The most widely spoken African language
Swahili (كِسوَهِل), also known by its native name Kiswahili, a Bantu language, is an official language of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, and is used as a lingua franca throughout East Africa. Besides the three countries where the language is official, distinct groups of native speakers as well as second language users are in Burundi, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, the US and northern Zambia. Swahili serves as a national language of the DRC, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
Notably, Swahili is the only African idiom among the official working languages of the African Union. It is also officially recognized as a lingua franca of the East African Community (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda), which has established the Kiswahili Commission to promote its use throughout the region and to assist member states in training Swahili teachers. In 2020, Swahili became an elective subject across South Africa’s entire public school system.
Shikomor, an official language in Comoros and commonly spoken in Mayotte, where it is known as Shimaore, is related to Swahili.
120 million speakers
Estimates indicate that the language is spoken by some 120 million people.
Most Swahili speakers use it as a language of communication in addition to their native language or languages spoken in their local communities. While English continues to play a key role across East Africa today, Swahili is gaining increasing importance in commerce, culture, education, mass media and politics. The language’s largest growth in recent years has been among the working class population of East African urban centers.
Number of Swahili speakers by country
|Country||# native speakers||# 2nd-lang. speakers||total speakers||yr. counted|
* D.R. Congo numbers according to Cellule d’analyses des indicateurs de développement, all other numbers according to Ethnologue
Number of Swahili speakers by country
numbers in millions
* D.R. Congo numbers according to Cellule d’analyses des indicateurs de développement, all other numbers according to Ethnologue
The majority of Tanzanians and Kenyans speak Swahili as a second language, as it is compulsory in schools and also taught in universities. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Swahili is the native language of five eastern provinces, while, overall, almost half of the country’s population speaks it. In Uganda, Swahili is widely spoken across the northern part of the country, and is taught in schools.
A language that has already joined the digital revolution
Swahili is among the first African languages for which language technology applications have been developed. The Finnish language technology expert Arvi Hurskainen developed a rules-based application for the language as early as 1985. Several applications followed including a spellchecker, a part-of-speech tagger, a language learning program, a 25-million-word text corpus, an online dictionary and a machine translator, boosting the language’s status as a modern medium of communication.
Swahili’s rich history
The Swahili-speaking communities along the East African coast acted as intermediaries between the Bantu populations of the interior and the seafaring traders from the Arabian lands to the north and Indian subcontinent to the east. The use of the language spread with the expansion of commerce during the colonial period spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. The British, who controlled the Swahili-speaking areas of what is today Kenya and Tanzania, chose the educated speech of the main town on the island of Zanzibar as the lingua franca, facilitating the development of the idiom’s international standard.
A language with strong influences from many tongues
The chief foreign contributor to Swahili is Arabic, which brought an enormous number of loanwords to the language, (including the name of the idiom, swahili, from the Arabic word sawāḥilī, an adjective meaning “of the coast”). The rise of Swahili as an important regional tongue spans several centuries, starting from the first contacts between Arabian traders and the region’s local inhabitants. Over the centuries, Swahili developed into a lingua franca of the many closely related Bantu-speaking tribal groups. In the early 19th century, Swahili’s use spread inland, receiving a boost with the arrival of Arab ivory and slave caravans. This pushed the language’s reach well into the continent’s interior, northward into Uganda and westward into the Congo. European colonizers were the next to adopt it, most notably the Germans, who instituted Swahili as the language of administration in Tanganyika, paving the way for its adoption as Tanzania’s national language. Although Swahili was just one of many local languages in Kenya and Uganda during the colonial period, in line with the development of a lingua franca for the East African Community, educational authorities in both countries now promote its use.
Contact with colonial officials, traders and slavers over the centuries has led to the introduction of many words of English, French, German, Hindi and Portuguese origin into Swahili.
An internationally accepted standard alongside many mutually intelligible dialects
Swahili has many dialects, which are for the most part mutually intelligible, in additional to several pidgin variants. Nine dialects predominate:
- Kiunguja spoken in Zanzibar Town on the island of Zanzibar and in many mainland areas of Tanzania. Standard Swahili is based on the Kiunguja dialect;
- Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi: the two dialects spoken outside of Zanzibar Town on the island of Zanzibar.
