Information about the Swahili

Swahili (also called Kiswahili; see below for a discussion of the nomenclature) is a Bantu language widely spoken in East Africa. Swahili is the mother tongue of the Swahili people who inhabit a 1500 km stretch of the East African coast from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. There are approximately five million first-language speakers and fifty million second-language speakers. Swahili has become a lingua franca for East Africa and surrounding areas.

The name Swahili comes from the plural of Arabic word Sahel meaning "coast" used here to mean "coasts language". Sahel is exactly the same word used in Sahel.


Kiswahili is an alternative name for the Swahili language, and is the word speakers of Swahili use for their language. 'Ki-' is a Swahili prefix attached to nouns of the class that includes languages (see Noun classes below), 'Swahili' being the main noun stem from which comes the more common English term for the language. See Bantu languages for a more detailed discussion. When speaking English, some hold that Kiswahili is a more respectful or politically-correct term than Swahili. Others argue that calling the language Kiswahili when speaking English only makes sense if you would also habitually refer to European languages as Deutsch, Russki, Svenska, Magyar, and so forth (in preference to German, Russian, Swedish and Hungarian).


The origin of Swahili is in Zanzibar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa. The dialect spoken in Zanzibar is known as Kiunguja. Swahili is an official language in Tanzania and Kenya. It is also spoken in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (DRC), Comoros Islands (including Mayotte), Mozambique and Malawi.

Swahili belongs to the Sabaki subgroup of the Northeastern coast Bantu languages. It is closely related to the Miji Kenda group of languages, Pokomo, Ngazija, etc. Over a thousand years of intense and varied interaction with the Middle East, Arabia, Persia, India, and China has given Swahili a rich infusion of loanwords from a wide assortment of languages. The Comorian languages, spoken in the Comoros and Mayotte, are closely related to Swahili.

Despite the substantial number of loanwords present in Swahili, the language is in fact Bantu. In the past, some have held that Swahili is variously a derivative of Arabic, that a distinct Swahili people do not exist, or that Swahili is simply an amalgam of Arabic and African language and culture, though these theories have now been largely discarded. The distinct existence of the Swahili as a people can be traced back over a thousand years, as can their language. In structure and vocabulary Swahili is distinctly Bantu and shares far more culturally and lingustically with other Bantu languages and peoples than it does with Arabic, Persian, Indian etc. In fact, it is estimated that the proportion of non-African language loanwords in Swahili is comparable to the proportion of French, Latin, and Greek loanwords in the English language.

As in English, the proportion of loan words changes as the speaker is communicating at a "lower" or "higher class" situation. In English, a discussion of say, body functions, sounds much nicer if you use latin-derived words with occasional french terms rather than germanic-derived words (so-called four-letter words); an educated Swahili speaker will likewise use many more arabic-derived words with english terms in polite circumstances, though the same phrase could usually be said in Swahili using only words of Bantu origin.

One of the most famous phrases in Swahili is "hakuna matata" from Disney's "Lion King" and "Timon and Pumba" cartoon series. It means "no problem" or "no worries" (literally: "there are no problems"). The African American holiday of Kwanzaa derives its name from the Swahili word kwanza which means first or beginning. Safari (meaning journey) is another Swahili word that has spread worldwide.

Noun classes

In common with all Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. A total of 22 noun classes - according to the Meinhof system - are possible across all Bantu languages, with all languages sharing at least ten of these. Swahili employs a total of fifteen noun classes. Words beginning with m- whose plural changes it to wa- denote persons, e.g. mtoto 'child', plural watoto. The infinitive of verbs begins with ku-, e.g. kusoma 'to read'. Other classes are harder to categorize. Singulars beginning ki- take plurals in vi-: this even applies to foreign words where the ki- is originally part of the root, not a prefix, so vitabu 'books' (the singular form, kitabu, was borrowed from Arabic kitab, 'book'). This class also contains diminutives, and languages (cf. the name of the language in Swahili: Kiswahili). 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 m- class takes plurals in mi-, e.g. mti 'tree', miti trees. Another class usually has no prefix in the singular, and takes ma- in the plural. When the noun itself does not make clear which class it belongs to, its concords do. Adjectives and numerals take the noun prefixes, and verbs take a different set of prefixes.

Verb affixation

Swahili verbs consist of a root and a number of affixes (mostly prefixes) which can be attached to mean express grammatical persons, tense and many clauses that would require a conjunction in other languages (usually prefixes). As sometimes these affixes are sandwiched in between the root word and other affixes, some linguists have mistakenly assumed that Swahili uses infixes which is not the case.


Since colonial times circa 1870 to 1960 and into the present time Kiunguja, the Zanzibar dialect of Swahili has become the basis of Standard Swahili as used in East Africa. Nevertheless Swahili encompasses more than fifteen distinct dialects including:
  • Kiunguja: Spoken on Zanzibar island and environs. The basis of Standard Swahili.
  • Kimrima: Spoken around Pangani, Vanga, Dar es Salaam, Rufiji and Mafia Island.
  • Kimgao: Spoken around Kilwa and to the south.
  • Kipemba: Spoken around Pemba.
  • Kimvita: Spoken in and around Mvita or Mombasa. Historically the major dialect alongside Kiunguja.
  • Kiamu: Spoken in and around the island of Lamu (Amu).
  • 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.
  • Kingazija: Spoken in the Comoros Islands.
  • Kingozi: Is a special case as it was the language of the inhabitants of the ancient town of "Ngozi" and is perhaps the basis of the Swahili language.
  • Sheng: More of a corruption or street slang than a proper dialect, it is the blend of Swahili, English, and some ethnic tongues which is 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 above includes excerpts from Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia:

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