The Swahili language, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language spoken by various ethnic groups that inhabit several large stretches of the Mozambique Channel coastline from northern Kenya to northern Mozambique. Closely related languages, sometimes considered dialects, are spoken in the Comoros Islands and Somalia. Although only five million or so people speak Swahili as their mother tongue, it is used as a lingua franca in much of East Africa, and the total number of speakers exceeds 140 million. Swahili serves as a national, or official language, of four nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Some Swahili vocabulary is derived from Arabic through more than twelve centuries of contact with Arabic-speaking inhabitants of the coast of southeastern Africa. It has also incorporated Persian, German, Portuguese, English, and French words into its vocabulary through contact during the past five centuries.
Although originally written with the Arabic script, Swahili is now written in a Latin alphabet that was introduced by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators. The text shown here is the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer.
Swahili is traditionally regarded as being the language of Arab-ruled Zanzibar, spread along the coast by the Arab trade in slaves and other goods. Whether it was first spoken by natives of the mainland opposite Zanzibar who were brought to Zanzibar as slaves, or whether Zanzibar had a native black population, is uncertain. In post-colonial leftist/African-nationalist scholarship, this history is increasingly reinterpreted as a native black Swahili ethnic group, which already lived along a large area of the coast, engaging in its own maritime trade prior to taking up willing commerce with the Arabs.
In any case Arab traders are known to have had extensive contact with the coastal peoples from at least the 6th century C.E., and Islam began to spread along the East African Coast from at least the 9th century. There is also cultural evidence of early Persian (or Arabo-Persian) settlement on Zanzibar from Shiraz in present-day Iran. The black population of the island holds the tradition that it is descended from intermarriage of these Shirazi with natives (see Shirazi people).
People from Oman and the Persian Gulf settled the Zanzibar Archipelago, helping spread both Islam and the Swahili language and culture with major trading and cultural centers as far as Sofala (Mozambique) and Kilwa (Tanzania) to the south, and Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya, Barawa, Merca, Kismayo and Mogadishu (Somalia) in the north, the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Starting about 1800 C.E., the rulers of Zanzibar organized trading expeditions into the interior of the mainland, up to the various lakes in the continent's East African Rift. They soon established permanent trade routes, and Swahili-speaking merchants settled in stops along the new trade routes. For the most part, this process did not lead to genuine colonization. But colonization did occur west of Lake Malawi, in what is now Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, giving rise to a highly divergent dialect.
The earliest known documents written in Swahili are letters written in Kilwa in 1711 C.E., in the Arabic script. They were sent to the Portuguese of Mozambique and their local allies. The original letters are now preserved in the Historical Archives of Goa, India. Another ancient written document is an epic poem in the Arabic script titled Utendi wa Tambuka (The History of Tambuka); it is dated 1728. However, the Latin script later became standard under the influence of European colonial powers.
After Germany seized the region known as Tanganyika (present-day mainland Tanzania) for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide (but shallow) dissemination of Swahili, and soon designated Swahili as a colony-wide official administrative language. The British did not do so in neighbouring Kenya, even though they made moves in that direction. The British and Germans both sought to facilitate their rule over colonies where the inhabitants spoke dozens of different languages – thus the colonial authorities selected a single local language which they hoped the natives would find acceptable. Swahili was the only good candidate in these two colonies.
In the aftermath of Germany's defeat in World War I, it was dispossessed of all its overseas territories. Tanganyika fell into British hands. The British authorities, with the collaboration of British Christian missionary institutions active in these colonies, increased their resolve to institute Swahili as a common language for primary education and low-level governance throughout their East African colonies (Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya). Swahili was to be subordinate to English: university education, much secondary education, and governance at the highest levels would be conducted in English.
One key step in spreading Swahili was to create a standard written language. In June 1928, an inter-territorial conference took place at Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardizing Swahili. Today's standard Swahili, the version taught as a second language, is for practical purposes Zanzibar Swahili, even though there are minor discrepancies between the written standard and the Zanzibar vernacular.
Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three countries, Tanzania, Kenya, and Congo (DRC), where it is an official or national language. The neighboring nation of Uganda made Swahili a required subject in primary schools in 1992—although this mandate has not been well implemented—and declared it an official language in 2005 in preparation for the East African Federation. Swahili, or other closely related languages, is spoken by nearly the entire population of the Comoros and by relatively small numbers of people in Burundi, Rwanda, northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. and the language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. In the Guthrie non-genetic classification of Bantu languages, Swahili is included under Zone G.
At the present time, some 90 percent of approximately 39 million Tanzanians speak Swahili in addition to their first languages. Kenya's population is comparable as well, with a greater part of the nation being able to speak Swahili. Most educated Kenyans are able to communicate fluently in Swahili, since it is a compulsory subject in school from grade one to high school and a distinct academic discipline in many of the public and private universities.
The five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are Swahili speaking. Nearly half the 66 million Congolese reportedly speak it; and it is starting to rival Lingala as the most important national language of that country.
In Uganda, the Baganda and residents of Buganda generally do not speak Swahili, but it is in common use among the 25 million people elsewhere in the country, and is currently being implemented in schools nationwide in preparation for the East African Community.
The usage of Swahili in other countries is commonly overstated, being widespread only in market towns, among returning refugees, or near the borders of Kenya and Tanzania. Even so, Swahili speakers may number some 120 to 150 million people.7 Many of the world's institutions have responded to Swahili's growing prominence. It is one of the languages that feature in world radio stations such as the BBC World Service, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, China Radio International, Radio France Internationale, Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa.
Methali (e.g. Haraka haraka haina baraka – Hurry hurry has no blessing)8, i.e. "wordplay, risqué or suggestive puns and lyric rhyme, are deeply inscribed in Swahili culture, in form of Swahili parables, proverbs, and allegory".9 Methali is uncovered globally within 'Swah' rap music. It provides the music with rich cultural, historical, and local textures and insight.
Kiswahili is the Swahili word for the language, and this is also sometimes used in English. The name Kiswahili comes from the plural sawāḥil (سواحل) of the Arabic word sāḥil (ساحل), meaning "boundary" or "coast", used as an adjective meaning "coastal dwellers". With the prefix ki-, it means "coastal language", ki- being a prefix attached to nouns of the noun class that includes languages.
Swahili is unusual among sub-Saharan languages in having lost the feature of lexical tone (with the exception of the numerically important Mvita dialect, the dialect of Kenya's second city, the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa).clarification needed
Standard Swahili has five vowel phonemes: /ɑ/, /ɛ/, /i/, /ɔ/, and /u/. The pronunciation of the phoneme /u/ stands between International Phonetic Alphabet u and o. Vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. The vowels are pronounced as follows:
/ɑ/ is pronounced like the "a" in father
/ɛ/ is pronounced like the "e" in bed
/i/ is pronounced like the "i" in ski
/ɔ/ is pronounced like the "o" in "or"
/u/ is pronounced like the "u" in "rule".
Swahili has no diphthongs; in vowel combinations, each letter is pronounced separately. Therefore the Swahili word for "leopard", chui, is pronounced /tʃu.i/, that is, as two syllables.
Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
/ palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m /m/ n /n/ ny /ɲ/ ng’ /ŋ/
Stop prenasalized mb /mb/ nd /nd/ nj /ɲɟ/~/ndʒ/ ng /ŋɡ/
implosive b /ɓ/ d /ɗ/ j /ʄ ~ ɗʒ/ g /ɠ/
tenuis p /p/ t /t/ ch /tʃ/ k /k/
aspirated (p /pʰ/) (t /tʰ/) (ch /tʃʰ/) (k /kʰ/)
Fricative prenasalized mv /ɱv/ nz /nz/
voiced v /v/ (dh /ð/) z /z/ (gh /ɣ/)
voiceless f /f/ (th /θ/) s /s/ sh /ʃ/ (kh /x/) h /h/
Trill r /r/
Approximant l /l/ y /j/ w /w/
The nasal stops are pronounced as separate syllables when they appear before a heterorganic plosive (e.g. mtoto /m.ˈto.to/ 'child') or represent a separate morpheme (e.g. nilimpiga /ni.li.m.ˈpi.ɠa/ 'I hit him'), and prenasalized stops are decomposed into two syllables when the word would otherwise have one (e.g. mbwa /ˈm.bwa/ 'dog'). However, elsewhere this doesn't happen: ndizi ('banana') has two syllables, /ˈndi.zi/, as does nenda /ˈne.nda/ (not */ˈnen.da/) 'go'.
