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 the Democratic Republic of Congo (where it is a recognized national language), as well as in Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Somalia. In addition to native speakers, there are 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 Vocabulary

Swahili is part of the Bantu group of languages which stems from the Niger-Congo language family. Contact with Arabic traders along the coast and the establishment of regular trade routes helped spread the language. It also gave it a strong Arabic influence, as is evident from the many words of Arab origin found in the Swahili language today. Even the name "Swahili" comes from an Arabic word meaning "by the coast." Over time, Swahili has also taken in words from English, German, Portuguese, French, and other languages with which it has come in contact, particularly during the colonial period in Africa. Among the English words that have been incorporated into Swahili are penseli (pencil), kompyuta (computer), and mashine (machine).

Swahili has also given English a few words that you may recognize. The word tote, for example, is from the Swahili verb tuta meaning "to haul." Also, the word Kwanza (an African holiday) comes from Swahili. Plus, you may recognize the words simba (lion) and rafiki (friend) from a certain popular animated motion picture!

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. The word bin does not mean "container"-- it means son of. Don't think the word kiwi is the name of a fruit-- it means to dazzle.

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. On the easier side of things, unlike most European languages, Swahili makes no grammatical distinction between formal and informal address.

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!

Start a free trial! Start learning Swahili with Byki Deluxe

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