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Swahili language

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. It is spoken by over 50 million people, of whom there are approximately five million first-language speakers and thirty to 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 the Arabic word sahel ساحل: sawahil سواحل meaning "boundary" or "coast" (used as an adjective to mean "coastal dwellers" or, by extension, "coastal language"). Sahel is also the word used for the border zone of the Sahara. The incorporation of the final "i" is likely to be the nisba in Arabic (of the coast سواحلي), although some state it is for phonetic reasons.


The dialect spoken in Zanzibar is known as Kiunguja, as Unguja is the Swahili name for the archipelago's main island. Swahili is a national and official language in Tanzania, Kenya[1], and Uganda[2]. It is also spoken in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo (DRC), Somalia, 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.

The first known transcriptions of Swahili used the Arabic script, but the Latin alphabet has since become standard under the influence of European colonial powers. See Omniglot for details.

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 Pumbaa" cartoon series. It means "no problem" or "no worries" (literally: "there are no problems"). Disney's characters Simba and Rafiki also owe their names to Swahili, meaning 'lion' and 'friend' respectively. 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.


Kiswahili is the word speakers of Swahili use for their language; it is also sometimes used in English. 'Ki-' is a 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. The name is sometimes written as kiSwahili, which de-emphasizes the prefix. See Bantu languages for a more detailed discussion.



Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/. They are very similar to the vowels of Spanish and Italian. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. The vowels are pronounced as follows:

  • /a/ is pronounced like the "a" in father
  • /e/ is pronounced like the "e" in bed
  • /i/ is pronounced like the "i" in ski
  • /o/ is pronounced like the first part of the "o" in American English home, or like a tenser version of "o" in British English "lot"
  • /u/ is pronounced like the "u" in haiku

Swahili does not make use of diphthongs, each vowel being pronounced separately. Therefore the Swahili word for "leopard", chui is pronounced choo-ee.

Noun classes

In common with all Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes, counting singular and plural as distinct according to the Meinhof system, with all Bantu languages sharing at least ten of these. Swahili employs fourteen: six classes singular and plural, a class for verbal infinitives, and the single noun mahali "place".

Words beginning with m- in the singular and wa- in the plural denote animate nouns, especially people. Examples are mtu, meaning 'person' (plural watu), and mdudu, meaning 'insect' (plural wadudu). A class with m- in the singular but mi- in the plural often denotes plants, such as mti 'tree', miti trees. 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-; they often refer to hand tools and other artifacts. This ki-/vi- alteration even applies to foreign words where the ki- was originally part of the root, so vitabu "books" from kitabu "book" (from Arabic kitāb "book"). This class also contains languages (such as the name of the language Kiswahili), and diminutives, which had been a separate class in earlier stages of Bantu. 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 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.













is reading



are reading

One child is reading

Two children are reading














One book is enough

Two books are enough














One banana is enough

Two bananas are enough

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)", artifact kiti (viti) "stool(s)", augmentative jiti (majiti) "large tree", kijiti (vijiti) "stick(s)", ujiti (njiti) "tall slender tree".

Although the Swahili noun class system is technically gender, there is a difference from the grammatical gender of European languages: In Swahili, the class assignments of nouns is still largely semantically motivated, whereas the European systems are mostly arbitrary. However, the classes cannot be understood as simplistic categories such as 'people' or 'trees'. Rather, there are extensions of meaning, words similar to those extensions, and then extensions again from these. The end result is a semantic net that made sense at the time, and often still does make sense, but which can be confusing to a non-speaker.

Take the ki-/vi- class. Originally it was two separate genders: artifacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils & hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12). Examples of the first are kisu "knife"; kiti "chair, stool", 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 many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish is 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 also 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 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, but that doesn't do it justice. Rather, it seems to cover vital entities which are 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', perhaps msikiti 'mosque', and, by analogy, mzinga 'beehive'. 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 "hammering", from -fua "to hammer", 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 in many languages. This may be further extended to anything dealing with time, such as mwaka 'year' and perhaps mshahara 'wages'. Also, animals which are exceptional in some way and therefore don't fit easily in the other classes may be placed in this class.

The other classes have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive.

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. Most verbs, the verbs of Bantu Origin will end in 'A'. This is vital to know for using the Imperative, or Command, conjugation form.

