Swahili (language)

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Spoken in

Tanzania , Kenya , Democratic Republic of the Congo , Uganda , Burundi , Rwanda , Malawi , Mozambique , Zambia , Comoros , Mayotte , Somalia
speaker 5–10 million native speakers ,
more than 80 million in total
Official status
Official language in TanzaniaTanzania Tanzania Kenya Uganda

RwandaRwanda Rwanda

Other official status in Congo Democratic RepublicDemocratic Republic of Congo Democratic Republic of the Congo (national language)
Recognized minority /
regional language in
MozambiqueMozambique Mozambique (in the north of the country)
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3

swa (macro language)

  • swh (single language Swahili)
  • swc (Copperbelt Swahili)
Spread of Swahili

Swahili (proper name Kiswahili ), especially historically also Suaheli or Kisuaheli is a Bantu language and the most widely used language of communication East Africa . The word swahili is derived from the Arabic plural sawāḥil , singular sāḥil for "coast" or "border" (in German to Sahel ). Swahili is the mother tongue of Swahili , who live in the 1,500-kilometer-long coastal strip from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique , as well as a steadily growing number of people in East Africa who grow up with this language. Swahili is spoken by over 80 million people, making it the most widely spoken Bantu language in the world. Of the more than 80 million Swahili speakers, only 5-10 million are native speakers.


Swahili is the official language in Tanzania , where it passes through the National Swahilirat is maintained, as well as a second official language and widely used lingua franca in Kenya . It has been the official language in Uganda since 2005. As early as 1967, the East African Community set itself a goal of promoting Swahili instead of the English left behind by the British colonial power. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo , Swahili is one of four national languages, and it is mainly spoken in the east of the country. Swahili is also spoken in Rwanda , Burundi , southern Somalia , Mozambique , Malawi, and the Comoros (including Mayotte ).

At the summit of the African Union in July 2004, Swahili was used as the working language . As a lingua franca ( commercial language , lingua franca ), Swahili is spoken by around 80 million people.

Swahili is also spoken by Afro-Iranians in southern Iran .

Origin of the word Swahili

The word Swahili comes from the plural sawāḥil of the Arabic word sāḥil , which means "coast" or "border" (cf. Sahel zone ). The derived adjective as-sawāḥilī (السواحلي) means something like "coastal residents". It is unclear whether the ending “-i” goes back to the Arabic Nisba ending or was added for phonological reasons. The language is called “Kiswahili” in Swahili itself (and occasionally also in German). The prefix ki- indicates (similar to the German article ) the class of the noun.


Origin and history of language

Swahili emerged from the encounter between African coastal residents and seafaring traders, mostly of Arab origin. The language is genetically counted to the Sabaki group of the Bantu languages ​​of East Africa. The greatest similarities exist to a number of languages ​​of the Kenyan coastal area and the Comoros . In the geographical classification of the Bantu languages ​​according to Malcolm Guthrie , Swahili belongs to zone G40.

Even if Swahili is grammatically one of the Bantu languages, its vocabulary includes a large number of Arabic vocabulary. This prompted early European visitors to view Swahili as a variant of Arabic. In classical poems this proportion can be up to 50%; in modern colloquial Swahili , the proportion of Arabic words is estimated at 20%. In general, more words of Arabic origin are used in the Islamic coastal area, the traditional home of the language, than in the interior.

A large number of terms have been incorporated from English in the 20th century. Other languages ​​are Persian , Indian , Portuguese and, in Congo-Swahili, also French with loan words in Swahili. From the German colonial era , only a few expressions made their way into Swahili permanently, of which “shule” (school) is the best known. Overall, it is estimated that the proportion of foreign-language words in Swahili roughly corresponds to the proportion of French, Latin and Greek loanwords in English.

Swahili in Arabic script on the Askari monument in Dar es Salaam "Huu ni ukumbusho wa askari wenyeji Waafrika waliopigana katika Vita Kuu ..", translated: "This is a memory of the African warriors who fought in the great war ..."

Swahili is one of the few African languages ​​that had a written tradition even before the colonial era. The oldest surviving manuscripts date from around 1700 and use the Arabic script (as " Adschami script "). In the 19th century the language was notated in Latin for the first time; the Swabian missionary Ludwig Krapf wrote the first dictionary, a grammar and first parts of the Bible from 1844. Under the influence of the mission schools and the European colonial powers , the Latin alphabet became the standard. Today there are only a few Swahili speakers left in the coastal area who, as Muslims and Koran readers, are familiar with the Arabic script and who also write Swahili with Arabic letters.


