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: sawahil 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 ??????), 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, and Uganda. 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.
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 kit?b "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.