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Swahili language

Swahili (also Kiswahili) is an agglutinative 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 aproximately five million first language speakers and fifty million second language speakers. Swahili has become a lingua franca for east Africa and surrounding areas.

The traditional centre of the language has been Zanzibar, and Swahili is an official language of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The Swahili spoken in Nairobi incorporates significantly more English loanwords than that spoken on the coast, and in Tanzania Swahili is the most widely used language. The language is also spoken in regions that border these three countries, such as far northern Malawi and Mozambique, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, and southern Ethiopia. The Zanzibar dialect is known as Kiunguja.

Swahili belongs to the Sabaki subgroup of the Northeastern coast bantu languages. It is closely related to the Mijikenda group of languages, Pokomo, Ngazija etc. Over at least a thousand years of intense and varied interaction with the Middle East, Arabia, Persia, India and China has transformed Swahili into a cosmopolitan language with a rich infusion of loan words from a wide assortment of languages, for example, Arabic, Farsi etc. However, despite many assertions to the contrary, Swahili is an authentic Bantu language, in its history, culture, grammatical structure, vocabulary and origins. The Swahili people are a distint bantu ethnic group with a long history of settlement and culture on the East African coast.

It is important to emphasize that despite the substantial number of loan words present in Swahili, the language is in fact Bantu. Numerous misconceptions, originating in the colonial period, hold 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. None of these assertions hold water. The distinct existence of the Swahili as a people can be traced back over a thousand years, as can their language Swahili. 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, Persia, India etc. In fact it is estimated that the proportion of non-African lanuguage loan words in Swahili is comparable to the proportion of French, Latin and Greek loan words in the English language.

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 infinite 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'. This class also contains diminutives, and languages. 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 ending 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.

  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                  book   two    suffice
  One book suffices                       Two books suffice

  Ndizi  moja inatosha                    Ndizi  mbili zinatosha
  banana one  suffices                    banana two   suffice
  One banana suffices                     Two bananas suffice


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.
  • 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 western regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Kingazija: Spoken in the Comoros islands.

  • Kingozi: Is a special case as it was the lanugage of the inhabitants of the ancient town of "Ngozi" and is perhaps the basis of the Swahili language.


Chiraghdin, Shihabuddin and Mathias Mnyampala. Historia ya Kiswahili. Oxford University Press. Eastern Africa. 1977.

Marshad, Hassan A. Kiswahili au Kiingereza (Nchini Kenya). Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. Nairobi 1993.

The UCLA Language Materials Project (http://www.lmp.ucla.edu/)

Ethnologue.com (http://www.ethnologue.com/)

The Kamusi Project (http://www.yale.edu/swahili/)

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