Phemba dialect

Native toTanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Somalia (on the Bajuni islands and Barawa), Mozambique (mostly Mwani), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda,[1] Comoros, Mayotte, Zambia, Malawi, and Madagascar
Native speakers
unclear. Estimates range from 2 million (2003)[2] to 15 million (2012)[3]
L2 speakers:90 million (1991–2015)[3]
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by
Language codes
ISO 639-1sw
ISO 639-2swa
ISO 639-3swainclusive code
Individual codes:
swc – Congo Swahili
swh – Coastal Swahili
ymk – Makwe
wmw – Mwani
  • G.42–43;
  • G.40.A–H (pidgins & creoles)
Maeneo penye wasemaji wa Kiswahili.png
  areas where Swahili or Comorian is the indigenous language
  official or national language
  as a trade language
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For a guide to IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Swahili, also known as Kiswahili (translation: language of the Swahili people), is a Bantu language and the first language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).[6] Comorian, spoken in the Comoros Islands is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Swahili, though other authorities consider it a distinct language.[7]

The exact number of Swahili speakers, be it native or second-language speakers, is unknown and a matter of debate. Various estimates have been put forward and they vary widely, from 50 million to over 100 million.[8] Swahili serves as a national language of four nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the DRC. Shikomor, the official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is related to Swahili.[9] Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and officially recognised as a lingua franca of the East African Community.[10] South Africa legalized the teaching of Swahili in South African schools as an optional subject beginning in 2020.[11]

A significant fraction of Swahili vocabulary derives from Arabic,[12] in part conveyed by Arabic-speaking Muslim inhabitants. For example, the Swahili word for "book" is kitabu, traceable back to the Arabic word كتاب kitābu (from the root k-t-b "write"). However, the Swahili plural form of this word ("books") is vitabu, following Bantu grammar in which ki- is reanalysed as a nominal class prefix, whose plural is vi-.[13]


Swahili is a Bantu language of the Sabaki branch.[14] In Guthrie's geographic classification, Swahili is in Bantu zone G, whereas the other Sabaki languages are in zone E70, commonly under the name Nyika. Local folk-theories of the language have often considered Swahili to be a mixed language because of its many loan words from Arabic, and the fact that Swahili people have historically been Muslims. However, historical linguists do not consider the Arabic influence on Swahili to be significant enough to classify it as a mixed language, since Arabic influence is limited to lexical items, most of which have only been borrowed after 1500, while the grammatical and syntactic structure of the language is typically Bantu.[15][16]


Swahili in Arabic script—memorial plate at the Askari Monument, Dar es Salaam (1927)


Its old name was Kingozi, but as traders came from Arab countries, their vocabulary intermingled with the language. It was originally written in Arabic script.[17]

The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 in the Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India.[18]

Its name came from Arabic: سَاحِل sāħil = "coast", broken plural سَوَاحِل sawāħil = "coasts", سَوَاحِلِىّ sawāħilï = "of coasts".

Colonial period[]

Although originally written with the Arabic script, Swahili is now written in a Latin alphabet introduced by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators. The text shown here is the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer.[19]

Since Swahili was the language of commerce in East Africa, the colonial administrators wanted to standardize it.[20] In June 1928, an interterritorial conference attended by representatives of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, and Zanzibar took place in Mombasa. The Zanzibar dialect was chosen as standard Swahili for those areas,[21] and the standard orthography for Swahili was adopted.[22]

Current status[]

Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC) where it is an official or national language. In 2016, Swahili was made a compulsory subject in all Kenyan schools.[23] Swahili and closely related languages are spoken by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Comoros, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda.[24] The language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea in the 20th century.[25][26]

Some 80 percent of approximately 49 million Tanzanians speak Swahili in addition to their first languages.[27] The five eastern provinces of the DRC are Swahili-speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it.[28] Swahili speakers may number 120 to 150 million in total.[29]


Unlike the vast majority of Niger-Congo languages,[30] Swahili lacks contrastive tone. As a result of that and the language's shallow orthography, Swahili is said to be the easiest African language for an English speaker to learn.[31]


Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress, but they are pronounced in full as follows:[32]


