Swahili, also known by its native name Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and the native language of the Swahili people. It is one of two official languages (the other being English) of the East African Community (EAC) countries, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is a lingua franca of other areas in the African Great Lakes region and East and Southern Africa, including some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malawi, Mozambique, Somalia, and Zambia. Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and of the Southern African Development Community. The exact number of Swahili speakers, be they native or second-language speakers, is estimated to be between 50 million to 150 million.
Sixteen to twenty percent of Swahili vocabulary are Arabic loanwords, including the word swahili, from Arabic sawāḥilī (سَوَاحِلي, a plural adjectival form of an Arabic word meaning 'of the coast'). The Arabic loanwords date from the contacts of Arabian traders with the Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa over many centuries, which was also when Swahili emerged as a lingua franca.
In 2018, South Africa legalized the teaching of Swahili in schools as an optional subject to begin in 2020. Botswana followed in 2020, and Namibia plans to introduce the language as well. Shikomor (or Comorian), an official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is closely related to Swahili and is sometimes considered a dialect of Swahili, although other authorities consider it a distinct language.
Swahili is a Bantu language of the Sabaki branch. In Guthrie's geographic classification, Swahili is in Bantu zone G, whereas the other Sabaki languages are in zone E70, commonly under the name Nyika. Historical linguists do not consider the Arabic influence on Swahili to be significant, since Arabic influence is limited to lexical items, most of which have been borrowed only since 1500, whereas the grammatical and syntactic structure of the language is typically Bantu.
The core of the Swahili language originates in Bantu languages of the coast of East Africa. Much of Swahili's Bantu vocabulary has cognates in the Pokomo, Taita and Mijikenda languages and, to a lesser extent, other East African Bantu languages. While opinions vary on the specifics, it has been historically purported that about 20% of the Swahili vocabulary is derived from loan words, the vast majority Arabic, but also other contributing languages, including Persian, Hindustani, Portuguese, and Malay.
Omani Arabic is the source of most Arabic loanwords in Swahili. In the text "Early Swahili History Reconsidered", however, Thomas Spear noted that Swahili retains a large amount of grammar, vocabulary, and sounds inherited from the Sabaki language. In fact, while taking account of daily vocabulary, using lists of one hundred words, 72-91% were inherited from the Sabaki language (which is reported as a parent language) whereas 4-17% were loan words from other African languages. Only 2-8% were from non-African languages, and Arabic loan words constituted a fraction of the 2-8%. According to other sources, around 35% of the Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic. What also remained unconsidered was that a good number of the borrowed terms had native equivalents. The preferred use of Arabic loan words is prevalent along the coast, where natives, in a cultural show of proximity to, or descent from Arab culture, would rather use loan words, whereas the natives in the interior tend to use the native equivalents. It was originally written in Arabic script.
The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa, Tanzania, in 1711 in the Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India.
Various colonial powers that ruled on the coast of East Africa played a role in the growth and spread of Swahili. With the arrival of the Arabs in East Africa, they used Swahili as a language of trade as well as for teaching Islam to the local Bantu peoples. This resulted in Swahili first being written in the Arabic alphabet. The later contact with the Portuguese resulted in the increase of vocabulary of the Swahili language. The language was formalised in an institutional level when the Germans took over after the Berlin conference. After seeing there was already a widespread language, the Germans formalised it as the official language to be used in schools. Thus schools in Swahili are called Shule (from German Schule) in government, trade and the court system. With the Germans controlling the major Swahili-speaking region in East Africa, they changed the alphabet system from Arabic to Latin. After the first World war, Britain took over German East Africa, where they found Swahili rooted in most areas, not just the coastal regions. The British decided to formalise it as the language to be used across the East African region (although in British East Africa [Kenya and Uganda] most areas used English and various Nilotic and other Bantu languages while Swahili was mostly restricted to the coast). In June 1928, an inter-territorial conference attended by representatives of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, and Zanzibar took place in Mombasa. The Zanzibar dialect was chosen as standard Swahili for those areas, and the standard orthography for Swahili was adopted.
Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania), where it is an official or national language, while being the first language to many people in Tanzania especially in the coastal regions of Tanga, Pwani, Dar es Salaam, Mtwara and Lindi. In the inner regions of Tanzania, Swahili is spoken with an accent influenced by local languages and dialects, and as a first language for most people born in the cities, whilst being spoken as a second language in rural areas. Swahili and closely related languages are spoken by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Comoros, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Rwanda. The language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea in the 20th century. Swahili speakers may number 120 to 150 million in total.
Swahili is among the first languages in Africa for which language technology applications have been developed. Arvi Hurskainen is one of the early developers. The applications include a spelling checker, part-of-speech tagging, a language learning software, an analysed Swahili text corpus of 25 million words, an electronic dictionary, and machine translation between Swahili and English. The development of language technology also strengthens the position of Swahili as a modern medium of communication.
