Swahili language

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For other uses, see Swahili (disambiguation).
Native to Tanzania, DR Congo, Kenya, Mozambique (mostly Mwani), Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda,[1] Comoros, Mayotte and the margins of Zambia, Malawi, Madagascar and South Sudan
Native speakers
5 million (2007)[2] to 15 million (2012)[3]
150+ million speakers in total[4]
Latin script (Roman Swahili alphabet),
Arabic script (Arabic Swahili alphabet)
Swahili Braille
Official status
Official language in
Tanzania Tanzania
Kenya Kenya
Uganda Uganda
Democratic Republic of the Congo Democratic Republic of the Congo
Comoros Comoros
Zanzibar Zanzibar
African Union
East African Community
Regulated by Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (Tanzania), Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa (Kenya)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sw
ISO 639-2 swa
ISO 639-3 swainclusive code
Individual codes:
swc – Congo Swahili
swh – Coastal Swahili
ymk – Makwe
wmw – Mwani
Glottolog swah1254[5]
G.40.A–H (pidgins & creoles)
Linguasphere 99-AUS-m
  Coastal areas where Swahili or Comorian is the indigenous language,
  official or national language,
  and trade language. As a trade language, Swahili extends some distance further to the northwest.[citation needed]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, 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 Southeast Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[7] The closely related Comorian language, spoken in the Comoros Islands, is sometimes considered a dialect.

Although only around five to fifteen million people speak Swahili as their first language, it is used as a lingua franca in much of Southeast Africa. Estimates of the total number of Swahili speakers vary widely, from 60 million to over 150 million.[8] Swahili serves as a national language of four nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Shikomor, the official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is related to Swahili. Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and one of the official languages of the East African Community.

A significant fraction of Swahili vocabulary is derived from Arabic through contact with Arabic-speaking Muslim inhabitants of the Swahili Coast.[9] It has also incorporated German, Portuguese, English, Hindustani and French words into its vocabulary through contact with empire builders, traders and slavers during the past five centuries.



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.[10]

Swahili is traditionally regarded as being the language of coastal areas of Tanzania and Kenya. It was formalised after independence by presidents of the African Great Lakes region but first spoken by natives of the coastal mainland. It spread as a fisherman's language to the various islands surrounding the Swahili Coast. Traders from these islands had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 2nd century AD, and Swahili began to spread along the Swahili Coast from at least the 6th century. There is also cultural evidence of early Zaramo people settlement on Zanzibar from Dar-es-Salaam in present-day Tanzania.

The African population of the island holds the tradition that it is descended from these early settlers.[citation needed]

Clove farmers from Oman[11] and the Persian Gulf farmed the Zanzibar Archipelago, slowly spreading Islam, adding a few words to Swahili and building forts and castles in major trading and cultural centers as far as Sofala (Mozambique) and Kilwa (Tanzania) to the south, Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and Barawa to the north in southern Somalia. Demand for cloves soon established permanent trade routes, and Swahili-speaking merchants settled in stops along the new trade routes. For the most part, this process started the development of the modern Swahili language. However, the spread was hampered during the European colonial era and did not occur west of Lake Malawi, in what was then called the Belgian Congo, and is now Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making it a secondary rather than a primary language in that region.[citation needed]

The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 A.D. in the Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are now preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India.[12] Another ancient written document is an epic poem in the Arabic script titled Utendi wa Tambuka (The History of Tambuka); it is dated 1728. However, the Latin script later became standard under the influence of European colonial powers.[citation needed]

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

Colonial period[edit]

After Germany attacked the region known as Tanganyika (present-day mainland Tanzania) for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide prevalence of Swahili and soon designated Swahili as a colony-wide official administrative language. The British did not do so in neighbouring Kenya even though they made moves in that direction. The British and Germans both sought to facilitate their rule over colonies where the inhabitants spoke dozens of different languages and so the colonial authorities selected a single local language, which they hoped the natives would find acceptable. Swahili was the only good candidate in the two colonies.

In the aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War I, it was dispossessed of all its overseas territories. Tanganyika fell into British hands. The British authorities, with the collaboration of British Christian missionary institutions that were active in these colonies, increased their resolve to institute Swahili as a common language for primary education and low-level governance throughout their East African colonies (Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya). Swahili was to be subordinate to English: university education, much secondary education and governance at the highest levels would be conducted in English.