In most dictionaries verbs are listed in their root form, for example -kata meaning 'to cut/chop'. In a simple sentence, prefixes for grammatical tense and person are added, e.g. ninakata. Here ni- means 'I' and na- indicates present tense unless stated otherwise.

Verb Conjugation

ni- -na- kata
1sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'I am cutting (it)'

Now this sentence can be modified either by changing the subject prefix or the tense prefix, for example:

u- -na- kata
2sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'You are cutting'
u- -me- kata
2sg PERFECT cut/chop
'You have cut'

The simple present is more complicated and learners often take some of the phrases for slang before they discover the proper usage. Nasoma means 'I read'. This is not short for ninasoma ('I am reading'). -A- is the indefinite (gnomic tense) prefix, used for example in generic statements such as "birds fly", and the vowel of the prefix ni- is assimilated. It may be simpler to consider these to be a single prefix:

|1st PERSON||na-||Twa- |- |2nd PERSON||Wa-||Mwa- |- |3rd PERSON||A-||Wa-

na- soma
1sg:GNOM read
'I read'
mwa- soma
2pl:GNOM read
'You (pl) read'

The complete list of basic subject prefixes is (for the m-/wa- or human class):

1st PERSON Ni- Tu-
2nd PERSON U- M-
3rd PERSON A- Wa-

The most common tense prefixes are:

a- gnomic (indefinite time)
na- definite time (often present progressive)
me- perfect
li- past
ta- future
hu- habitual

However it is not only tenses in the sense the word is used in English that can be expressed by tense prefixes: conjunctions can be used in this context as well. For example ki- is the prefix for <conditional> - the sentence "nikinunua nyama wa mbuzi sokoni, nitapika leo" means 'If I buy goat meat at the market, I'll cook today'. The conjunction 'if' in this sentence is simply represented by -ki.

A third prefix can be added, the object prefix. It is placed just before the root and can either refer to a person, replace an object or emphasize a particular one, e.g.:

a- na- mw- ona
3sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see
'He (is) see(ing) him/her'
ni- na- mw- ona mtoto
3sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see child
'I (am) see(ing) the child'

There are not just prefixes. The root of a word is not really the one proposed by most dictionaries - the final vowel is an affix too. The suffix provided by dictionaries means <indicative>. Other forms occur for instance with negation, e.g. sisomi (the "-" in this case means null morpheme, i.e. it represents an empty space):

si- - som- -i
1sg.NEG TENSE read NEG
'I am not reading/ I don't read'

Other instances of this change of the final vowel include the conjunctive, where an -e is implemented. This goes only for Bantu verbs ending with -a, ones derived from Arabic follow more complex rules.

Other suffixes, which once again look suspiciously like infixes, are placed before the end vowel, e.g.

wa- na- pig -w -a
'They are being hit'

Swahili time

Swahili time runs from dawn to dusk, rather than midnight to midday. 7am and 7pm are therefore both one o'clock while midnight and midday are six o'clock. Words such as asubuhi 'morning', jioni 'evening' and usiku 'night' can be used to demarcate periods of the day, for example:

  • saa moja asubuhi   ('hour one morning')   7:00 a.m.
  • saa mbili usiku   ('hour two night')   8:00 p.m.

At certain times there is some overlap of terms used to demarcate day and night, e.g. 7:00 p.m. can be either saa moja jioni or saa moja usiku.

Other relevant phrases include na robo 'and a quarter', na nusu 'and a half', kasarobo/kasorobo 'less a quarter', and dakika 'minute(s)':

  • saa nne na nusu   ('hour four and a half')   10:30
  • saa tatu na dakika tano   ('hour three and minutes five')   five past nine
  • saa mbili kasorobo   ('hour two less a quarter')   7:45
  • saa mbili kasoro   ('a few minutes to eight')


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, Tanzania.
  • Kimvita: Spoken in and around Mvita (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.
  • 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.
  • Shikomor, the languages of the Comoros Islands, are closely related to Swahili. The dialects: Kingazija (or shingadzija) spoken on Grande Comore and Mahorian spoken on Mayotte are usually considered Swahili dialects.
  • Kimwani: Spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
  • Chimwiini: Spoken in Barawa, in the south eastern coast of Somalia.
  • Sheng - a sort of street slang, is a blend of Swahili, English, and some ethnic languages 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.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia