Scott's Swahili Language Page

Scott's Swahili Language Page

Whether you're tracing your African roots or planning a trip to the Serengeti to admire the wildlife, learning a little Swahili is a fascinating experience.

Some big advantages of Swahili among not-commonly-taught languages are that the language is now written in Latin characters, and the sounds they represent are scarcely different enough from English to cause any trouble. Syllabic "m" and "n" before another consonant offer an exotic look but present no real difficulty. The verbs are astoundingly regular, adding one- or two- letter particles to indicate person, mood and tense. The only real complexity is afforded by the retention of Bantu noun classes (singular and plural of a half a dozen or so); strictly correct speech would require agreement between subject, adjective, the verb, and maybe some other words as well. Knowledge of the class for people and the most common class for objects will get you by, especially as your distance from the coast increases. There are few loanwords or cognates to help the speaker of European languages, but a knowledge of Arabic would give you a very big head start.

There is an excellent selection of Swahili resources on the Web (see the box at right) and a large number of books on the subject, some of which I have reviewed below.

The Internet Living Swahili Dictionary
BCS Times, with a link to our old favorite newpaper, Majira
Tim and Lara Beth's Kenya Page - Languages
Ethnologue: Kenya
Ethnologue: Tanzania
Voice of America RealAudio Server
BEGINNER'S SWAHILI, John Indakwa & Daudi Ballali, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1995, from the 1965-66 Foreign Service Institute Peace Corps compilation.

BASIC STRUCTURE OF SWAHILI, James L. Brain, Syracuse University, reprinted 1977. Some exercises; lists nouns together by class.

SWAHILI LANGUAGE HANDBOOK (Language handbook series) Edgar C. Polome, Center for Applied Linguistics 1967. Phonology, morphology, dozen different dialects, remarks on change due to casual speakers, retention of Arabic pronounciation by educated speakers, etc. Fascinating history. Derivation of nouns, verbs. Long lists of loan words from several languages.

SWAHILI GRAMMAR AND SYNTAX, Alfons Loogman, Duquesne University Press, 1965 -- by parts of speech, with Swahili names for them (Kiima = noun, e.g.). A more "insider" perspective on the language; for instance, the "subjunctive" or "polite imperative" is described as "the Wishing Form" in this book.

TEACH YOURSELF SWAHILI, A Complete Course for Beginners, Joan Russell, NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, 1996. Dialogues followed by good explanation; cassettes available. This book would be my recommendation for someone who wants to acquire a working knowledge of the language.

VocabuLearn tapes, Swahili/Kingereza -- words and phrases, two 90 minute tapes.

My first contact with Swahili was through the Lonely Planet language survival guide. For less than $3 (!), all the tourist probably really wants to know.

Swahili provides us with the motto for our Travel page: Mwenda bure si mkaa bure, huenda akaokota -- "An aimless traveller is not like someone sitting down aimlessly, a traveller may pick up something."