The exact number of Swahili speakers, be they native or second-language speakers, is unknown and is a matter of debate. Various estimates have been put forward, which vary widely, ranging from 50 million to 100 million. Swahili serves as a national language of the DRC, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Shikomor, an official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is closely related to Swahili. Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and of the Southern African Development Community. It is officially recognised as a lingua franca of the East African Community. In 2018, South Africa legalized the teaching of Swahili in South African schools as an optional subject to begin in 2020.Botswana followed in 2020, and Namibia plans to introduce the language as well.
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 enough to classify it as a mixed language, 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
Swahili in Arabic script—memorial plate at the Askari Monument, Dar es Salaam (1927)
The origin of the word Swahili is its phonetic equivalent in Arabic: سَاحِلsāħil = “coast”, broken pluralسَوَاحِلsawāħil = “coasts”, سَوَاحِلِىّsawāħilï = “of coasts”.
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,in 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.
The majority of people in Tanzania and Kenya speak Swahili as a second language, and most educated Kenyans are fluent in the language, as it is compulsory in schools, and also taught in universities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Swahili is spoken in the five eastern provinces, and overall almost half of the population speak it. In Uganda Swahili is widely spoken among non-Baganda people, and is taught in schools.
The name Swahili comes from the Arabic word سَوَاحِل (sawāḥil), the plural of سَاحِل (sāḥil – boundry, coast) and means “coastal dwellers”. The prefix ki- is attached to nouns in the noun class that includes languages, so Kiswahili means “coastal language”.
Swahili includes quite a bit of vocabulary of Arabic origin as a result of contact with Arabic-speaking traders and and inhabitants of the Swahili Coast – the coastal area of Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, and islands such as Zanzibar and Comoros. There are also words of German, Portuguese, English, Hindi and French origin in Swahili due to contact with traders, slavers and colonial officials.
The earliest known pieces of writing, in the Arabic script, in Swaihili are letters dating from 1711, and the earliest known manuscript, a poetic epic entitled Utendi wa Tambuka (The History of Tambuka), dates from 1728. During the the 19th century Swahili was used as the main language of administration by the European colonial powers in East Africa and under their influence the Latin alphabet was increasingly used to write it. The first Swahili newspaper, Habari ya Mwezi, was published by missionaries in 1895.
Arabic script for Swahili
For centuries, Swahili was written in Arabic script, and hundreds of manuscripts in collections around the world testify to its long tradition of written literature. Over the last century, however, Swahili in Roman script has become the norm.
Andika! (meaning Write! in Swahili) is a set of tools to make Swahili in Arabic script as easy to use as Swahili in Roman script – it is equally easy to read and write the the language in either script. The tools, based on the work of Marehemu Mu’allim Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar , provide a consistent, standardised transliteration of Swahili in Arabic script, and a one-to-one mapping of this to Swahili in Roman script.
All the tools are available under the Free Software Foundation’s General Public License and Affero General Public License, which means they can be adapted and extended as required by the user, subject to the same license being used for any new version thus created.
The code for the Andika! tools (including these webpages) is available from the GitHub repository. If you have Git installed, you can download the files by running: git clone https://github.com/donnekgit/andika.git
If not, you can download the files as a compressed zip file.
Further examples of Andika! output, along with detailed information about how to install and use the offline tools to handle manuscripts, are in the detailed manual.
To show Andika! in use, it has been used to create an edition of a hitherto-unpublished ballad (Utenzi wa Jaʿfar, The Ballad of Jaʿfar) from two manuscripts. A variety of outputs are offered, and a paper is in preparation to demonstrate the benefits of using Andika! from a textual analysis viewpoint.
I am always happy to receive comments or suggestions about the further development of the Andika! tools.
Andika! is dedicated to the memory of Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar (1924–2008). مْزٖئٖ أَكِيفَ، مَكتَابَ هُتٖكٖتٖئَ
Swahili nouns are separable into classes, which are roughly analogous to genders in other languages. For example, just as suffix <-o> in Spanish and Italian marks masculine objects, and <-a> marks feminine ones, so, 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 Spanish and Italian, so in Swahili adjectives, pronouns and even verbs must agree with nouns. This is a characteristic feature of all the Bantu languages, and traces of it are found in many of the other branches of the Niger-Congo language family in West Africa.
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,
Classes 1–2 include most words for people: kin terms, professions, ethnicities, etc., including translations of most English words ending in -er. They include a couple of generic words for animals: mnyama ‘beast’, mdudu ‘bug’.
Classes 5–6 have a broad semantic range of groups, expanses, and augmentatives. Although interrelated, it is easier to illustrate if broken down:
Augmentatives, such as joka ‘serpent’ from nyoka ‘snake’, lead to titles and other terms of respect (the opposite of diminutives, which lead to terms of contempt): Bwana ‘Sir’, shangazi ‘aunt’, fundi ‘craftsman’, kadhi ‘judge’
Expanses: ziwa ‘lake’, bonde ‘valley’, taifa ‘country’, anga ‘sky’
from this, mass nouns: maji ‘water’, vumbi ‘dust’ (and other liquids and fine particulates that may cover broad expanses), kaa ‘charcoal’, mali ‘wealth’, maridhawa ‘abundance’
Collectives: kundi ‘group’, kabila ‘language/ethnic group’, jeshi ‘army’, daraja ‘ stairs’, manyoya ‘fur, feathers’, mapesa ‘small change’, manyasi ‘weeds’, jongoo ‘millipede’ (large set of legs), marimba ‘xylophone’ (large set of keys)
from this, individual things found in groups: jiwe ‘stone’, tawi ‘branch’, ua ‘flower’, tunda ‘fruit’ (also the names of most fruits), yai ‘egg’, mapacha ‘twins’, jino ‘tooth’, tumbo ‘stomach’ (cf. English “guts”), and paired body parts such as jicho ‘eye’, bawa ‘wing’, etc.