The fricatives in parentheses, th dh kh gh, are borrowed from Arabic. Many Swahili speakers pronounce them as /s z h r/, respectively.
Swahili orthography does not distinguish aspirated from tenuis consonants. When nouns in the N-class begin with plosives, they are aspirated (tembo /tembo/ 'palm wine', but tembo /tʰembo/ 'elephant') in some dialects. Otherwise aspirated consonants are not common. Some writers mark aspirated consonants with an apostrophe (t'embo).
Swahili l and r are merged for many speakers (the extent to which this is demonstrated generally depends on the original mother tongue spoken by the individual), and are often both realized as alveolar lateral flap /ɺ/, a sound between a flapped r and an l.
After a nasal prefix, l/r becomes /d/ and w becomes /b/. (See fortition.)
Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar circa 1299 AH (1882 AD)
Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya
Swahili Arabic script on wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya
Swahili in Arabic script on the clothes of a woman in Tanzania (ca. early 1900s).
Swahili is currently written in a slightly defective alphabet using the Latin script; the defectiveness comes in not distinguishing aspirated consonants, though those are not distinguished in all dialects. (These were, however, distinguished as kh etc. in the old German colonial Latin alphabet.) There are two digraphs for native sounds, ch and sh; c is not used apart from unassimilated English loans and occasionally as a substitute for k in advertisements. There are in addition several digraphs for Arabic sounds which are not distinguished in pronunciation outside of traditional Swahili areas.
The language had previously been written in the Arabic script. Unlike adaptations of the Arabic script for other languages, relatively little accommodation was made for Swahili. There were also differences in orthographic conventions between cities, authors, and over the centuries, some quite precise, but others defective enough to cause difficulties with intelligibility.
Vowel diacritics were generally written, effectively making the Swahili-Arabic script an abugida. /e/ and /i/, /o/ and /u/ were often conflated, but in some orthographies /e/ was distinguished from /i/ by rotating the kasra 90°, and /o/ from /u/ by writing the damma backwards.
Several Swahili consonants do not have equivalents in Arabic, and for these often no special letters were created, as they were for example in Persian and Urdu. Instead, the closest Arabic sound is substituted. Not only does this mean that one letter often stands for more than one sound, writers made different choices as to which consonant to substitute. Some of the equivalents between Arabic Swahili and Roman Swahili are,
ب b p mb mp bw pw mbw mpw
ت t nt
ج j nj ng ng' ny
خ kh h
د d nd
ر r d nd
ز z nz
ش sh ch
ص s, sw
ط t tw chw
ظ z th dh dhw
غ gh g ng ng'
ف f fy v vy mv p
ق k g ng ch sh ny
ي y ny
This was the general situation, but conventions from Urdu were adopted by some authors; for example, to distinguish aspiration and /p/ from /b/: پھا /pʰaa/ 'gazelle', پا /paa/ 'roof'. Although not found in Standard Swahili today, there is a distinction between dental and alveolar consonants in some dialects, and this is reflected in some orthographies, for example in كُٹَ -kuta 'to meet' vs. كُتَ -kut̠a 'to be satisfied'. A k with the dots of y, ڱ, was used for ch in some conventions; this ky is historically and even contemporaneously a more accurate transcription than Roman ch. In Mombasa, it was common to use the Arabic emphatics for Cw, for example in صِصِ swiswi (standard sisi) 'we' and كِطَ kit̠wa (standard kichwa) 'head'.