The widespread use of Swahili as a national language in Tanzania came after Tanganyika gained independence in 1961 and the government decided that it would be used as a language to unify the new nation. This saw the use of Swahili in all levels of government, trade, art as well as schools in which primary school children are taught in Swahili, before switching to English (medium of instruction) in Secondary schools (although Swahili is still taught as an independent subject) After Tanganyika and Zanzibar unification in 1964, Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili (TUKI, Institute of Swahili Research) was created from the Interterritorial Language Committee. In 1970 TUKI was merged with the University of Dar es salaam, while Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (BAKITA) was formed. BAKITA is an organisation dedicated to the development and advocacy of Swahili as a means of national integration in Tanzania. Key activities mandated for the organization include creating a healthy atmosphere for the development of Swahili, encouraging use of the language in government and business functions, coordinating activities of other organizations involved with Swahili, standardizing the language. BAKITA vision are: 1.To efficiently manage and coordinate the development and use of Kiswahili in Tanzania 2.To participate fully and effectively in promoting Swahili in East Africa, Africa and the entire world over. Although other bodies and agencies can propose new vocabularies, BAKITA is the only organisation that can approve its usage in the Swahili language.
In Kenya, Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa (CHAKITA) was established in 1998 to research and propose means by which Kiswahili can be integrated to a national language and made compulsory in schools the same year.[clarification needed], however most young people today speak a variety called "Sheng" in their day-to-day conversations and it has become so popular and widespread that the standard variety of Swahili now sounds archaic and literary.
Swahili played a major role in spreading both Christianity and Islam in East Africa. From their arrival in East Africa, Arabs brought Islam and set up madrasas, where they used Swahili to teach Islam to the natives. As the Arab presence grew, more and more natives were converted to Islam and were taught using the Swahili language.
From the arrival of Europeans in East Africa, Christianity was introduced in East Africa. While the Arabs were mostly based in the coastal areas, European missionaries went further inland spreading Christianity. But since the first missionary posts in East Africa were in the coastal areas, missionaries picked up Swahili and used it to spread Christianity since it had a lot of similarities with many of the other indigenous languages in the region.
During the struggle for Tanganyika independence, the Tanganyika African National Union used Swahili as language of mass organisation and political movement. This included publishing pamphlets and radio broadcasts to rally the people to fight for independence. After independence, Swahili was adopted as the national language of the nation. Till this day, Tanzanians carry a sense of pride when it comes to Swahili especially when it is used to unite over 120 tribes across Tanzania. Swahili was used to strengthen solidarity among the people and a sense of togetherness and for that Swahili remains a key identity of the Tanzanian people.
Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. According to Ellen Contini-Morava, vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. However, according to Edgar Polomé, these five phonemes can vary in pronunciation. Polomé claims that /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/ are pronounced as such only in stressed syllables. In unstressed syllables, as well as before a prenasalized consonant, they are pronounced as [e], [ɪ], [o], and [ʊ]. E is also commonly pronounced as mid-position after w. Polomé claims that /ɑ/ is pronounced as such only after w and is pronounced as [a] in other situations, especially after /j/ (y). A can be pronounced as [ə] in word-final position. Swahili vowels can be long; these are written as two vowels (example: kondoo, meaning "sheep"). This is due to a historical process in which the L became deleted between two examples of the same vowel (kondoo was originally pronounced kondolo, which survives in certain dialects). However, these long vowels are not considered to be phonemic. A similar process exists in Zulu.
Some dialects of Swahili may also have the aspirated phonemes /pʰ tʰ tʃʰ kʰ bʱ dʱ dʒʱ ɡʱ/ though they are unmarked in Swahili's orthography. Multiple studies favour classifying prenasalization as consonant clusters, not as separate phonemes. Historically, nasalization has been lost before voiceless consonants, and subsequently the voiced consonants have devoiced, though they are still written mb, nd etc. The /r/ phoneme is realised as either a short trill [r] or more commonly as a single tap [ɾ] by most speakers. [x] exists in free variation with h, and is only distinguished by some speakers. In some Arabic loans (nouns, verbs, adjectives), emphasis or intensity is expressed by reproducing the original emphatic consonants /dˤ, sˤ, tˤ, zˤ/ and the uvular /q/, or lengthening a vowel, where aspiration would be used in inherited Bantu words.
Swahili is now written in the Latin alphabet. There are a few digraphs for native sounds, ch, sh, ng and ny; q and x are not used, c is not used apart from the digraph ch, unassimilated English loans and, occasionally, as a substitute for k in advertisements. There are also several digraphs for Arabic sounds, which many speakers outside of ethnic Swahili areas have trouble differentiating.