As a result of the caravan trade in East Africa with slaves and ivory, Swahili spread increasingly along the caravan routes from the East African coast to the Great Lakes region and the eastern Congo. In the 19th century the language was developed lexically and grammatically, with missionaries such as Ludwig Krapf , Edward Steere and, in the 20th century, Charles Sacleux playing an important role. The first Swahili grammar comes from Krapf and a grammar from Steere in a form that can be used as a textbook. The simple spelling used by Steere was based on standardization in the 1930s, with minor modifications. Sacleux created a dictionary with many etymological annotations for both Arabic loanwords and related words in neighboring Bantu languages. See section Literature .

Colonial times

With the beginning of the colonial era, the importance of Swahili increased, as both in German East Africa and in Kenya the German and British colonial rulers subjugated the country from the coast and used local helpers from the Swahili-speaking area to help establish the administration can also be used as an administrative language. The Germans consistently use Swahili as the official language for direct contact with the locals at the lower levels of administration and in the state schools (whereas the numerous mission schools tend to rely on the local languages ​​of the individual ethnic groups). In the British area, Swahili was temporarily the official language of administration in Uganda, but remained permanently only the command language for the police and the army. In Kenya, the British used Swahili as the lower administrative language and supraregional educational language in elementary schools until the 1950s, but then increasingly used English. In Tanganyika the British continued the former German language policy with Swahili as the lower administrative language until independence. In Belgian Congo , the language was used by the Belgian colonial rulers in administration and education in the eastern Katanga region and is now one of the four recognized national languages ​​of the Democratic Republic of the Congo .


In the years between the two world wars, the British colonial power tried to standardize the language so that it could be better used for administrative purposes. In the Inter- Territorial Language Committee of the British East African Areas, government representatives, locals and representatives of the missionary societies worked together, who wanted a standardization for a common Bible translation as well as for their schools. The dialect of Zanzibar was used as a basis, which had found a wider distribution along the trade routes in the interior of Tanganyika through the caravan trade in the 19th century . Standard Swahili, as it is spread in Tanzania and Kenya through school books and mass media, is based on this to this day .

Since independence

Swahili is omnipresent in Tanzania in written form: here monolingual inscriptions in the hospital in Ikonda in the Makete district (meaning: "Infirmary for children", "... private", "... men", "... women" ).

The maintenance of the language is now the responsibility of the National Swahili Councils in Tanzania and Kenya and the linguistic institute at the University of Dar es Salaam , where a number of dictionaries have been developed. The actual spread is most advanced in Tanzania, where Swahili is the general language of instruction in the seven-year elementary school. In Kenya and Tanzania, it is also compulsory in secondary schools. Both countries have radio and television programs in Swahili.

The progress of the language in Uganda has so far been limited. It is considered "Islamic" and enjoys little popularity because it is the command language of the police and military. Tanzanians like to make fun of their neighbors in this regard, as a common joke shows:

" Kiswahili kilizaliwa Unguja, kilikua Tanzania Bara, kikafa Kenya na kuzikwa Uganda. "
Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, died in Kenya and is buried in Uganda. "

In 2005, Swahili was declared Uganda's second national language alongside English and has been increasingly taught in schools since then.


Spelling and pronunciation

Swahili is now written in the Latin script. The spelling is very largely phonematic , so that there is no need for a separate pronunciation in dictionaries and textbooks. Loan words from other languages ​​are also written according to their pronunciation, which often deviates significantly from the original spelling, especially with words of English origin, e.g. B. kompyuta (computer), kamanda (commander), kwaya (choir), risiti (receipt).

The letters q and x are not used, and c is only used as part of the digraph ch . A first, largely valid orientation for pronunciation is:

  • Vowels (without y ) similar to German (or, more precisely, to Spanish)
  • Consonants and consonant digraphs as in English, but with more precise distinctions: th (like thick ) - dh (like this ); ng (like English finger ) - ng ' (like singer or German finger )
  • Stress on the penultimate syllable

For more details, see the following sections.

Syllable structure

A syllable in Swahili consists of a vowel preceded by zero , one or more consonants ; in addition, nasals can form a syllable on their own if they are independent morphemes . Consonant clusters before the vowel core consist predominantly of a single consonant, which can be preceded by a homorgan nasal or followed by a semi-vowel . Immediately following vowels, even the same, belong to different syllables; so there are no diphthongs or long vowels. Only at the end of a word is a double written vowel pronounced as a long stressed vowel. The penultimate syllable is stressed; the tone shifts when adding suffixes. Examples (with syllable division): Ki | swa | hi | li [⁠ kiswɑhiˑli ⁠] (Swahili), u | nywe | le [⁠ uɲwɛˑlɛ ⁠] (hair), sha | ngwe [⁠ ʃɑˑŋgwɛ ⁠] (cheers), m | tu [⁠ MTU ⁠] (human), m | si | m | to | i | e [⁠ m̩sim̩zuiˑɛ ⁠] (does not stop him), ku | ka | a | nga [⁠ kukɑɑˑŋgɑ ⁠] (fry), m | zee [⁠ Mze ⁠] (old age), nyu | mba [⁠ ɲuˑmbɑ ⁠] (house), mba | | ni nyu [⁠ ɲumbɑˑni ⁠] (in the house).

So the syllables are always open . With loanwords this is often achieved by inserting vowels, mostly / u / after labials and / i / otherwise, e.g. B. daktari from engl. doctor , aiskrimu from engl. icecream (ice cream), kadibodi from engl. cardboard (paperboard), zabibu of arab. zabib (grape), safari from arab. safar (travel). This only happens inside the word if the consonant cluster is difficult to pronounce, but always at the end of the word with very few exceptions in Arabic words, e.g. B. maalum (special), rais (president), salaam (greetings).


Swahili has five vowel - phonemes : / a /, / e /, / i /, / o / and / u /. Unlike the German vowels, they do not differ in terms of vowel length . They are also not spoken reduced in unstressed syllables, only a little longer in stressed syllables, but with the same vowel quality . The closed vowels / i / and / u / are spoken similarly to the long German vowels, the half-open / e / and / o / like the short German ones; only -ee somewhat more closed at the end of the word, for example [e̞ː] instead of [ɛː].


  • / a / like the "a" in "raven", e.g. B. upande [⁠ u⁠pɑˑndɛ ⁠] (side)
  • / e / like the "ä" in "cage", e.g. B. Upendo [⁠ u⁠pɛˑndɔ ⁠] (Love)
  • / i / like the "i" in "Fibel", e.g. B. upinde [⁠ u⁠piˑndɛ ⁠] (sheet)
  • / o / like the "o" in "ton", e.g. B. upondo [⁠ u⁠pɔˑndɔ ⁠] (rudder)
  • / u / like the "u" in "Lupe", e.g. B. punda [⁠ ⁠puˑndɑ ⁠] (donkey)


The following table contains the consonants of Swahili in the form of their written implementation as single letters or digraphs. The sound in phonetic transcription is given in square brackets. In addition to the above, there is the digraph ng for the sound combination [⁠ ng ⁠] , which is much more common than the sound ng ' [⁠ ŋ ⁠] alone.

bilabial labio-
dental alveolar post-
palatal velar glottal
Implosive b [ ɓ ~ b ] d [ ɗ ~ d ] j [ ʄ ~ ɟ ] g [ ɠ ~ g ]
Plosives p [ p ~ t [ t ~ ] k [ k ~ ]
Affricates ch [ ~ tʃʰ ]
Fricatives f [⁠ f ⁠]   v [⁠ v ⁠] th [⁠ .theta ⁠]   ie [⁠ ð ⁠] s [⁠ s ⁠]   z [⁠ for ⁠] sh [⁠ ʃ ⁠] kh [⁠ x ⁠]   gh [⁠ ɣ ⁠] h [⁠ h ⁠]
Flaps r [⁠ ɾ ⁠]
Nasals m [⁠ m ⁠] n [⁠ n ⁠] ny [⁠ ɲ ⁠] ng ' [⁠ ŋ ⁠]
Approximants w [⁠ w ⁠] y [⁠ j ⁠]
l [⁠ l ⁠]

Voiceless sounds are in a box on the left, voiced sounds on the right. The tilde "~" separates different phonetic realizations of the same spelling. Whether these are different phonemes that are only orthographically the same or allophones of the same phoneme is discussed in the next subsection. In Swahili textbooks for the purpose of language acquisition (as opposed to linguistic language descriptions) usually only one pronunciation is given for each consonant letter or consonant digraph, regardless of the context, and the sound differences represented by the tilde are only marginal notes. This is based on a phoneme classification in which the content of a square bracket in the table is a phoneme. The examples above in the Syllable Structure section also follow this pattern. In linguistic language descriptions, the phonemes are often more precisely differentiated, although there are definitely different models.

Prenasalized, implosive and aspirated plosives

Voiced plosives are often prenasalized; . h, they are doing the homorgane ahead nasal: mb [⁠ mb ⁠] , nd [⁠ nd ⁠] , nj [⁠ ⁠] , ng [⁠ ng ⁠] . Are not they pränasaliert, they are at least spoken on the coast implosives in Swahili home country: b [⁠ Ɓ ⁠] , d [⁠ Ɗ ⁠] , j [⁠ ʄ ⁠] , g [ ⁠ Ɠ ⁠] . If and to the extent that the two realizations of the plosive sound (explosive or implosive) depend only on the position (prenasalized or not), they can be viewed as allophones of the same phoneme / b /, / d /, / ɟ / or / g /.

