How did Swahili — a child of Bantu language origins, some Arabic vocabulary, Portuguese influence, birthed on the coast of East Africa — become the lingua franca of more than 100 million people in over 8 countries in Africa, including a national language of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the DRC?
What we now know as the Swahili language was initially of Bantu origin, and at the start of the 8th century, started incorporating Arabic vocabulary as a necessary means of communication when the Arabs, chiefly Omani, first came to the Coast of East Africa. Centuries of economic boom brought by the slave and spice trade, and the introduction of Islam, resulted in its slow absorption of some Arabic, which evolved as it travelled between the Indian Ocean along the west coast of Asia, the Gulf and the Eastern coast of Africa. Later, the language would incorporate Portuguese and traces of Sanskrit, from Indian indentured servants, around the 16th century, during the Portuguese conquest and century-old occupation of the Kenyan to the Mozambique coast.
The closest linguistic Bantu root of Swahili is linked to Kingozi, an ancient dialect found around the Kenyan coast. The evolving language was however originally written in Arabic script, evidenced by 18th century letters between traders at the coast of Africa and west coast of India, that can now be found in historical archives in Goa.
Swahili is unique in that, unlike most commerce languages that didn’t spread beyond trading posts and surrounding colonies, it blossomed to become the means of expression. Poetry, music and prayer were the primary means by which the language was shared and indulged by the masses, in the form of epic Swahili poetry and oral tradition of works intended for chanting or singing. Additionally, the spread of the language to the interior was swift and extensive because: (i) the language was familiar to most Bantu speakers in the Congo and Southern Africa region; (ii) for those not familiar with the tongue, Swahili had the advantage of being phonetic and lacking in lexical tones which made it easy to learn; (iii) intermarriage between Arabs and the natives around the coast provided easy assimilation, and served as an unofficial ‘stamp of approval’ of indigenousness to surrounding local communities. All these factors were highly capitalized by German colonialists in Tanzania, who designated Swahili as an official administrative language, and also by Christian missionaries, who used Swahili as the language of instruction in their successful quest for conversion in the late 19th century.
The standardized language that that is spoken today is based on the robust Unguja dialect spoken in Zanzibar, widely considered the epicentre of Swahili language and commerce, which was chosen in 1928 by a variety of local scholars. Since then, the language continues to evolve as it adapts to the context of the different countries it calls home. Its role as one of the few lingual unifiers of African heritage is conspicuous as it is the only native African language recognized as an official language of the AU.
By Edel Were