One key step in spreading Swahili was to create a standard written language. In June 1928, an inter-territorial conference took place at Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardizing Swahili.[13] Today's standard Swahili, the version taught as a second language, is for practical purposes Zanzibar Swahili even though there are minor discrepancies between the written standard and the Zanzibar vernacular.

Current status[edit]

Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) where it is an official or national language. The neighboring nation of Uganda made Swahili a required subject in primary schools in 1992 although this mandate has not been well implemented, and it declared it an official language in 2005 in preparation for the East African Federation. Swahili, or other closely related languages, is spoken by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, the Comoros, Rwanda, northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique.[14] and the language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century.[11][15]

Some 80 percent of approximately 49 million Tanzanians speak Swahili in addition to their first languages.[16] Many of the rising generation of Tanzania, however, speak Swahili as a primary language because of a decrease of the traditional cultures and the rise of a more unified culture in urban areas. Kenya's population is comparable as well, with a greater part of the nation being able to speak Swahili. Most educated Kenyans are able to communicate fluently in Swahili since it is a compulsory subject in school from grade one to high school and a distinct academic discipline in many of the public and private universities.

The five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are Swahili-speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it,[17] and it is starting to rival Lingala as the most important national language of that country.

In Uganda, the Baganda and residents of Buganda generally do not speak Swahili, but it is in common use among the 25 million people elsewhere in the country and it is currently being taught in schools nationwide in preparation for the East African Community.

The usage of Swahili in other countries is commonly overstated and oswidespread only in market towns, among returning refugees or near the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. Even so, Swahili speakers may number some 120 to 150 million people.[18] Many of the world's institutions have responded to Swahili's growing prominence.

Methali (e.g. Haraka haraka haina baraka – Hurry hurry has no blessing),[19] i.e. "wordplay, risqué or suggestive puns and lyric rhyme, are deeply inscribed in Swahili culture, in form of Swahili parables, proverbs, and allegory".[20] Methali is uncovered globally within 'Swah' rap music. It provides the music with rich cultural, historical and local textures and insight.


Kiswahili is the Swahili word for the language and is also sometimes used in English. The name Swahili comes from the plural sawāḥil (سواحل) of the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل), meaning "boundary" or "coast", used as an adjective meaning "coastal dwellers". With the prefix ki-, it means "coastal language", ki- being a prefix attached to nouns of the noun class such as languages.


Swahili is unusual among African languages in that it has lost the feature of lexical tone (with the exception of the numerically important Mvita dialect, the dialect of Kenya's second city, the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa).[clarification needed] Stress is on the penultimate syllable.


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

  • /ɑ/ is pronounced like the "u" in hut.
  • /ɛ/ is pronounced like the "e" in bed.
  • /i/ is pronounced like the "i" in ski.
  • /ɔ/ is pronounced like the "o" in or.
  • /u/ is pronounced like the "u" in rule.

Swahili has no diphthongs; in vowel combinations, each vowel is pronounced separately so the Swahili word for "leopard", chui, is pronounced /tʃu.i/, as two syllables.


Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
/ palatal
Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ny /ɲ/ ng’ /ŋ/
Stop prenasalized mb /ᵐb/   nd /ⁿd/ nj /ᶮɟ ~ ⁿdʒ/ ng /ᵑɡ/
implosive b /ɓ/ d /ɗ/ j /ʄ/ g /ɠ/
tenuis p /p/ t /t/ ch /tʃ/ k /k/
aspirated (p /pʰ/) (t /tʰ/) (ch /tʃʰ/) (k /kʰ/)
Fricative prenasalized mv /ᵐv/ nz /ⁿz/
voiced v /v/ (dh /ð/) z /z/ (gh /ɣ/)
voiceless f /f/ (th /θ/) s /s/ sh /ʃ/ (kh /x/) h /h/
Flap r /ɾ/
Approximant l /l/ y /j/ w /w/