Swahili consonant phonemes[32][33]
Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
/ Palatal
Velar Glottal
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ɲ ⟨ny⟩ ŋ ⟨ng'⟩
Stop prenasalized ᵐb ⟨mb⟩ ⁿd ⟨nd⟩ ⁿʤ ⟨nj⟩ ᵑɡ ⟨ng⟩
/ voiced
ɓ ~ b ⟨b⟩ ɗ ~ d ⟨d⟩ ʄ ~ ʤ ⟨j⟩ ɠ ~ ɡ ⟨g⟩
voiceless p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ ʧ ⟨ch⟩ k ⟨k⟩
Fricative prenasalized ᶬv ⟨mv⟩ ⁿz ⟨nz⟩
voiced v ⟨v⟩ (ð ⟨dh⟩) z ⟨z⟩ (ɣ ⟨gh⟩)
voiceless f ⟨f⟩ (θ ⟨th⟩) s ⟨s⟩ ʃ ⟨sh⟩ (x ⟨kh⟩) h ⟨h⟩
Rhotic r ⟨r⟩
Approximant l ⟨l⟩ j ⟨y⟩ w ⟨w⟩

Swahili also has the phonemes /pʰ tʰ tʃʰ kʰ bʰ dʰ dʒʰ ɡʰ/.[34] "[I]n some Arabic loans (nouns, verbs, adjectives) emphasis or intensity is expressed by reproducing the original emphatic consonants /dˤ, sˤ, tˤ, zˤ/ and the uvular /q/, or lengthening a vowel, where aspiration would be used in inherited Bantu words."[35]


Swahili in Arabic script on the clothes of a woman in Tanzania (ca. early 1900s)

Swahili is currently written in an alphabet close to English, except it does not use the letters Q and X.[36] There are two digraphs for native sounds, ch and sh; c is not used apart from unassimilated English loans and, occasionally, as a substitute for k in advertisements. There are also several digraphs for Arabic sounds not distinguished in pronunciation outside of traditional Swahili areas.

The language used to be written in the Arabic script. Unlike adaptations of the Arabic script for other languages, relatively little accommodation was made for Swahili. There were also differences in orthographic conventions between cities and authors and over the centuries, some quite precise but others different enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.

/e/ and /i/, /o/ and /u/ were often conflated, but in some spellings, /e/ was distinguished from /i/ by rotating the kasra 90° and /o/ was distinguished from /u/ by writing the damma backwards.

Several Swahili consonants do not have equivalents in Arabic, and for them, often no special letters were created unlike, for example, Urdu script. Instead, the closest Arabic sound is substituted. Not only did that mean that one letter often stands for more than one sound, but also writers made different choices of which consonant to substitute. Here are some of the equivalents between Arabic Swahili and Roman Swahili:

Arabic Swahili Roman Swahili
Final Medial Initial Isolated
ـا ا aa
ـب ـبـ بـ ب b p mb mp bw pw mbw mpw
ـت ـتـ تـ ت t nt
ـث ـثـ ثـ ث th?
ـج ـجـ جـ ج j nj ng ng' ny
ـح ـحـ حـ ح h
ـخ ـخـ خـ خ kh h
ـد د d nd
ـذ ذ dh?
ـر ر r d nd
ـز ز z nz
ـس ـسـ سـ س s
ـش ـشـ شـ ش sh ch
ـص ـصـ صـ ص s, sw
ـض ـضـ ضـ ض dhw
ـط ـطـ طـ ط t tw chw
ـظ ـظـ ظـ ظ z th dh dhw
ـع ـعـ عـ ع ?
ـغ ـغـ غـ غ gh g ng ng'
ـف ـفـ فـ ف f fy v vy mv p
ـق ـقـ قـ ق k g ng ch sh ny
ـك ـكـ كـ ك
ـل ـلـ لـ ل l
ـم ـمـ مـ م m
ـن ـنـ نـ ن n
ـه ـهـ هـ ه h
ـو و w
ـي ـيـ يـ ي y ny

That was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors so as to distinguish aspiration and /p/ from /b/: پھا/pʰaa/ 'gazelle', پا/paa/ 'roof'. Although it is not found in Standard Swahili today, there is a distinction between dental and alveolar consonants in some dialects, which is reflected in some orthographies, for example in كُٹَ-kuta 'to meet' vs. كُتَ-kut̠a 'to be satisfied'. A k with the dots of y, , was used for ch in some conventions; ky being historically and even contemporaneously a more accurate transcription than Roman ch. In Mombasa, it was common to use the Arabic emphatics for Cw, for example in صِصِswiswi (standard sisi) 'we' and كِطَkit̠wa (standard kichwa) 'head'.