... n ...
b- mb-
v- v- / mv-
w- w- / mb-
d- nd-
z- nz-
j- nj-
G- ng-
l- nd-
r- nd-

There are several morphemes that consist of only one nasal, namely m- ( class prefix of classes 1 and 3 ; subject prefix of 2nd person plural; object prefix of 3rd person singular) and n- (class prefix of classes 9 and 10). Before vowels they become mw- or ny- and belong to the same syllable as the vowel. Before consonants they are syllabic and stressed if the consonant belongs to the last syllable of the word. But m- and n- behave differently in terms of the influence of the following consonant:

  • m- always prefixes the consonant unchanged, including all nasals, e.g. B. mmoja (a), mnene (thick), mnyama (animal), mng'aro (shine).
  • n- , on the other hand, is adapted to a subsequent voiced plosive sound in the sense of prenasalization, analogously to voiced fricatives and liquids , see table on the right; compare approximately unchanged m- and r- in mti mrefu [⁠ MTI m̩ɾɛˑfu ⁠] ( "tall tree" Kl. 3, mrefu ← mrefu ) with fused n- and r- in njia ndefu [⁠ nɟiˑɑ ndɛˑfu ⁠] ( "long way" Kl. 9, ndefu ← n-REFU ). In front of other consonants, the n- is omitted if it is not emphasized, and subsequent voiceless plosives and affricates are then spoken aspirated by many speakers . If the word is monosyllabic without the nasal, the nasal is stressed in all cases, e.g. B. nta [⁠ n̩tɑ ⁠] (wax), length [⁠ ŋ̩gɛ ⁠] (Scorpio), nzi [⁠ NZI ⁠] (fly), nchi [⁠ n̩tʃi ⁠] (country).

According to these rules, different pronunciations of different meaning but spelling of the same words can occur in individual cases:

  • If an adjective begins with an implosive b- , a prefix m- is put in front of it without any influence on the b- , which remains implosive. A prefix n-, on the other hand, prenasalises the b- to mb- , and the b- is no longer implosive. The notation is the same in both cases, e.g. B. mti Mbaya [⁠ MTI m̩ɓɑˑjɑ ⁠] ( "bad tree" Kl. 3, Mbaya ← Mbaya ) and njia Mbaya [⁠ nɟiˑɑ mbɑˑjɑ ⁠] ( "bad way" Kl. 9, Mbaya ← n -baya ).
  • In both grades 5 and 9, nouns that begin with an unvoiced plosive do not have a class prefix, e.g. B. PAA [⁠ ⁠] ( "roof" cl. 5, plural mapaa Cl. 6) and paa [⁠ ⁠] ( "Gazelle" Cl. 9, plural paa Kl. 10). In the latter pair, the prefix n- has been dropped, so that the p- is aspirated; in the former there is no class prefix in the singular, and thus no reason for an aspirated p- .

These minimal pairs show that the phoneme inventory is more finely subdivided than the spelling reflects. The phoneme we further differentiated by the aspirated plosives / ⁠ P ⁠ / , / ⁠ T ⁠ / , / ⁠ K ⁠ / and / ⁠ / ⁠ to take as phonemes, as well as some consonant combinations, at least / ⁠ ᵐb ⁠ / , / ⁠ ⁿd ⁠ / , / ⁠ ⁿɟ ⁠ / and / ⁠ ᵑɡ ⁠ / and some authors even further. The explosive voiced plosives are then definitely omitted as phonemes, but can be admitted as allophones of the implosive ones, since they do not contrast with any other sound and are used by many speakers instead of the implosive ones.

The minimal pair property, however, depends on the fact that the named differentiations of pronunciation, namely the distinction between implosive from explosive and aspirated from non-aspirated plosives as well as the distinction between syllabic and nonsyllabic nasals (also in unstressed positions within the word), are actually made in accordance with the rules by the speakers and recognized by the listener and used to distinguish otherwise identical words. Both are only the case to a very limited extent, and conversely, the lack of distinctive character of this differentiation also leads to its neglect in the teaching of language. Polomé names the following reasons for the blurring of the contrast between aspirated and non-aspirated plosives:

  • the low semantic distinctiveness ("low functional yield on the semantic level"),
  • the tendency to aspirate initial voiceless plosives and affricates in any case, especially in two-syllable words,
  • the lack of written notation of aspiration in the earlier Arabic as in the current Latin script, as well
  • the increasing influence of the large number of non-native speakers who do not make a distinction that is not valued in Swahili language lessons anyway.