  • The nasal stops are pronounced as separate syllables when they appear before a heterorganic plosive (e.g. mtoto /m̩.ˈto.to/ 'child') or represent a separate morpheme (e.g. nilimpiga /ni.li..ˈpi.ɠa/ 'I hit him'), and prenasalized stops are decomposed into two syllables if the word would otherwise have one syllable: mbwa /ˈm̩.ɓwa/ 'dog', with an implosive b. However, that otherwise does not happen: ndizi ('banana') has two syllables, /ˈⁿdi.zi/, as does nenda /ˈne.ⁿda/ (not */ˈnen.ɗa/) 'go'.
  • The fricatives in parentheses (th dh kh gh) are borrowed from Arabic. Many Swahili speakers pronounce them as /s z h r/ respectively.
  • Swahili orthography does not distinguish aspirated from tenuis consonants. When nouns in the N-class begin with plosives, they are aspirated (tembo /ˈtembo/ 'palm wine', but tembo /ˈtʰembo/ 'elephant') in some dialects. Otherwise, aspirated consonants are not common. Some writers mark aspirated consonants with an apostrophe (t'embo).
  • Swahili l and r are merged for many speakers (the extent to which this is demonstrated generally depends on the original mother tongue spoken by the individual), and they are often both realized as alveolar lateral flap /ɺ/, a sound between a flapped r and an l.
  • After a nasal prefix, l/r becomes /d/, and w becomes /b/. (See fortition.)


Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar circa 1299 AH (1882 AD)
Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya
Swahili Arabic script on wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya
Swahili in Arabic script on the clothes of a woman in Tanzania (ca. early 1900s).

Swahili is currently written in a slightly defective alphabet using the Latin script; the defectiveness comes in that it does not distinguish aspirated consonants, but in some dialects, pronunciation does not distinguish them anyway. (These were, however, distinguished as kh etc. in the old German colonial Latin alphabet.) 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 defective enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.

Vowel diacritics were generally written, effectively making the Swahili-Arabic script an abugida. /e/ and /i/, /o/ and /u/ were often conflated, but in some orthographic, /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, in Persian and Urdu scripts. Instead, the closest Arabic sound is substituted. Not only that meant that one letter often stands for more than one sound but also writers made different choices on which consonant to substitute.Here are some of the equivalents between Arabic Swahili and Roman Swahili:

ا aa
ب b p mb mp bw pw mbw mpw
ت t nt
ث th?
ج j nj ng ng' ny
ح h
خ kh h
د d nd
ذ dh?
ر r d nd
ز z nz
س s
ش sh ch
ص s, sw
ض dhw
ط t tw chw
ظ z th dh dhw
ع ?
غ gh g ng ng'
ف f fy v vy mv p
ق k g ng ch sh ny
ل l
م m
ن n
ه h
و w
ي y ny

That was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors such 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, ڱ, 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 صِصِ swiswi (standard sisi) 'we' and كِطَ kit̠wa (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 asked me".[21]


Noun classes [edit]

In common with all other Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes (counting singular and plural separately, according to the Meinhof convention), with most Bantu languages sharing at least ten. Swahili employs sixteen: six classes that usually indicate singular nouns, five classes that usually indicate plural nouns, a class for abstract nouns, a class for verbal infinitives used as nouns and three classes to indicate location.

class semantics prefix singular translation plural translation
1, 2 persons m-/mu-, wa- mtu person watu persons
3, 4 trees, natural forces m-/mu-, mi- mti tree miti trees
5, 6 groups, AUG Ø/ji-, ma- jicho eye macho eyes
7, 8 artefacts, DIM ki-, vi- kisu knife visu knives
9, 10 animals, loanwords, other Ø/n-, Ø/n- ndoto dream ndoto dreams
11, 12 extension u-, Ø/n- ua fence, yard nyua fences
14 abstraction u- utoto childhood

Nouns beginning with m- in the singular and wa- in the plural denote animate beings, especially people: mtu, meaning 'person' (plural watu), mdudu, meaning 'insect' (plural wadudu). A class with m- in the singular but mi- in the plural often denotes plants: mti 'tree', miti trees. The infinitive of verbs begins with ku-: kusoma 'to read'. Other classes are more difficult to categorize. Singulars beginning in ki- take plurals in vi- and often refer to hand tools and other artefacts. The ki-/vi- alteration even applies to foreign words if the ki- was originally part of the root: vitabu "books" from kitabu "book" (from Arabic kitāb "book"; Arabic itself deals similarly with Alexandria). This class also contains languages (such as the name of the language Kiswahili) and diminutives, which was a separate class in earlier stages of Bantu. Words beginning with u- are often abstract, with no plural: utoto 'childhood'.

