The Swahili Passepartout

For sure, Swahili is so popular a language among African ones spoken outside the Continent that a certain abuse of it is even made by Hollywood films. Swahili is the most nearly studied among African Diaspora languages to the extent that some of its terms have become quite common in Western Countries: I can’t believe you have never heard expressions like “Jambo!”, “Bwana, Hakuna Matata”…!

As many of the expanding African Languages, Swahili is increasing thanks to the absorption of new expressions, i.e. those linguistic borrowings introduced by speakers and by the mediation of specialized institutions. In 2005, during the TUKI congress, the Institute of Swahili Research of Dar-es-Salaam tackled the problem of rendering more uniform and regular the excessively spontaneous lexical growth of Swahili. This was felt as extremely necessary, also taking into account the upcoming creation of “Jumbo Open Office”, the Swahili version of “Open Office”, and the on-line dictionaries of Swahili.

In general, what has largely contributed to the spreading of Swahili all around the world is the exactitude of its linguistic rules: Swahili descends from the Bantu sub-branch of Niger-Congo languages, which are notorious for the mathematical precision of their structure, the strict division of nouns in classes and the abundant use of prefixes, infixes and suffixes to form verbs and adjectives.

Swahili, or Kiswahili (this is the term native speakers use to define it), language is relatively simple to be learnt: the agglutinating tendency may create some problems to students that will hardly manage the understanding of expressions such as “nimeshakuambia!”. At the same time, basic communication levels may be achieved in few months thanks to the fact that phonetic transcription, which is based on the Latin alphabet, is very simple and grammar exceptions are extremely rare.

For long time people have thought Swahili was a language invented on purpose by Arab and Persian merchants who used to attend their interests on the Western Coast of Africa. The truth is that this ancient African language improved its vocabulary during centuries, borrowing terms as it came in contact with other languages. Linguists believe that Swahili birth remounts to the XII Century in the present-day Kenya, while first written texts in Arabic are to be dated approximately around the XV Century.

It is commonly agreed the cradle of this language be identified with the archipelago of Lamu, from where it spread north and south along the coast to differentiate into an infinite variety of dialects: among the most important there is Amu, the Swahili spoken in Lamu, Mvita, the one of Mombasa, Pemba, from the homonymous Island, Unguja, spoken in Zanzibar and Shimasiwa, the dialect of the Comoros Islands. Standard Swahili derives from the Unguja language of Zanzibar, which at the time was the political hub of the region. As we have already told, the division of nouns in classes is the main characteristic of Bantu languages, the original structure of which owned a total of 22 classes, now reduced to a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 18 units. Actually, Swahili has 18 nominal classes and no genders.

Nominal classes are further grouped into 7 categories of meaning, with the first 5 pairs regularly composed by the singular and plural forms, the 6th lacking the plural one and the 7th representing the substantivization of verbs. In Swahili, semantic categories can be deduced from the first consonant and syllable of a word: the first category (M-/WA-) generally indicates names of human beings; the second (M-/MI-) refers to names of plants and body parts; the third category (JI-/MA-) groups names of common objects, of persons and words from Arabic; in the fourth (KI-/VI-) we can find words of artificial things, diminutives and derived terms; the fifth (N-) is the category of the “respectable” nouns and professions, of some animals and many foreign words. The sixth (U-) is dedicated to concepts of mass quantities and physical events; this category borrows the plural form from the fifth. The seventh class is the class of locatives, the so called “pa-class”, that owns only the word “mahali”, which literally means “place”. In turn, “mahali” can be “yuko” (inside), “yupo” (near) or “yumo” (somewhere around here).

The Swahili verbal system is quite complex, due to the agglutinating tendency: the usual concordance is verb-subject, while adjectives, prepositions and demonstratives can refer to any other word.

The Swahili aptitude and easiness to absorb foreign terms has favoured the lexicon enlargement of this language itself and the independence from colonial linguistic supremacy (Arabic, English, German etc.). In fact, Swahili has achieved a level in lexical specialization to such a high extent that programmers have been and are still interested in developing specific computer versions for this language. The access to the informatics system was an opportunity for this language to gain further success and to reinforce the already acquired primacy among African languages: writing and translating utilities are nowadays available to everyone and Swahili is already replacing English as official language in Tanzania, gaining ground in Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, acting as ‘lingua franca’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in South Somalia and North Mozambique. It is not infrequent to find people able to understand, if not speak, Swahili in Malawi and Zambia markets or in Comoros Islands, Oman and many places on the Red Sea. As about 150 million people speak it, Swahili has also been chosen to be the official language of the African Union.

Such an expansion and the large usage of this language is also responsible for the changing and the consequent birth of a series of new dialects: the Congo variety of Swahili, for example, has driven toward the simplification of grammar and has borrowed much from French in lexical terms, even making the understanding impossible to other Swahili speakers. The same can be said about the Mozambique variety, that took many words from Makhuwa and other local dialects.

Unity and development of Swahili are supported by the Institute of Kiswahili Studies of Dar es Salaam, founded in 1930, which has attended till now to the enormous efforts of linguistic researchers, and was responsible for the publishing of Swahili dictionaries, grammars and literature and is still working hard to preserve Swahili language with its deep cultural implications.


Learn more about Swahili translation.

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Category: Foreign Language