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Swahili is one of the most widely spoken African languages and the key to communication in the East African region. So you may as well be speaking Swahili
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Authors: Written and researched by Lonely Planet, and Martin Benjamin.
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Welcome! The word that greets you as a visitor to East Africa expresses the hospitality that will so often be extended throughout your stay. The word for 'stranger' in Swahili, mgeni, is also the word for 'guest' - and many East Africans enjoy the opportunity to welcome strangers as guests to their countries. We hope you will enjoy your time as mgeni. Communication in Swahili is the key to having a good time as you travel around East Africa, meet people, and feel the full extent of their welcome. This phrasebook will help you get started with Swahili and negotiate some of the situations you may experience along the way.
The Swahili language has a long and complicated history. It is a member of the Bantu language family found in Africa's mid-section. The Bantu languages have been spoken on the Indian Ocean coast from at least as early as the first millenium AD. Centuries of trade along the coast saw the influx of many linguistic influences from Arabic. By the time Portuguese ships began calling at East African ports in 1498, a version of the Swahili language was spoken by the coastal inhabitants, the WaSwahili, and over time a few Portuguese elements slipped into the language. While the Tanzanian mainland's three decades as a German colony had surprisingly little influence on Swahili, numerous words have been borrowed from the English (who colonized Kenya and then took control of what is now Tanzania). Generally, the Swahili people have kept the foreign words for the objects foreigners brought with them, such as kitabu from the Arabic kitab for 'book', mvinyo from the Portuguese vino for 'wine', and baiskeli for 'bicycle'. These imports behave grammatically as Swahili, but look and sound like their foreign ancestors.
Interaction with ocean-going trading ships probably provided the inspiration for the coastal Swahili people to travel inland in search of things to trade, including ivory. By 1800 long trade routes extended from the coast all the way across Lake Tanganyika. In the 19th century Arab and Swahili slave traders were combing the East African interior for slaves to work the plantations of Zanzibar and for export to Arabia. Traders, slavers, and later European explorers moved inland with large parties of Swahili porters from the coast. The language established itself as the medium of trade throughout much of the region, though people away from the coast continued to speak hundreds of other languages in their daily lives.
The importance of Swahili continued to grow throughout the 20th century. First, missionaries and colonial governments sought to simplify their tasks by encouraging Swahili as a standard language in Kenya and Tanzania. At the same time, citizens sought to master the language as they travelled to work on far-off plantations, engaged in trade, or went to schools. Later, the post-colonial independent governments in Tanzania and Kenya promoted Swahili as their national language. (English remains an official language of government in both countries, though Kenyans are generally more proficient in English than their Tanzanian neighbors.) Swahili as a lingua franca is spoken by many people in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, southern Somalia and northern coastal Mozambique. A version of Swahili is spoken as a first language by several million people in the eastern part of R.D. Congo (formerly Zaire). Most people in Kenya today speak at least some Swahili, and throughout Tanzania it is fast replacing local tongues as the first language of the new generations of children.
"Standard" Swahili is the language spoken in Zanzibar City. Several other variants, or dialects, of Swahili exist, notably those centered in Mombasa and Lamu. People inland often speak a somewhat less polished Swahili, or mix in elements from their own mother tongues. Congolese speakers have pronunciation differences and mix in a bit of French. Kenyans are especially prone to taking shortcuts with the language, and jokes abound about the roughness of Nairobi Swahili. Transcripts from our research, however, show that inland Taznazians who have spent their entire lives in remote rural corners of the country speak a Swahili every bit as complex as that spoken on Zanzibar. Written Swahili, the language of newspapers, textbooks and literature, usually conforms to the coastal standards. In this book we tend toward standard coastal Swahili, but other elements may have seeped in from other parts of the Swahili-speaking world.Review:
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