SWAHILI (Wa-Swahili, i.e. coast people, from the Arabic sāhil, coast), a term commonly applied to the inhabitants of Zanzibar and of the opposite mainland between the parallels of 2° and 9° S., who speak the Ki-Swahili language. The Swahili are essentially a mixed people, the result of long crossing between the negroes of the coast and the Arabs, with an admixture of slave blood from nearly all the East African tribes. Among Swahili are found every shade of colour and every type of physique from the full-blooded negro to the pure Semite. Usually they are a powerfully built, handsome people, inclined to stoutness and with Semitic features. They number about a million. They figured largely in the history of African enterprise during the 19th century. The energy and intelligence derived from their Semitic blood have enabled them to take a leading part in the development of trade and the industries, as shown in the wide diffusion of their language, which, like the Hindustani in India and the Guarani in South America, has become the principal medium of intercommunication in a large area of Africa south of the equator. During his journey from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic (1873-1874) Commander V. Lovett Cameron found that a knowledge of this language enabled him everywhere to dispense with the aid of an interpreter, as it was understood by one or more persons in all the tribes along the route. Owing to this circumstance the Swahili have been found invaluable assistants in every expedition from the eastern seaboard to the interior after they began to be employed by J. H. Speke and Richard Burton as porters and escorts in 1857. The language is somewhat archaic Bantu, much mixed with Arabic, while Indian, Persian and even English, Portuguese and German words have contributed to the vocabulary. Grammatical treatises on it have been published, and into it portions of the Bible have been translated by Bishop Steere. The Swahili are Mahommedans, but in disposition are genuine negroes. Christian missions among them have met with little success.
See Johann Ludwig Krapf, Dictionary of Swahili Language (London, 1882); Bishop Steere, Handbook of the Swahili Language (London, 1894); Collection of Swahili Folk-Tales (1869); A. C. Madan, English-Swahili Dictionary (Oxford, 1894); Delaunay, Grammaire Kiswahili (Paris, 1898). See also Bantu Languages.
- The language was first reduced to writing by the Arabs, who still use the Arabic character. But the European missionaries have replaced this by the Roman system, which is more suited for the transliteration of most African, and especially of the Bantu, tongues.