What is the Swahili ?

The Swahili are not an ethnic unit but the coastal dwellers of a number of East African countries. They speak dialects of the Swahili tongue, structurally a Bantu language but with many borrowings from Arabic. The name Swahili, derived from an Arabic word meaning "coast," can be applied to nearly half a million East Africans whose culture, trading economy, and language developed with the spread of Islam after Arab traders arrived among them about AD 500. The language is a lingua franca across East Africa to Zambia and the Congo and in places as distant as south Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and even the coast of Pakistan.

Bibliography: Middleton, J., The World of the Swahili (1992); Mirza, M., and Strobel, M., eds., Three Swahili Women (1989); Nurse, D., and Spear, T., The Swahili (1985); Polome, E. C., Swahili Language Handbook (1967).


More than 1,000 distinct languages are spoken on the African continent, and they constitute about 30 percent of all world languages. The exact number is impossible to ascertain, because not enough information is available about many of them to determine whether different names refer to distinct languages or merely to mutually intelligible dialects of larger languages. Groups of people who speak a distinct African language range in size from several million down to a thousand or even fewer. Apart from North Africa, only a few African countries, for example, Somalia, Rwanda, and Burundi, have a single or a dominant language. As a result, official languages are usually English, French, or Portuguese.


The study of African languages began before 1600 and was the task of early Christian missionaries. Few works of lasting importance, however, were produced before 1850. Missionaries and some governmental administrators and agencies, in the colonial era and in the present time of independent African nations, have always been the primary contributors to research in African languages. Their goals have been largely practical: literacy, evangelization, and education. Strictly scholarly interest in African languages, centered in university programs, dates back to about 1850 in South Africa, the late 1920s in Europe, 1959 in the United States, and about 1960 in a number of other African institutions. Even now, relatively few American universities offer serious programs in African languages, but annual academic conferences on African linguistics are held in the United States. The survey of the classification of African languages in the last section of this article is, with a few minor refinements, that proposed by Joseph H. Greenberg in 1963. Recently, some revisions in the subclassification of the Niger-Congo languages have been suggested, but these are only tentatively accepted at present. Edgar Gregerson has recently theorized that the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Kordofanian language families may have been related in the extremely distant past as members of an even older "Kongo-Saharan" superfamily.


Because of the variety and number of African languages, they possess a number of distinct phonetic and grammatical features, as well as marked similarities within families.

Phonetic Characteristics

Although the Khoisan languages, spoken by some hunting and gathering or cattle-raising peoples in southern Africa, make up only a fraction of the languages of Africa, they are of special interest because of their unique use of "click" consonants. This click is similar to the sound one makes when saying "tsk, tsk" or that one uses to spur on a horse or to imitate the sound of a cork popping out of a bottle. But clicks function as the following consonants do in the Roman alphabet: p, t, and k. In most Khoisan languages, almost every noun, verb, and adjective begins with such a click. The use of clicks has spread into some neighboring Bantu languages, notably IsiXhosa; they are generally represented in the written language by the letters c, x, and q, which are not needed to represent other sounds.
Languages of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan families, spoken by the majority of Saharan and sub-Saharan peoples, generally do not permit consonant sequences like those in such English words as struts or prints. Consonants followed by "glides," such as the w and y sounds, however, are common. Examples are the Igbo word akwa ("cloth") and the Nupe word kyakya ("bicycle"). Common consonantal sequences are a nasal followed by an oral consonant: mb, nd, and ng and also mp, nt, nk, and other combinations. These may function as unit consonants; some well-known names, for example, are properly syllabified as Ta-nza-ni-a, U-ga-nda, and Zi-mba-bwe. In some languages, however, nasals may be syllables in their own right; they are just hummed, without a preceding or following vowel. An example is the Igbo word nta ("small"). Many languages permit only a few different syllable-final consonants or none at all.
Almost all languages of sub-Saharan Africa are tone languages; the northern West Atlantic languages, Swahili, and a few others are not. In a tone language, distinctions in pitch are as important in the makeup of words as are distinctions in consonants or vowels. In Igbo, for example, akwa (high-low) means "cloth"; akwa (low-low) means "bed"; and akwa (low-high) means "egg." Every word has its own tone or tone sequence, which may, however, undergo definable changes in some contexts. Tone may also signal grammatical differences. For example, in Kpelle e pili (low-low-low) means "he jumped," but e pili (high-high-high) means "he should jump." Some languages have two to four distinct tone levels ("discrete level" systems). Others have two, sometimes three levels, plus a slight lowering of nonlow tones ("downstep"), as much as six or seven times in a phrase or sentence ("terraced level" systems).

