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Learn about Swahili Language and Culture

Overview of the Swahili Language

Swahili (also known as Kiswahili) is an official language in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is also spoken in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Somalia. In addition to native speakers, there are also millions of people who speak Swahili as a second language, allowing it to serve as a lingua franca between many different East African ethnic groups. For that reason, Swahili has also been chosen as one of the official languages of the African Union.

Swahili is part of the Bantu group of languages which stems from the Niger-Congo language family. It was strongly influenced by both Arabic and Persian, as is evident from the many words of Arab and Persian origin found in the Swahili language today. Even the name "Swahili" comes from an Arabic word meaning "by the coast." The language began to develop in the 7th century, but it wasn't brought inland until about the 19th century. Later, the Germans adopted Swahili as the language of administration in Tanganyika. In 1970, it was made the official language of Kenya.

Swahili Vocabulary

You may recognize a few of the Swahili words that have been incorporated into the English language. The word tote, for example, is from the Swahili verb tuta meaning "to haul." Also, the word Kwanza (an African holiday) comes from Swahili. And you may recognize the words simba (lion) and rafiki (friend) from a certain popular animated motion picture!

The reverse is also true. Many English words have been incorporated into Swahili, like "pencil" (penseli), "computer" (kompyuta) and "machine" (mashine).

It is comforting to recognize some words when studying a foreign language. But be careful! Don't assume that a Swahili word always means what you expect. The word leo, for example, doesn't mean "lion." It means today. And bin does not mean "container;" it means son of. And don't think the word kiwi is the name of a fruit-- it means to dazzle.

Formal and Informal Address in the Swahili Language

Unlike most European languages, Swahili makes no grammatical distinction between formal and informal address.

Swahili Grammar

One of the most difficult aspects of learning Swahili is its system of nouns. Nouns in Swahili are divided into cases based on the way that they are spelled. There are sixteen noun cases in all! But don't worry-- that includes singular and plural.

You might be perplexed at first by the way that time is expressed in Swahili. In the Swahili culture, there are two 12-hour cycles each day. The day cycle begins at sunrise (approximately 6:00 AM) and ends at sunset. The evening cycle begins at sunset (approximately 6:00 PM) and lasts until dawn. So 8 AM is expressed in Swahili as saa mbili asubuhi, or literally "two o'clock in the morning." At noon, it is saa sita, or "six o'clock."

Transparent Language's Swahili software programs are a great way to learn Swahili. These multimedia resources allow you to hear, read, and speak the language. We wish you the best of luck in your efforts to learn Swahili!

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