Word division differs from Roman norms. Particles such as ya, na, si, kwa, ni are joined to the following noun, and possessives such as yangu and yako are joined to the preceding noun, but verbs are written as two words, with the subject and tense–aspect–mood morphemes separated from the object and root, as in aliye niambia "he who told me".[37]


Noun classes []

Semantic motivation[]

The ki-/vi- class historically consisted of two separate genders, artefacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils and hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12), which were conflated at a stage ancestral to Swahili. Examples of the former are kisu "knife", kiti "chair" (from mti "tree, wood"), chombo "vessel" (a contraction of ki-ombo). Examples of the latter are kitoto "infant", from mtoto "child"; kitawi "frond", from tawi "branch"; and chumba (ki-umba) "room", from nyumba "house". It is the diminutive sense that has been furthest extended. An extension common to diminutives in many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish in English). For example, there is kijani "green", from jani "leaf" (compare English 'leafy'), kichaka "bush" from chaka "clump", and kivuli "shadow" from uvuli "shade". A 'little bit' of a verb would be an instance of an action, and such instantiations (usually not very active ones) are found: kifo "death", from the verb -fa "to die"; kiota "nest" from -ota "to brood"; chakula "food" from kula "to eat"; kivuko "a ford, a pass" from -vuka "to cross"; and kilimia "the Pleiades", from -limia "to farm with", from its role in guiding planting. A resemblance, or being a bit like something, implies marginal status in a category, so things that are marginal examples of their class may take the ki-/vi- prefixes. One example is chura (ki-ura) "frog", which is only half terrestrial and therefore is marginal as an animal. This extension may account for disabilities as well: kilema "a cripple", kipofu "a blind person", kiziwi "a deaf person". Finally, diminutives often denote contempt, and contempt is sometimes expressed against things that are dangerous. This might be the historical explanation for kifaru "rhinoceros", kingugwa "spotted hyena", and kiboko "hippopotamus" (perhaps originally meaning "stubby legs").

Another class with broad semantic extension is the m-/mi- class (Bantu classes 3/4). This is often called the 'tree' class, because mti, miti "tree(s)" is the prototypical example. However, it seems to cover vital entities neither human nor typical animals: trees and other plants, such as mwitu 'forest' and mtama 'millet' (and from there, things made from plants, like mkeka 'mat'); supernatural and natural forces, such as mwezi 'moon', mlima 'mountain', mto 'river'; active things, such as moto 'fire', including active body parts (moyo 'heart', mkono 'hand, arm'); and human groups, which are vital but not themselves human, such as mji 'village', and, by analogy, mzinga 'beehive/cannon'. From the central idea of tree, which is thin, tall, and spreading, comes an extension to other long or extended things or parts of things, such as mwavuli 'umbrella', moshi 'smoke', msumari 'nail'; and from activity there even come active instantiations of verbs, such as mfuo "metal forging", from -fua "to forge", or mlio "a sound", from -lia "to make a sound". Words may be connected to their class by more than one metaphor. For example, mkono is an active body part, and mto is an active natural force, but they are also both long and thin. Things with a trajectory, such as mpaka 'border' and mwendo 'journey', are classified with long thin things, as in many other languages with noun classes. This may be further extended to anything dealing with time, such as mwaka 'year' and perhaps mshahara 'wages'. Animals exceptional in some way and so not easily fitting in the other classes may be placed in this class.

The other classes have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive.[38] In short,


Swahili phrases agree with nouns in a system of concord, but if the noun refers to a human, they accord with noun classes 1-2 regardless of their noun class. Verbs agree with the noun class of their subjects and objects; adjectives, prepositions and demonstratives agree with the noun class of their nouns. In Standard Swahili (Kiswahili sanifu), based on the dialect spoken in Zanzibar, the system is rather complex; however, it is drastically simplified in many local variants where Swahili is not a native language, such as in Nairobi. In non-native Swahili, concord reflects only animacy: human subjects and objects trigger a-, wa- and m-, wa- in verbal concord, while non-human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger i-, zi-. Infinitives vary between standard ku- and reduced i-.[39] ("Of" is animate wa and inanimate ya, za.)