Word division differs from Roman norms. Particles such as ya, na, si, kwa, ni are joined to the following noun, and possessives such as yangu and yako are joined to the preceding noun, but verbs are written as two words, with the subject and tense–aspect–mood morphemes separated from the object and root, as in aliye niambia "he who asked me".
In common with all Bantu languages, Swahili grammar arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes (counting singular and plural as distinct according to the Meinhof system), with most Bantu languages sharing at least ten of these. Swahili employs sixteen: six classes that usually indicate singular nouns, five classes that usually indicate plural nouns, a class for abstract nouns, a class for verbal infinitives used as nouns, and three classes to indicate location.
class semantics prefix singular translation plural translation
1, 2 persons m-/mu-, wa- mtu person watu persons
3, 4 trees, natural forces m-/mu-, mi- mti tree miti trees
5, 6 groups, AUG Ø/ji-, ma- jicho eye macho eyes
7, 8 artefacts, DIM ki-, vi- kisu knife visu knives
9, 10 animals, loanwords, other Ø/n-, Ø/n- ndoto dream ndoto dreams
11, 12 extension u-, Ø/n- ua fence, yard nyua fences
14 abstraction u- utoto childhood –
Nouns beginning with m- in the singular and wa- in the plural denote animate beings, especially people. Examples are mtu, meaning 'person' (plural watu), and mdudu, meaning 'insect' (plural wadudu). A class with m- in the singular but mi- in the plural often denotes plants, such as mti 'tree', miti trees. The infinitive of verbs begins with ku-, e.g. kusoma 'to read'. Other classes are more difficult to categorize. Singulars beginning in ki- take plurals in vi-; they often refer to hand tools and other artefacts. This ki-/vi- alteration even applies to foreign words where the ki- was originally part of the root, so vitabu "books" from kitabu "book" (from Arabic kitāb "book"; similar to how Arabic itself deals with the name Alexandria). This class also contains languages (such as the name of the language Kiswahili), and diminutives, which had been a separate class in earlier stages of Bantu. Words beginning with u- are often abstract, with no plural, e.g. utoto 'childhood'.
A fifth class begins with n- or m- or nothing, and its plural is the same. Another class has ji- or no prefix in the singular, and takes ma- in the plural; this class is often used for augmentatives. When the noun itself does not make clear which class it belongs to, its concords do. Adjectives and numerals commonly take the noun prefixes, and verbs take a different set of prefixes.
The same noun root can be used with different noun-class prefixes for derived meanings: human mtoto (watoto) "child (children)", abstract utoto "childhood", diminutive kitoto (vitoto) "infant(s)", augmentative toto (matoto) "big child (children)". Also vegetative mti (miti) "tree(s)", artefact kiti (viti) "chair(s)", augmentative jiti (majiti) "large tree", kijiti (vijiti) "stick(s)", ujiti (njiti) "tall slender tree".
Although the Swahili noun-class system is technically grammatical gender, there is a difference from the grammatical gender of European languages: In Swahili, the class assignments of nouns is still largely semantically motivated, whereas the European systems are mostly arbitrary. However, the classes cannot be understood as simplistic categories such as 'people' or 'trees'. Rather, there are extensions of meaning, words similar to those extensions, and then extensions again from these. The end result is a semantic net that made sense at the time, and often still does make sense, but which can be confusing to a non-speaker.
