The Linguist

The Linguist 53,5

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist OCTOBER/NOVEMBER FEATURES Marilyn Sephocle discovers how Swahili spread across East Africa, from colonisation to religious opposition Joaquim Chissano, the former Chair of the African Union and President of Mozambique, created quite a stir in 2004 when he gave the African Union opening session speech in an African language: Swahili. That a high-ranking dignitary of a given continent would give an official speech in a language of the same continent seems most logical. The linguistic history of Africa, however, is far more complex than that of other continents. Swahili, also referred to as Kiswahili, reflects this complexity. The history of this Bantu language begins in the second century AD along the coast of Zanzibar, and spreads further during the seventh century along merchant routes. Today, it counts approximately 150 million speakers. There are 12 countries with large pockets of speakers, including Zambia, Uganda, Mozambique, Zanzibar, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and the Comoros. Swahili is also spoken by 90% of Tanzanians, the majority of Kenyans and half of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Each country has its own distinct story of appropriation and/or rejection of Swahili. President Julius Nyerere, the father of the nation of Tanzania, sought to preserve it, spread it and elevate it. And he succeeded in his quest. Similar attempts by President Idi Amin of Uganda failed due to the dictatorial nature of his rule. When President Laurent Désiré Kabila took Kinshasa by storm, liberating it from the dictatorship of President Mobutu, he was flanked by a cadre of young Swahili-speaking soldiers, the Kadogos, who contributed to the spread of Swahili in the DRC from 1997 onwards. As the first-known documents that make reference to Swahili were written in Greek, it is likely that Greek-Swahili interpreters were among the first interpreters of the language. So were Persian-Swahili and Arabic-Swahili interpreters, the Persians and Arabs having come into contact with the Swahili people of the eastern coast of Africa as early as 500AD. The impact of colonisation When the Arabs settled on the East African coast, Swahili absorbed many Arabic words. During the Portuguese colonisation of Swahili coastal towns (1500-1700AD), the language picked up vocabulary such as peso ('money'); meza ('table') and gereza ('prison'). German and English colonisation also left their mark, albeit to a lesser extent than Arabic. When Tanganyika (today's Tanzania) became a German colony in 1886, the Germans sought to establish order by creating a three-tiered administration. The first two tiers were to be managed by local staff, speaking a local language, while the upper tier of decision makers was essentially German speaking. They chose Swahili as the lower tier administrative language. Since it was already a language of wider use, the Swahilization of Tanganyika was effective. Those among the local population who spoke German often served as Swahili- German interpreters for the German administrators. These linguistic policies, implemented before the First World War, would have long-term consequences. After the war, as Germany's colonies were taken over by the British, a new set of interpreters emerged in Tanganyika: Swahili- English interpreters. Like the Germans, the British wanted to establish a clear order between Swahili and English. They allowed Swahili to be taught at primary school, while English was used at secondary and tertiary levels. Two levels of administration were created: a Swahili-vehicled lower administration, managed by the native Swahili people, and an English-language upper administration, managed by the British. The advance of Swahili A ROYAL TRADITION Prince William is the most recent member of the royal family to study Swahili Swahili became the language of cultural and racial identification with the African continent

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