Swahili Language History

Swahili, or Kiswahili in its own language, is spoken in many countries in Africa and by many ethnic groups.  More than 80 million people speak Swahili and it serves as the national or official language in five nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Comoros, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although it is currently spoken in a wide variety of locations, up until the nineteenth century, Swahili was spoken mainly on the coastal regions of Somalia to Mozambique and to the northern coast of Madagascar (Nurse & Spear, 1985, p. 32). 
Swahili is a Bantu language, a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo languages.  There are more than 400 Bantu languages spoken by more than 130 million people spread across the southern third portion of Africa’s continent (Nurse & Spear, 1985, p. 37).  Most these languages are spoken east and south of Cameroon, and Swahili is the Bantu language with the most speakers (Swahili Language, 2012).  Swahili is part of the Northeast Coast Bantu languages (NECB), which consists of the subgroups Pare, Sabaki, Seuta, and Ruvu, designating areas that speak certain Bantu languages along the Northern East African coast.  Swahili is part of the Sabaki language subgroup, which also includes the languages Llwana, Pokomo, and Mijikenda.  (Nurse & Spear, 1985, p. 44; Swahili Language, 2012)

Swahili was formed through influences from other languages over the course of many years.  It is like any other language in that it is dynamic in nature, changing over time.  The origin of Swahili is difficult to know since documentation of early forms of Swahili do not exist; the earliest signs of Swahili appeared in the ninth century.  Most of the early Swahili literature was passed down orally, and manuscripts were handed from scribe to scribe.  Each scribe edited the manuscripts as they wished, justifying revisions in vocabulary, content, grammar, and dialect features to match the current Swahili being practiced (Nurse & Spear, 1985, p. 8).  However, what we do know is that Swahili was heavily influenced by the lifestyles of those who spoke it.

Early Swahili speakers, between 800-1100, lived in communities where they fished, farmed, had livestock, and traded ironware, beads, cloth, and pottery.  Many of the words associated with this time are words that all Swahili dialects share.  These words can be traced back to proto-Swahili (Nurse & Spear, 1985, p. 68).

Language Features


The Swahili alphabet is similar to that of the English alphabet, with the exception of a few letters.  Below shows Swahili and English alphabet comparison:


A, B, CH, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, Z

A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z

There are three differences in the Swahili alphabet from the English alphabet: Swahili does not have the letters C, Q, or, X and instead of C, Swahili has CH. (Omniglot, 2012)


Although there are only some orthographic differences in Swahili, there are many consonant and vowel differences, when examining the language phonetically, that make Swahili quite distinct. Below is the International Phonetic

Swahili is also unique in that it allows for several consonant combinations that do not exist in English.  Below shows the consonant combination allowed in Swahili:

  • dh-same as voiced /th/
  • gh
  • kh
  • mb
  • mv
  • mw
  • nd (word initial position)
  • ng (word initial position)
  • ny (word initial position)
  • nz (word initial position)
  • sh
  • th (voiceless)

Although some of these combinations exist in English, some of them are in word initial position, making them unique to Swahili (nd, ng, ny).  When the consonants /dh/ are combined, it actually makes the voiced /th/, which we have in English only different consonants are used to represent this interdental fricative. (Omniglot, 2012)


Swahili has five standard vowel phonemes:

  • /ɑ/: as in father, tense
  • /ɛ/: as in bed, lax
  • /i/: as in ski, tense
  • /ou/: as in oh, tense
  • /u/: as in boot, lax

Although Swahili has all of the same vowels as English, it has no diphthongs.  Each vowel even when combined is pronounced individually.  For example, the Swahili word for leopard “chui” is pronounced /tsu.i/ in order to preserve each vowel sound.  Also, vowels are never reduced regardless of stress, so, for example, the shwa does not exist. 

Nouns & Word Classes:

In Swahili, nouns are split up into nine word classes and are distinguishable by a specific prefix that designates each class. Each class has a singular and a plural form, making 18 in total.   When the word is said in a sentence without a verb (the student), it has a specific singular and plural prefix shown in bold below.  However, when a verb is added in a sentence (the student is reading), it changes the designated prefix for the class.  The words below demonstrate this shift.  The bolded words represent a noun said without a verb and a noun said with a verb is shown in brackets. (Ojiambo, 2011)

Word without verb [Word + Verb]
M-MI [U-I]
N-N [I-ZI]
U-U [U-ZI]
U-U [U-U]

Noun Classes (1-6) Without Verb

Table adapted from Ojiambo, 2011


There are several distinct syntactical features to know about Swahili.  Definite and indefinite articles do not exist in Swahili; therefore the context in which a word is said is crucial.  For example, the word “mtoto” means child, a child, or the child.  The context that the word is said in clues the listener into what the speaker is meaning (Linguata, n.d.).  As demonstrated in the tables above, plurality is marked by noun prefixes instead of suffixes like in English.  Therefore it is important to be aware noun classes and there corresponding singular/plural prefixes (Ojiambo, 2011)


Much of the Swahili language has borrowed from other languages such as Arabic and even some English.  There are also many Swahili dialects and the words used to describe specific nouns may change slightly depending on the specific dialect (Nurse & Spear, 1985).  There also may not be direct translation of words from English to Swahili.  For example, the English term “book bag” in Swahili is “mfuko” meaning “bag of books” (Ojiambo, 2011).

What Does This Mean for an SLP?

US Swahili Speakers According to 2006-2008 Census:

Total in United States: 72,404 people
Spoke English less than “very well”: 15,897 people

Total in Oregon: 468 people
Spoke English less than “very well”: 164 people
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2012)

This information implies that there is a small population of Swahili speakers in Oregon and that the majority (304 speakers) speak English very well.  Although this information is slightly outdated, it still implies that for speech-language pathologists in Oregon, there may not be many Swahili speakers on their caseloads.  However it is still important to understand key language features of Swahili and to know what resources are available for assessing language functioning.

Key features to remember when assessing a Swahili speaker:

It is important to educate yourself on the phonetic and syntactic differences between English and Swahili.  Knowing these differences will help to understand some cross-linguistic transfer that may occur to English from Swahili.  Understanding the basics of Swahili language phonetics will inform you about sound production differences and why some may be difficult to produce since they do not exist in Swahili.  Syntactically, Swahili speakers place much importance on prefixes.  These prefixes help determine plurality, which is not a component of English.  It is also good to remember that definite articles do not exist in Swahili as they do in English.  Knowing some of these features will help to inform treatment and will prevent misdiagnosis of disorder when there may just be a language difference.

A speech-language pathologist must utilize a trained interpreter who is fluent in Swahili to examine speech and language skills in both languages.  Without examining skills in Swahili, there would not be a comprehensive picture of current language functioning.



Original Contributors: Christianne Osborn and Karrie Petersen, Winter 2010.

References and Resources