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Swahili is mainly spoken in East Africa by about 50 million people in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. In Tanzania and Kenya it is the official national language. However, for most people who speak Swahili, it is not their mother tongue. It is for only 5 million of the 50 million speakers mentioned. The people of Zanzibar speak the purest form of Swahili.

Swahili, called Kiswahili by Tanzanians (the preposition 'ki' indicates that it is a language), is still used in primary education, among other things. English is also widely used, including in secondary and higher education, in parliament and on official occasions.

Swahili is a mixture of original Bantu languages, strongly influenced by Arabic, Portuguese and Hindi. Swahili used to be a lingua franca or common trading language. The word Swahili comes from the Arabic 'sawa hili', which means 'of the coast'.

Swahili has fifteen dialects, of which Kiunguja is the most common. Other dialects are Kimvita, Kiamu, Kipemba, Kimtang'ata, Kimrima, Kiamu, Kipate, Kisiu, Kitikuu, Kivumba, Kingwana and Kingozi, a literary dialect used in classical Swahili poetry.

A special feature of Swahili is that every letter is pronounced, regardless of whether it is part of a consonant group. If a letter is written twice, it is also pronounced twice. The emphasis in Swahili is almost always on the second last syllable.

Some Swahili Words and Phrases


Else, D. / Zanzibar

Finke, J. / Tanzania
Rough Guides

Fitzpatrick, M. / Tanzania
Lonely Planet

Heale, J. / Tanzania
Marshall Cavendish

Skinner, A. / Tanzania & Zanzibar

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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