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Number of Speakers: Approximately 50 million

Key Dialects: Standard Swahili, Kingwana

Geographical Center: East Africa

Swahili is spoken by an estimated 50 million people and, after Arabic, is the most widely understood language in Africa. It is the official language of Tanzania and Kenya and is used extensively in Uganda and the eastern provinces of Zaire. In Burundi and Rwanda, it is known and used in major urban centers, but is not widely known or extensively used in the monolingual countryside.

In countries that flank the area where Swahili functions as the common mode of communication, use of the language does spill over the border areas in small towns and villages along major transportation arteries, for example, in northern Mozambique, northern Zambia, and southern Ethiopia. Along the East African coastal strip from well into Somalia and as far south as northern Mozambique there are communities of Swahili speakers. Of less significance are small and declining communities in the Comoro Islands, where local Swahili-related vernaculars and French are the rule, and along part of the northwestern coast of Madagascar.

In spite of its large number of speakers and the huge area in which the language is spoken, Swahili has less than two million native speakers, most of whom live along the east African coast of southern Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and on the off shore islands of Lamu, Zanzibar, and Pemba. Most speakers in Tanzania and Kenya acquire Swahili as a second language, being native speakers of other African languages. Many speakers of Swahili, especially those further into the interior of the continent (up country) speak two or more other languages, and use Swahili as a lingua franca. A growing number of first language speakers, however, live in the urban areas of East Africa, where inter-ethnic communities prevail.

Swahili is a Bantu language of the Sabaki subgroup of Northeastern Coast Bantu languages. It is most immediately related to the Kenyan Bantu languages of Ilwana, Pokomo, and Mijikenda (Digo, Giryama, Duruma, etc.), which are spoken in the Kenya coastal hinterland, and to Comorian (Ngazija, Nzuani, Mwali, and Maore) of the Comoro Islands. Other members of the group include Chimwiini of Barawa, Somalia, and Mwani of the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.

Bantu languages are spoken as a first language in sub Saharan Africa by nearly a third of the continent's total population. Many second language speakers of Swahili are native speakers of another Bantu language, or of a Nilotic or Cushitic language.

A large number of dialects are distinguished among Swahili speakers and scholars. They are almost without exception all mutually intelligible, differing primarily in certain phonological and lexical features. The dialect of Swahili referred to as Standard Swahili was established in 1930 by the Inter Territorial Language Committee and was based on the coastal dialect of Zanzibar, Kiunguja. The standard language spoken in Tanzania is often referred to as Kisanifu.

Besides Kiunguja, other Swahili linguistic variants (or dialects) are Kimakunduchi (or Kihadimu) and Kitumbatu (both spoken in the rural parts of Zanzibar); Kipemba (Pemba Island); Kimtang'ata (Tanga Town and environs); Kimrima (along the coast of Tanzania, opposite Zanzibar); Kimvita and other related dialects (Mombasa and environs); Kiamu, Kipate and Kisiu, etc. (the Lamu Archipelago); Kitikuu (the Lamu Archipelago and along the coasts of northern Kenya into southern Somalia); Kivumba (Wasini Island and Vanga); Kingwana (Congo and Zaire); and Kingozi, a literary dialect used in classical Swahili poetry.

Of all the Sabaki languages, Kimwani (the Kerimba Islands and northern coast of Mozambique) is most closely related to Swahili proper and may be considered a Swahili dialect. There are also pidginized versions of Swahili that developed during colonial times mainly in Kenya, but these are being progressively replaced by the Standard dialect. In fact, all the coastal Swahili dialects are coming under increasing pressure from Standard Swahili; some are surely to disappear. The literature also speaks of other Swahili dialects spoken in the Comoros and Madagascar, but the predominant languages there are separate languages and distinct from Swahili, except for ever diminishing and fast disappearing communities of Swahili speakers. For instance, the Bantu languages of the Comoro Islands (Ngazija, Nzwani, Mwali and Maore), often erroneously identified as Swahili dialects, are not understood by Swahili speakers and are different enough from Swahili to be considered separate languages. In Madagascar, Comorian communities there have often been referred to as "Swahili," but in fact are distinct from the remaining Swahili communities that were established during the height of Swahili nineteenth century expansion; all of these are gradually giving way to Malagasy. In Somalia, in the coastal town of Brava (Barawa), Chimwiini is spoken; while it is very similar to the northern coastal dialects of Swahili, most scholars do not consider it as Swahili, nor do its own speakers and most Swahili speakers.

A Roman-based alphabet has been used for writing Swahili since the mid-nineteenth century. It was adopted and regularized into a standard orthography in the 1930s. Some of the older generation of speakers along the coast and on the coastal islands still use the Arabic-based orthography, but it is not being learned by the young.