Take the ki-/vi- class. Originally it was two separate genders, artefacts (Bantu class 7/8, utensils & hand tools mostly) and diminutives (Bantu class 12), that were conflated at a stage ancestral to Swahili. Examples of the first are kisu "knife", kiti "chair" (from mti "tree, wood"), chombo "vessel" (a contraction of ki-ombo). Examples of the latter are kitoto "infant", from mtoto "child"; kitawi "frond", from tawi "branch"; and chumba (ki-umba) "room", from nyumba "house". It is the diminutive sense that has been furthest extended. An extension common to diminutives in many languages is approximation and resemblance (having a 'little bit' of some characteristic, like -y or -ish in English). For example, there is kijani "green", from jani "leaf" (compare English 'leafy'), kichaka "bush" from chaka "clump", and kivuli "shadow" from uvuli "shade". A 'little bit' of a verb would be an instance of an action, and such instantiations (usually not very active ones) are also found: kifo "death", from the verb -fa "to die"; kiota "nest" from -ota "to brood"; chakula "food" from kula "to eat"; kivuko "a ford, a pass" from -vuka "to cross"; and kilimia "the Pleiades", from -limia "to farm with", from its role in guiding planting. A resemblance, or being a bit like something, implies marginal status in a category, so things that are marginal examples of their class may take the ki-/vi- prefixes. One example is chura (ki-ura) "frog", which is only half terrestrial and therefore marginal as an animal. This extension may account for disabilities as well: kilema "a cripple", kipofu "a blind person", kiziwi "a deaf person". Finally, diminutives often denote contempt, and contempt is sometimes expressed against things that are dangerous. This might be the historical explanation for kifaru "rhinoceros", kingugwa "spotted hyena", and kiboko "hippopotamus" (perhaps originally meaning "stubby legs").
Another class with broad semantic extension is the m-/mi- class (Bantu classes 3/4). This is often called the 'tree' class, because mti, miti "tree(s)" is the prototypical example. However, it seems to cover vital entities which are neither human nor typical animals: trees and other plants, such as mwitu 'forest' and mtama 'millet' (and from there, things made from plants, like mkeka 'mat'); supernatural and natural forces, such as mwezi 'moon', mlima 'mountain', mto 'river'; active things, such as moto 'fire', including active body parts (moyo 'heart', mkono 'hand, arm'); and human groups, which are vital but not themselves human, such as mji 'village', and, by analogy, mzinga 'beehive/cannon'. From the central idea of tree, which is thin, tall, and spreading, comes an extension to other long or extended things or parts of things, such as mwamvuli 'umbrella', moshi 'smoke', msumari 'nail'; and from activity there even come active instantiations of verbs, such as mfuo "metal forging", from -fua "to forge", or mlio "a sound", from -lia "to make a sound". Words may be connected to their class by more than one metaphor. For example, mkono is an active body part, and mto is an active natural force, but they are also both long and thin. Things with a trajectory, such as mpaka 'border' and mwendo 'journey', are classified with long thin things, as in many other languages with noun classes. This may be further extended to anything dealing with time, such as mwaka 'year' and perhaps mshahara 'wages'. Also, animals which are exceptional in some way and therefore do not fit easily in the other classes may be placed in this class.
The other classes also have foundations that may at first seem similarly counterintuitive.] In short,
Classes 1–2 include most words for people: kin terms, professions, ethnicities, etc., including translations of most English words ending in -er. They also include a couple generic words for animals: mnyama 'beast', mdudu 'bug'.
Classes 5–6 have a broad semantic range of groups, expanses, and augmentatives. Although interrelated, it is easier to illustrate if broken down:
Augmentatives, such as joka 'serpent' from nyoka 'snake', lead to titles and other terms of respect (the opposite of diminutives, which lead to terms of contempt): Bwana 'Sir', shangazi 'aunt', fundi 'craftsman', kadhi 'judge'.