Fricatives in Arabic loanwords

The digraphs ie [⁠ ð ⁠] , gh [⁠ ɣ ⁠] and kh [⁠ x ⁠] only occur in Arabic loanwords; th [⁠ .theta ⁠] next to it in modern borrowings from English as themometa (thermometer) and thieta (operating room). Instead of kh , h is now consistently written and widely spoken, except in some names or - in connection with this - in the title sheikh (also written shehe ).


Nominal classes

Like all Bantu languages, Swahili divides all nouns into noun classes . The original system had 22 classes (classes for singular and plural nouns each counted as a separate class), each of which uses at least ten Bantu languages. There are fifteen classes in Swahili: six for singular, five for plural, one for infinitive and three for place names, including mahali ("place, place").

Words that begin in the singular with m- (1.) and in the plural with wa- (2.) denote people, e.g. B. mtoto "child", watoto "children". A class with m- (3rd) in the singular and mi- (4th) in the plural is mainly used for plants, cf. mti "tree" and miti "Trees". Infinitives begin with the class prefix ku- (17.), e.g. B. kusoma "read". With all other classes, it is difficult to establish contextual references. The ki- / vi- class (7th / 8th) mainly contains tools and artefacts, but is also used for foreign and loan words in which the ki- originally belonged to the tribe: kitabu / vitabu “book” / “books "(From Arabic kitāb " book "). This class also includes languages ​​(like the name of the language itself: Kiswahili ) and diminutive (diminutive). Words with the class prefix u- (11th, plural after 6th or 10th grade (see below) - or without plural) often designate abstracts, e.g. B. utoto "childhood".

The 9th and 10th grades start with n- or m- and have the same plural form. Another class (5th) has ji- or nothing (ø-) as a prefix in the singular; their plural is formed with ma- (6th). This class is often used for augmentatives .

Often it is not possible to tell from the noun itself which class it belongs to. This is then only possible taking into account the (matching) words that concord with it . Adjectives and numerals have the same prefix as the noun ( set A ), verbs and other parts of speech are given different class prefixes ( set B ) (provided that they match ).

An example for the 1st class ( singular ) with m- for nouns and a- for verbs:

mtoto mmoja anasoma "A child reads."
Swahili: m -toto m -moja a -nasoma
Literally: 1st class singular child 1st class - one 1st class - read

In the plural , i.e. the 2nd class, wa- is used for nouns and wa- for verbs:

watoto wawili wanasoma "Two children read."
Swahili: wa -toto wa -vili wa -nasoma
Literally: 2nd grade plural child 2nd class place two 2. Kl.Pl.- read

Class 7/8 with ki- / vi- (both with Set A (nouns) and with Set B (verbs)):

kitabu kimoja kinatosha "One book is enough."
Swahili: ki taboo ki -moja ki- natosha
Literally: 7th grade singular book 7- one 7- sufficient
vitabu viwili vinatosha "Two books are enough."
Swahili: vi -taboo vi -vili vi -natosha
Literally: 8th grade plural book 8- two 8- sufficient

By using different class prefixes, derivatives can be formed from the same root: human (1./2.) Mtoto (watoto) "child ( ren )"; abstract (11th) utoto "childhood"; Reduction (7th / 8th) kitoto (vitoto) "small child ( ren )"; Enlargement (5th / 6th) toto (matoto) "big child / big children".

Also possible: plants (3rd / 4th) mti (miti) "tree / trees"; Tools (7th / 8th) kiti (viti) “chair / chairs”; Enlargement (5th / 6th) jiti (mati) "big tree"; Reduction (7th / 8th) kijiti (vijiti) "stick / sticks" ;? (11./10.) Ujiti (njiti) "slim, tall tree (s)".

Verb morphology

The verb construction shows an agglutinating language structure in Swahili . Verbs in Swahili consist of a root and a series of affixes. The ending of the verb is changed to denote the genera verbi , while the tense or mode , the person of the subject and sometimes the object , negation and relative pronouns are prefixed to the verb. Since these prefixes - up to four on a verb - are also found between the root and other prefixes, it has sometimes been mistakenly assumed that Swahili has infixes .

The most important genera verbs are indicative / active (unmarked, Bantu ending -a ), passive (ending -wa ), applicative (ending -ia or -ea ), state passive (ending -ika or -eka ), causative (ending -sha or -za ) and a reciprocal form (ending -ana ); if the vowels accumulate, an -l- is inserted. Example: chukua (to carry [something]), chukuliwa (to be carried), chukulia (to carry [something] to someone), chukuza (to make someone carry something), chukuana (to support one another). These endings can also be combined, e.g. B. chukuliana (to carry each other [something]), the reciprocal of the applicative.

