June 9, 2022
Kiswahili is a Bantu language that is spoken by East and Central Africans in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda, Congo. Ki is used as an indicator of Language spoken by certain people e.g. Kiingereza (English) Kimaasai (Language spoken by the Maasai people).
Some people also speak Swahili as their mother tongue. These people who speak it as their mother tongue are called Waswahili (Swahili people) although this doesn’t necessarily presuppose their tribe or ethnicity. Swahili is also studied in other countries such as South Africa & Ghana. Now that we know its basic facts, we need to find out what language family is Swahili in.
The Bantu umbrella languages mostly trace their origin from the Niger-Congo language family in a place called Shungwaya. As migration of people happened for different reasons, different groups of people ended up settling in different lands that ended up being countries. As they moved they interacted with other tribes thus influencing their language and culture along the way.
Most Bantu people were farmers so they ended up settling in places that were conducive to Agriculture and business. Some examples of Bantu languages include Kirundi spoken in Burundi, Kinyarwanda spoken in Rwanda, Kiganda spoken in Uganda, and Xhosa in Southern Africa. With Swahili having the most speakers of any African language (about 200 million people).
Interaction and contact with other languages and cultures ultimately created different variations of these Bantu languages which are referred to as dialects. Swahili has 15 main dialects, as well as several other forms.
Swahili has three major dialects. Which are Kiunguja which is mostly spoken in Tanzania and Zanzibar, Kimvita which is spoken in Mombasa and certain areas in Kenya and Kiamu spoken in Lamu. Swahili’s standardization is based on the Kiunguja dialect. Other dialects include Kimrima, Kipemba, Bajuni, Kimtangata, Kingwana (spoken in Congo), and Kingazija (spoken in Comoros).
Swahili has a rich history from its origin to its current standard form. It is a language that has evolved and still evolves. Certain technological advances in the world or developments have prompted Swahili to grow its language. The Swahili Kamusi (Dictionary) is always evolving to accommodate these changes.
Swahili has also been affected, either positively or negatively depending on who is looking at it, by Sheng. A slang variation that originated in Nairobi Slams and is now widely spoken by youth in urban areas. Swahili purists have always been up in arms against the emergence of Sheng. Terming Sheng as a destructive and bad influence on the well-being, development, and promotion of the Swahili language.
However, major corporations and politicians have used (and still use) Sheng while trying to appeal to the young and hip, and urban demographic in Kenya. This has led to different variations of Sheng. Different neighborhoods contribute vocabularies which led to the publication of a Sheng dictionary which unfortunately is not very relevant today due to the dynamic nature of Sheng.
Jason is an Fulbright scholar and experienced Swahili instructor who formerly taught at Yale University. He completed an MA degree in the US, writing a thesis about Swahili commentaries on Hollywood films. He currently teaches English language and literature at a high school in Kenya while serving as the Africa Fulbright Network's Ambassador to Kenya.