The language used to be written in the Arabic script. Unlike adaptations of the Arabic script for other languages, relatively little accommodation was made for Swahili. There were also differences in orthographic conventions between cities and authors and over the centuries, some quite precise but others different enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.
Several Swahili consonants do not have equivalents in Arabic, and for them, often no special letters were created unlike, for example, Urdu script. Instead, the closest Arabic sound is substituted. Not only did that mean that one letter often stands for more than one sound, but also writers made different choices of which consonant to substitute. Below are some of the equivalents between Arabic Swahili and Roman Swahili:
That was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors so as to distinguish aspiration and /p/ from /b/: پھا /pʰaa/ 'gazelle', پا /paa/ 'roof'. Although it is not found in Standard Swahili today, there is a distinction between dental and alveolar consonants in some dialects, which is reflected in some orthographies, for example in كُٹَ -kuta 'to meet' vs. كُتَ -kut̠a 'to be satisfied'. A k with the dots of y, ـػ ـػـ ػـ ػ, was used for ch in some conventions; ky being historically and even contemporaneously a more accurate transcription than Roman ch. In Mombasa, it was common to use the Arabic emphatics for Cw, for example in صِصِ swiswi (standard sisi) 'we' and كِطَ kit̠wa (standard kichwa) 'head'.
Particles such as ya, na, si, kwa, ni are joined to the following noun, and possessives such as yangu and yako are joined to the preceding noun, but verbs are written as two words, with the subject and tense–aspect–mood morphemes separated from the object and root, as in aliyeniambia "he who told me".
Swahili nouns are separable into classes, which are roughly analogous to genders in other languages. In Swahili, prefixes mark groups of similar objects: ⟨m-⟩ marks single human beings (mtoto 'child'), ⟨wa-⟩ marks multiple humans (watoto 'children'), ⟨u-⟩ marks abstract nouns (utoto 'childhood'), and so on. And just as adjectives and pronouns must agree with the gender of nouns in some languages with grammatical gender, so in Swahili adjectives, pronouns and even verbs must agree with nouns. This is a characteristic feature of all the Bantu languages.
The ki-/vi- class historically consisted of two separate genders, artefacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils and hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12/13), which were conflated at a stage ancestral to Swahili. Examples of the former are kisu "knife", kiti "chair" (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 diminutives in many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish in 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 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 is 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. However, it seems to cover vital entities 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', and, by analogy, mzinga 'beehive/cannon'. 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 "metal forging", from -fua "to forge", 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, as in many other languages with noun classes. This may be further extended to anything dealing with time, such as mwaka 'year' and perhaps mshahara 'wages'. Animals exceptional in some way and so not easily fitting in the other classes may be placed in this class.
The other classes have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive. In short,
Borrowings may or may not be given a prefix corresponding to the semantic class they fall in. For example, Arabic دود dūd ("bug, insect") was borrowed as mdudu, plural wadudu, with the class 1/2 prefixes m- and wa-, but Arabic فلوس fulūs ("fish scales", plural of فلس fals) and English sloth were borrowed as simply fulusi ("mahi-mahi" fish) and slothi ("sloth"), with no prefix associated with animals (whether those of class 9/10 or 1/2).
In the process of naturalization of borrowings within Swahili, loanwords are often reinterpreted, or reanalysed, as if they already contain a Swahili class prefix. In such cases the interpreted prefix is changed with the usual rules. Consider the following loanwords from Arabic:
Similarly, English wire and Arabic وقت waqt ("time") were interpreted as having the class 11 prevocalic prefix w-, and became waya and wakati with plural nyaya and nyakati respectively.
Swahili phrases agree with nouns in a system of concord but, if the noun refers to a human, they accord with noun classes 1–2 regardless of their noun class. Verbs agree with the noun class of their subjects and objects; adjectives, prepositions and demonstratives agree with the noun class of their nouns. In Standard Swahili (Kiswahili sanifu), based on the dialect spoken in Zanzibar, the system is rather complex; however, it is drastically simplified in many local variants where Swahili is not a native language, such as in Nairobi. In non-native Swahili, concord reflects only animacy: human subjects and objects trigger a-, wa- and m-, wa- in verbal concord, while non-human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger i-, zi-. Infinitives vary between standard ku- and reduced i-. ("Of" is animate wa and inanimate ya, za.)
In Standard Swahili, human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger animacy concord in a-, wa- and m-, wa-, and non-human subjects and objects trigger a variety of gender-concord prefixes.
In Somalia, where the Afroasiatic Somali language predominates, a variant of Swahili referred to as Chimwiini (also known as Chimbalazi) is spoken along the Benadir coast by the Bravanese people. Another Swahili dialect known as Kibajuni also serves as the mother tongue of the Bajuni minority ethnic group, which lives in the tiny Bajuni Islands as well as the southern Kismayo region.