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What is Swahili?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Swahili is a Bantu language spoken throughout Eastern Africa by over 40 million people. It is related to other Bantu languages such as Lusoga, Zulu, Xhosa, and Ngumba, though is often quite different from these languages. Although Swahili is spoken by only approximately 5 million people as a native language, it has become something of a lingua franca in Africa, allowing speakers of many diverse Bantu languages to converse. It is for this reason that the number of overall speakers has swelled to more than 40 million people, an enormous amount for a native African language in a continent with myriad popular tribal languages.

Swahili has official language status in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. These three countries are all situated on the north-east coast of Africa, on the edge of the Indian ocean. It is also widely spoken in neighboring Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Burundi, and Rwanda.

Not so very long ago, and to this day in some circles, Swahili was held to be an amalgam language formed from Arabic immersing in local languages. This theory is all but entirely discredited in the mainstream linguistic community, as there is ample evidence that the Swahili people of eastern Africa have been speaking a language roughly analogous to modern Swahili for nearly a thousand years. Additionally, the structure and many words of Swahili share such close similarities to other Bantu languages that a genetic connection is a near certainty.

Swahili utilizes an astonishing amount of loanwords, however, due to the large traffic of Arabic-speaking traders for extended periods of time, as well as speakers of Indian languages, Persian, and in the modern age, English. While much is often made of this prevalence of loanwords – particularly from the Arabic – the number of loanwords is fairly comparable to English’s use of Latin and Greek.

Modern Swahili is written using the Latin script – a change that occurred during the European occupation of the east African coast during the 19th century. Early Swahili likely had no written script, and in the 18th century, until the emergence of the Latin script in the 19th century, Arabic script was used to write Swahili.

Learning Swahili can be very difficult for native English speakers with little experience of languages drastically different from English. It’s use of a wide group of classes for words, which are denoted by prefixes such as m- and n-, can be a difficult thing for some English speakers to wrap their heads around. While essentially the same as the gender system used by some European languages, the Swahili class system is both larger than what most Romance speakers are used to and less arbitrary in its assignment.

Swahili also makes use of some phonetic constructions that can be difficult for English speakers to use naturally. An initial m- or n-, for example, when followed by another consonant, forms a sound that has no real corollary at the beginning of English words. The Swahili word for "banana," for example, ndizi, has a sound that can take some getting used to for English or Romance speakers.

One popular appearance of Swahili in the English-speaking world was in Disney’s movie The Lion King. The Swahili word for "lion," simba, is used as the name of the lead character, a lion. The popular catchphrase from the movie, hakuna matata is also a Swahili phrase, meaning roughly “no worries.”

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Discussion Comments

By Ana1234 — On Dec 28, 2013

@KoiwiGal - Remember that Africa is a big place. Swahili is pretty good for Southern Africa, but you're better off learning French or something like Bambara if you are visiting West Africa.

But, personally, I've found that a smile and a willingness to be a bit silly and act things out goes a long way, even if there is no language in common. It's easy enough to pick up a handful of words along the way, and in fact I think that English speakers will be better off if they get the pronunciation directly from native speakers, or they will almost certainly get the words wrong.

By KoiwiGal — On Dec 27, 2013

It's fairly useful to learn to speak Swahili if you are interested in visiting Africa at all. Not only do a lot of people speak it fluently, but even more people will know enough of it to negotiate in a marketplace or ask for directions.

It's important, when visiting anywhere with a lot of different regional languages, to make sure that you know the "market language" since that is the only one that you're probably going to be able to find in every village.

In my opinion, the words for please, thank-you, hello, goodbye, water, food and a few question words are probably the most urgent and useful to know. Of all of them, thank-you probably comes in the most handy, since people will love it if you are polite.

By croydon — On Dec 26, 2013

Apparently the opening song of The Lion King is also in simplified Swahili and means something like, "There is a lion, yes, there is a lion".

I'm always kind of disappointed to find out that songs in a foreign language translate to something simple, but most of the time pop songs in English are pretty simple as well, so I guess it's just a universal trait.

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