Swahili is spoken by millions across Africa. It is one of the official languages of four different countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it is also spoken in the African Great Lakes region including Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and others. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the Swahili language.
This article originally appeared on AFKInsider.com.
Swahili existed before the first Arab visitors came to East Africa
While Swahili contains many words borrowed from Arabic, it actually predates the first Arab visitors to the East African coast. It is true, however, that the Swahili has continued to change, and contains words assimilated from a variety of other languages too, including English, Portuguese, and more.
Swahili is a member of the Bantu group, despite its heavy Arabic influence
While it sounds quite different from other languages in the Bantu family, according to linguist Malcom Guthrie, Swahili originates from proto-Bantu — the ancient proto-language from which all Bantu languages originate.
Swahili remains an East African “bridge language” and is spoken by more than 140 million people
Though less than five million people consider Swahili to be their mother tongue, the language has spread across the African Great Lakes region through trade, religion, education, and the human diaspora. Swahili is considered a bridge language (lingua franca), and is used systematically rather than occasionally to make communication possible between people who don’t share a mother tongue.
It is rarely spoken In Uganda outside the capital city of Kampala
Despite being an official language in Uganda, Swahili is rarely spoken outside Kampala. It is thought that this is due, at least in part, to dictator Idi Amin’s insistence in including Swahili as an official language of the country. The language is commonly associated with his brutal regime, and has been rejected by many Ugandans.
‘Swahili’ is the word used by Arab visitors to East Africa to describe ‘the coast’
The first Arab visitors to East Africa used the word “Swahili” to describe the coastal region in general, and it gradually came to apply to the distinctive East African culture in that area. Nowadays, the Swahili language is named “kiSwahili,” and those who speak it are referred to as “waSwahilis.”
Swahili time starts at 6 a.m.
Rather than at midnight, like in most other cultures, in Swahili culture the clock starts at 6 a.m. So double check if you’re told to arrive somewhere at a specific time, as you may need to tack on six hours. Interestingly, Ethiopians often use the Swahili clock, despite not being a Swahili-speaking country.
The earliest known Swahili documents date back to 1711
These documents consist of letters written in Arabic script that were sent to the Portuguese in Mozambique in 1711. They remain preserved in the historical archives in Goa, India.
‘Methali’ is deeply embedded in Swahili culture
Methali, or a form of wordplay, puns, and lyrical rhyming, is a defining feature of the Swahili language and culture. Taking the form of parables, proverbs, and, more recently, rap music, methali is extremely prevalent in Swahili-speaking regions.
Swahili is unusual in the Bantu language family for lacking clicking sounds
With the exception of the Mvita dialect spoken in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, Swahili is one of the only Bantu languages that does not feature the lexical “click” tone. This, along with its heavy Arab influence, has led many to doubt its inclusion in the Bantu family.
Originally written in Arabic script, Swahili is now written in a slightly defective Latin alphabet
With a few distinctive differences, Swahili is written primarily in the Latin alphabet. There are several unique letter combinations that are used for native and Arabic sounds, and not all consonants are aspirated. Otherwise Swahili uses the standard Latin script.
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