Swahili (more properly Kiswahili) is in the Bantu family of languages that dominate most of sub-Saharan Africa. It is used as a first language by about five million people along the East African coast from Mozambique and the Comoro Islands to Somalia. More important, it is used as a lingua franca (in the form of nonstandard sociolects) by more than 30 million people in the interior, even into the Congo basin. It has a standard form, based on the Zanzibar dialect Kiunguja. This standard form, in roman script, is an official language of Kenya and Tanzania. It has also become widely taught in the U.S. as the “African” language, partly due to anglophone East Africa’s accessibility to American scholars and partly to its adoption by African Americans for African heritage celebrations such as Kwanzaa.
Swahili is similar to other Bantu languages, with a system of noun classes whose prefixes occur linked in concord paradigms with other phrasal constituents. Thus, yule mtu mmoja mkubwa (lit: that person one large, “that one large person”). Verb inflectional affixes include subject, object, tense prefixes, and voice and aspect suffixes. Stems are often made from a syntactically unmarked root and a derivational suffix. However, unlike most Bantu languages, Swahili lacks tone as a distinctive phonemic feature. Lexically it is marked by many Arabic loans, so much so that some have portrayed Swahili as “Arabic” even though these have been modified into Bantu forms. The Arabic stem k-t-b (e.g., kitab “book,” kutub “books”) has become the Bantu noun stem plus prefix of ki-tabu “book,” and vi-tabu “books.” (Indeed, Kiswahili itself is similarly based on the Arabic sawah- il, “coasts.”)
What is significant about Swahili is not its structural features so much as its varying sociolinguistic conditions. In the early 19th century (after hundreds of years as the language of the coastal mercantile ports), it became the lingua franca of slave and ivory caravans from the coast to the interior. European colonial administrators, in turn, adopted it as the language of native affairs, required it for jobs, and supported its standardization, thereby providing it some degree of prestige. However, missionaries had ambivalent views in regard to its development. These ranged from supporting ethnic vernaculars in order to proselytize in a first language rather than in a “Muslim” second language, supporting Swahili as the language of a native church (much of the standardization was accomplished by missionary linguists), and supporting English instead as the language of a Christian African elite. With independence, and the desire for national symbols, Swahili was viewed as an alternative to either English (a medium of former colonial control) or an ethnic vernacular (a potential for exclusive ethnic privilege and exclusion). Tanzania made it their national language and developed it as a medium of post-primary instruction as well as national legislative and legal affairs. Kenya kept it as an official language along with English. English still occupies a position of dominance as the language of wider opportunity and education, and the challenges and prospects of developing Swahili to displace, or at least draw even with, English constitute an absorbing issue in language planning. For example, many proSwahili activists hold that some actions must be taken to slow the growth of English forms into Swahili.
- Hinnebusch, T. J. (1979). Swahili. In T. Shopen (Ed.), Languages and their status (pp. 209-293). Cambridge, MA: Winthrop.
- Wald, B. (1990). Swahili and the Bantu languages. In B. Comrie (Ed.)., The world’s major languages (pp. 991-1014). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Whiteley, W. (1969). Swahili: The rise of a national language. London: Methuen.