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Swahili versus Kiswahili

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Why do some people say "Swahili" and others say "Kiswahili," and which term is correct? What does the "Ki" mean in "Kiswahili?" Why do some people write "Kiswahili" and some people write "KiSwahili" with a capital "S" in the middle of the word?

We are often asked why we originally called our project "The Internet Living Swahili Dictionary," and not "The Internet Living Kiswahili Dictionary." The explanation is simple: "Swahili" is the English term for the Swahili language, while "Kiswahili" is the Swahili language term for the Swahili language. When writing in English, we use the word "Swahili," and when writing in Swahili, we use "Kiswahili." If you visit the version of this site written in the Swahili language, you will find that we use the term "Kiswahili" throughout.

This issue is not unique to discussions of Swahili. When we write in English, we speak of the Spanish language as "Spanish," the French language as "French," and the German language as "German," even though Spanish speakers speaking in their own language use the term "Español" (or "Castellano," in some cases), the French term for the French language is "Français," and the correct term for the German language when speaking in German is "Deutsch." Swahili speakers don't switch to Spanish when they talk about the Spanish language, and nor should they - the Swahili word for Spanish is "Kihispania," for French the term is "Kifaransa," and for German the term is "Kijerumani." When Swahili speakers talk about the English language while speaking Swahili, they use the term "Kiingereza."

Some people choose to use the term "Kiswahili" to refer to the Swahili language, even when they are talking in English. This is a stylistic decision, similar to rolling your "r's" when pronouncing an English word that has been borrowed from Spanish (such as burro), or using French terms in English conversation to demonstrate your linguistic savoir-faire. People are free to play with language as they see fit, and many scholars have made the legitimate decision to use the term "Kiswahili" even when writing in English. (For example, the Kamusi Project is pleased to host the online version of Kiswahili Grammar Notes, a reference that many students find quite useful. Also, the University of Dar es Salaam is home to the respected "Institute of Kiswahili Research," which, inconsistently, publishes a dictionary available for purchase here called, "English-Swahili Dictionary.") As language teachers and dictionary writers, however, we prefer to use the terms of the language we are speaking, not the language we are speaking about.

The Swahili language uses a variety of stems, to which are attached a variety of prefixes. One of the uses for the prefix "ki" is to indicate that the stem that follows is a language. Thus, "Kiswahili" is the Swahili language, "Kiingereza" is the English language, and so on. Other prefixes that you'll often see in conjunction with stems that can take the "ki" of language are "u" for the place where the language is spoken, "m" (or "mw") for a singular speaker of that language or a resident of that place, and "wa" for plural speakers of that language or residents of that place. Be aware that a language area does not always correspond with national or ethnic borders, so "Uingereza" is specifically England although "Kiingereza" is the English language whereever it is spoken. Similarly, the term "Uswahili" (or, often, "Uswahilini") implies the general part of East Africa where Swahili is spoken, rather than a particular country, and "Mswahili" and "Waswahili" can refer either to any East African who speaks Swahili, or more specifically to people connected by heritage to an ethnic group along the Indian Ocean coast that has historically been referred to as "the Swahili." To add even more complexity, not all country names begin with "U" (for example the USA is "Marekani" in Swahili), and the "u" prefix often implies something similar to the English suffix "-ness" rather than location, so "Umarekani" translates roughly as "Americanness." The following table shows how the stems and prefixes work together for languages, places, and people.

ki = language u = place m = person wa = people
stem -swahili Kiswahili = Swahili language Uswahili = Swahili speaking area Mswahili = Swahili speaking person Waswahili = Swahili speaking people
-ingereza Kiingereza = English language Uingereza = England Mwingereza = English person Waingereza = English people
-hispania Kihispania = Spanish language Uhispania = Spain Mhispania = Spaniard Wahispania = Spaniards
-faransa Kifaransa = French language Ufaransa = France Mfaransa = French person Wafaransa = French people
-jerumani Kijerumani = German language Ujerumani = Germany Mjerumani = German person Wajerumani = German people

As you can see from the table above, the stem form of each of these terms always indicates a proper noun. In English, we capitalize the first letter of proper nouns, like this: English language. Swahili area. French person . To follow a similar convention in Swahili, you would have to indicate that the stem form is a proper noun by putting the capital letter after the prefix, on the first letter of the actual proper noun stem, like this: kiIngereza. uSwahili. mFaransa. A single capital letter in the middle of a word is not usual when writing in Swahili, however, because it imply stress on the capitalized syllable. Most Swahili writers capitalize proper nouns at the beginning of the word only, even though they are in effect capitalizing the prefix, not the actual proper noun part of the proper noun, like this: Kiingereza. Uswahili. Mfaransa. For stylistic reasons, though, some people prefer to also capitalize the proper noun "S" in KiSwahili and WaSwahili. We won't say that such a form is wrong (although people who write "KiSwahili" rarely if ever write "KiIngereza" or "KiFaransa"), but we will say that contemporary usage for proper nouns favors the single capital letter at the beginning of the prefix. To see examples, go to Google and type in "kiswahili" to see which capitalization convention is more common.

You can even use Google in Swahili.


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