A fifth class begins with n- or m- or nothing, and its plural is the same. Another class has ji- or no prefix in the singular and takes ma- in the plural; this class is often used for augmentatives. When the noun itself does not make clear which class it belongs to, its concords do. Adjectives and numerals commonly take the noun prefixes, and verbs take a different set of prefixes.

singular     plural
mtoto mmoja anasoma watoto wawili wanasoma
child one is reading children two are reading
One child is reading Two children are reading
kitabu kimoja kinatosha vitabu viwili vinatosha
book one suffices books two suffice
One book is enough Two books are enough
ndizi moja inatosha ndizi mbili zinatosha
banana one suffices bananas two suffice
One banana is enough Two bananas are enough

The same noun root can be used with different noun-class prefixes for derived meanings: human mtoto (watoto) "child (children)", abstract utoto "childhood", diminutive kitoto (vitoto) "infant(s)", augmentative toto (matoto) "big child (children)". Also vegetative mti (miti) "tree(s)", artefact kiti (viti) "chair(s)", augmentative jiti (majiti) "large tree", kijiti (vijiti) "stick(s)", ujiti (njiti) "tall slender tree".

Semantic motivation[edit]

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 mwamvuli '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.[22] In short,

  • Classes 1–2 include most words for people: kin terms, professions, ethnicities, etc., including translations of most English words ending in -er. They include a couple generic words for animals: mnyama 'beast', mdudu 'bug'.
  • Classes 5–6 have a broad semantic range of groups, expanses, and augmentatives. Although interrelated, it is easier to illustrate if broken down:
    • Augmentatives, such as joka 'serpent' from nyoka 'snake', lead to titles and other terms of respect (the opposite of diminutives, which lead to terms of contempt): Bwana 'Sir', shangazi 'aunt', fundi 'craftsman', kadhi 'judge'.
    • Expanses: ziwa 'lake', bonde 'valley', taifa 'country', anga 'sky'
      • from this, mass nouns: maji 'water', vumbi 'dust' (and other liquids and fine particulates which may cover broad expanses), kaa 'charcoal', mali 'wealth', maridhawa 'abundance'
    • Collectives: kundi 'group', kabila 'ethnic group', jeshi 'army', daraja 'stairs', manyoya 'fur, feathers', mapesa 'small change', manyasi 'weeds', jongoo 'millipede' (large set of legs), marimba 'xylophone' (large set of keys)
      • from this, individual things found in groups: jiwe 'stone', tawi 'branch', ua 'flower', tunda 'fruit' (also the names of most fruits), yai 'egg', mapacha 'twins', jino 'tooth', tumbo 'stomach' (cf. English "guts"), and paired body parts such as jicho 'eye', bawa 'wing', etc.
      • also collective or dialogic actions, which occur among groups of people: neno 'a word', from kunena 'to speak' (and by extension, mental verbal processes: wazo 'thought', maana 'meaning'); pigo 'a stroke, blow', from kupiga 'to hit'; gomvi 'a quarrel', shauri 'advice, plan', kosa 'mistake', jambo 'affair', penzi 'love', jibu 'answer', agano 'promise', malipo 'payment'
      • From pairing, reproduction is suggested as another extension (fruit, egg, testicle, flower, twins, etc.), but these generally duplicate one or more of the subcategories above
  • Classes 9–10 are used for most typical animals: ndege 'bird', samaki 'fish', and the specific names of typical beasts, birds, and bugs. However, this is the 'other' class, for words not fitting g I well elsewhere, and about half of the class 9–10 nouns are foreign loanwords. Loans may be classified as 9–10 because they lack the prefixes inherent in other classes, and most native class 9–10 nouns have no prefix. Thus they do not form a coherent semantic class, though there are still semantic extensions from individual words.
  • Class 11 (which takes class 10 for the plural) are mostly nouns with an "extended outline shape", in either one dimension or two:
    • mass nouns that are generally localized rather than covering vast expanses: uji 'porridge', wali 'cooked rice'
    • broad: ukuta 'wall', ukucha 'fingernail', upande 'side' (≈ ubavu 'rib'), wavu 'net', wayo 'sole, footprint', ua 'fence, yard', uteo 'winnowing basket',
    • long: utambi 'wick', utepe 'stripe', uta 'bow', ubavu 'rib', ufa 'crack', unywele 'a hair'
      • from 'a hair', singulatives of nouns, which are often class 6 ('collectives') in the plural: unyoya 'a feather', uvumbi 'a grain of dust', ushanga 'a bead'
  • Class 14 are abstractions, such as utoto 'childhood' (from mtoto 'a child') and have no plural. They have the same prefixes and concord as class 11, except optionally for adjectival concord.
  • Class 15 are verbal infinitives.
  • Classes 16–18 are locatives. The Bantu nouns of these classes have been lost; the only permanent member is the Arabic loan mahali 'place(s)', but in Mombasa Swahili, the old prefixes survive: pahali 'place', mwahali 'places'. However, any noun with the locative suffix -ni takes class 16–18 agreement. The distinction between them is that class 16 agreement is used if the location is intended to be definite ("at"), class 17 if indefinite ("around") or involves motion ("to, toward"), and class 18 if it involves containment ("within"): mahali pazuri 'a good spot', mahali kuzuri 'a nice area', mahali muzuri (it's nice in there).

