Complete Guide to Swahili / Kiswahili

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This is our full guide to Swahili (aka Kiswahili), including every essential fact you want to know.

When thinking about learning a language, one of the first things we do is learn about the language.

For Swahili, this meant learning some basic facts like

  • Where is Swahili spoken?
  • How many people speak Swahili?
  • What are the major grammatical features of Swahili? E.g. conjugation, grammatical gender, cases, and so on.
  • How is Swahili pronounced?
  • Is Swahili hard for English speakers?
  • Can Swahili be a unifying African language?

And a few other things.

Below is a general introduction to Swahili with some high-level answers of these questions.

Runners in Kenya. Kenya and Tanzania are the main two countries where Swahili is spoken.
Runners in Kenya. Kenya is one of the major countries where Swahili is spoken.

Basic facts about Swahili

Swahili is one of the most spoken languages in Africa. According to varying sources, there are up to 100 million speakers — but interestingly, very few of these (as few as five million) are native speakers.

Instead, Swahili is a lingua franca, used in communication spanning ethnic and geographic communities. Swahili is the second-largest commonly spoken language in the continent, after Arabic.

Though the name Swahili comes from Arabic, meaning “of the coast”, 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”. Kiswahili is what we call the language when speaking Swahili.

The correct name for the Swahili/Kiswahili

So, what’s the correct name — Kiswahili or Swahili? We choose to use “Swahili”. We don’t want to get stuck in semantics, but essentially — Swahili is what it’s commonly called in English, just like “Français” is called “French” in English.

While “Swahili” can refer to the people, the culture, and the language, it is the commonly accepted way of referring to the language when speaking (or writing) English.

When speaking the language, the language is called Kiswahili. The prefix “ki” refers to a language with any language. For example, the Swahili name for the English language is Kiingereza.

By contrast, the people are referred to as watu waswahili, and the culture is uswahili.

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”. So the trend may change.

Where is Swahili spoken?

The simple answer is that Swahili is spoken very well in Tanzania and quite well in Kenya.

Swahili is also occasionally spoken well (and more often spoken somewhat well) in a few other regions and countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, Northern Zambia and Mozambique.

If you are learning Swahili 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.

See our full guide for the best place to learn Swahili. Generally we’d recommend Tanzania, and in Tanzania, we’d recommend Zanzibar.

History of the Swahili language

Swahili 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.

The map of Bantu languages of Africa. Kiswahili (Swahili) is a Bantru language
The map of Bantu languages of Africa. Swahili is a Bantu language

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 Swahili) 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 Swahili 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

If you’re interested in learning Swahili — head to Zanzibar! But if you have other constraints, we wrote a whole article on the best places to learn Swahili here.

As the Arabic etymology of the name implies, Swahili 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 Swahili spread inland from the coast.

Swahili’s roots are in Zanzibar, a little strip of Africa’s eastern coastline. In Zanzibar they’re very proud of the way they speak Swahili, 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’ Swahili, spoken elsewhere in Tanzania and in neighbouring countries.

In the late 19th century, German missionaries under the then Kaiser used Swahili 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 Swahili. 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.

How Swahili grew in Tanzania

Where Swahili is spoken in Africa - a map.
Where Swahili is spoken in Africa – a map.

From 1930 onward Swahili 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 Swahili as a national language. He was well-schooled in both, and in fact, had published a translation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Swahili. He promoted Swahili as a national language, recognising its unifying power.

Today, in Tanzania, Swahili is spoken in the home, in government, and is used on street and shop signs. The influence of Swahili has been so great that younger generations are more likely to be fluent in Swahili than in their mother tongues.

Swahili is to be the only language used in schools in the future in Tanzania, a move which has attracted as much praise as it has criticism.

How Swahili grew in Kenya

In Kenya and in Uganda, Swahili is widely spoken. But the official language used in both countries in government and legal proceedings, plus the language on signs and shopfronts, is English.

Swahili in other countries never had the political backing that it had in Tanzania. Some 80 percent of Kenyans use Swahili in day-to-day life, but they mix it with English and local languages in a mix known as Sheng. You still can’t assume that any employee or official speaks Swahili fluently enough to express complex thoughts, like report on a news item.

Swahili 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 Swahili — notable enough to be called out in the news.

Swahili is a compulsory subject from primary school, even in international schools, but this doesn’t mean that people will feel comfortable communicating in it.

Who speaks Swahili, 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

Swahili in Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere

Swahili 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.

Swahili remains secondary after French and Lingalese but is still spoken by half the population. That said, the local version of Swahili in Congo is heavily influenced by Lingalese and French vocabulary.

In Uganda, Swahili 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. Luganda in Uganda is used everywhere: education, in the media, urban hip-hop, trading and in church.

