4 Facts About Swahili: Islam, Loan Words and Language Group

Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language that is native to the Swahili people. It is spoken in many countries across Africa, and it is the lingua franca of several countries in South and East Africa, and the whole of the African Great Lakes region.

It’s also the national language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It’s impossible to ascertain how many speakers there are worldwide, but estimates guess between 50-150 million!

The following facts cover some information about the history, distribution, structure, and use of this language in the world today.

A Few Facts about the African Language of Swahili

1. Swahili is a Niger-Congo language from the Atlantic-Congo language group

The following family tree traces Swahili back to its roots, only following the branches that led to its development. Any language or language groups with (?) next to them are hypothetical or debated by linguists.

2. Swahili is native to many different countries

An incomplete list of countries and areas covering the lands of the Swahili people are:

  • Tanzania
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Bajuni Islands (Somalia)
  • Mwani (Mozambique)
  • Burundi
  • Rwanda
  • Uganda
  • Kenya
  • Comoros
  • Mayotte
  • Zambia
  • Malawi
  • Madagascar

3. About 20% of Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic, including the name ‘Swahili’ itself

It comes from the Arabic word sawāḥilī, a plural form meaning “they of the coast”.

4. Swahili was the major language used to spread Christianity and Islam in East Africa

Arabs taught in Swahili at their madrasas when imparting Islam to the natives on the East African coast, while later Christians took the language and traveled inland with it.

Final Thoughts

As a major language of the African continent, knowledge of Swahili is important for anyone who wants to know more about African cultures and about our worldwide human culture. These facts are a starting point into a world of research that could change you – and the world – forever.

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