Verb affixation[edit]

Swahili verbs consist of a root and a number of affixes (mostly prefixes) that can be attached to express grammatical persons, tense, and subordinate clauses, which require a conjunction in languages such as English.

Verbs of Bantu origin end in '-a' in the indicative. This vowel changes to indicate the subjunctive and negation.

In most dictionaries, verbs are listed in their indicative root form, for example -kata meaning 'to cut/chop'. In a simple sentence, prefixes for grammatical tense and person are added, as ninakata 'I cut'. Here, ni- means 'I', and na- indicates a specific time (present tense unless stated otherwise).

Verb conjugation[edit]

ni- -na- kata
1sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'I am cutting (it)'

This sentence can be modified either by changing the subject prefix or the tense prefix:

u- -na- kata
2sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'You are cutting'
u- -me- kata
2sg PERFECT cut/chop
'You have cut'

The animate/human subject and object prefixes, with the m-/wa- (human class) in the third person, are these:

Person Sg. Pl.
1st ni- tu-
2nd u- m-
3rd a- wa-
Person Sg. Pl.
1st -ni- -tu-
2nd -ku- -wa- (-mu-)
3rd -m- -wa-

In Standard Swahili, 2pl and 3pl objects are both -wa-. However, in Nairobi Swahili, 2pl is -mu-.

The most common tense prefixes are these:

Tense and mood prefixes
-a- gnomic (indefinite time)
-na- definite time (often present progressive)
-me- perfect
-li- past
-ta- future
hu- habitual (does not take subject prefix)
-ki- conditional

The indefinite (gnomic tense) prefix is used for generic statements such as "birds fly", and the vowels of the subject prefixes are assimilated. Thus, nasoma means 'I read', although colloquially, it is also short for ninasoma.

Persons in gnomic tense
1st na- twa-
2nd wa- mwa-
3rd a- wa-
na- soma
1sg:GNOM read
'I read'
mwa- soma
2pl:GNOM read
'You (pl) read'


ni-ki-nunua nyama ya ng'ombe soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo.
'If I buy cow meat at the market, I'll cook it today.'

The English conjunction 'if' is translated by -ki-.

A third prefix is the object prefix. It is placed just before the root and refers a particular object, either a person or rather as "the" does in English:

a- na- mw- ona
3sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see
'He (is) see(ing) him/her'
ni- na- mw- ona mtoto
1sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see child
'I (am) see(ing) the child'

The -a suffix listed by dictionaries is the positive indicative mood. Other forms occur with negation and the subjunctive, as in sisomi:

si- som- -i
1sg.NEG:PRES read NEG
'I am not reading/ I don't read'

Other instances of this change of the final vowel include the subjunctive in -e. That goes only for Bantu verbs ending with -a; Arabic-derived verbs do not change their final vowel.

