About the Swahili Language

Swahili (also known as Kiswahili) is a Bantu language, and the mother tongue of the Swahili people (Waswahili). It is the most widely spoken language of Sub-Sahara Africa and the second most widely understood language in all of Africa. In fact, it is the only African language among the official working languages of the African Union. There are an estimated 50 million Swahili speakers in the world with a majority of them residing in East Africa. Swahili is the official language of Tanzania and national language of Kenya (English is the official language of Kenya); small populations of speakers can also be found in Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia.

Although there is insufficient historical evidence that clearly states where Swahili ethnically emerged, many attribute its development to the Arabs and Persians who moved to the East African coast. During the nineteenth century the Arab/Swahili trade expanded along the East African coast, and therefore initiated the spread of Swahili throughout eastern Africa.

Swahili is purely an African language that follows Bantu grammar but borrows heavily from Arabic. It also borrows from English, Portuguese, and Persian, as a result of a thousand years of contact between Indian Ocean populations and the Waswahili. For example:

  • baiskeli – bicycle (English)
  • biashara – business (Arabic)
  • mpira - ball (Portuguese)

One of the oldest surviving documents in Swahili is a 1728 epic poem entitled Utendi wa Tambuka (“The History of Tambuka.”). This poem, like the others written during this time, was written in an Arabic script and portrayed the influence of Islamic culture on Swahili society. Poetry still prevails in Swahili culture, and is regularly quoted and found in East African newspapers.

International Manifestations
Although Swahili is predominately an East African language, this language is recognized internationally. Swahili is taught at major universities around the world, and numerous international media outlets. The BBC, Radio Cairo, Voice of America, Radio Deutschewelle, Radio Moscow International, Radio Japan International, Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa all have Swahili programs. Also, the well-known Disney movie, “The Lion King” has introduced the world to a handful of Swahili words, and the phrase “hakuna matata” (meaning no worries). The African American holiday Kwanzaa is rooted in two Swahili words kwanza (first) and –zaa (to bear fruit). The popular game Jenga is derived from the Swahili verb –jenga meaning to build. The Swahili word safari has also become an internationally used term to refer to a journey. These examples are only a few among the many ways Swahili is manifested throughout the world.

(Above passage written by Lisar Radulesk, Third-Year Swahili student)