Expanses: ziwa 'lake', bonde 'valley', taifa 'country', anga 'sky'
from this, mass nouns: maji 'water', vumbi 'dust' (and other liquids and fine particulates which may cover broad expanses), kaa 'charcoal', mali 'wealth', maridhawa 'abundance'
Collectives: kundi 'group', kabila 'ethnic group', jeshi 'army', daraja 'stairs', manyoya 'fur, feathers', mapesa 'small change', manyasi 'weeds', jongoo 'millipede' (large set of legs), marimba 'xylophone' (large set of keys)
from this, individual things found in groups: jiwe 'stone', tawi 'branch', ua 'flower', tunda 'fruit' (also the names of most fruits), yai 'egg', mapacha 'twins', jino 'tooth', tumbo 'stomach' (cf. English "guts"), and paired body parts such as jicho 'eye', bawa 'wing', etc.
also collective or dialogic actions, which occur among groups of people: neno 'a word', from kunena 'to speak' (and by extension, mental verbal processes: wazo 'thought', maana 'meaning'); pigo 'a stroke, blow', from kupiga 'to hit'; gomvi 'a quarrel', shauri 'advice, plan', kosa 'mistake', jambo 'affair', penzi 'love', jibu 'answer', agano 'promise', malipo 'payment'
From pairing, reproduction is suggested as another extension (fruit, egg, testicle, flower, twins, etc.), but these generally duplicate one or more of the subcategories above
Classes 9–10 are used for most typical animals: ndege 'bird', samaki 'fish', and the specific names of typical beasts, birds, and bugs. However, this is also the 'other' class, for words which don't fit in well elsewhere, and about half of the class 9–10 nouns are foreign loanwords. Loans may be classified as 9–10 because they lack the prefixes inherent in other classes, and most native class 9–10 nouns have no prefix. Thus they do not form a coherent semantic class, though there are still semantic extensions from individual words.
Class 11 (which takes class 10 for the plural) are mostly nouns with an "extended outline shape", in either one dimension or two:
mass nouns which are generally localized rather than covering vast expanses: uji 'porridge', wali 'cooked rice'
broad: ukuta 'wall', ukucha 'fingernail', upande 'side' (≈ ubavu 'rib'), wavu 'net', wayo 'sole, footprint', ua 'fence, yard', uteo 'winnowing basket',
long: utambi 'wick', utepe 'stripe', uta 'bow', ubavu 'rib', ufa 'crack', unywele 'a hair'
from 'a hair', singulatives of nouns, which are often class 6 ('collectives') in the plural: unyoya 'a feather', uvumbi 'a grain of dust', ushanga 'a bead'
Class 14 are abstractions, such as utoto 'childhood' (from mtoto 'a child') and have no plural. They have the same prefixes and concord as class 11, except optionally for adjectival concord.
Class 15 are verbal infinitives.
Classes 16–18 are locatives. The Bantu nouns of these classes have been lost; the only permanent member is the Arabic loan mahali 'place(s)'. (Though in Mombasa Swahili, the old prefixes survive: pahali 'place', mwahali 'places'.) However, any noun with the locative suffix -ni takes class 16–18 agreement. The distinction between them is that class 16 agreement is used if the location is intended to be definite ("at"), class 17 if indefinite ("around") or involves motion ("to, toward"), and class 18 if it involves containment ("within"): mahali pazuri 'a good spot', mahali kuzuri 'a nice area', mahali muzuri (it's nice in there).
Swahili verbs consist of a root and a number of affixes (mostly prefixes) which can be attached to express grammatical persons, tense, and subordinate clauses, which require a conjunction in languages such as English.
Verbs of Bantu origin end in '-a' in the indicative. This vowel changes to indicate the subjunctive and negation.
In most dictionaries, verbs are listed in their indicative root form, for example -kata meaning 'to cut/chop'. In a simple sentence, prefixes for grammatical tense and person are added, as ninakata 'I cut'. Here ni- means 'I' and na- indicates a specific time (present tense unless stated otherwise).
ni- -na- kata
1sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'I am cutting (it)'
Now this sentence can be modified either by changing the subject prefix or the tense prefix, for example:
u- -na- kata
2sg DEF. TIME cut/chop
'You are cutting'
u- -me- kata
2sg PERFECT cut/chop
'You have cut'
The animate/human subject and object prefixes, with the m-/wa- (human class) in the third person, is:
prefixes Person Sg. Pl.
1st ni- tu-
2nd u- m-
3rd a- wa-
prefixes Person Sg. Pl.
