A Guide to Swahili - 10 facts about the Swahili language

Dhows sailing off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania © BBC - Jeff Overs

Translation in Swahili

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1. Where is Swahili spoken?

Swahili has official language status in Tanzania and Kenya and is also widely spoken in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Comoros Islands. It’s also spoken by smaller numbers in Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

The word for the Swahili language is  Kiswahili. The name comes from the plural sawahili of the Arabic word sahil, which means boundaries or coast. With ki- at the beginning of the word, Kiswahili means coastal language.

2. What you already know about Swahili

Other than Arabic, Swahili has been influenced and taken some words from English, for example:

 polisi, police
 boksi, box
 hoteli, hotel
 televisheni, television
 baiskeli, bicycle
 hospitali, hospital
 soksi, socks
 picha, picture
 muziki, music
 redio, radio

The word  safari means journey in Swahili. In English it means an expedition to observe, hunt animals in their natural habitats e.g. National Parks in Africa or even Australia. The word  chai means tea.

3. How hard is it to learn?

Swahili is said to be the easiest African language for an English speaker to learn. It’s one of the few sub-Saharan African languages that have no lexical tone, just like in English. It’s also much easier to read as you read out Swahili words just the way they are written.

Someone who speaks Arabic may find it easier to learn Swahili because Swahili is a combination of words from Arabic and the Bantu-speaking communities of East Africa.

One of the main differences with English is that Swahili uses particles at the beginning of the word to indicate verb tense (present, past, future) and person (I, you, we, they, etc).

For example, from the verb  kwenda, to go, I am going is  nina-kwenda. Ni indicates I and na the present tense. The main pronoun prefixes are:

 Ni, I - singular
 A, he/she/it - singular
 Wa, they - plural
 Tu, we/us - plural

After a pronoun prefix, another prefix is added to show the tense of the verb:

 Na, present tense
 Li, past tense
 Ta, future tense
 Me, present perfect

So you would say:  ali-kwenda, he/she/it went,  wata-kwenda, they will go and  tume-kwenda, we have gone.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

  Wale wari wa Liwale wala wali wa Liwali
Those from Liwale eat the rice of chief Liwale
(Here Liwale is both a district in Tanzania and the name of a chief).

  Mjomba mjomba kamchapa mkia wa komba
Uncle beats someone with a tail of a bush baby.

  Kichwa cha twiga.
Giraffe’s head.

  Mpishi mbishi kapika mchicha mbichi.
A chef has cooked spinach that turned out undercooked.

  Kikusikitishacho is the longest word in Swahili. It is not a word that can stand on its own, but when combined with   kipi means What’s bugging you?

5. Know any good Swahili jokes?

 Mtoto alitumwa gazeti la tarehe nane (8), akaenda kwa muuza magazeti kununua gazeti lakini alipofika alikuta gazeti la tarehe nane hakuna kwa hiyo akachukua magazeti ya tarehe nne (4) mawili.

A kid was told to go buy a newspaper dated 8th. The kid went to the magazine stand but a newspaper on that date wasn’t available anymore so he took two magazines dated 4th.

6. If I learn Swahili, will it help me with any other languages?

Around 35% of the Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic. This is due to more than twelve centuries of contact with Arabic-speaking inhabitants of the coast of Zanj. Swahili has also gained Persian, English, Portuguese, German and French words through contact during the last five centuries.

Swahili is becoming the lingua franca of East Africa and many parts of Central Africa, which is another useful reason to learn some.

7. What not to say and do

One word which can lead to confusion depending on the way you pronounce it is  barabara - it can mean either a road if you just ease up your tongue or exactly if you're strong on the r:  barabara.

Some words have different meanings, like  maziwa. It can refer to milk but sometimes Swahili speakers also use it as a word for breast. The most widely-used word for breast, however, is   matiti.

8. Famous idioms and proverbs

 Hakuna matata is the most popular quote and means no worries. The phrase gained international recognition after it was used in the animated movie The Lion King.

Swahili proverbs known as  methali usually feature puns. They are often used in the lyrics of local musicians. Examples of some famous proverbs are:

 Dalili ya mvua ni mawingu
Literal translation: Clouds are a sign of rain
Meaning: You can predict your success by watching for the right signs.

 Hakuna masika yasiyokuwa na mbu
Literal translation: There isn't a rainy season without mosquitoes
Meaning: With anything good comes something that is bad.

 Haraka haraka haina baraka
Literal translation: Hurry, hurry has no blessing
Meaning: Haste makes waste.

  Wapiganapo tembo wawili ziumiazo nyasi
Literal translation: When two elephants fight it's the grass that gets hurt
Meaning: When the rich and powerful contend with each other it is the weak and powerless who pay the price.

9. First written records

Letters written in 1711 in the region of Kilwa are believed to be the first ever documents to be written in Swahili. These letters were sent to the Portuguese people of Mozambique, as well as local allies. The original copies of the letters are preserved in the Historical Archive of Goa in India.

An ancient document dated 1728 shows an epic poem called  Utendi wa Tambuka, History of Tambuka which is in Swahili, but written in the Arabic script. Due to the influence of European colonial rule, Latin script (the same script used in English and other European languages) is now used for writing Swahili.

10. How to be polite and show respect

If you need to ask anything, just start a sentence with the word  kwa meaning please. For example,   kwa hisani yako naomba kikombe cha chai, meaning Can I have a cup of tea please?

If you step on someone by mistake you can say  kumradhi or  samahani, meaning I’m sorry. The formal response to this would be  samahani haigombi, meaning you lose nothing when you say sorry.

If you're meeting someone for the first time, start with the greeting  habari. Depending on the time of the day, you could say  habari za asubuhi, good morning,   habari za mchana, good afternoon or  habari za jioni, good evening.

You in Swahili is  wewe. In Swahili it is offensive to address someone with a direct wewe so people politely address others by their names or title. For example:  baba, father or  mama, mother.

UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. © BBC - Jeff Overs

Facts about Swahili

10 things to know about the Swahili language

Residents of Stone Town in Zanzibar. © BBC/Jeff Overs

Swahili key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

© BBC - Jeff Overs

The Swahili alphabet

Learn the letters of the Swahili alphabet

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