In 2005, after the Ugandan government identified a need to adopt an African official language, Swahili 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.

Swahili is less politically contentious in Uganda and therefore was more widely well-received, even though it’s spoken by far fewer people. So the government picked Swahili.

The main group of people in Uganda that speak Swahili 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 Swahili as a national language, though his proposal was never taken seriously.

Swahili 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 Swahili as its fourth official language, alongside Kinyarwanda, the national language, and with French and English, which are used in official communication.

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

Languages related to Swahili

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

The influence of Arabic, Persian and even Portuguese on Swahili

Arab and Persian cultures had a great influence on Swahili culture and language. For a basic example, look at the numbers.

See here for an analysis of the impact of Arabic on Swahili.

In Swahili 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 is in the Swahili words chai (tea), achari (pickle), serikali (government), diwani (councillor), sheha (village councillor) are borrowed from old Persian through connection with merchants.

Swahili also absorbed words from the Portuguese who controlled the Swahili coastal towns from the 16th to 18th centuries. Some of the words that Swahili absorbed from the Portuguese include leso (handkerchief), meza (table), gereza (prison) and pesa (‘peso’, money).

Swahili also borrowed some words from languages of the later colonial powers on the East African coast, including English and German.

Swahili words of English origin

Other than Arabic and Farsi, Swahili 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 Swahili. 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.

Swahili Grammar

Overall, Swahili has a fairly uncomplicated grammatical structure.

A few things that make Swahili grammar easy are

  • There is no grammatical gender (though the noun class system can be considered one)
  • There are no case endings (unlike e.g. Russian, German, or MSA)
  • Conjugation is pretty straightforward with few irregular verbs

The things that make Swahili grammar a little difficult for English speakers are

  • Conjugation. English speakers aren’t used to the idea of conjugating verbs (there are so few conjugations that most of us do it subconsciously). So introducing ideas like subjunctives is hard for many English monoglots.
  • The noun class system.

The noun class system is a somewhat diabolical concept for non-Bantu speakers. It is like having 10-20 grammatical genders. The “class” of each noun dictates how it behaves with the words around it.

See here for an overview of the noun class system in Swahili. You can learn it, but it is an unfamiliar concept to many language learners.

The Swahili alphabet

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

Letter Pronunciation in Swahili

  • 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 Swahili 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 Swahili alphabet.

Consonant combination

If Swahili 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”.

Swahili 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 Swahili study plan.

After learning Swahili, we had a good think about what the most important Swahili phrases would be, and we put them down in this master article here.

  • Hello/hi: Habari. (See our whole article on saying Hello in Swahili — it ain’t easy!)
  • 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: Sisikii vizuri
  • Do you speak English?: Unazungumza Kiingereza?
  • Pleased to meet you: Nimefurahi kukufahamu
  • I need help, please: Nahitaji 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!

Is Swahili hard for English speakers?

Overall, I would rate Swahili being roughly as difficult as Spanish for native English speakers. In other words, easier than most languages — but of course, there are no easy languages.

The hardest things about Swahili for English speakers are

  • Verb conjugation — verbs change on person, number, and tense
  • Noun classes — like having many grammatical genders
  • The lack of homophones — every word is new

The thing that makes Swahili quite easy is that because it’s a lingua franca for most speakers, Swahili speakers are quite forgiving. In our experience, people didn’t correct us — unless they were our teachers (or we were asking them to).

This relaxed approach of Swahili speakers contrasts with for example speaking German or French, where some native speakers find it difficult to speak to non-fluent speakers and switch to English, which they often speak quite well. (Here is a discussion on the “switch to English” phenomenon.)

Swahili is not just easy to pronounce, it’s very easy on the ear. Like Italian, Swahili is rich in vowel sounds. For example, “for example, I don’t know what to say here” is “kwa mfano, sijui kusema nini hapa”. Every word in that sentence ends in a vowel!

Can Swahili be a unifying African language?

Swahili 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.

Swahili 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 Swahili across Africa, people need to be less “jittery” about local slang and variances.

Textbook Swahili, and much less the purest Zanzibari form, is not the version that has regional relevance today — it is street Swahili, 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 Swahili. 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 Swahili.

Different sources say different things about whether Swahili 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.

Accepting a lingua franca 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 Swahili 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, Swahili has come the closest to being a lingua franca, and that it is invaluable for travelling to Tanzania and Kenya.

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3 years ago

Asante! I loved the post and its contents have been so useful for me in my journey to determining wich African language to learn. Can you recommend a mobile app to learn Swahili?

3 years ago

It is a good read. I do find it interesting that Swahili is said to borrow words like Chai (tea) from Arabic, when in reality Amharic (Ethiopian language) uses a similar word for Chai. This tells me that Swahili pulls words from other Semitic languages.