Grammatical Characteristics

A striking grammatical feature of most African languages is that modifiers come after, rather than before, the noun. For example, the translation of the Swahili phrase kisu kikubwa kimoja kile changu ("that one big knife of mine") is literally "knife big one that my." The order of grammatical elements in a sentence must also be noted. In some languages, as in English, an object follows a verb. This is the rule in Igbo: o zuru mma ("he stole a knife"). The order of the Igbo words is the same as that of the English translation. However, in Kpelle the verb follows the object: e kali ya (literally, "he a hoe bought").
At least some languages in every branch of the Niger-Kordofanian family, except Mande, have noun classes and agreement, or concord. This characteristic is most easily illustrated in a Bantu language such as Swahili. Personal nouns in Swahili have a singular prefix m- and a plural prefix wa-, for example, mtu ("a person") and watu ("people"). Terms for trees and many other items have a singular prefix m- and a plural prefix mi-, for example, mti ("a tree") and miti ("trees"). Many other nouns have a singular prefix ki- and a plural prefix vi-, for example, kisu ("a knife") and visu ("knives").
Other singular-plural pairs are used as well as a "liquid mass" class with the prefix ma-, for example, maji ("water") and mafuta ("oil"). Each prefix determines an appropriate concord prefix for noun modifiers as well as for verbal subject and object markers. Concord prefixes for a modifier meaning "that" are shown in the following examples: mtu yule ("that person"), watu wale ("those people"); mti ule ("that tree"), miti ile ("those trees"); kisu kile ("that knife"), visu vile ("those knives"); maji yale ("that water"). Such systems vary from language to language, including the use of class-marking suffixes, rather than prefixes, but recognizable similarities pervade the Niger-Kordofanian languages. Many Kwa languages have no singular-plural contrast in nouns at all and yet show remnants of noun classification in what must once have been prefixes, for example, Igbo mpi ("horn [of an animal]"), but opi ("musical horn, flute").


Four main language families--groups of languages presumably descended from distinct ancestral languages--are recognized in Africa: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian, and Khoisan.


The Afroasiatic family is considered a distinct language grouping. Its various languages are spoken primarily in northern Africa and in Ethiopia and Somalia, as well as outside the African continent. The branch called Chadic is spoken in northern Nigeria and adjacent territories. Hausa is the most widely spoken of the Chadic languages and, after Swahili, the second most widely spoken language of sub-Saharan Africa. Between 10 and 15 million people are native Hausa speakers, and many others use it as a second language.


Languages in the Nilo-Saharan family are spoken in and just south of the Sahara, from Mali in the west to the Nile basin, and southward into Uganda, Kenya, and northern Tanzania. The Songhai branch of Nilo-Saharan is spoken by the people who live along the great bend of the Niger from Mali to northwestern Nigeria. It consists of Songhai, Dyerma, and Dendi, all closely related and possibly mutually intelligible. The Saharan branch, primarily Kanuri and Teda, is spoken by people who live from northeastern Nigeria north through Niger and Chad to the Libyan border. Maban, Fur, and Koman are three small branches; each comprises one or only a few languages.
The remaining branch of the Nilo-Saharan family is Chari-Nile. Several Chari-Nile languages, most spoken by only a small number of people, form the Central Sudanic group of languages, which are spoken by people scattered from the vicinity of Lake Chad to the Nile basin. An Eastern Sudanic group primarily includes the Nilotic languages: Dinka, which is spoken by people who inhabit the savanna country around the Nile basin in southern Sudan; Nuer and Shilluk, also spoken in southern Sudan; Achooli and Lwo in Uganda; Nandi and Suk in Kenya; and Masai in northern Tanzania. Each of the Eastern Sudanic languages is spoken by a few hundred thousand people. Two small isolated languages, Berta and Kunama, complete the Chari-Nile branch.


