Issue 3 |

Swahili: On the coasts of the world

by on June 2, 2015

Introduction to Swahili history

Swahili, or Kiswahili, is spoken along the East African coast, largely in Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and Mozambique. While over 15 million people speak Swahili as their first language, the widespread multilingualism of most African countries means millions of others speak Swahili as a second or third language; estimates range from 60 million to 140 million. It is also one of the official languages of the African Union [1].

Map of Swahili-speaking region of eastern Africa (source)

Because of its proximity to the Arab world, there was and continues to be a strong Arabic influence on Swahili language and culture. While Swahili had been used by the fishermen off the Swahili coast as far back as the 2nd century, Omani clove farmers in the 17th century established the clove trade in the area and furthered the spread of Swahili [2]. This is also the reason Swahili has such a strong influence from Arabic; while the language now uses the Latin script, the first Swahili documents were written with Arabic letters. Incidentally, the word “Swahili” comes from the Arabic suwahil, meaning ‘of the coast’ [3].

Swahili is one of the few African languages that doesn’t have a system of tones. Swahili is part of the Bantu language group; within this group, Swahili and its dialects are the only languages that don’t use tones. For those who aren’t acquainted with the linguistic concept of tone, in tonal languages, a sound with a rising intonation, for example, has a different meaning from a sound with falling intonation. Outside of the Bantu languages, the most well-known example of this is probably Mandarin Chinese. There is no specific linguistic reason to explain the loss of tone in Swahili but according to 19th century colonial bishop Edward Steele, speakers with different mother tongues most likely dropped tones in their speech, which eventually led to the loss of tone within the Swahili community as well [4].

Interesting Swahili language features

There is an abundance of vowels in Swahili words; all Swahili words, with few exceptions, end in a vowel. Additionally, there are almost no consonant clusters. Consonant-ending words that are borrowed from other languages, i.e. English, are often modified with the addition of a vowel at the end of the syllable/word, such as “bank” à benki [5]. During my time in Tanzania, this was most apparent in the Swahili names of foreigners. My name, Rebecca, was easily pronounced, and I was often asked why I had a “Swahili name” even though I was white, or mzungu. Some of my friends, however, had their names quickly changed. Eileen became Eilee, Ingrid became Ingri, Emmanuel was Emanueli.

Furthermore, Swahili has an intricate and complex noun class system, something completely foreign to most English speakers. Nouns are split into categories: there is a category for human nouns and a category for inanimate objects, for example. Noun roots have noun class prefixes, or NCPs. Prefixes are then numbered according to the content of the noun group and the plurality of the noun. The table below lists all of the Swahili NCPs; the example of the category of human nouns belongs to the NCP class 1 in the singular, and class 2 in the plural. In speech, ‘toto’ is the noun root for child; as a human noun, this belongs to categories 1 and 2, as explained. One child, then, is ‘mtoto’. Two children, the plural, moves the noun to class 2; children is ‘watoto’. Similarly, ‘ti’, the noun root for tree, belongs to noun class 3 (singular) and 4 (plural), under the category of inanimate objects. One tree, as you can probably put together, is ‘mti’, and two trees are ‘miti’ [6]. This may seem to be a complicated concept for those who are not well-acquainted with Swahili, but it is actually an incredibly useful way to classify and understand the relationship between the language and the objects it represents.

Class (Traditional Bantu numbering)NCP (Affixed to N stems)AP (Affixed to Adj./Numeral stems)PP (Affixed to V/pronominal stems)
1m-m-yu-; ye; w-; a-; m-
2wa-wa-wa-
3m-m-u-
4mi-mi-i-
5ø or ji-ø or ji-li-
6ma-ma-ya-
7ki-ki-ki-
8vi-vi-vi-
9ø or n-ø or n-j-
10ø or n-ø or n-ki-
11/14u-u-i-

The Swahili language also comes with a host of interesting words and phrases, which second language speakers may sometimes use mistakenly. One of my favorite phrases, “to sleep deeply”, translates in Swahili to “lala fofofo.” For anyone who has experienced learning a second language in a foreign environment, slip-ups are practically inevitable, but they also make great stories. The first experience I had with this was through a friend who, while bargaining, tried to use the word for ‘ten’, kumi. After accidentally changing one of the vowels, however, she saw the shock on the vendor’s face and quickly learned the word for an inappropriate body part. With a little research, I found that there are several pairs of similar Swahili words that include a common word and an inappropriate/taboo one. For example, while kunywa means ‘to drink’, kunya means ‘to defecate’. While malaika means ‘angel’, a common pet name, malaya means ‘prostitute’ [7]. Learning Swahili is an incredible experience, even the mistakes providing great opportunities to learn new vocabulary and providing a better understanding of the language; the next time you need a conversation starter, try asking friends to pronounce ngorongoro, one of the famous Tanzanian national parks.

Swahili in popular culture

The most common way people would come into contact with Swahili is likely through the Disney movie, The Lion King. Many of the characters’ names are actually Swahili words; Simba, for instance, is the word for ‘lion’, and Rafiki is the word for ‘friend’. Ironically, however, the opening lyrics of the famous song “The Circle of Life” are in Zulu, another Bantu language spoken in southern Africa. We also see Swahili in some of our English vocabulary: the word “jumbo” comes from the Swahili jambo, an informal greeting. “Jumbo” was first used as the name of the giant elephant in P.T. Barnum’s circus, a name that came from the Swahili word, and was soon adapted to mean anything incredibly large [8].

Swahili has also become more and more prevalent in Tanzanian hip-hop, also called Bongo Flava (from the Swahili word for ‘brains’, ubongo). The Bongo Flava movement appeared around the 1980s, and became an important way for many artists to bring music and lyrics to the specific problems they saw in their environments. More recently, it has become a way to discuss HIV/AIDS and sexuality in a medium not normally done in informal conversation. Some of the bigger artists in the Bongo Flava movement are the Tanzanian group X Plastaz and the rapper Dolasoul. The movement is quickly spreading and will be important to the future of African culture, language, and politics.

Overall, the future for Swahili looks bright. Its widespread use throughout eastern Africa, especially as a second-language, provides an invaluable method of communication between many groups, especially important in light of Africa’s rich and varied linguistic environment. Swahili’s place as one of the official languages of the African Union ensures its continued use in African politics and international affairs. Additionally, its growing importance in popular culture, especially through the growing Bongo Flava movement, provides a crucial way for young people to talk about their environment and struggles through the international language of music.


[1] http://www.ethnologue.com/language/swh

[2] Kharusi, N. S. (2012). “The ethnic label Zinjibari: Politics and language choice implications among Swahili speakers in Oman”. Ethnicities 12 (3): 335–353.

[3] http://www.funtrivia.com/en/World/Swahili-5856.html

[4] Edward Steere, LL.D. (1924) A Handbook of the Swahili Language. London: SPCK Publications.

[5] Edward Steere, LL.D. (1924) A Handbook of the Swahili Language. London: SPCK Publications

[6] Ellen Contini-Morava (2007) “Swahili Morphology” in Morphologies of Asia and Africa, ed. Alan S. Kaye. Minona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbraus Publications.

[7] http://www.mambomagazine.com/nutshell-guides/arts-and-culture/top-10-scandalous-swahili-slip-ups

[8] http://www.funtrivia.com/en/World/Swahili-5856.html

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