In Standard Swahili, human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger animacy concord in a-, wa- and m-, wa-, and non-human subjects and objects trigger a variety of gender-concord prefixes.

Swahili noun-class concord
NC Semantic
-C, -V
Subj. Obj -a Adjective
-C, -i, -e[* 1]
- I (mimi) ni-
- we (sisi) tu-
- thou (wewe) u- ku-
- you (ninyi) m- wa-
1 person m-, mw- a- m- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
2 people wa-, w- wa- wa wa-, we-, we-
3 tree m- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
4 trees mi- i- ya mi-, mi-, mye-
5 group, AUG ji-/Ø, j- li- la ji-/Ø, ji-, je-
6 groups, AUG ma- ya- ya ma-, me-, me-
7 tool, DIM ki-, ch- ki- cha ki-, ki-, che-
8 tools, DIM vi-, vy- vi- vya vi-, vi-, vye-
9 animals, 'other',
N- i- ya N-, nyi-, nye-
10 zi- za
11 extension u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
10 (plural of 11) N- zi- za N-, nyi-, nye-
14 abstraction u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
or u-, wi-, we-
15 infinitives ku-, kw-[* 2] ku- kwa- ku-, kwi-, kwe-
16 position -ni, mahali pa- pa pa-, pe-, pe-
17 direction, around -ni ku- kwa ku-, kwi-, kwe-
18 within, along -ni mu- (NA) mwa mu-, mwi-, mwe-
  1. ^ Most Swahili adjectives begin with either a consonant or the vowels i- or e-, listed separately above. The few adjectives beginning with other vowels do not agree with all noun classes since some are restricted to humans. NC 1 m(w)- is mw- before a and o, and reduces to m- before u; wa- does not change; and ki-, vi-, mi- become ch-, vy-, my- before o but not before u: mwanana, waanana "gentle", mwororo, waororo, myororo, chororo, vyororo "mild, yielding", mume, waume, kiume, viume "male".
  2. ^ In a few verbs: kwenda, kwisha

Dialects and closely related languages[]

This list is based on Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history.


Modern standard Swahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect spoken in Zanzibar Town, but there are numerous dialects of Swahili, some of which are mutually unintelligible, such as the following:[40]

Old dialects[]

Maho (2009) considers these to be distinct languages:

The rest of the dialects are divided by him into two groups:

Maho includes the various Comorian dialects as a third group. Most other authorities consider Comorian to be a Sabaki language, distinct from Swahili.[41]

Other regions[]

In Somalia, where the Afroasiatic Somali language predominates, a variant of Swahili referred to as Chimwiini (also known as Chimbalazi) is spoken along the Benadir coast by the Bravanese people.[42] Another Swahili dialect known as Kibajuni also serves as the mother tongue of the Bajuni minority ethnic group, which lives in the tiny Bajuni Islands as well as the southern Kismayo region.[42][43]

In Oman, there are an estimated 22,000 people who speak Swahili.[44] Most are descendants of those repatriated after the fall of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.[45][46]

Swahili poets[]

See also[]


