Language: Kiswahili


map of Kiswahili language Africa

Tanzania has two official languages: English and Kiswahili.

The latter is also the official language of Kenya and is the lingua franca used in Uganda, Rwanda, eastern Congo, Malawi, southern Somalia, northern Mozambique, and the Comoros Islands. Over 140,000,000 people speak Kiswahili, so it is the most widespread African language in the world.

Swahili (or Kiswahili) is a musical language and quite easy to learn, whose origins date back more than 1,000 years, and it is spoken along the eastern coast of Africa. It developed when African-Bantu and Arab-Persian elements came into contact, spreading progressively throughout the continent as a trade language along the routes travelled by caravans that departed from the ports of Zanzibar, Bagamoyo and Kilwa, heading into the heart of Africa in search of gold, ivory and slaves.

The name Swahili derives from the Arabic word “sahel”, which means “coast”, precisely because the language and culture produced were found in the early settlements established by Arab and Shirazi traders along the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Initially written in Arabic characters, when Christian missionaries arrived they transliterated it, introducing the use of the Latin alphabet. Over the centuries it has been enriched by Portuguese, German and, above all, English contributions.

Like all other languages of the Bantu family, it has a different logic to the European languages we are accustomed to using. There are no masculine, feminine or neutral genders, but 19 noun classes corresponding to 19 verb/pronoun classes, and 19 adjective classes. Unlike Western languages, Swahili does not change suffixes (the ends of words), but the prefixes (the beginnings of words).

An example is “mtoto wangu anasoma” (my child reads); “watoto wangu wanasoma” (my children read). It may seem complicated, but in fact, once we have mastered a logic so different from that of our own language, it is far from difficult. Stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable unless it is a “y”, in which case stress falls on the third from last; “j” is read like a hard “g”.

Learning a few words and some simple phrases will be a great help when staying in Tanzania: locals will be amazed and flattered by the fact that a “mzungu” (a European) has gone to the trouble of learning some of the local language.


Some useful words / phrases:

Hello jambo! / hujambo! Wildebeest nyumbu
How are you? habari? / mambo vipi? (conf.) Cheetah duma
I’m fine (reply) salama / nzuri / poa (conf.) Hippopotamus kiboko
What about you na wewe? Buffalo mbogo
Good salama / nzuri / sawa / safi Rhinoceros kifaru
Thanks Asante Giraffe twiga
You’re welcome Karibu Antelope / gazelle swala
Yes ndiyo Zebra punda milia
No hapana Warthog ngiri
Please tafadhali Crocodile mamba
Goodbye kwa heri Serpent nyoka
I’d like (when ordering in shops) naomba Baboon nyani
How much/how many? ngapi? House nyumba
How much does it cost? shillingapi? / bei? Room chumba
Where? wapi? Hut kibanda
When? lini? Bed kitanda
Here hapa Mountain mlima
There kule Sea bahari
One moja Food chakula
Two mbili Rice mchele (uncooked), wali (boiled)
Three tatu Chicken kuku
Four nne Cow / beef ngombe
Five tano Goat mbuzi
Six sita Sheep kondoo
Seven saba Vegetables mboga
Eight nane Fruit matunda
Nine tisa Banana ndizi
Ten kumi Potato kiazi (pl. viazi)
Twenty ishirini Orange chungwa (pl. machungwa)
Thirty thelatini Sauce mchuzi
Forty arobaini Skewers of meat mishikaki
Fifty hamsini Grilled meat nyama choma
Sixty sitini Water maji
Seventy sabini beer (bottled) bia
Eighty themanini beer (traditional) pombe
Ninety tisini Fizzy drinks soda
Hundred mia What’s your name? unaitwa nani?
Thousand elfu My name is naitwa …
Lion simba Where do you live? unaishi wapi?
Leopard chui I live i … naishi …