Swahili language

This article is about the language. For the East African people, see Swahili (people).
Swahili (Kiswahili)
Spoken in: Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda
Total speakers:
Genetic classification: Niger-Congo

      Narrow Bantu

Official status
Official language of: Tanzania, Kenya
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1sw
ISO 639-2swa
See also: LanguageList of languages

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 Arabic word meaning "coast language" (suahel = coast, the "-i" suffix being the equivalent of the "-ish" suffix in English).



Kiswahili is an alternative name for the Swahili language, and is the word speakers of Swahili use for their language. When speaking English, some hold that Kiswahili is a more respectful or politically correct term than Swahili. '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. For lingistic purists, calling the language Kiswahili when speaking English only makes sense if you also habitually refer to European languages as Duetsch, Russki, Svensk, and Magyar.


The traditional centre of the language has been Zanzibar, and Swahili is an official language of Tanzania and Kenya. 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, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Somalia, 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 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 increases 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").

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 kitāb, '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.

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

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 inbetween the root word and other affixes, some linguists have mistakenly assumed that Swahili uses infixes which is not the case.

In most dictionaries verbs are listed in their root form, for example -kata meaning 'to cut/chop'. In a simple sentence prefixes for grammatical person are added, e.g. ninakata. Ni- means 'I' and na- means <present progressive>. Note that na is not an infix even though it is inbetween two morphemes:

 ni-        na-          kata                 'I am cutting'
 1stSING.   PRES.PROG.   cut/chop

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

 u-         na-          kata                 'You are cutting'
 2ndSING.   PRES.PROG.   cut/chop
 u-         me-          kata                 'You have cut'
 2ndSING.   PRES.PERF.   cut/chop

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 tense prefix for simple past and the vowel of the prefix ni- is assimilated. That way it is difficult to tell the prefixes as part and easier to consider them as one, e.g.:

 na-                     soma                 'I read'
 1stSING.:PRES.          read
 mwa-                    soma                 'You (pl.) read'
 2ndPLUR.:PRES.          read

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

                 SINGULAR           PLURAL
 1st PERSON        ni-                tu-
 2nd PERSON        u-                 m-
 3rd PERSON        a-                 wa-

The most common tense prefixes are:

 a-    <simple present>
 na-   <present progressive>
 me-   <present perfect>
 li-   <past tense>
 ta-   <future tense>

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         'I (am) see(ing) him/her'
 3rdSING.  PRES.PROG.  OBJ3rdSING    see    
 ni-       na-         mw-      ona      mtoto   'I (am) see(ing) the child'
 1stSING.  PRES.PROG.  KL.1     see      child

There are not just prefixes. The root of a word is not really the one proposed by most dictoraries - 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 0 in this case means null morpheme, i.e. it represents an empty space):

 si-              0         som       -i          'I am not reading/ I don't read'
 1stSING:NEG      PRES      read      NEG

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'
 3rdPLUR.   PRES.PROG.   hit       PASSIVE  IND.


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 not considered proper Swahili, but it is considered fashionable and cosmopolitan among a growing segment of the population.

External links and references



  • Chiraghdin, Shihabuddin and Mathias Mnyampala. Historia ya Kiswahili. Oxford University Press. Eastern Africa. 1977. ISBN 0195-72-367-8
  • Marshad, Hassan A. Kiswahili au Kiingereza (Nchini Kenya). Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. Nairobi 1993. ISBN 9966-22-098-4

als:Swahili (Sprache) ar:لغة سواحلية cs:Svahiltina cy:Swahili de:Swahili (Sprache) eo:Svahila lingvo fr:Swahili it:Swahili ja:スワヒリ語 nl:Swahili pl:Suahili sv:Swahili sw:Kiswahili ko:스와힐리어 es:Suajili zh:斯瓦希里语


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