Swahili is a language of Bantu origin with a (not so accurate) estimate of 50 to 100 million speakers worldwide, out of which about 5 to 15 million (also very accurate) are native speakers. It holds the status of official language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, and is widely spoken and used as a lingua franca in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Comoros Islands, in Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Furthermore, it is a working language in the African Union and several international media channels have programmes in Kiswahili, including the BBC.
Even though it’s commonly referred to as Swahili, the actual name of the language is Kiswahili. The word Swahili is an adaptation of the Arabic word sawahili, plural for sahil which means coast. The prefix Ki- is added to nouns of the noun class that includes languages (more on this later), which makes Kiswahili the “language of the coast”. This is because it arose as a trade language along the Eastern African coastline, where it was, and still is, most widely spoken.
Kiswahili has taken influence from Arabic in many other ways too, mostly because of Arabic merchants who traded in the area. So much so that the first writing system of Swahili was in the Arabic script and about 35% of current Kiswahili words come from Arabic. Some theories actually say Kiswahili derives from Arabic rather than just having been influenced by it, but these are widely contested.
Apart from Arabic, Kiswahili has borrowed words from Persian, Portuguese, English, and German. Persian words were adopted during the same period as Arabic, also through the influence of merchants. Portuguese, English and German words came into use during each nation’s control over the region during the Colonial period. The Portuguese brought words like leso from the Portuguese lenço (handkerchief), meza from mesa (table), and also the Portuguese tradition of bull-fighting, which is still popular on the Pemba Island.
From English, baiskeli (bicycle), basi (bus) and penseli (pencil) are some examples of assimilated words, and shule (school) from the German schule. Contrary to what happened with many other languages, the Colonial period was actually positive for the development of Kiswahili. It was already established as the language of commerce in East Africa, so colonists decided to further its use as a standard language. It was in this period that the writing system evolved to Latin, mainly through the work of Christian missionaries.
I mentioned earlier that theories of Kiswahili being derived from Arabic were widely contested. One of the reasons is that its grammar is characteristically Bantu, and a large part of Kiswahili word roots can actually be traced back to a common Bantu glossary.
Also common to Bantu languages are the different classes into which nouns are organised. The ancestral system had 22 different classes, but most languages only share about 10 of these. Kiswahili has 8 different classes, each divided in singular and plural. There’s a class for animate beings (people and animals), one for languages and body parts, one for trees and plants, one for foods, one for abstract concepts… And every one of these has at least 2 different prefixes for singular and plural.
And if that wasn’t enough, when building a sentence, there are also prefixes specific to each class to be used in the formation of the verbs! For example, in the class of nouns for people, the prefix m- is used for singular and wa- for plural, so the word “student” is mwanafunzi in the singular and wanafunzi in the plural. When using a verb, this noun class uses a- in singular and wa- in plural for sentence formation. So the sentence “the student is reading” is mwanafunzi anasoma, but in the plural it is wanafunzi wanasoma.
But enough about grammar! Let’s look at some Kiswahili words and expressions, even though you already know some (yes, you do know. You just don’t know that you know, à la Friends).
Ever watched The Lion King? It’s full of Kiswahili words! Simba, Rafiki, Sarabi and Pumba are some examples. They respectively mean lion (yup, a lion called Lion…), friend, mirage and foolish. Hakuna Matata is also Kiswahili for “there is no problem”. Other well-known Kiswahili words are safari “journey”, and chai, which means “tea”, but why I’m teaching British people about different ways to say tea I have no idea…
Couldn’t find any famous people who speak Kiswahili, but it is a language that’s been used very often in pop culture. Apart from The Lion King, Star Trek also makes use of Kiswahili words, such as uhura meaning “freedom” and imzadi, which has a derivative that means “beloved”. Also, the intro for Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl is in Kiswahili: Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi wee, meaning “I love you too, and I want you too, my love”.
To wrap it up, I’ll leave you with a fun fact: the way time is told in Kiswahili. They start counting from dawn (6am) to dusk (6pm). So, for example, 7am is hour one of the morning, 3pm is hour nine of the afternoon, and so on. This is because the sun rises at around six a.m. and sets at around six p.m. every day in the equatorial regions where most Swahili speakers reside.