The third African language family is the Niger-Kordofanian, the languages of which are spoken in nearly all the areas from Senegal to Kenya, and south to South Africa. Niger-Kordofanian is divided into two subfamilies. The first, Kordofanian, is small and encompasses five branches: Koalib, Teqali, Talodi, Tumtum, and Katla. All are spoken in southern Sudan. None, however, are well known, nor are they spoken by any sizable number of people. The Niger-Congo subfamily, on the other hand, includes a majority of all the languages of Africa.
The Niger-Congo subfamily comprises seven or perhaps eight branches. The Mande branch was apparently the first to diverge from the parent Niger-Congo stock, possibly 6,000 years ago. Mande languages are spoken in a large area of West Africa, from Senegal and Mali to Liberia and Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), but they are not spoken along the Atlantic coast, except in Liberia, where a Vai-speaking population exists. Isolated Mande languages are spoken in eastern Ivory Coast and western Ghana, in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), and in Benin and Nigeria. Mandekan is the most widely spoken Mande language. It is better known by the names of its major dialects--Bambara, Maninka or Malinke, and Dyula--and several million people use it. Other important Mande languages are Mende in Sierra Leone and Kpelle in Liberia.
A second branch of Niger-Congo is West Atlantic, which may include two relatively distinct branches of the subfamily--northern and southern; the latter is also called Mel. The major Mel language is Temne, which is spoken in Sierra Leone. The northern West Atlantic languages of the Niger-Congo subfamily include Wolof, which is the major language of Senegal and its capital city, Dakar. Much more widely spoken, however, is Fula (also known as Fulani, Fulbe, or Peul). A major Fula concentration is found in northern Guinea. Some 2,400 km (1,500 mi) to the east, in northeastern Nigeria and Cameroon, is another large concentration of Fula speakers. Between these extremes are other permanent Fula settlements, and a great many more Fula speakers are seminomadic cattle herdsmen. Several West Atlantic languages are spoken by small groups of people along or near the Atlantic coast from Senegal to Liberia.
The Kru branch of the Niger-Congo subfamily consists of about 30 languages that are spoken in southeastern Liberia and southwestern Ivory Coast. Probably the most widely used is the language known as Krahn in Liberia and as Guere in Ivory Coast. Better known are Bassa, Kru, and Grebo in Liberia, and Bete in Ivory Coast.
The Gur, or Voltaic, branch of Niger-Congo is spoken in interior parts of West Africa, from eastern Mali and northern Ivory Coast through northern Benin. The most widely used Gur language is Moore, spoken by the Mossi people of Burkina; other languages of this group include Gurma, Dagomba, Kabre, Senufo, and Bariba.
Languages of the Kwa branch of Niger-Congo are spoken along the south-facing Atlantic coast from central Ivory Coast to Cameroon, and generally for a few hundred miles inland. Some major Kwa languages are Baule in Ivory Coast; Akan, including Fante, Twi, and Ashanti, in Ghana; Ewe in Ghana, and Togo along with Fon in Benin (the two perhaps constitute a single language); Yoruba, Igbo (also known as Ibo), and Efik in Nigeria. Yoruba and Igbo are the most widely spoken of these; they are major languages in the southern part of the country--Yoruba in the west and Igbo in the east.
Languages of the Adamawa-Eastern branch are spoken from northeastern Nigeria east to Sudan, north almost to the Sahara, and south to extreme northern Zaire. In most of this area, these languages are interspersed with Chari-Nile languages of the Nilo-Saharan family; in the extreme west, Chadic languages of the Afroasiatic family are also spoken. Most of the Adamawa-Eastern languages are spoken by a relatively small number of people, and the status of many as distinct languages has not been determined. Zande is spoken in northern Zaire and adjacent parts of Sudan and the Central African Republic. Sango, a derivative of Ngbandi in northern Zaire, has become a widespread language of trade and government in the Central African Republic and, to some extent, in Chad.
The Benue-Congo branch of Niger-Congo includes a number of groups of languages in northern and eastern Nigeria, most not widely spoken, and almost all languages of the great southern projection of Africa from Nigeria to northern Kenya to Capetown. The latter are the well-known Bantu languages. Apart from Bantu, the most widely used Benue-Congo language is Tiv in Nigeria. The Bantu languages were long thought to be an independent language family, partly because of the vast area in which they are spoken, the large number of languages that can be considered Bantu, and the large number of their speakers. More than one-third of the most widely used languages in Africa are Bantu languages. In terms of linguistic relationships, however, the Bantu languages are only an enormously overgrown subgroup within the Benue-Congo branch.
Most Bantu language names, as used by their own speakers, consist of a prefix and a stem. What is widely known as "Swahili," for example, is properly KiSwahili; in written references, the stem -Swahili is capitalized, since non-Africans commonly use the stem alone. According to this convention, the following Bantu languages, each spoken by a million or more people, may be distinguished: KiKongo and LiNgala (Zaire); Umbundu (Angola); IsiZulu and IsiXhosa, which are largely mutually intelligible (South Africa); SeSotho, SePedi, Setswana, which are largely mutually intelligible (Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa); ChiShona (Zimbabwe); ChiBemba (Zambia and Zaire); ChiNyanja (Malawi); ShiTswa (Mozambique); KinyaRwanda and KiRundi, which are mutually intelligible (Burundi and Rwanda); LuGanda (Uganda); GiKikuyu (Kenya); KiSwahili (Tanzania, Kenya, and, to some extent, Uganda and Zaire). Of these languages, KiSwahili is the most widely spoken; however, for a vast majority of its 20 to 30 million speakers, Swahili is a second language, although they may speak it fluently.