- Kimvita: spoken in Mombasa, as well as along Kenya’s southern coast. It is the second most important dialect after Kiunguja;
- Mambriu: spoken in the towns of Mambriu, Malindi and the central coast of Kenya;
- Kiamu: spoken on the island of Lamu and adjoining parts of Kenya’s northern coast;
- Kimrima (a.k.a. Mtang’ata): spoken in the coastal area of Tanzania immediately facing the island of Zanzibar. This includes Tanzania’s former capital and largest city of Dar es Salaam;
- Kipemba: spoken on the island of the same name off the Tanzanian coast;
- Kimgao: spoken in the Kilwa district in southeastern Tanzania.
Swahili’s capacity to adapt to changing contexts has contributed to its unique position among the languages of East and Central Africa.
Standard Swahili based on the Kiunguja dialect of Zanzibar is the recommended variant for all translation intended for Swahili audiences in general. The variant is the one used in education, media, public relations and advertising. Pronto Translations’ team of Swahili translators is fully proficient in the variant.
Swahili was named as a national language in Tanzania once the country had gained independence in 1961 and the government had decided that the language would be deployed as a means to unify the new nation. In 1967, the country’s parliamentary sessions started to be conducted in Swahili. The language became the standard medium of communication in all offices of government as well as in commerce. Primary school classes are given in Swahili, prior to the switchover to English in middle school. Swahili remains an independent subject in middle and high school. Many widely read newspapers in Tanzanian are in Swahili, including Mwananchi (https://www.mwananchi.co.tz/), HabariLeo (https://www.habarileo.co.tz/), MwanaSpoti (https://www.mwanaspoti.co.tz/) and Mtanzania (https://mtanzania.co.tz/)
Swahili is the lingua franca of the streets of Kenya’s urban centers, small and medium-sized shops, as well as media, and certain trades. A survey of language use in Nairobi carried out in 2002 by noted East African linguist and lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Chege Githiora, revealed that although only 7% of the 1,300 respondents reported Swahili as a first language, more than 50% use Swahili in their household interactions with other family members. Most people generally speak a local language at home, use Swahili for the “street” and in local shops, and English for business. Swahili is taught as a subject at all levels of education in Kenya, with many graduates from the three main national universities specializing in Swahili each year. Radio and TV programs are broadcast in Swahili, English, and various local languages. In rural areas, use is somewhat more limited, with it being heard on local radio and TV, used in shops or businesses operated by nonlocals, as well as in Swahili newspapers and flyers. In rural schools, children are taught in their local language up to Standard 4, but switch over to Swahili as well as English as these are the languages in which they must pass all later exams. Overall, about two-thirds of Kenyans have a good command of of Swahili as compared to less than one-sixth who has mastered English.
Of importance, and something to consider if your message is decidedly contemporary or directed to urban consumers, is the rise of a new urban “lingo” that has become prevalent on the streets of Kenya’s cities, most notably in Nairobi. Swahili, English, and other ethnic languages have meshed to create a new language called Sheng. Sheng’s grammar and syntax is based on that of Swahili, hence it is clearly a variation of it, but it incorporates other languages, mostly English. The language is closely associated with the country’s urban youth. Each community, whether a football team, a group of classmates, operators of matatus (privately-owned minibuses), parking attendants or residents of the same neighborhood, will have each developed their own style of Sheng with its own distinctive vocabulary. The dialect has its origins in Nairobi’s slums and informal trades, before moving into other milieus and the higher end of the country’s social structure. These days, use of Sheng has come to symbolize cosmopolitan-ness. Educated men and women, secondary school students, and a growing number of city residents have taken to speaking Sheng in the marketplace, on the street, and even at home.
Use of Swahili as a second language is widespread across the eastern five provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), within an area defined by Lake Albert to the north, the Zambian border to the southeast, and Kisangani as the westernmost point. The Congolese version as spoken today differs from Standard Swahili, both in vocabulary and in grammar. The lexical borrowings are French, rather than English. Regional variation is more pronounced as compared to other countries where Swahili is spoken, with no standard Congolese version having yet been established. Nevertheless, whether the speaker is from Bunia, Kisangani, Bukavu or Lubumbashi, there is no difficulty in mutual comprehension.
Beyond the regional variation, Congolese Swahili has two registers, a colloquial one for everyday use, and an “official” one for formal purposes. Among the better educated who have mastered the formal register, the variant closely approximates Standard Swahili. In conversation, Congolese will switch effortlessly between Swahili and French, even within the same sentence.
