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Swahili is a Bantu language spoken throughout Eastern Africa by over 40 million people. It is related to other Bantu languages such as Lusoga, Zulu, Xhosa, and Ngumba, though is often quite different from these languages. Although Swahili is spoken by only approximately 5 million people as a native language, it has become something of a lingua franca in Africa, allowing speakers of many diverse Bantu languages to converse. It is for this reason that the number of overall speakers has swelled to more than 40 million people, an enormous amount for a native African language in a continent with myriad popular tribal languages.
Swahili has official language status in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. These three countries are all situated on the north-east coast of Africa, on the edge of the Indian ocean. It is also widely spoken in neighboring Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Burundi, and Rwanda.
Not so very long ago, and to this day in some circles, Swahili was held to be an amalgam language formed from Arabic immersing in local languages. This theory is all but entirely discredited in the mainstream linguistic community, as there is ample evidence that the Swahili people of eastern Africa have been speaking a language roughly analogous to modern Swahili for nearly a thousand years. Additionally, the structure and many words of Swahili share such close similarities to other Bantu languages that a genetic connection is a near certainty.
Swahili utilizes an astonishing amount of loanwords, however, due to the large traffic of Arabic-speaking traders for extended periods of time, as well as speakers of Indian languages, Persian, and in the modern age, English. While much is often made of this prevalence of loanwords – particularly from the Arabic – the number of loanwords is fairly comparable to English’s use of Latin and Greek.
Modern Swahili is written using the Latin script – a change that occurred during the European occupation of the east African coast during the 19th century. Early Swahili likely had no written script, and in the 18th century, until the emergence of the Latin script in the 19th century, Arabic script was used to write Swahili.
Learning Swahili can be very difficult for native English speakers with little experience of languages drastically different from English. It’s use of a wide group of classes for words, which are denoted by prefixes such as m- and n-, can be a difficult thing for some English speakers to wrap their heads around. While essentially the same as the gender system used by some European languages, the Swahili class system is both larger than what most Romance speakers are used to and less arbitrary in its assignment.
Swahili also makes use of some phonetic constructions that can be difficult for English speakers to use naturally. An initial m- or n-, for example, when followed by another consonant, forms a sound that has no real corollary at the beginning of English words. The Swahili word for "banana," for example, ndizi, has a sound that can take some getting used to for English or Romance speakers.
One popular appearance of Swahili in the English-speaking world was in Disney’s movie The Lion King. The Swahili word for "lion," simba, is used as the name of the lead character, a lion. The popular catchphrase from the movie, hakuna matata is also a Swahili phrase, meaning roughly “no worries.”
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