Kiswahili’s future lies in borrowing from English

Thursday January 13 2011

Lamu town. Mombasa and Lamu have distinct Kiswahili dialects. Photo/FILE

When Kenya’s Minister of Education Sam Ongeri recently lamented the poor performance of primary school pupils in national examinations of Kiswahili, and ordered an investigation into the matter, it was reminiscent of an oft-quoted saying in East Africa: that Kiswahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo.

This saying, albeit light-heartedly, aptly captures the evolution of the language as one moves north and west of the East African coast, characterised by a shrinking of vocabulary, adulteration by indigenous languages and a near-unforgivable non-adherence to basic structure and noun classes — so much so, that by the time one crosses into eastern DR Congo, or gets to northern Uganda, and lately Southern Sudan, it hardly sounds like Kiswahili at all.

The pertinent question at the moment is what is the future of Kiswahili as a regional lingua franca as it buffers the storms that plague the “correct” form of the language, particularly in places where it has “fallen sick” to the ravages of other languages, local slang and negative perceptions; or where it has been admitted into “intensive care,” perhaps because the proper form has never been mastered in the first place. What can we learn from other linguas franca of history?

Despite the problems faced in mastery of Kiswahili, the spread of the language in the region is undeniable: more and more people are speaking Kiswahili in Uganda, Rwanda and recently Southern Sudan.

Charles Omondi, an editor with the African Review, an Online news site owned by the Nation Media Group and recently in Southern Sudan to cover the historic referendum, writes that Southern Sudan could soon be the next major frontier for the expansion of the language widely spoken in East and Central Africa.

“Having been in Juba,” he writes, “I have been marvelling at how widespread Kiswahili is in a land where English and Arabic should be lingua franca. Whether in a hotel, in a shop or on the streets, chances are that one in three people you interact with is able to communicate in Kiswahili...coming at a time when no official effort has been made by the government to promote the language.”


The rise and rise of Tanzanian Bongo flava music in the region has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of Kiswahili, particularly in Uganda, where it had long been considered the language of soldiers, criminals and refugees.

The language’s popularity surged after Ugandan artiste Jose Chameleone recorded his biggest hits todate in Kiswahili — Jamila and Mama Mia.

In Kenya, Sheng, the oft-maligned working language of Kenya’s youth that has its origin in Nairobi’s Eastlands, is often blamed for the poor mastery of Kiswahili among Kenyan students.

It is also interesting to note how Kiswahili demarcates sharp divisions in socio-economic status, and one can tell which side of the divide a person falls in by the language others use to address them.

Middle and upper middle class children in Kenya, for example, are socialised to speak Kiswahili specifically to domestic workers, drivers and gardeners included — the so-called ordinary wananchi, and are less likely to speak the language among themselves.

One key step in spreading Kiswahili was to create a standard written language.

In June 1928, an interterritorial conference was held in Mombasa, at which the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, was chosen to be the basis for standardising Kiswahili.

Today’s standard Kiswahili, the version taught as a second language in Kenya, is for practical purposes the Zanzibar dialect, even though there are minor discrepancies between the written standard and the Zanzibar vernacular.

The other dialects are Kimvita, spoken in Mombasa, Kiamu, spoken in Lamu and Kingazija, spoken in the Comoros Islands.

The latter is restricted to the archipelago while the rest of the dialects are widely spoken along the East African coast from Kismayu in Somalia to northern Mozambique and parts of Madagascar.

Currently, some 90 per cent of approximately 39 million Tanzanians speak fluent Kiswahili, barring localised slang, rich in vocabulary and idioms.

Kenya’s population is comparable, and though the prevalence of the language is lower, it is still widespread enough to warrant the government recently to make it a national language.

Most educated Kenyans can communicate fluently in Kiswahili, since it is a compulsory subject from primary school.

The five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are Kiswahili speaking, and it is starting to rival Lingala as the most important national language of that country.

In Uganda, the Baganda generally do not speak Kiswahili, but it is in common use among the 25 million people elsewhere in the country, and its teaching is currently being implemented in schools nationwide in line with the vision of the East African Community.