There are pure tenses like in German (pasts, present tenses, future) and tenses depending on the context (simultaneity, sequence), as well as forms for unrealized possibilities similar to the German subjunctive and an optative . All of these tenses and modes are each marked by a prefix that is placed between the other prefixes, namely after the subject or negation prefix and before relative pronouns and object if available, otherwise before the root.

Most Swahili dictionaries only list the root of the verb ( e.g. -kata with the meaning "cut"). In the simple sentence, prefixes for the person and the tense are added ( ninakata ). ni- stands for the 1st person singular (“I”) and -na- marks the tense specific tense - generally to be translated with the present tense in the progressive aspect .

ninakata "I cut (it) (straight)."
Swahili: ni-na-kata
Literally: 1.P.Sg.-PROG- cut

This sentence can now be changed by exchanging the prefixes.

unakata "You cut (it) (straight)."
Swahili: u-na-kata
Literally: 2.P.Sg.-PROG- cut
umekata "You cut (it)."
Swahili: u-me-kata
Literally: 2.P.Sg.- PERFECT - cut

As another Tempus there is a present tense , which is not to be confused with the aforementioned: Nasoma is in standard Swahili no shortening of ninasoma ( "I just read"), instead, it contains a tense, with the prefix a- is formed . Nasoma (assimilated from * Ni-a-soma ) means something like “I read (usually)” / “I can read”. This tense is also known as the indefinite tense or the gnomic present ; it is actually the generally affirmative tense.

nasoma "I read."
Swahili: na-soma
Literally: 1.P.Sg.:GNOM- read
mwasoma "You read."
Swahili: mwa-soma
Literally: 2.P.Pl.:GNOM- read

The list of all subject prefixes for the m / wa class (1st / 2nd - "people"):

person Singular Plural
1. ni- tu-
2. u- m-
3. a- wa-

The most common Tempus - and mode prefixes are:

-a- Gnomish present tense (indefinite tense) does constantly
-n / A- Progressive (certain tense) is doing right now
-me- Perfect did (result now relevant)
-li- preterite did
-ta- Future tense will do
-ka- Consecutive did / does afterwards (or as a result)
-k- simultaneity did / does at the same time (or as a condition)
-nge- conjunctive would do
-ngali- Subjunctive past tense would have done
-… -e Optional may / should do

Two tenses or modes have no tense / mode prefix, but change the final vowel -a . Strictly speaking, the dictionary entry -soma “read” is not the pure root, but the root with the ending -a . -a stands for the indicative . The general negative with the ending -i and the optative with the ending -e have a different final vowel (examples under Optative in Swahili ).

The prefixes -ki- , -nge- and -ngali- are also used as conditional forms. You then take on the role that the conjunction "Wenn" has in German:

ni ki nunua nyama ya mbuzi sokoni, nitapika leo. " If I buy goat meat at the market, I'll cook today."
Swahili: ni-ki-nunua nyama ya mbuzi soko-ni, ni-ta-pika leo
Literally: 1.Sg.-KOND- buy 9- meat 9- of 9- goat Market - LOC 1.Sg-FUT- cook today

Analog: ningenunua (if I would have bought ) and ningalinunua (if I had bought).

A third affix can be added to the root with the object prefix. It stands directly in front of the root and must be set if the object is definite and can replace object pronouns .

anamwona "He / she sees him / her (just)."
Swahili: a-na-mw-ona
Literally: 3.Sg.-PROG-3.Sg.OBJ- see
ninamwona mtoto "I see the child."
Swahili: ni-na-mw-ona m-toto
Literally: 1.Sg.-PROG-3.Sg.OBJ- see 1- child

With further prefixes you can add relative pronouns that refer to subject, object, time, place or manner of action. The negation is also a further prefix, namely ha- before the subject syllable or si- after it, depending on the tense / modus prefix, which can also be dropped or changed in the case of negation.


