Words Language Services


We see how the
of a language
is linked to
the influence
of business
and trade

The Swahili
language is
by some
140 million


♦ 'Minority' language punches above its weight
How Swahili extended its linguistic clout

A change of alphabet was key to success


orking translators naturally tend to focus on just a few languages: source and target. For professional needs their source languages tend to be what Europeans think of as 'mainstream languages' — such as English, French, German, Spanish and Italian — the languages that are mainly taught as second languages in European schools.

As a result, at least in Western Europe, this is generally where the translator’s bread and butter lies. Even Portuguese, spoken as a native language by some 200 million people across the world, is often considered a 'minority' language in Europe. This might be explained by the fact that Portugal lies on the fringes of the continent and its influence is found elsewhere.

But England also lies on the fringes of Europe and spread its influence elsewhere. Yet English is considered a much more mainstream language than Portuguese, both within Europe and outside its borders. This is often attributed to the new world order that emerged from the Second World War which saw the English-speaking United States emerge as the dominant power, not least in financial and business terms.

Indeed, if we look to other continents, we see how the influence of a language is linked to the influence of business and trade.


ne language that punches well above its weight is Swahili. Although spoken regularly by just fifty million people, it has been ranked by Africa.com as the most useful African language for business communication on the world's second most populous continent. It even outranked Hausa, spoken by about 25 million (in Nigeria and Sudan).

Swahili is mother tongue to a tiny number of East Africans (just two million according to Stanford University's Swahili Department, though other sources variously put the figure at between three and five million). Despite this small base, Swahili is understood by an estimated 140 million Africans.

This is quite an accomplishment for a language that initially was spoken only along a small coastal strip of East Africa and on the tiny island of Zanzibar. The word Swahili comes from the Arabic sawahil, meaning coast.

Swahili's use began to gain in stature and distribution early in the 19th century as Arab slave traders and ivory merchants penetrated the continent's hinterland as far west as the Congo, spreading the language as they went — and bulking up its lexicon by adding words from their own vocabulary. More than a third of Swahili words are derived from Arabic. Examples include kahawa (coffee) from the Arabic kaveh, and dhahabu (gold) from the Arabic thahab. Later, British colonists added Indian words such as chai (tea).

Both the British and the Germans encouraged the use of Swahili in their respective East African colonies of Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Its use was also encouraged in the civil service and in schools, further cementing its traction in the region.


oday Swahili is the official language of Kenya and Tanzania, and is also spoken as a lingua franca in Burundi, DR Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda. In addition, the language is used (albeit often only by small or isolated communities) in parts of Somalia, southern Sudan, Malawi, Zambia, and the Comoro Islands, a tiny archipelago north of Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel.

Under the influence of Arabian traders arriving on African shores, written Swahili inherited the Arabic script. However, it was abandoned in favour of the West’s Latin characters in the 1930s under the pressure of British colonists eager to make Swahili more accessible to their own officials. Such an alphabet switch was not unique. Shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey – seeking to reduce illiteracy and to increase trade with western Europe – changed in 1928 from using Arabic script to a modified form of the Latin alphabet.

Just as Turkey’s international trading activities benefited from the adoption of a Western style alphabet, so too Swahili-speaking East Africa was able to harness this alphabetical stimulus to economic growth by making its language more accessible to outsiders.

More recently, the Swahili language even found its way to Hollywood when the catch phrase ‘no worries’ was translated as ‘hakuna matata’ in the blockbuster movie The Lion King.

email: linguabites@wls.ie

Back to top

Article archive

To see see a selection of articles from previous Linguabites columns and Reviews, please

click here