One of the principal members of the Bantu
language family, spoken widely in Kenya
, and Tanzania
, where as well as being the native language of Zanzibar
and the coast it is a lingua franca
for many other people, as far inland as the Democratic Republic of Congo
. The name is from the Arabic plural of Sahel
It shows most of the characteristic features of Bantu grammar, somewhat simplified in a few respects because of its origin as a lingua franca. It has borrowed very heavily from Arabic, and to a lesser extent from English and from German (Tanganyika having been German East Africa before the First World War).
Some sounds used only in borrowings from Arabic are DH (as in this), TH (as in thin), KH, and GH. The letter L does occur in some native words but has disappeared in many, and now occurs mainly in borrowings from Arabic and English. C is used only in the group CH, pronounced as in English. NG' with an apostrophe represents the single nasal sound of singer; without it it represents the compound sound in finger. These two can occur initially, which is difficult for English speakers.
Indeed, the nasal + stop compounds MB ND NG NJ can all occur initially. These are single sounds and shouldn't be divided into syllables: ndege 'bird' is just two syllables, nde-ge.
Swahili is called Kiswahili in itself because ki- is also the language prefix: Kiingereza = 'English', Kiarabu 'Arabic' cf. Mwingereza 'English (person)', Mwarabu 'Arab (person)'.
The Swahili verb is largely built up of prefixes on the root. The tense is marked with -na- present, -li- past, -me- perfect, -ta- future, and several others. Preceding this is the class prefix of the subject. With most classes this is the same as the prefix on the noun, e.g.
wajinga walisema 'the fools were speaking'
wajinga wamesema 'the fools have spoken'
But in some cases a different verb-prefix is used:
mjinga alisema 'a fool was speaking'
A definite object is marked or cross-referenced with a prefix after the tense:
mjinga alikiandika kitabu 'a fool wrote the book'
The negative prefix is ha-:
Tutaandika 'we shall write'
Hatutaandika 'we shall not write'
But this fuses with some prefixes:
Nitaandika 'I shall write'
Sitaandika 'I shall not write'
The infinitive begins with ku-: kuandika 'to write'. In a couple of cases this is kw-, as in kwanza 'to begin', from which the festival of Kwanzaa is (presumably) derived.
The imperative singular is just the root: andika 'write!'. To form the plural change the final -a (which all the native Bantu verbs end in) to -eni, as in andikeni 'write!'.
That's a rare example of an inflexional suffix. Another is the locative -ni: mji 'village', mjini 'in the village'. But derivational suffixes are common enough on verbs to form such things as the causative.