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About Swahili (Kiswahili) Language

Swahili (Kiswahili) is a Bantu language spoken by various ethnic groups that inhabit several large stretches of the Indian Ocean coastline from northern Kenya to northern Mozambique, including the Comoros Islands. Although only 5-10 million people speak it as their native language, Swahili is also a lingua franca of much of East Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a national or official language of four nations, and is the only language historically African in origin among the official working languages of the African Union.


Swahili is a Bantu language that serves as a second language to various groups traditionally inhabiting parts of the East African coast. About 35% of the Swahili vocabulary derives from the Arabic language, gained through more than twelve centuries of contact with Arabic-speaking traders. It also has incorporated Persian, German, Portuguese, English and French words into its vocabulary through contact during the last five centuries. Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three countries, Tanzania, Kenya, and Congo (DRC), where it is an official or national language. The neighboring nation of Uganda made Swahili a required subject in primary schools in 1992—although this mandate has not been well implemented—and declared it an official language in 2005 in preparation for the East African Federation. Swahili, or other closely related languages, is spoken by nearly the entire population of the Comoros and by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Rwanda, northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. The language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. In the Guthrie non-genetic classification of Bantu languages, Swahili is included under Zone G.

The name 'Kiswahili' comes from the plural sawāḥil (سواحل) of the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل), meaning "boundary" or "coast" (used as an adjective to mean "coastal dwellers" or, by adding 'ki-' ["language"] to mean "coastal language"). (The word "sahel" is also used for the border zone of the Sahara ("desert")).

The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711, in Arabic-script, they were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are now preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India. Another ancient written document is an epic poem in the Arabic script titled Utendi wa Tambuka ("The History of Tambuka"); it is dated 1728. The Latin alphabet has become standard under the influence of European colonial powers.

Methali (e.g."“Haraka haraka haina baraka — Hurry hurry has no blessing"". ), i.e. “wordplay, risqué or suggestive puns and lyric rhyme, are deeply inscribed in Swahili culture, in form of Swahili parables, proverbs, and allegory”. Methali is uncovered globally within ‘Swah’ rap music. It provides the music with rich cultural, historical, and local textures and insight.


"Kiswahili" is the Swahili word for the Swahili language, and this is also sometimes used in English. 'Ki-' is a prefix attached to nouns of the noun class that includes languages (see Noun classes below). Kiswahili refers to the 'Swahili Language'; Waswahili refers to the people of the 'Swahili Coast'; and Uswahili refers to the 'Culture' of the Swahili people. See Bantu languages for a more detailed discussion of the grammar of nouns.


Swahili is unusual among sub-Saharan languages in having lost the feature of lexical tone (with the exception of the numerically important Mvita dialect, the dialect of Kenya's second city, the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa).

Swahili time

Swahili clock as provided by the Kamusi Project(East African) 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 tisa usiku ('hour nine night') 3:00 a.m.
  • saa mbili usiku ('hour two night') 8:00 p.m.
More specific time demarcations include adhuhuri 'early afternoon', alasiri 'late afternoon', usiku wa manane 'late night/past midnight', 'sunrise' macheo and 'sunset' machweo.

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 tatu kasoro ('a few minutes to nine')
Swahili time derives from the fact that the sun rises at around 6am and sets at around 6pm everyday in the equatorial areas where most Swahili speakers live.

The rise of Swahili to regional prominence

There is as yet insufficient historical or archaeological evidence to allow one to state exactly when and where either the Swahili language or the Swahili culture emerged. Nevertheless, it is assumed that the Swahili speaking people have occupied their present territories, hugging the Indian Ocean, since well before 1000 CE. Arab traders are known to have had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 6th Century CE, and Islam began to spread along the East African Coast from at least the 9th Century.

People from Oman and the Persian Gulf settled the Zanzibar Archipelago, helping spread both Islam and the Swahili language and culture with major trading and cultural centers as far as Sofala (Mozambique) and Kilwa (Tanzania) to the south, and Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, Barawa, Merca, Kismayu and Mogadishu (Somalia) in the north, the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Starting about 1800, the rulers of Zanzibar organized trading expeditions into the interior of the mainland, up to the various lakes in the continent's Great Rift Valley. They soon established permanent trade routes and Swahili speaking merchants settled in stops along the new trade routes. For the most part, this process did not lead to genuine colonization. But colonisation did occur west of Lake Malawi, in what is now Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, giving rise to a highly divergent dialect.

After Germany seized the region known as Tanganyika (present day mainland Tanzania) for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide (but shallow) dissemination of Swahili, and soon designated Swahili as a colony-wide official administrative language. The British did not do so in neighbouring Kenya, even though they made moves in that direction. The British and Germans both were keen to facilitate their rule over colonies with dozens of languages spoken by selecting a single local language that hopefully would be well accepted by the natives. Swahili was the only good candidate in these two colonies.

In the aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War I, it was dispossessed of all its overseas territories. Tanganyika fell into British hands. The British authorities, with the collaboration of British Christian missionary institutions active in these colonies, increased their resolve to institute Swahili as a common language for primary education and low level governance throughout their East African colonies (Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya). Swahili was to be subordinate to English: university education, much secondary education, and governance at the highest levels would be conducted in English.

One key step in spreading Swahili was to create a standard written language. In June 1928, an interterritorial conference was held at Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardizing Swahili.[12] Today's standard Swahili, the version taught as a second language, is for practical purposes Zanzibar Swahili, even though there are minor discrepancies between the written standard and the Zanzibar vernacular.

Current situation

At the present time, some 90 percent of approximately 39 million Tanzanians speak Swahili. Kenya's population is comparable, but the prevalence of Swahili is lower, though still widespread. Most educated Kenyans are able to communicate fluently in Swahili, since it is a compulsory subject in school from grade one. The five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (to be subdivided in 2009) are Swahili speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it; and it is starting to rival Lingala as the most important national language of that country. In Uganda, the Baganda generally don't speak Swahili, but it is in common use among the 25 million people elsewhere in the country, and is currently being implemented in schools nationwide in preparation for the East African Community. The usage of Swahili in other countries is commonly overstated, being common only in market towns, among returning refugees, or near the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. Even so, Swahili is probably second only to Hausa of West Africa as the sub-Saharan indigenous language with the greatest number of speakers, and Swahili speakers may number some five to ten percent of the 750 million people of sub-Saharan Africa (2005 World Bank Data).

Many of the world's institutions have responded to Swahili's growing prominence. It is one of the languages that feature in world radio stations such as the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, China Radio International, Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa.


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