A Guide to Kiswahili (Swahili) — facts, key phrases and the alphabet

Learn Swahili - Kenya - Runners
Runners in Kenya, where Swahili is one of the national languages. Photo by Justin Lagat

This post archives and expands upon the BBC’s now shut-down Kiswahili resource page (previously at http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/other/swahili/guide/).

Basic facts about Kiswahili

Kiswahili is one of the most spoken languages in Africa. Varying resources put the speakers up to 100M – but interestingly, very few of these (as few as 5M) are native speakers. Instead, it is a lingua franca, used in communication spanning ethnic and geographic communities. It is the second largest such language in the continent, after Arabic.

Though the name Kiswahili comes from Arabic, meaning ‘of the coast’ (with the addition of the prefix ki), it refers to both the people and the language. The name comes from the Arabic word sawaahili (سواحلي), which means “of the coasts”, which you would use to refer to coastal people. When you add the ki– prefix to the word to form Kiswahili, it changes the meaning to “language of the coastal people”.

The correct name for the language

So, what’s the correct name — Kiswahili or Swahili? We choose to use “Kiswahili”. We don’t want to get stuck in semantics, and it’s tempting to just go with a majority, but it is also a simple sign of respect to use the word that people speaking the language use.

When speaking the language, the language is called Kiswahili. The prefix ‘ki‘ refers to a language with any language; for example, the Kiswahili name for the English language is Kiingereza.

According to official Western sources, the name of the language when speaking English is Swahili (for example the Wikipedia page for the language uses the word Swahili, or searching for both words on CNN shows over a hundred results for “Swahili”, but less than ten for “Kiswahili”).

Traditionally, English language news sources have referred to the language with the word Swahili. But at least recently, English-language papers in African countries have been using the word Kiswahili (for example here, here and here). So we’ll use Kiswahili.

Where is Kiswahili spoken?

The simple answer is that Kiswahili is spoken very well in Tanzania and quite well in Kenya, and that it’s occasionally spoken well and more often spoken somewhat well in a smattering of other regions and countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, Northern Zambia and Mozambique.

If you are learning Kiswahili for travel or work in a region, then it would be mostly relevant for Tanzania and Kenya, and not so much for other places where it’s spoken, where it will be more of a curiosity that you speak it to most people you meet.

History of the Kiswahili language

Kiswahili is originally an African language of Bantu origin.

“Bantu” refers to people who speak Bantu languages. This is a huge language group, comprising between 440 and 680 languages (depending on definitions) and with 350 million speakers, about 30% of the population of Africa. Other major Bantu languages are Zulu (27M speakers),  Shona (~14M speakers) and Xhosa (20M speakers). The map of countries covered by Bantu languages is quite huge —it’s basically most of sub-Saharan Africa.

This is just major Bantu languages, too. There are hundreds more which count 1M+ speakers.

Languages in the Bantu family are mostly not mutually intelligible (see this thread on Quora with people discussing the question). But they have related components and structures, just like European or Romance languages do. For example, all Bantu languages (including Kiswahili) share the concept of suffixes to denominate class, somewhat like grammatical gender in European languages. And when hearing basic numbers and nouns in a new Bantu language, you’re more likely to come across similar words (than if you were studying a completely foreign language).

How Kiswahili spread inland

Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo.

Common saying

As the Arabic etymology of the name implies, Kiswahili was originally a coastal language, but now has spread to the hinterlands of East Africa. 

The origins are a little mixed, but a combination of trade, the impact of missionaries, internal migration and government rulings saw Kiswahili spread inland from the coast.

Kiswahili’s roots are in Zanzibar, a little strip of Africa’s eastern coastline. In Zanzibar they’re very proud of the way they speak Kiswahili, saying that they speak it ‘correctly’ or ‘purely’ (according to Daniel Gross in a podcast on PRI, “How the Swahili language took hold across Africa”). This is distinct from speaking ‘standard’ Kiswahili, spoken elsewhere in Tanzania and in neighbouring countries.

In the late 19th century, German missionaries under the then Kaiser used Kiswahili as a language to use to preach the gospel to locals in the n. At the time it was written using Arabic letters. It was the Germans who moved it from Arabic script to Roman script, creating the first dictionary and translating the Bible in the process.

After World War I, Germany lost most of its overseas territories, including the region that straddled today’s Tanzania and Kenya. The newly installed British wanted a common language across its new territories, and picked Kiswahili. They decided to structure and standardise it, picking one dialect as the baseline — kiunguja, the dialect spoken by the Unguja people in Zanzibar, which is part of Tanzania.

Kiswahili’s expansion in Tanzania

Swahili Facts - Where Swahili is Spoken (map)
Regions where Kiswahili is spoken well (regardless of official status)

From 1930 onward Kiswahili expanded in Tanzania, becoming the official language of the colonial government, and was used for all formal communication in schools, mass media and books.

In Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, head of state of Tanzania (and its preceding regions) from an incredible 1961 to 1985 and former anti-colonial activist, had a large role in promoting Kiswahili as a national language. He was well schooled in both, and in fact had published a translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Kiswahili. He promoted Kiswahili as a national language, recognising its unifying power.

