Among the African languages, Swahili is certainly the best known outside the continent. Until recently it was believed Swahili was a constructed language created by Arab and Persian merchants who have visited the east coast of Africa since ancient times (Swahili derives from sawahil, the coast).
It is known that much of the Swahili vocabulary is of Arabic origin. In reality, Swahili is an indigenous African language that has been enriched by contacts with other cultures and their languages. Scholars today agree that Swahili was already spoken in the Lamu archipelagos in the 12th century. From there, the language expanded along a strip of land along the Indian Ocean Coast.
One of the features of Swahili is the ability to accept foreign words with ease. This allowed Swahili to enlarge its vocabulary, and not to succumb under the pressure of colonial languages.
Today, Swahili continues to gain ground in Africa. It is the national language in Kenya and Tanzania, it is spoken in Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. It is the ‘lingua franca’ in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Somalia and northern Mozambique. It is spoken in Mayotte and in the Comoros Islands, and it is understood in the ports of Oman and the Red Sea. Not by chance, it has been chosen as the official language of the African Union. Of course, a language spoken by more than 150 million people, in an area as large as Europe, has a tendency to diversify, creating local dialects. The Institute of Kiswahili Studies in Dar es Salaam works hard to support the development and unity of Swahili. This institute was founded in 1930 as a committee of inter-regional East African Dependencies. Since then, the Institute has done a tremendous job of linguistic research, published dictionaries and grammars, and supported the production of Swahili literature.
Most Spoken Language
If Swahili is the language most widely spread and consequently the most international, Hausa is certainly the language most spoken south of the Sahara, thanks to the major density of the population concentrated in western Africa. It is understood by 80% of the population of Niger and by 45% of Nigerians.
It is an important language in Ghana, Benin, Cameroon and Togo and in other areas of Western Africa. Twenty four million people use it as their first language and about 18 millions use it as a second language. Hausa is first of all the name of a language rather than a people. By extension, it has become a way of describing a group of northern Nigerians tied together by a feeling of unity based on common language, history and commerce.
Hausa is classified as a member of the Afro-Asian languages. Therefore, it is closely connected to Semitic languages. The Middle East’s cultural influence on the Hausa people is very evident and is reflected in the language. Also, Islamic influence has permeated many aspects of Hausa life and language.
Moslem concepts – particularly religious and philosophical – and vocabulary are recognizable in the Hausa world. Hausa was first written with the Arabic script. With the advent of European colonialism, the Latin alphabet came into use, and spelling was standardized by a special commission. Its adoption in schools marked the beginning of modern Hausa literature.
We have today a vast Hausa literature that includes novels, poems, theatrical compositions, instructions in Islamic practice, books on development topics, newspapers, magazines, academic and even technical works. Radio and TV programs in Hausa are broadcast in the North of Nigeria and Niger. Radio stations in Ghana and Cameroon have regular Hausa programs, as do international networks such as the BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Moscow, Radio Beijing and others.
Arabic in Africa
Currently, more than 140 million African people speak Arabic as their first language. Almost all inhabitants of Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt use Arabic as their mother tongue. In Morocco and Algeria, Arabic is the only official language, but there are large minorities of Berber (Tamazight speakers between 25 and 40% of the population – according to some estimates).
In Sudan, Arabic is the official language. In Chad, more than one hundred local languages are spoken but only Arabic and French have been recognized as official languages. Smaller groups of Arabic speakers live in Nigeria, Cameroon, and in the Central African Republic. Native speakers in East Africa are usually immigrants from the Arabian Peninsula, in particular from Oman. Arabic has also become an official language in Djibouti and Eritrea. In Somalia, Arabic has remained the main language of instruction and politics. Even in those Islamic countries where Arabic is not used as a mother tongue or a trade language, it has always played an important role as the language of the Qur’an. Most Moslems acquire a smattering of knowledge of the language in Qur’anic schools. (N.F.Y)