Where do they speak Swahili?
Where do they speak Swahili? is a question that comes to people interested in the dispersion of the language.
Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, is a language spoken by up to 200 million people in several countries in East Africa and beyond. Here we examine its rich history, significant influence and modern usage.
What's in a name?
As the terms Swahili and Kiswahili are both used, confusion persists as to which is the correct name for the language. The quick answer is that Kiswahili is the term used in the language to refer to itself, while Swahili is the word that tends to be used most commonly by those speaking in English
When speaking English, the word Swahili is often used to refer to a community, their culture and the language they speak. However, to delve more deeply, Swahili means ‘of the coasts' and Kiswahili means ‘the language of the coasts'. Further, the term for an individual person is Mswahili, for the people it is Waswahili, and for the culture it is Uswahili.
So, while using the word Swahili to refer to the language is unlikely to lead to misunderstanding, many would regard Kiswahili as a more accurate and appropriate choice.
Where do they speak Swahili?
Kiswahili has been spoken for many hundreds of years and is part of the 500-strong Bantu language family that includes Zulu, Xhosa and Shona. Collectively they are spoken by around a third of the population of Africa, but Kiswahili has outgrown them all to become the most widespread African language on the continent, with between 100 and 200 million speakers.
The language originated in coastal regions and subsequently spread, being changed by trade, colonialism, migration and politics. Originally an oral language, Kiswahili first took written form in the early 18th century when it was scripted using the Arabic alphabet as a means to facilitate trade negotiations and record-keeping.
Around 100 years later German missionaries began using the Latin alphabet to encode the language, translating the Bible into Kiswahili and compiling its first dictionary. With Germany's defeat in the First World War, Britain assumed control of the region and declared that Kiswahili would be its principal language.
Exposure to merchants, colonisers and visitors inevitably led to Kiswahili being influenced by other languages. While its foundation was undoubtedly a combination of various Bantu languages, it also inherited and assimilated some Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, English, Hindi and German words.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Kiswahili has been merely a passive recipient of change imposed upon it by external domination and economic expedience. Its evolution and proliferation has also been a blend of happy accident and pragmatic design. So, exactly where do they speak Swahili?
Used as a symbol of identity, independence and strength by leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania in the 60s, African-American civil rights advocates in the 70s and Caribbean reggae musicians since the 80s, Kiswahili was adopted as an official language of the African Union in 2004. Its adaptability has allowed it to become the lingua franca of the East African Community.
It is the official language of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. It is also spoken to varying degrees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Somalia and the Comoros Islands. In 2020 South African schools began offering Kiswahili as an optional subject; Botswana and Namibia are following suit.
There are some differences in the dialects of the language spoken in the various regions and nations in which it has taken hold, something that is only to be expected with a mode of communication characterised by its versatility and longevity. Users add local inflections and grammar, some of the time speaking Kiswahili with a geographically determined accent, at other times giving birth to new dialects altogether. Sheng is a blend of Kiswahili and English that originated from Nairobi's underclass in the 60s and has endured, creating a voice for youth in Kenya's capital and parts of Uganda
Although there are those who perceive Sheng and other linguistic offspring of Kiswahili as a threat to the language from which they came, they are anything but. That it spawns offshoots and linguistic branches is testament to its robustness, not its redundancy.
Kiswahili is a dynamic and vibrant language that in a short time has grown from a language spoken by a relatively small number of people to one that is used by many millions from a range of ethnic, linguistic, cultural and national groups. The iconic status it holds derives from the way it has encapsulated histories, crossed boundaries and brought people together.
Speakers of Kiswahili are participants in, and contributors to, one of the most exhilarating ongoing developments in contemporary linguistics.