Today, in Tanzania, Kiswahili is spoken in the home, in government, and is used on street and shop signs. The influence of Kiswahili has been so great that younger generations are more likely to be fluent in Kiswahili than in their mother tongues. Kiswahili is to be the only language used in schools in the future, a move which has attracted as much praise as it has criticism.

Kiswahili’s growth in in Kenya

In Kenya and in Uganda, Kiswahili is widely spoken. But the official language used in government and legal proceedings, plus the language on signs and shopfronts, is English. Kiswahili never had the political backing that it had in Tanzania. Some 80 per cent of Kenyans use Kiswahili in day-to-day life, but you still can’t assume that any employee or official speaks it fluently enough to express complex thoughts, like report on a news item.

Kiswahili is still important enough in Kenya that long-term businesspeople and dignitaries learn it upon arrival. While this is becoming more common, it’s still surprising to locals when someone of non-African origin speaks Kiswahili — notable enough to be called out in the news.

Kiswahili is compulsory subject from primary school, even in international schools, but this doesn’t mean that people will feel comfortable communicating in it. Who speaks it, to what degree and to whom depends largely on individual context. According to an article in The East African:

In Kenya, Sheng, the oft-maligned working language of Kenya’s youth that has its origin in Nairobi’s Eastlands, is often blamed for the poor mastery of Kiswahili among Kenyan students.

It is also interesting to note how Kiswahili demarcates sharp divisions in socio-economic status, and one can tell which side of the divide a person falls in by the language others use to address them.

Middle and upper middle class children in Kenya, for example, are socialised to speak Kiswahili specifically to domestic workers, drivers and gardeners included — the so-called ordinary wananchi, and are less likely to speak the language among themselves.

Kiswahili’s future lies in borrowing from English

Kiswahili in Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere

Kiswahili is widely spoken in Congo too , though this version varies quite dramatically from the one spoken in Tanzania and Kenya. In fact, some speakers have commented that they find it unintelligible. It remains secondary after French and Lingalese, but is still spoken by half the population. That said, the local version of Kiswahili in Congo is heavily influenced by Lingalese and French vocabulary.

In Uganda, Kiswahili is in third place, despite being one of the two official languages, along with English. The most widely spoken local language in Uganda is Luganda. Luganda is the language of the biggest ethnic group in central Uganda. It works as a language of inter-ethnic communication, of wider communication and as a lingua franca. It is used everywhere: education, in the media, urban hip-hop, trading and in church. In 2005, after the government identified a need to adopt an African official language, Kiswahili and Luganda were the two front-running options. While Luganda is more widely spoken, its association with an ethnic group ruled it out; it excludes people outside the ethnic group. Kiswahili is less politically contentious and therefore was more widely well-received, despite being spoken by far fewer people. The government therefore added Kiswahili as an officila language through constitutional amendment.

The main group of people in Uganda that speak Kiswahili is the military. But even within that group, aside from those who invested time into studying it, most members of the military aren’t generally considered to speak it “well” by the standards of Kenyans, let alone Tanzanians. Iddi Amin, the military dictator who ruled Uganda in the seventies, was the first proponent of Kiswahili as a national language, though his proposal was never taken seriously.

Kiswahili is also spoken in Rwanda, though not as widely as in Kenya and Tanzania. This may begin to change. In 2017, Rwanda moved to adopt Kiwahili as its fourth official language, alongside Kinyarwanda, the national language, and with French and English, which are used in official communication.

Kiswahili is also spoken by smaller numbers in Burundi, Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

Languages related to Kiswahili

While the structure of Kiswahili is undeniably Bantu, a lot of the vocabulary has been borrowed from English, Arabic and Farsi.

The influence of Arabic, Farsi and even Portuguese on Kiswahili

Arab and Persian cultures had great influence on Swahili culture and language. For a basic example, look at the numbers. The words moja (one), mbili (two), tatu (three), nne (four), tano (five), nane (eight) and kumi (ten) are of Bantu origin. On the other hand sita (six), saba (seven) and tisa (nine) are of Arabic origin. Beyond numbers, further evidence of Persian influence are in the Kiswahili words chai (tea), achari (pickle), serikali (government), diwani (councilor), sheha (village councilor) are borrowed from old Persian through connection with merchants.

Kiswahili also absorbed words from the Portuguese who controlled the Swahili coastal towns from the 16th to 18th centuries. Some of the words that Kiswahili absorbed from the Portuguese include leso (handkerchief), meza (table), gereza (prison) and pesa (‘peso’, money). Kiswahili also borrowed some words from languages of the later colonial powers on the East African coast, including English and German.

Kiswahili words of English origin

Other than Arabic and Farsi, Kiswahili has been influenced and taken some words from English, for example:

  • polisi, police
  • boksi, box
  • hoteli, hotel
  • televisheni, television
  • baiskeli, bicycle
  • hospitali, hospital
  • soksi, socks
  • picha, picture
  • muziki, music
  • redio, radio

The word safari means “journey” in Kiswahili. In English it has taken on the meaning you and I are familiar with: an expedition to observe, hunt animals  in their natural habitats e.g. National Parks.