Swahili is an agglutinative language, that is, grammatical information is conveyed by attaching prefixes and suffixes to roots and stems. As in other Bantu languages, nouns are divided into sets or classes, referred to as grammatical genders. Each gender has two distinct prefixes, one marking singular nouns, the other plural nouns. There are numerous classes far exceeding the masculine, feminine and neuter classifications of familiar European languages and each class is roughly associated with certain semantic characteristics; for instance, there are classes for human beings, animals, plants, artifacts, long objects, abstract concepts, and so on.

Verbs are complex; a system of affixes mark various grammatical relations, such as subject, object, tense, aspect, and mood. A typical affirmative complex verb form consists of a subject prefix, tense/aspect marker, optional relative pronoun, optional object marker, verb root, and several optional suffixes (called verbal extensions) that define argument roles such as causative, passive, stative, and reciprocal, plus a final vowel to signal the indicative mood. There is a system of concordial agreement in which subject nouns, object nouns optionally, and other sentence constituents must agree with the verb of the sentence in class and number. Adjectives, possessive pronouns and demonstratives also agree in class and number with the noun they modify.

The phonology of Swahili is characterized by a simple vowel inventory and consonant inventory. Somewhat unusual sounds are the implosives, sounds that are made by drawing air into the lungs rather than expressing it. Unlike other Bantu languages, it is not a tone language; stress is typically on the penultimate syllable.

The typical Bantu structure of the language plus its extensive stock of vocabulary that is Bantu in origin, demonstrate that although Swahili has borrowed a large number of Arabic words, it remains a distinctly African language. In the modern era, it has borrowed extensively from English. There is also a loan set from Portuguese which dates from the Portuguese period in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Although English is still an important language in post independence East Africa, Swahili plays an increasingly vital role in the daily commercial, political, cultural, and social life of the region at every level of society. This is especially true in Tanzania, where the language is used throughout the country in government offices, the courts, schools and mass media. It has, in fact, become a more important language than English and, in some cases, is replacing English as the language of choice among the educated. In Kenya, this is less the case, and English still enjoys virtual equal status with Swahili. In Uganda the popularity of Swahili as a national or official language often reflects the attitude of the political faction that is currently in control. Swahili has never enjoyed high status among the major Christian oriented Bantu ethnolinguistic groups of southern and western Uganda, but was an important lingua franca in the northern areas of the country and has always been an important language among the military and police. For a period shortly after the Tanzanian Ugandan conflict the status of Swahili received a boost because people observed how effectively it functioned as the language of their liberators, the Tanzanians. In eastern Zaire it remains an important lingua franca and is spoken by growing numbers of native speakers in parts of the region.

Swahili spread through eastern Africa beginning in the nineteenth century when Arab/Swahili trade expanded along the East African coast, on Zanzibar, and in trading centers in the interior. Long before the arrival of European colonizers, it was the Swahili dialect of Zanzibar Town (Kiunguja) that spread inland and eventually became the basis for Standard Swahili in colonial and post independence East Africa. Furthermore, Swahili is one of the few African languages the has a precolonial written tradition. A thousand years of contact between Indian Ocean peoples and Swahili resulted in a large number of borrowed words entering the language, mainly from Arabic, but also others such as Persian and various Indian languages. At different periods Swahili also borrowed vocabulary from Portuguese and English. Such borrowing is comparable to the proportion of French, Latin, and Greek loans used in English. Although this proportion for Arabic loans may be as high as 50 percent in classical Swahili poetry (traditionally written in Arabic script), it amounts to less than twenty percent of the lexicon of the spoken language.

The oldest surviving documents written in Swahili date from the early 1700s. They are written in an Arabic script, reflecting the influence of Islamic culture on Swahili society. Most of these documents are transcriptions of Swahili epic poetry, recording on paper an oral tradition of works intended for chanting or singing. The most common of these poems are called Utenzi (Utendi), drawing upon conventions of both Arab verse and Bantu song. Its earliest composers most likely worked in Kenya, in the Lamu Archipelago, using one of the northern Swahili dialects. The tradition later spread south to Mombasa and Pemba, where the focus of the verse shifted from religious legends to social commentary, which continues to be a theme used by contemporary Swahili poets. The classical poetry still plays a major role in Swahili culture; it is recited on special occasions and regularly quoted; newspapers often devote space to poetry that has been submitted by their readership.

Ashton, E. O. 1944. Swahili Grammar (Including Intonation). London: Longmans.

Hinnebusch, T. J. 1979. "Swahili". in T. Shopen, ed. Languages and Their Status, pp. 209-293. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Winthrop.

Hinnebusch, T. J., and S. M. Mirza. 1979. Kiswahili: Msingi wa Kusema, Kusoma na Kuandika. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada: 1993. Washington, DC.

Nurse, D. and Hinnebusch, T. J. 1993. Swahili and Sabaki: A Linguistic History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wald, B. 1987. "Swahili and the Bantu Languages". In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 991-1014. New York: Oxford University Press.

Whiteley, W. 1969. Swahili: The Rise of a National Language. London: Methuen.

Zawawi, S. 1971. Kiswahili Kwa Kitendo: An Introductory Course. New York: Harper & Row.

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