also collective or dialogic actions, which occur among groups of people: neno ‘a word’, from kunena ‘to speak’ (and by extension, mental verbal processes: wazo ‘thought’, maana ‘meaning’); pigo ‘a stroke, blow’, from kupiga ‘to hit’; gomvi ‘a quarrel’, shauri ‘advice, plan’, kosa ‘mistake’, jambo ‘affair’, penzi ‘love’, jibu ‘answer’, agano ‘promise’, malipo ‘payment’
From pairing, reproduction is suggested as another extension (fruit, egg, testicle, flower, twins, etc.), but these generally duplicate one or more of the subcategories above
Classes 9–10 are used for most typical animals: ndege ‘bird’, samaki ‘fish’, and the specific names of typical beasts, birds, and bugs. However, this is the ‘other’ class, for words not fitting well elsewhere, and about half of the class 9–10 nouns are foreign loanwords. Loans may be classified as 9–10 because they lack the prefixes inherent in other classes, and most native class 9–10 nouns have no prefix. Thus they do not form a coherent semantic class, though there are still semantic extensions from individual words.
Class 11 (which takes class 10 for the plural) are mostly nouns with an “extended outline shape”, in either one dimension or two:
mass nouns that are generally localized rather than covering vast expanses: uji ‘porridge’, wali ‘cooked rice’
from ‘a hair’, singulatives of nouns, which are often class 6 (‘collectives’) in the plural: unyoya ‘a feather’, uvumbi ‘a grain of dust’, ushanga ‘a bead’.
Class 14 are abstractions, such as utoto ‘childhood’ (from mtoto ‘a child’) and have no plural. They have the same prefixes and concord as class 11, except optionally for adjectival concord.
Class 15 are verbal infinitives.
Classes 16–18 are locatives. The Bantu nouns of these classes have been lost; the only permanent member is the Arabic loan mahali ‘place(s)’, but in Mombasa Swahili, the old prefixes survive: pahali ‘place’, mwahali ‘places’. However, any noun with the locative suffix -ni takes class 16–18 agreement. The distinction between them is that class 16 agreement is used if the location is intended to be definite (“at”), class 17 if indefinite (“around”) or involves motion (“to, toward”), and class 18 if it involves containment (“within”): mahali pazuri ‘a good spot’, mahali kuzuri ‘a nice area’, mahali muzuri (it’s nice in there).
Borrowings may or may not be given a prefix corresponding to the semantic class they fall in. For example, Arabic دودdūd (“bug, insect”) was borrowed as mdudu, plural wadudu, with the class 1/2 prefixes m- and wa-, but Arabic فلوسfulūs (“fish scales”, plural of فلسfals) 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:
The Swahili word for “book”, kitabu, is borrowed from Arabic كتابkitāb(un) “book” (plural كتبkutub; from the Arabic root k.t.b. “write”). However, the Swahili plural form of this word (“books”) is vitabu, following Bantu grammar in which the ki- of kitabu is reanalysed (reinterpreted) as a nominal class prefix whose plural is vi- (class 7/8).
Arabic معلمmuʿallim(un) (“teacher”, plural معلمينmuʿallimīna) was interpreted as having the mw- prefix of class 1, and so became mwalimu, plural walimu.
Arabic مدرسةmadrasa school, even though it is singular in Arabic (with plural مدارسmadāris), was reinterpreted as a class 6 plural madarasa, receiving the singular form darasa.
Similarly, English wire and Arabic وقتwaqt (“time”) were interpreted as having the class 11 prevocalic prefix w-, and became waya and wakati with plural nyaya and nyakati respectively.
Dialects and closely related languages
This list is based on Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history.
Modern standard Swahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect spoken in Zanzibar Town, but there are numerous dialects of Swahili, some of which are mutually unintelligible, such as the following:
Maho (2009) considers these to be distinct languages:
Kimwani is spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
Chimwiini is spoken by the ethnic minorities in and around the town of Barawa on the southern coast of Somalia.
Kibajuni is spoken by the Bajuni minority ethnic group on the coast and islands on both sides of the Somali–Kenyan border and in the Bajuni Islands (the northern part of the Lamu archipelago) and is also called Kitikuu and Kigunya.
Other languages written with the Arabic and Latin scripts.
Official and Spoken Languages of African Countries.
List of official, national and spoken languages of Africa.
Africa is a continent with a very high linguistic diversity, there are an estimated 1500-2000 African languages.
Of these languages four main groupings can be distinguished:
(appoximately 200 languages) covering nearly Northern Africa (including the horn of Africa, Central Sahara et the top Nile)
gathering appoximately 140 languages with some eleven millions speakers scattered in Central and Eastern Africa.
covering the two third of Africa with as a principal branch the Niger-Congo which gathers more than 1000 languages with some 200 millions speakers. The Bantu languages of Central, Southern, and Eastern Africa form a sub-group of the Niger Congo branch.
gathering about thirty languages in Western part of Southern Africa.
All African languages are considered official languages of the African Union
Swahili alphabet, pronunciation and language. Omniglot.com. Published 2021. Accessed April 19, 2021. https://omniglot.com/writing/swahili.htm#:~:text=Swahili%20is%20a%20Bantu%20language,lingua%20franca%20throughout%20East%20Africa.
Wikipedia Contributors. Swahili language. Wikipedia. Published April 19, 2021. Accessed April 19, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swahili_language
Swahili in Arabic script. Kevindonnelly.org.uk. Published 2012. Accessed April 19, 2021. http://kevindonnelly.org.uk/swahili/index.php
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