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The Swahili language (Kiswahili) is a member of the Bantu family of languages spoken by the Bantu people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. It is an official language in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has also become a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa, including Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, Comoros, Zambia, Malawi, and Madagascar. While it has proven difficult to gather accurate data on the total number of Swahili speakers, it is believed that there are between 5 to 15 million native speakers of the language, and as many as 60 to 150 million speakers of Swahili as a second language, with varying degrees of proficiency.

The relatively low number of native speakers in comparison with the high number of second language speakers reflects the nature and importance of Swahili as a lingua franca for trade, commerce, and cross-border/cross-cultural communication in much of eastern and southeastern Africa. Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and one of the official languages of the East African Community. In the United States, there are roughly 90,000 speakers of the Swahili language according to the “American Community Survey.” The states with the largest populations of Swahili speakers include Texas, Massachusetts, California, and Maryland.

Largely as a result of its nature as a language of trade and commerce, as well as wide geographic distribution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, many dialects of Swahili have evolved over the years. The “standard” form of the language is based on the dialect spoken in Zanzibar. Other main dialect groups include Mombasa-Lamu Swahili, Pemba Swahili, and Comorian Swahili. Each of these main dialect groups also contains several regional variations and sub-dialects, and with some dialects being mutually unintelligible.

Swahili is classified as an agglutinative language, wherein words may contain different morphemes to determine their meanings, including stems and affixes, but all of the morphemes remain intact after being joined together. The basic word order in Swahili is subject-verb-object (SVO), and it makes extensive use of inflection for person, tense, aspect, and mood. Swahili also has a highly complex and intricate system of 16 noun classes, determined by their prefix, and which corresponds to the noun classing system of other Bantu languages. Similar nouns tend to be grouped in the same classes. Odd-numbered classes are singular, while even-numbered classes are plural, and a noun is made plural by shifting it to the next higher class. The noun class also determines the forms of other parts of speech to which it is related, such as adjectives and verbs.

There are two categories of adjectives in Swahili, namely those adjectives that take a prefix indicating the corresponding noun class to which the adjective is referring (inflecting adjectives), and invariable adjectives that do not require a prefix. Verbs in Swahili are also formed by adding a prefix to the root verb stem and which indicate subject, object, tense, aspect, mood, and certain other inflectional categories. These verb prefixes are always attached to the verb stem in a fixed order according to its function.

Swahili was originally written in the Arabic script but currently uses the Latin alphabet, with only the letters Q and X being excluded. Swahili orthography was standardized at a June 1928 conference in Kenya involving the colonial administrations of East Africa and representatives from each of the main Swahili-speaking regions. It was also at this conference that the variety of Swahili spoken in Zanzibar would serve as the basis for the standard version of the language.

FUN FACTS: Centuries of trade along the East African coast brought Swahili into contact with numerous other languages, and as a result, it has inherited numerous loanwords, primarily from Arabic, accounting for roughly 35% of its vocabulary. It is also one of the few Sub-Saharan African languages without lexical tone, similar to English, making it relatively easy for English-speakers to learn.

At Piedmont Global Language Solutions (PGLS), we offer document translation, interpretation, localization, and other language services in Swahili. Whether you need to translate a rental agreement for office space in Nairobi from Swahili into English, need a Swahili interpreter for a video conference call with a client in Uganda, or want to localize your website into Swahili to market your products in East Africa, PGLS is here to help with all of your Swahili language needs.

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