English and Swahili are both official languages, with the latter having been added in 2005.
Swahili entered common usage in Uganda when, from 1902 into the 1960s, the inhabitants of the northern part of the country were recruited to serve in British colonial government’s army. Joining the army was seen as prestigious. As a result, when they returned home, they were speaking a new language: Swahili. The language gained influence as it was not only used in the army and the police, but was also taught in schools.
Uganda’s membership in the EAC spurred the government to further accelerate the population’s mastery of Swahili. On September 9, 2019 the cabinet passed a resolution establishing the National Kishwahili Council with the mandate to develop and implement Swahili as a lingua franca, to serve as a common language among speakers of different native languages.
Other than in the Buganda regions of Central Uganda, where Luganda is dominant, Swahili is the lingua franca. The language is spoken natively in the Bwera and Kaboka regions in the country’s West and Southwest. It serves as a second language in the Kiryandongo district of Northern Uganda, in the areas on both sides of the West Nile, around Lake Albert and throughout the eastern part of the country.
Swahili is also prevalent in the Islamic communities and is taught in the country’s Islamic schools and colleges.
At variance with other countries where Swahili is spoken, the language is not viewed positively by a large segment of the populace. It developed a reputation as the language of criminals and ruffians. This was due to the language first being adopted by the army and police who used it when dealing harshly with the populace. Later, the dictator, Idi Amin, made it the official language to be used by all government officials and security personnel.
In recent years, though, the economic incentive as a needed tool to conduct business with their Swahili-speaking neighbors in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as cultural exchanges through music have served to recast the language in a more positive light.
Although Kurundi (a.k.a. Rundi) is the main language of the country, Swahili is widely spoken in the Great Lakes region. It is also used in commerce and in connection with the country’s Muslim minority or with immigration from elsewhere in East Africa.
In the capital of Bujumbura, Swahili (mixed with French) has taken hold, where it is viewed by city dwellers, and especially its youth, as something “cool” and modern.
Swahili is co-official, alongside Kinyarwanda, English and French.
Although Kinyarwanda remains the language of the street as well as most media broadcasting, much like in Burundi, Swahili (mixed with French) has achieved a fashionable and commercially viable popularity, especially in the city of Rubavu/Gisenyi due to its proximity to and trade with nearby Goma in the DRC, as well as in some neighborhoods of Kigali, the capital, most notably within the Muslim community in Nyamirambo, the Congolese community in Gikongo and in Gatsata, home of the area’s many garages and multinational community of car mechanics.
The country’s accession to the EAC in April 2016 shifted the government’s attention away from the Arab League and towards East Africa. Along with the shift, the government plans to adopt Swahili as an official language, to supplant Arabic as the lingua franca. In 2017, the government started asking Tanzania to send teachers in a move to introduce the language into its schools.
From 1698 to 1861, Oman and Zanzibar were part of the same country, the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Although the sultanate split into two countries, relations remained close, with many Swahili-speaking Zanzibaris settling in Oman and taking the language with them. The language is still widely spoken in Oman today, alongside an appreciation of Swahili music and traditions.
Swahili’s long literary tradition dates back to the mid-17th century. The oldest surviving documents, transcriptions of oral Swahili epic poetry written in Arabic script, date back to the early part of the 18th century. Many works of Western writers have been translated into Swahili. Tanzanian author Shaaban Robert is the most well-known of the contemporary novelists. Swahili shifted from Arabic script to a Roman-based alphabet in the mid-19th century. The standard for the written language was established in the 1930s.
The language’s international reach
Many international radio stations including the BBC, Radio Cairo, the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, NHK Radio-Japan, Radio China International, IRIB World Service (Iran), Radio Sudan and Radio South Africa beam out programs in Swahili. Swahili has made inroads into the Western world of entertainment: one of the earliest was the role of Nyota Uhura in Star Trek, the original series, in 1966. The lyrics for the Michael Jackson song “Liberian girl” include Swahili phrases: Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi we! (I love you, and I want you, my dear!). The Lion King, one of the most well-known Disney films, comes replete with Swahili words, among them, simba (lion), rafiki (friend), as the names of some of the characters. The Swahili phrase hakuna matata (No troubles or no problems) is quoted in the movie.
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