Other suffixes are placed before the end vowel, such as the applicative -i- and passive -w-:

wa- na- pig -w -a
'They are being hit'


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 of 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-.[23] ("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]
1 person m-, mw- a- m- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
2 people wa-, w- wa- 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-, mi-, 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-, pi-, pe-
17 direction, around -ni ku- kwa ku-, kwi-, kwe-
18 within, along -ni mu- 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[edit]

This list is based 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:[24]

Old dialects[edit]

Maho (2009) considers these to be distinct languages:

  • Kimwani is spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
  • Chimwiini is spoken by the ethnic minorities in and around the town of Barawa on the southern coast of Somalia.
  • Kibajuni is spoken by the Bajuni minority ethnic group on the coast and islands on both sides of the Somali–Kenyan border and in the Bajuni Islands (the northern part of the Lamu archipelago) and is also called Kitikuu and Kigunya.
  • Socotra Swahili (extinct)
  • Sidi, in Gujarat (extinct)

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

  • Mombasa–Lamu Swahili
    • Lamu
      • Kiamu is spoken in and around the island of Lamu (Amu).
      • Kipate is local dialect of Pate Island, considered to be closest to the original dialect of Kingozi.
      • Kingozi is an ancient dialect spoken on the Indian Ocean coast between Lamu and Somalia and is sometimes still used in poetry. It is often considered the source of Swahili.
    • Mombasa
      • Chijomvu is a subdialect of the Mombasa area.
      • Kimvita is the major dialect of Mombasa (also known as "Mvita", which means "war", in reference to the many wars which were fought over it), the other major dialect alongside Kiunguja.
      • Kingare is the subdialect of the Mombasa area.
    • Kimrima is spoken around Pangani, Vanga, Dar es Salaam, Rufiji and Mafia Island.
    • Kiunguja is spoken in Zanzibar City and environs on Unguja (Zanzibar) Island. Kitumbatu (Pemba) dialects occupy the bulk of the island.
    • Mambrui, Malindi
    • Chichifundi, a dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
    • Chwaka
    • Kivumba, a dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
    • Nosse Be (Madagascar)
  • Pemba Swahili
    • Kipemba is a local dialect of the Pemba Island.
    • Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi are the countryside dialects of the island of Zanzibar. Kimakunduchi is a recent renaming of "Kihadimu"; the old name means "serf" and so is considered pejorative.
    • Makunduchi
    • Mafia, Mbwera
    • Kilwa (extinct)
    • Kimgao used to be spoken around Kilwa District and to the south.

Maho includes the various Comorian dialects as a third group. Other authorities consider Comorian to be a Sabaki language, distinct from Swahili.[citation needed]

Historically recent varieties[edit]

  • Shaba Swahili (Katanga Swahili, Lubumbashi Swahili) is sometimes called Copperbelt Swahili.
  • Sheng is a street patois that blends Swahili, English, and ethnic languages spoken in and around Nairobi. Originating in the Nairobi slums, it is considered fashionable and cosmopolitan in a growing segment of the population.
  • Engsh
  • Asian Swahili (Kibabu) and Cutchi-Swahili
  • Kisetla (Settler Swahili)
  • Kikeya

Other regions[edit]

In Somalia, where the Afro-Asiatic 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.[25] 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.[25][26]

In Oman, an estimated 22,000 people speak Swahili.[27] Most are descendants of those repatriated after the fall of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.[28][29]

See also[edit]


