Michigan State University
Michigan State University
Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages

Swahili, or Kiswahili, as the speakers of the language call it, is the most widely spoken African language south of the Sahara. It is spoken by over 100 people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This widespread lingua franca is an official language in Kenya and Tanzania. It is widely used in education and the media.

The origin of Swahili is traced to farming and fishing communities in the coastal areas in the present-day Kenya-Somalia border. Beginning in the eleventh century, Swahili developed as a trading language as commerce between East Africa and Arabia, Persia, and India grew. The Swahili people of the East African coast became important traders. Commercial centers emerged along the entire East African coast, thus giving rise to Swahili culture with considerable Islamic influence. Religion provided inspiration for Swahili poetry resulting in a unique literary tradition that is still extremely popular to the present.

Today, Swahili is used in government and administration, commerce, trade, primary and secondary education, popular culture and media. In the United State, it is the sub-Saharan African language that is most offered at university level.