The genesis of Swahili language

A common saying, that Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo, probably gives a lighthearted image of the twists and turns that arguably the most widely spoken language in Africa has taken since it was born out of interaction between the coastal Bantu peoples of East Africa and the Asians.
A map showing places where Swahili is spoken.
A map showing places where Swahili is spoken.

A common saying, that Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo, probably gives a lighthearted image of the twists and turns that arguably the most widely spoken language in Africa has taken since it was born out of interaction between the coastal Bantu peoples of East Africa and the Asians.

As language spoken in a swath of land spreading right from northern Mozambique to southern Somalia, it is perhaps not surprising that within its load of linguistic wealth, are words not only from Arabic, Portuguese, English, German but also the indigenous coastal Bantu languages which first came in contact with the foreigner explorers, not to forget the tribes of the East African hinterland as far as the Lingala who have had a profound effect on its evolution.

According to wikipedia, the name ‘Kiswahili’ comes from the plural of the arabic word sawāhil meaning “boundary” or “coast” (used as an adjective to mean “coastal dwellers” or, by adding ‘ki-’ [“language”] to mean “coastal language”).

The story of the Swahili became distinct when the colonialists chose to standardize it, by the Zanzibar dialect known as Kiunguja (Unguja is Swahili for Zanzibar), since the island then was the commercial and cultural epicenter of the region.

It naturally spread towards the mainland in all directions such that, it became the national and official language of Tanzania (parliament sessions are conducted in Swahili there), the national language in Kenya, widely spoken in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo.

So strong has been the influence of Swahili that in Tanzania, the new generations in Tanzania have no fluency in their own mother tongues. Different dialects of Swahili have become a language of preference other than of learning in many areas.

In Kenya, Sheng, a bastardized fast-evolving version that incorporates English and tribal languages, thriving on slangs has literally become the lingua franca among the youth to the extent that the most popular music genres like genge and kapuka are basically the fuel that drives sheng. This of course is helped by the fact that Swahili is taught in all levels of education and is the main mode of communication.

In Uganda for a time in its turbulent history, Swahili became the language of “soldiers and robbers,” a misconception that slowed the movement of the language in the country but only for a time, because as of now, the cross border activity with Kenya and lack of an agreeable local language to unify the country has gradually favored the language.

Here in Rwanda, the prevailing Kiswahili is clearly influenced by the Congo dialect that is heavily laced with Lingala, let alone French, and that influence increases as one moves westwards into Burundi and towards the Congo itself.

In fact Swahili might prove to be the thread that will knit the five countries of East Africa into a community of shared socio-cultural identities. This has been already happening for decades, considering that the old Swahili band music that ruled the airwaves in East Africa in the seventies and eighties was sung in Swahili.

Malaika, (Angel) an internationally acclaimed track sang by Fadhili Williams in 1960, later redone by many African and non-African artists are a good example of a successful Swahili song that broke boundaries.

Also Michael Jackson, in his song Liberian Girl featured a few words of Swahili. The richness and diversity of the language across the many boundaries that it has crossed, squeezed itself into communities, accommodated local words and become accommodated itself is what makes it unique.

From the Swahili sanifu in Zanzibar, thick, sanitized, almost completely incomprehensible to anyone out of Tanzania, to the lesser rigid mainland version, up towards the numerously divided into heavily accented versions of Kenya, according to the speaker’s tribes, to the humorous Buganda excuse of it, which is basically pure Ganda with a Swahili accent, it sounds like a rivers journey over thousands of kilometers of different places.

The Rwandese, Burundi, Congo dialects are perhaps the most linguistically inventive, outright infectious. For any Bantu speaker who might have studied Swahili in a class, this dialect sounds like a generous division of words between Swahili and Bantu phonetics, which at first appears almost careless but with time stands out as a good compromise, between two old and rigid opposing forces to form a linguistic wonder, that slides effortlessly off peoples tongues, like a good song.

Like other international languages, Swahili‘s load of foreign words is still prevalent. From English (baiskeli - bicycle, sigara –cigarette), Portuguese (bendera – flag, pesa – peso/money, gereza -jail), Arabic (tisa – nine, saba – seven), Persian (serikali -government), Bantu (mbili - two) and even German (shule - school).

Currently, many world wide radio stations feature a Swahili service for East Africa in he Great Lakes Region, e.g. BBC, DW radio and Voice of America, to name but a few. That only demonstrates impact a language can have on diverse people that the region hosts, signifying the socio-cultural importance that this language carries. International commerce has already taken a leaf.

In Kenya, Nokia phones have Swahili as an operating language and for a long time the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa, Tanzania has been has localised the language. Today, we have Swahili words like Safari, passing for trips all over the world.

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