A large number of dialects developed in the extensive Swahili language area between Somalia, Mozambique and the islands of the Indian Ocean. For the first time since the end of the First World War , almost the largest part of the area of ​​the Swahili culture was politically united by British rule. In the 1920s, the colonial administration pushed for the unification of Swahili. Since 1928, the Kiunguja dialect spoken in Zanzibar has been the basis for standard Swahili. That being said, the language includes more than fifty different dialects, including:

  • Kimrima : Area around Pangani , Vanga, Dar es Salaam , Rufiji and Mafia Island
  • Kimgao : Area around Kilwa and south of it
  • Kipemba : area around Pemba
  • Kimvita : Area in and around Mvita or Mombasa , formerly the second major dialect after Kiunguja
  • Kiamu : Area around Lamu Island (Amu)
  • Kingwana : Eastern and southern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo , sometimes referred to as Copperbelt Swahili , especially the variant spoken in the south
  • Kingozi : a special case, the language of the inhabitants of the ancient city " Ngozi " and possibly the origin of Swahili
  • Shikomor ( Comorian ): The languages ​​of the Comoros are closely related to Swahili. The dialects Kingazidja or Shingazidja that on Grande Comore are spoken, and the Mahorische that on Mayotte is spoken are sometimes considered dialects of Swahili.
  • Kimwani : Area around the Kerimba Islands and the north coast of Mozambique
  • Chimwiini : Area around Barawa (south coast of Somalia )
  • Sheng : a type of informal street slang made up of Swahili, English, and other indigenous languages ​​used in and around Nairobi . Sheng originated in Nairobi slums and is considered modern and metropolitan by an increasing proportion of the population.


Prominent Swahili terms and phrases
  • Hakuna Matata , “there are no problems; everything is fine ”, song title
  • Jenga , "build", game of skill
  • Joomla (English spelling of Swahili jumla ), “Sum; all together “, free content management system for creating websites
  • Jumbo (English spelling of Swahili jambo ), "matter (shortened greeting)", name of an elephant, symbol for special size
  • Kofia , "hat", traditional male headgear
  • Maafa , " calamity ", African Holocaust (political neologism)
  • Mambo , “things; Affairs “, content management system, forerunner of Joomla
  • Mitumba , "Bundle (Mehrz.)", Packaging unit for imported old clothes
  • Safari , "travel", big game hunting
  • Watoro , "runaway slaves", East African ethnic group


  • Siegmund Brauner, Irmtraud Herms: Textbook of Swahili . Publishing house Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1964.
  • Wilhelm JG Möhlig, Bernd Heine: Swahili basic course with exercise book and CD, Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne 2010, ISBN 978-3-89645-575-8 .
  • Christoph Friedrich: Swahili word for word (= gibberish , volume 10), Reise Know-How, Bielefeld 2005, ISBN 3-89416-074-8 .
  • Hildegard Höftmann, Irmtraud Herms: Dictionary Swahili-German. 5th edition. Langenscheidt u. Publishing house Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1992.
  • Karsten Legère: Dictionary German – Swahili. 2nd Edition. Langenscheidt u. Verlag Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1994.
  • Emil Meier: Phrase book for the Swahili language, German – Kiswahili, Kisuaheli – German . Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1989, ISBN 3-447-02915-3 .
  • Johann Ludwig Krapf: Outline of the elements of the Kisuáheli language with special reference to the Kiníka dialect . Fues, Tübingen 1850 (English, bsb-muenchen.de [accessed on November 13, 2019]).
  • Edward Steere: A handbook of the Swahili language, as spoken at Zanzibar . London 1870 (English, bsb-muenchen.de [accessed on November 13, 2019]).
  • Charles Sacleux: Dictionnaire Swahili - Français . Institut d'ethnologie, Paris 1939 (French, uni-leipzig.de [PDF; 290.0 MB ; accessed on March 25, 2019] with many comments on the etymology).
  • MA Mohammed: Modern Swahili Grammar. East African Educational Publishers, Nairobi 2001, ISBN 9966-46-761-0 .
  • Rupert Moser: Guide Kiswahili. Phil.-hist. Faculty, Institute for Social Anthropology, Bern 2005.
  • EC Polomé: Swahili Language Handbook. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington 1967.
  • Beat Wandeler: Swahili textbook for beginners. Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-87548-396-0 .
  • Beat Wandeler: Textbook of Swahili for Beginners - CD. Audio CD for the book of the same name, Helmut Buske Verlag, Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-87548-397-9 .
  • Cosmo Lazaro: Dictionary of International Swahili. Deutsch – Kiswahili, Kiswahili – Deutsch, AM-CO Publishers, Cologne 2002, ISBN 3-9806714-1-0 .
  • Cosmo Lazaro: Swahili travel dictionary. Deutsch – Kiswahili, Kiswahili – Deutsch, AM-CO Publishers, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-9806714-0-2 .
  • Cosmo Lazaro: Textbook of the everyday language Swahili. with audio CD and video DVD, AM-CO Publishers, Cologne 2004, ISBN 3-9806714-4-5 .
  • Gudrun Miehe, Wilhelm JG Möhling (ed.): Swahili manual . Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, Cologne 1995, ISBN 3-927620-06-8 .
  • Nathan Oyori Ogechi: On language rights in Kenya (PDF; 195 kB) In: Nordic Journal of African Studies. 12 (3), 2003, pp. 277–295 (on the legal situation of Swahili in Kenya)
  • Kai-Uwe von Hassel , Paul Fokken: Waafrika wa leo: Selected. u. revised Swahili texts from magazines; With e. Word index Pan-Verlag Birnbach, Leipzig 1941, DNB 57984661X .