The fourth and smallest language family of Africa is the Khoisan (see also click languages). Most Khoisan languages are spoken by the San Bushmen and Khoikhoi Hottentots of southern Africa. These peoples include a few cattle-raising groups such as the Nama, and hunting and gathering groups in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and Namibia. Many of these are bands of fewer than a hundred speakers of distinct languages. Also included in the Khoisan language family are two languages in northern Tanzania: Sandawe and Hatza. The study of language relationships reveals the dramatic and pathetic absorption, dispersion, and isolation of peoples such as most of the Khoisan speakers. Many of the Pygmy groups found in Zaire and Cameroon are thought to be Khoisan peoples who have adopted their neighbors' Niger-Congo languages.
William E. Welmers

Bibliography: Bryan, Margaret A., The Languages of West Africa (1952); Current Approaches to African Linguistics, vols. 1-7 (1983-90); Goyvaerts, Didier, ed., African Linguistics (1985); Greenberg, Joseph H., The Languages of Africa, 3d ed. (1970), and Studies in African Linguistic Classification (1955); Guthrie, Malcolm, Comparative Bantu, 4 vols. (1967-70); Hendrix, Melvin, An International Bibliography of African Lexikons (1982); Mann, Michael, and Dalby, David, eds., A Thesaurus of African Languages (1987); Murphy, John D., and Goff, Harry, A Bibliography of African Languages and Linguistics (1969); Sebeok, Thomas A., Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa (1971); Tucker, Archibald N., and Bryan, Margaret A., The Non-Bantu Languages of North-Eastern Africa (1956); Welmers, William E., African Language Structures (1971); Westermann, Diedrich, and Ward, I. C., Practical Phonetics for Students of African Languages (1933).