  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, pg. 733–735
    Benji Wald, 1994, "Sub-Saharan Africa", Atlas of the World's Languages, Routledge, pp. 289–346, maps 80, 81, 85
  2. ^ Nationalencyklopedin "Världens 100 största språk 2007" The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007
  3. ^ Swahili at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Congo Swahili at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Coastal Swahili at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Makwe at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Mwani at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  4. ^ "HOME - Home". Swahililanguage.stanford.edu. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  5. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Swahili (G.40)". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  6. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  7. ^ Prins 1961
  8. ^ Irele, Abiola and Biodun Jeyifo. The Oxford encyclopedia of African thought, Volume 1. Oxford University Press US. New York City. 2010. ISBN 0-19-533473-6
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ "Baba yetu". Wikisource. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  11. ^ a b 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. 
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Whiteley 1969: 80
  14. ^ Nurse & Thomas Spear (1985) The Swahili
  15. ^ Adriaan Hendrik Johan Prins (1961) The Swahili-speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast. (Ethnologue)
  16. ^ Brock-Utne 2001: 123
  17. ^ Kambale, Juakali (2004-08-10). "DRC welcomes Swahili as an official AU language". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 2009-09-08. 
  18. ^ (2005 World Bank Data).
  19. ^ Swahili proverbs Kishwahili.net, retrieved 10 March 2013
  20. ^ Lemelle, Sidney J. "'Ni wapi Tunakwenda': Hip Hop Culture and the Children of Arusha." In The Vinyl Ain't Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture, ed. by Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. Lemelle, 230-54. London; Ann Arbor, Michigan. Pluto in Pres
  21. ^ Jan Knappert (1971) Swahili Islamic poetry, Volume 1
  22. ^ See Contini-Morava for details.
  23. ^ Kamil Ud Deen, 2005. The acquisition of Swahili.
  24. ^ H.E.Lambert 1956, 1957, 1958
  25. ^ a b "Somalia". Ethnologue. 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  26. ^ Mwakikagile, Godfrey (2007). Kenya: identity of a nation. New Africa Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-9802587-9-0. 
  27. ^ "Oman". Ethnologue. 1999-02-19. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  28. ^ Fuchs, Martina (2011-10-05). "African Swahili music lives on in Oman". Reuters. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  29. ^ Beate Ursula Josephi, Journalism education in countries with limited media freedom, Volume 1 of Mass Communication and Journalism, (Peter Lang: 2010), p.96.


  • Ashton, E. O. Swahili Grammar: Including intonation. Longman House. Essex 1947. ISBN 0-582-62701-X.
  • Irele, Abiola and Biodun Jeyifo. The Oxford encyclopedia of African thought, Volume 1. Oxford University Press US. New York City. 2010. ISBN 0-19-533473-6
  • Blommaert, Jan: Situating language rights: English and Swahili in Tanzania revisited (sociolinguistic developments in Tanzanian Swahili) – Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, paper 23, University of Gent 2003
  • Brock-Utne, Birgit (2001). "Education for all – in whose language?". Oxford Review of Education 27 (1): 115–134. doi:10.1080/03054980125577. 
  • Chiraghdin, Shihabuddin and Mathias E. Mnyampala. Historia ya Kiswahili. Oxford University Press. Eastern Africa. 1977. ISBN 0-19-572367-8
  • Contini-Morava, Ellen. Noun Classification in Swahili. 1994.
  • Lambert, H.E. 1956. Chi-Chifundi: A Dialect of the Southern Kenya Coast. (Kampala)
  • Lambert, H.E. 1957. Ki-Vumba: A Dialect of the Southern Kenya Coast. (Kampala)
  • Lambert, H.E. 1958. Chi-Jomvu and ki-Ngare: Subdialects of the Mombasa Area. (Kampala)
  • Marshad, Hassan A. Kiswahili au Kiingereza (Nchini Kenya). Jomo Kenyatta Foundation. Nairobi 1993. ISBN 9966-22-098-4.
  • Nurse, Derek, and Hinnebusch, Thomas J. Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history. 1993. Series: University of California Publications in Linguistics, v. 121.
  • Ogechi, Nathan Oyori: "On language rights in Kenya (on the legal position of Swahili in Kenya)", in: Nordic Journal of African Studies 12(3): 277–295 (2003)
  • Prins, A.H.J. 1961. "The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast (Arabs, Shirazi and Swahili)". Ethnographic Survey of Africa, edited by Daryll Forde. London: International African Institute.
  • Prins, A.H.J. 1970. A Swahili Nautical Dictionary. Preliminary Studies in Swahili Lexicon – 1. Dar es Salaam.
  • Whiteley, Wilfred. 1969. Swahili: the rise of a national language. London: Methuen. Series: Studies in African History.

External links[edit]