Swahili, or Kiswahili as it is called within the language itself, is a widely-spoken tongue throughout Eastern Africa and is ubiquitous along the coast of the Indian Ocean. It frequently serves as a lingua franca in the areas where it is found, especially in the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Roughly twenty times as many people speak Swahili secondarily as speak it as a first language, probably exceeding 100 million people in total. The name Kiswahili actually comes from an Arabic word, one that roughly means “language of the coastal dwellers.” In fact, Swahili and Arabic have more than a millennium of association due to trade and Islamic evangelism between the people of Africa and the Middle East.
Roots of the language:
Swahili and its dialects grew from the native languages spoken by tribes living up and down the eastern coast of Africa. The archeological record of these peoples is not as complete as for many other world cultures, so much of the language’s ancient history is presently unknown. What is known is that over the centuries, it has assimilated many terms from Arabic, Persian, German, Portuguese, French, and English due to both foreign trade and colonialism. When the British took over Germany’s East African colonies after the close of World War I, they promoted a standardized form of Swahili, which is the one that is still taught in schools and used in most official correspondence.
As a major African language, Swahili has several unique characteristics that set it apart from most major European and Asian languages. The vowel system in Swahili is generally strict, with five basic vowel sounds and an absence of diphthongs (two vowel sounds pronounced side by side). Instead of conjunctions and other linking words, Swahili prefers to use prefixes and suffixes to convey information.
In place of a grammatical gender system, Swahili divides nouns into classes based on what they describe: people, animals, natural forces, abstract concepts, and so on. Words are grammatically modified based on their class, number, and tense. Modifications to a word can indicate more than one aspect or might even branch off of previous aspects, creating a complex system of meaning. This system of classes and the relation of words is often referred to as a “semantic net,” and its intricacy can be intimidating for new users of the language.
The earliest known examples of written Swahili all date back to the eighteenth century, and use the Arabic script. Since the colonization of Africa by largely French, English, and Portuguese peoples, however, the Latin alphabet has become the norm. Swahili is rendered imperfectly in the Latin alphabet due to the fact that it has certain consonant sounds that cannot be represented with Latin characters. Though a certain form of Swahili has been standardized academically, colloquial spelling is often improvised in cases where the Latin alphabet is insufficient for conveying Swahili sounds.
One of the oldest works written in Swahili is an epic poem from 1728, Utendi wa Tambuka (“The Story of Tambuka”). Like all older Swahili documents, it was written using the Arabic script. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Swahili poetic form called utenzi. Though overall it does not have the formal literary history of a language like Chinese or Persian, Swahili is known for its puns, rhymes, and witty banter, creating a strong basis for a rich musical and storytelling tradition.