A Guide to Kiswahili – The Kiswahili alphabet

The Kiswahili alphabet is mostly the same as the one used in English, after romanization by German missionaries. Here’s the Kiswahili alphabet and how to pronounce it.

Letter Pronunciation

  • Aa: a as in far
  • Bb: be as in best
  • Cc: ch as in church
  • Dd: de as in desk
  • Ee: e as in bed
  • Ff: ef as in far
  • Gg: ge as in get
  • Hh: h as in hint
  • Ii: ee as in feel
  • Jj: je as in jelly
  • Kk: ka as in cup
  • Ll: le as in let
  • Mm: em as in men
  • Nn: en as in net
  • Oo: o as in ox
  • Pp: pe as in pen
  • Rr: re as in rep
  • Ss: se as in set
  • Tt: te as in take
  • Uu: oo as in cool
  • Vv: ve as in vet
  • Ww: we as in went
  • Yy: ye as in yet
  • Zz: ze as in zoo

Standard Kiswahili has five vowels: a, e, i, o and u. These vowels are always pronounced the same, regardless of stress (see the examples above).

Missing letters: You might have noticed that there is no Q and X in the Kiswahili alphabet.

Consonant combination

If Kiswahili were written in its own script, these would be individual letters. Combined consonants are always pronounced in the same way. However, as it stands, these are not considered as separate letters of the alphabet:

  • CH as in the word chai, tea
  • DH as in the word dhahabu, gold, and similar to the ‘th’ sound in ‘this’, but not in ‘think’
  • GH as in the word ghala, warehouse
  • KH is mostly used in Arabic words, for example kheri, luck, and is similar to the ‘ch’ sound in the Scottish word ‘loch’
  • NG’ as in the word ng’ombe, cow
  • NG as in ngapi, meaning how much
  • NY as in Kenya
  • SH as in shamba, farm
  • TH as in thamani, worth, similar to the ‘th’ sound in ‘think’.

Email and website conventions

When giving an email or website address the conventions are:  

  • @ kwa, at
  • . nukta, dot
  • / mkwaju, slash
  • – kuunga, hyphen

For example, you can contact us at “hello kwa discoverdiscomfort nukta com”.

Kiswahili phrases

It’s useful to have a few phrases in the back of your pocket. There is more of this to come, and we’ve covered a few more in our Kiswahili study plan.

  • Hello/hi: Habari
  • Goodbye/bye: Kwaheri
  • Please: Tafadhali
  • Thank you: Asante
  • Yes: Ndio
  • No: Hapana
  • How are you: Hujambo?
  • I’m fine, thank you: Sijambo, asante
  • I’m not well: Sijisikii vizuri
  • Do you speak English?: Unaazungumza Kiingereza?
  • Pleased to meet you: Nimefurahi kukufahamu
  • I need help, please: Ninahitaji msaada, tafadhali
  • I’m sorry: Samahani
  • My name is: Jina langu ni…
  • I don’t understand: Sielewi
  • See you later!: Baadae!
  • Great!: Nzuri!
  • Congratulations! Hongera!  

Can Kiswahili be a unifying African language?

Kiswahili is already mostly a lingua franca, rather than a language indigenous to one ethnic group. So some proponents of the language want it to be an African language rather than one for just a few countries and regions. It is already a compulsory subject in schools in many countries, and an optional one in others (such as South Africa).

According to The East African though, for people to adopt Kiswahili across Africa, people needs to be less “jittery” about local slang and variances.

Textbook Kiswahili, and much less the purest Zanzibari form, is not the version that has regional relevance today — it is street Kiswahili, spoken in East Africa’s commercial centres, that used in the arts such as music, and that spoken in the various refugee camps spread across the region that binds the region together. The essence of a lingua franca is its ability to survive a stripping down of vocabulary, and its receptiveness to external influences. For a language to survive the times, it must be adaptable.

In 2004, the then-president of the African Union gave his farewell address the Union in Kiswahili. He surprised the audience, and even the conference organisers, who had to scramble to find live translators. He did it to urge Africans to adopt a national language, proposing Kiswahili. Different sources say different things about whether Kiswahili is an official language of the African Union or not — Wikipedia says it isn’t because it wasn’t ratified by two thirds of member states, but various articles suggest it is.

The thing is, becoming a lingua franca means overcoming some pretty significant hurdles. It would mean people would put regional pride ahead of the economic interest of making English a lingua franca (which is itself fraught with some of the same problems), especially in the countries where it would displace English. It would imply accepting that many local languages will die away over time, something many are not willing to accept. It would mean accepting the language of one region above that of many others. Finally, it would mean overcoming a lot of prejudices associated with Kiswahili in regions, like associations with it being a lower class language, or one spoken by the military.

One thing we’re sure of is that of all African languages, Kiswahili has come the closest to being a lingua franca, and that learning it will be invaluable for travelling to Tanzania and Kenya. We’re looking forward to seeing what the future brings.

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