  1. ^ Thomas J. Hinnebusch, 1992, "Swahili", International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Oxford, pp. 99–106
    David Dalby, 1999/2000, The Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech Communities, Linguasphere Press, Volume Two, pp. 733–735
    Benji Wald, 1994, "Sub-Saharan Africa", Atlas of the World's Languages, Routledge, pp. 289–346, maps 80, 81, 85
  2. ^ Hinnebusch, Thomas J. (2003). "Swahili". In William J. Frawley. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription required (help)). First-language (L1) speakers of Swahili, who probably number no more than two million
  3. ^ a b Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Congo Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Coastal Swahili at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Makwe at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
    Mwani at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Swahili (G.40)". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  5. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  6. ^ Prins 1961
  7. ^ Nurse and Hinnebusch, 1993, p.18
  8. ^ "HOME - Home". Retrieved 19 July 2016. After Arabic, Swahili is the most widely used African language but the number of its speakers is another area in which there is little agreement. The most commonly mentioned numbers are 50, 80, and 100 million people. [...] The number of its native speakers has been placed at just under 2 million.
  9. ^ Nurse and Hinnebusch, 1993
  10. ^ "Development and Promotion of Extractive Industries and Mineral Value Addition". East African Community.
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ The Routledge Concise Compendium of the World's Languages (2nd ed.), George L. Campbell and Gareth King. Routledge (2011), p. 678. ISBN 978-0-415-47841-0
  13. ^ See pp. 11 and 52 in Ghil'ad Zuckermann (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series or: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.
  14. ^ Derek Nurse, Thomas J. Hinnebusch, Gérard Philippson. 1993. Swahili and Sabaki: A Linguistic History. University of California Press
  15. ^ Derek Nurse, Thomas T. Spear. 1985. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. University of Pennsylvania Press
  16. ^ Thomas Spear. 2000. Early Swahili History Reconsidered. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 257-290
  17. ^ Juma, Abdurahman. "Swahili history". Retrieved 2017-09-30.
  18. ^ E. A. Alpers, Ivory and Slaves in East Central Africa, London, 1975.., pp. 98–99 ; T. Vernet, "Les cités-Etats swahili et la puissance omanaise (1650–1720), Journal des Africanistes, 72(2), 2002, pp. 102–105.
  19. ^ "Baba yetu". Wikisource. Retrieved 15 November 2015.
  20. ^ "History and Origin of Swahili".
  21. ^ "Swahili - About World Languages".
  22. ^ Mdee, James S. (1999). "Dictionaries and the Standardization of Spelling in Swahili". Lexikos. pp. 126–7. Retrieved 2 June 2017.
  23. ^ Wanambisi, Laban (5 December 2016). "International schools must teach Kiswahili, Kenya's history – Matiang'i". Capital News. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  24. ^ Nurse & Thomas Spear (1985) The Swahili
  25. ^ Kharusi, N. S. (2012). "The ethnic label Zinjibari: Politics and language choice implications among Swahili speakers in Oman". Ethnicities. 12 (3): 335–353. doi:10.1177/1468796811432681.
  26. ^ Adriaan Hendrik Johan Prins (1961) The Swahili-speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast. (Ethnologue)
  27. ^ Brock-Utne 2001: 123
  28. ^ Kambale, Juakali (10 August 2004). "DRC welcomes Swahili as an official AU language". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 8 September 2009.
  29. ^ (2005 World Bank Data).
  30. ^ "Niger-Congo languages". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  31. ^ "BBC - Languages - Swahili - A Guide to Swahili - 10 facts about the Swahili language". Retrieved 2017-09-30.
  32. ^ a b Contini-Morava, Ellen. 1997. Swahili Phonology. In Kaye, Alan S. (ed.), Phonologies of Asia and Africa 2, 841-860. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.
  33. ^ Modern Swahili Grammar East African Publishers, 2001 Mohamed Abdulla Mohamed p. 4
  34. ^
  35. ^, p. 157.
  36. ^ "A Guide to Swahili - The Swahili alphabet". BBC.
  37. ^ Jan Knappert (1971) Swahili Islamic poetry, Volume 1
  38. ^ See Contini-Morava for details.
  39. ^ Kamil Ud Deen, 2005. The acquisition of Swahili.
  40. ^ H.E.Lambert 1956, 1957, 1958
  41. ^ Derek Nurse; Thomas Spear; Thomas T. Spear. The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500. p. 65.
  42. ^ a b "Somalia". Ethnologue. 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
  43. ^ Mwakikagile, Godfrey (2007). Kenya: identity of a nation. New Africa Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-9802587-9-0.
  44. ^ "Oman". Ethnologue. 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
  45. ^ Fuchs, Martina (2011-10-05). "African Swahili music lives on in Oman". Reuters. Retrieved 2015-11-15.
  46. ^ Beate Ursula Josephi, Journalism education in countries with limited media freedom, Volume 1 of Mass Communication and Journalism, (Peter Lang: 2010), p.96.


External links[]