Swahili Snippets: Introduction

One of the things we love about living in Tanzania is learning Swahili. Over 100 million people speak Swahili, making it the sixteenth most spoken language in the world. More people speak Swahili than Italian, Korean, or Vietnamese!

Even though many people speak Swahili, it’s not widely known outside of Africa. Before we joined the Peace Corps, we only knew a few words from the Lion King (and no, Tanzanians do not say hakuna matata to each other). If you’re an American reader, you probably don’t know much about this language either. That’s why we’re starting a new feature on our blog: Swahili Snippets. Every month, we’ll share interesting vocabulary, linguistic structure, or facts about Swahili.

Countries where Swahili is widely spoken.

History of Swahili

Swahili grammar can be traced to Bantu, or Central and Eastern African, languages. Arabic, Portuguese, English, and German have contributed vocabulary through years of colonization and trade. For centuries, Swahili has been a lingua franca for east Africans and visitors. Today, it is the national language of Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Click here for a detailed review of Swahili’s history.

Politics of Swahili

Tanzanians are very proud of their national identity and the fact that Tanzania has never experienced a civil war. Many Tanzanians and scholars say this is because Swahili is a second language for almost everyone in the country. Children grow up speaking a tribal language, then learn Swahili in school. This ensures Tanzanians can communicate with each other and understand the government.

Swahili or Kiswahili?

A distinctive feature of Swahili is its noun classes. We’ll talk about these in-depth in later posts. For now, just know that the beginning of a Swahili noun can tell you a lot about what that word is. For example, languages all start with the prefix ki-. Kichina is Chinese. Kikorea is Korean. Kijerumani is German. (But plenty of things other than languages start with ki-, like book (kitabu), leader (kiongozi), and colorful fabric (kitenge), so don’t get comfortable.)

If you know that the people who live in the Tanzania area are collectively called the Swahili people, you know that their language is Kiswahili.

But if you’re speaking English, you wouldn’t use prefix markers from another language! Simply say Swahili, as in “I am studying Swahili.”

Review question: If you know that England is Uingereza in Swahili, then how do you say “English language” in Swahili? (hint: drop the u-)


It’s Kiingereza. Don’t say Kimarekani.

What do you want to know about Swahili? Let us know in the comments!


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