature and publishing has significantly expanded.


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Swahili Quick Facts

Alternate Names & Spellings: Kiswahili, Kisuaheli

Language Family: Niger-Congo, Atlantic-Congo, Volta-Congo, Benue-Congo, Bantoid, Southern, Narrow Bantu, Central, G

Official Language of: Tanzania, Kenya

Spoken by Approximately 773,000 people

Also Spoken In: United States

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