The usage of Kiswahili in other countries is commonly overstated, being common only in market towns, among returning refugees, or near the borders of Kenya and Tanzania.

Even so, Kiswahili speakers may number some 120 to 150 million people.

Notably, some contemporary non-Swahili ethnic groups speak Kiswahili more often than their mother tongues, and many choose to raise their children with Kiswahili as their first language, leading to the possibility that several smaller East African languages will fade as Kiswahili transitions from being a regional lingua franca to a regional first language.

The term lingua franca comes from a language that was actually called Lingua Franca.

The original Lingua Franca was a mixed language composed mostly of Italian with a broad vocabulary drawn from Turkish, French, Spanish, Greek and Arabic.

It was in use throughout the eastern Mediterranean as the language of commerce and diplomacy in and around the Renaissance era.

At that time, Italian speakers dominated seaborne commerce in port cities of the Ottoman Empire. Franca was the Italian word for Frankish, therefore it was the language of the “Franks”: the term used to describe all Europeans at the time.

In Europe, various languages rose and fell in prominence as linguas franca — Greek during the times of the Hellenistic civilisation, which was followed by Latin during the Roman Empire.

In the medieval era, German was used throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

From the 16th to the 19th century, French was the language of business, trade and diplomacy in Europe, and was regarded as the language of the elite — a person could not be considered properly educated if he or she was not conversant with French.

With the spread of the British Empire in the late 1800s into the 20th century, English soon became the most important global language, a scenario that persists today: English, undoubtedly, is today’s language of science, technology, business, commerce and entertainment.

Linguas franca rise and fall on the basis of their ability to absorb foreign influences, and this is why English has continued to outpace French, for example, in global relevance.

English easily absorbs foreign words without much fuss — many words in the language are borrowed from European languages such as Latin, German and Spanish; even Hindi (shampoo, monsoon), Japanese (karaoke, tsunami) and Kiswahili itself (safari, mamba).

French, on the other hand, is much more insular than English — the Académie Francaise, the official authority on the language, has raised the flag on the adulteration of French by English words in particular; to remedy this, it has come up with arguably clumsy French words in the spirit of preserving the purity of the language: éblabla to replace chat, for example.

Still, and to the dismay of les francais, French has continued to lose ground in terms of number of speakers and global relevance -- more and more Francophone countries are adopting English on a wider scale: Rwanda is a case in point.

Outside influence

To maintain its relevance and life span, therefore, Kiswahili should borrow a leaf from English and be less jittery about the influence of local slang and adulterations such as Sheng.

Infusions of foreign words are the essence of any lingua franca, and this increases the language’s usefulness in many diverse social settings.

The language can evolve and yet still retain its purity for academic and linguistic purposes, and have a standardised version that is widely known but largely ignored in day-to-day communication. Just like English.

Kiswahili in East Africa has always been linked to trade, and one does not need an extensive vocabulary or flowing idioms to trade.

Starting about 1800, the rulers of Zanzibar organised trading expeditions into the interior of the mainland, up to the Great Lakes region.

They soon established permanent trade routes and Kiswahili-speaking merchants settled in stops along the new trade routes.

After Germany seized Tanganyika for a colony in 1886, it took notice of the wide, albeit shallow, dissemination of Kiswahili, and soon designated Kiswahili as a colony-wide official administrative language.

Textbook or examination Kiswahili, and much less the purest Zanzibari form of the language, is not the version that has regional relevance today — it is street Kiswahili, spoken in East Africa’s commercial centres, that used in the arts such as music, and that spoken in the various refugee camps spread across the region that binds the region together.

The essence of a lingua franca is its ability to survive a stripping down of vocabulary, and its receptiveness to external influences.

For a language to survive the times, it must be adaptable.

Preserving the “right” Kiswahili, is without a doubt commendable.

However, if Kiswahili scholars become defensive and insular in protecting the purity of the language, then it risks going the way of French — a “fossilised language,” according to Frédéric Martel, French writer and journalist, “which is uncool, associated in the global mind with an aristocratic elite and defended by ageing bureaucrats terrified of linguistic evolution.”