1st -ni- -tu-
2nd -ku- -wa- (-mu-)
3rd -m- -wa-
In Standard Swahili, 2pl and 3pl objects are both -wa-. However, in Nairobi Swahili, 2pl is -mu-.
The most common tense prefixes are:
Tense and mood prefixes -a- gnomic (indefinite time)
-na- definite time (often present progressive)
hu- habitual (does not take subject prefix)
The indefinite (gnomic tense) prefix is used for generic statements such as "birds fly", and the vowels of the subject prefixes are assimilated. Thus nasoma means 'I read', although colloquially it is also short for ninasoma.
Persons in gnomic tense 1st na- twa-
2nd wa- mwa-
3rd a- wa-
'You (pl) read'
ni-ki-nunua nyama ya ng'ombe soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo.
'If I buy cow meat at the market, I'll cook it today.'
The English conjunction 'if' is translated by -ki-.
A third prefix is the object prefix. It is placed just before the root and refers a particular object, either a person, or rather as "the" does in English:
a- na- mw- ona
3sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see
'He (is) see(ing) him/her'
ni- na- mw- ona mtoto
1sg DEF.T. 3sg.OBJ see child
'I (am) see(ing) the child'
The -a suffix listed by dictionaries is the positive indicative mood. Other forms occur with negation and the subjunctive, as in sisomi:
si- som- -i
1sg.NEG:PRES read NEG
'I am not reading/ I don't read'
Other instances of this change of the final vowel include the subjunctive in -e. This goes only for Bantu verbs ending with -a; Arabic-derived verbs do not change their final vowel.
Other suffixes are placed before the end vowel, such as the applicative -i- and passive -w-:
wa- na- pig -w -a
3pl DEF.T. hit PASSIVE IND.
'They are being hit'
Swahili phrases agree with nouns in a system of concord, though if the noun refers to a human, they accord with noun classes 1 & 2 regardless of noun class. Verbs agree with the noun class of their subjects and objects; adjectives, prepositions, and demonstratives agree with the noun class of their nouns. In Standard Swahili (Kiswahili sanifu) which was based on the dialect spoken in Zanzibar the system is rather complex; however, it is drastically simplified in many local variants where Swahili is not the native language, such as in Nairobi.
In places where Standard Swahili is not commonly used, concord reflects only animacy. Human subjects and objects trigger a-, wa- and m-, wa- in verbal concord, while non-human subjects and objects—of whatever class—trigger i-, zi-, and infinitive verbs vary between standard ku- and reduced i-. ("Of" is animate wa and inanimate ya, za.) In Standard Swahili, human subjects and objects of whatever class trigger animacy concord in a-, wa- and m-, wa-, while non-human subjects and objects trigger a variety of gender-concord prefixes.
Swahili noun-class concord NC Semantic
-C, -V Subj. Obj -a Adjective
-C, -i, -e[* 1]
1 person m-, mw- a- m- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
2 people wa-, w- wa- wa- wa wa-, we-, we-
3 tree m- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
4 trees mi- i- ya mi-, mi-, mye-
5 group, AUG ji-/Ø, j- li- la ji-/Ø, ji-, je-
6 groups, AUG ma- ya- ya ma-, mi-, me-
7 tool, DIM ki-, ch- ki- cha ki-, ki-, che-
8 tools, DIM vi-, vy- vi- vya vi-, vi-, vye-
9 animals, 'other',
loanwords N- i- ya N-, nyi-, nye-
10 zi- za
11 extension u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
10 (plural of 11) N- zi- za N-, nyi-, nye-
14 abstraction u-, w-/uw- u- wa m-, mwi-, mwe-
or u-, wi-, we-
15 infinitives ku-, kw-[* 2] ku- kwa- ku-, kwi-, kwe-
16 position -ni, mahali pa- pa pa-, pi-, pe-
17 direction, around -ni ku- kwa ku-, kwi-, kwe-
18 within, along -ni mu- mwa mu-, mwi-, mwe-
^ Most Swahili adjectives begin with either a consonant or the vowels i- or e-, which are listed separately above. The few adjectives which begin with other vowels do not agree with all noun classes, since some are restricted to humans. NC 1 m(w)- is mw- before a and o, and reduces to m- before u; wa- does not change; and ki-, vi-, mi- become ch-, vy-, my- before o but not before u: mwanana, waanana "gentle", mwororo, waororo, myororo, chororo, vyororo "mild, yielding", mume, waume, kiume, viume "male".