Web links

Wikibooks: Kiswahili  - learning and teaching materials
Wiktionary: Swahili  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Swahili  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

References and comments

  1. a b L. Marten: Swahili. In: Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Elsevier, 2005.
  2. Swahili was declared a "national language" by the first President Julius Nyerere , without this ever being fixed by law; Government publications also refer to it as “official language”, e.g. B. “Kiswahili and English are the Official languages, however the former is the national language” (Official website of the Tanzania government tanzania.go.tz) ( Memento from November 13, 2013 in the Internet Archive )
  3. Kenya does not currently have a comprehensive language regulation; According to the current constitution of 1992, Swahili is one of the official languages ​​of Parliament with English; every candidate must prove knowledge of the language; but all resolutions of the parliament are to be written in English (N. O. Ogechi: On language rights in Kenya. p. 287); At the lower level of the courts, Swahili is permitted as the language of negotiation, but records and judgments must be made in English (Ogechi, p. 290 f); the public administrations are allowed to use English and Swahili when communicating with citizens (Ogechi, p. 290); In the draft of the new constitution, English and Swahili are envisaged as the two official languages ​​of the state, and Swahili also as the national language (Ogechi, p. 288).
  4. Uganda Constitution (Amendment) Act 2005 (Act No. 11 of 2005): “3. Replacement of Article 6 of the Constitution. For article 6 of the Constitution, there is substituted the following: 6. Official language. (1) The official language of Uganda is English. (2) Swahili shall be the second official language in Uganda to be used in such circumstances as Parliament may by law prescribe. " In fact, Swahili is the command language used by the police and the military and, moreover, is hardly used in civil administration.
  5. Article 1 of the constitution defines French as the "official language": "... langues nationales sont le kikongo, le lingala, le swahili et le tshiluba"; According to Art. 142, all laws are to be published in these languages ​​within 60 days; In the east of the country, Swahili is the predominant language of communication and is also used in schools and at government offices.
  6. See on this paragraph UCLA Language Materials Project: Swahili ( Memento from June 5, 2018 in the Internet Archive ) on the website of the Language Institute of the University of California (Los Angeles)
  7. Ype Schaaf: L'histoire et le rôle de la Bible en Afrique , CETA, HAHO et CLE, Lavigny 2000, ISBN 9-966-886-72-9 , pp. 68-91
  8. cf. the representation in the article Swahili language. In: Heinrich Schnee (Ed.): German Colonial Lexicon , 1920.
  9. Viera Pawlikova-Vilhanova: Swahili and the dilemma of Ugandan language policy. In: Asian and African Studies. 5, 1996, 2, pp. 158-170; (PDF) , pp. 9, 11
  10. Nabea, Wendo: Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony . (PDF) In: The Journal of Pan African Studies. vol. 3, no.1, September 2009.
  11. Johannes Fabian: Language and colonial power: the appropriation of Swahili in the former Belgian Congo, 1880-1938. Cambridge 1986, here in Google Book Search
  12. On Wednesday, the 6th July 2005, the Parliament of Uganda passed an amendment in the 1995 Constitution making Kiswahili the second official language of Uganda, after English. In: Kjersti Majola: Language and Education in Uganda: an encounter with the National Indigenous Language Forum (PDF). The introduction of Swahili as a compulsory subject is slow, however, as there is a lack of teachers and material. See report of the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor of January 23, 2014: Kiswahili dream drags on as government looks for funds (English) accessed on February 8, 2014.
  13. a b c d Ellen Contini-Morava: Swahili Phonology . In: Alan S. Kaye, Peter T. Daniels (Eds.): Phonologies of Asia and Africa . tape 2 . Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake 1997, ISBN 1-57506-019-1 (English).
  14. a b Katrin Jahn: Language description Kiswahili. (PDF; 3.0 MB) University of Duisburg-Essen, March 2012, pp. 5–7 , accessed on January 30, 2019 .
  15. ^ Edgar C. Polomé: Swahili Language Handbook . Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington 1967, p. 41 (English).
  16. B. Wandeler: Textbook of Swahili. Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-87548-503-5 , somewhat unfortunately calls this form “subjunctive”, although it is practically never used where a subjunctive would be in German. “Optative”, on the other hand, hits the grammatical function exactly. In English literature it is also called “subjunctive”, which at least arouses the right associations if one knows the French subjonctive .