^ In a few verbs: kwenda, kwisha
Dialects of Swahili and languages closely related to Swahili
This list is based on Nurse, Derek, and Hinnebusch, Thomas J. Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history.
Dialects of Swahili
Modern standard Swahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect spoken in Zanzibar town. There are numerous dialects of Swahili, some of which are mutually unintelligible, including the following.
Maho (2009) considers the following to be distinct languages:
Kimwani: spoken in the Kerimba Islands and northern coastal Mozambique.
Chimwiini is spoken by the ethnic minorities in and around the town of Barawa on the southern coast of Somalia.
Kibajuni: spoken by the Bajuni minority ethnic group on the coast and islands on both sides of the Somali–Kenyan border and in the Bajuni Islands (the northern part of the Lamu archipelago). Also called Kitikuu and Kigunya.
Socotra Swahili (extinct)
Sidi, in Gujarat (extinct)
The rest of the dialects he divides into three languages:
Kiamu: spoken in and around the island of Lamu (Amu).
Kipate: local dialect of Pate Island, considered to be closest to the original dialect of Kingozi.
Kingozi, an ancient dialect spoken on the Indian Ocean coast between Lamu and Somalia, sometimes still used in poetry. It is often considered the source of Swahili.
Chijomvu: subdialect of the Mombasa area.
Kimvita: the major dialect of Mombasa (also known as "Mvita", which means "war", in reference to the many wars which were fought over it), the other major dialect alongside Kiunguja.
Kingare: subdialect of the Mombasa area.
Kimrima: spoken around Pangani, Vanga, Dar es Salaam, Rufiji and Mafia Island.
Kiunguja: spoken in Zanzibar City and environs on Unguja (Zanzibar) Island. Kitumbatu (Pemba) dialects occupy the bulk of the island.
Chichifundi: dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
Kivumba: dialect of the southern Kenya coast.
Nosse Be (Madagascar)
Kipemba: local dialect of the Pemba Island.
Kitumbatu and Kimakunduchi: the countryside dialects of the island of Zanzibar. Kimakunduchi is a recent renaming of "Kihadimu"; the old name means "serf", hence it is considered pejorative.
Kimgao: formerly spoken around Kilwa District and to the south.
Shingazidja: spoken on Grande Comore, the biggest island of the Comoros
Shinzwani: spoken on Anjouan, part of the Comoros
Shimwali: spoken on Moheli, part of the Comoros
Shimaore: spoken on Mayotte
Historically recent varieties
Kingwana: spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Shaba Swahili (Katanga Swahili, Lubumbashi Swahili). Sometimes called Copperbelt Swahili.
Sheng: a street patois that blends Swahili, English, and ethnic languages spoken in and around Nairobi. Sheng originated in the Nairobi slums and is considered fashionable and cosmopolitan among a growing segment of the population.
Asian Swahili (Kibabu) and Cutchi-Swahili
Kisetla (Settler Swahili)
In Somalia, where the Afro-Asiatic Somali language predominates, a variant of Swahili referred to as Chimwiini (also known as Chimbalazi) is spoken along the Benadir coast by the Bravanese people. Another Swahili dialect known as Kibajuni also serves as the mother tongue of the Bajuni minority ethnic group, the latter of whom inhabit the tiny Bajuni Islands as well as the southern Kismayo region.
In Oman, an estimated 22,000 people speak Swahili.Most are descendants of those who repatriated after the fall of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.