Essex leads international research team to explore major world language Swahili

  • Date

    Fri 29 Oct 21

Portrait photo of Dr Hannah Gibson

How did Swahili become a major language of trade in Africa and one of the world’s most significant languages? How is it now used by the more than 100 million people who speak it?

East Africa, an important international trading hub over many centuries, has 100s of languages in regular use on a day-to-day basis, but Swahili has become the ‘lingua franca’ or bridge language.

A ground-breaking research project led by the University of Essex seeks to examine how the Swahili language has adapted to social, economic, and geographical changes, while taking on an important role which cuts across national borders.

Academics from Essex are collaborating with researchers at Kenyatta University in Kenya, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and SOAS in London, to find out how the use of Swahili has changed across East Africa.

In this four-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the research team led by Dr Hannah Gibson, from the Department of Language and Linguistics at Essex, will aim to deepen our understanding of how language varies and adapts, not just in terms of the words used, but also in how the sentences are structured.

Dr Gibson said: “We hope that we will learn more about how Swahili speakers have adapted their use of the language as well as the factors impacting this. Does speaking a different dialect impact on access to services or status? How do speakers signal features of their identity through their language use? The project will give us valuable insights into many societal issues and better our understanding of this major world language.”

The East Africa region is seeing substantial change as people migrate from the rural areas to the cities, the middle classes grow, and the proportion of young people increases in number. Now Dr Gibson is leading her international team to explore the link between language use and identity, multilingualism, as well as how the grammar of Swahili is influenced by contact with other African languages.

Historically, communities who identified as ethnically Swahili were in the main monolingual and lived along the coast. Today however, most people who speak Swahili use it in addition to other languages. Only an estimated 16 million of the 100 million speakers have Swahili as their first language. The research team will examine how Swahili usage and variation are used to establish and negotiate different speaker identities.

Surveying Swahili speakers from six target areas, the researchers will examine what perceptions speakers have about the different dialects. In addition, the team will consider differences in language use when speakers are in contact with speakers of other languages.

Swahili is one the world’s biggest languages and is widely spoken across East Africa. Professor Lutz Marten at SOAS said: “I am delighted to be part of this strong research team which investigates variation of Swahili in today’s fast-changing environment. The project underlines how language is at the heart of culture, history and society and it provides a wonderful opportunity for Swahili scholars and students of Swahili.”

The project team is:

  • Hannah Gibson: University of Essex, Principal Investigator
  • Fridah Kanana Erastus: Kenyatta University, Co-Investigator
  • Tom Jelpke: SOAS, Project PhD student
  • Lutz Marten: SOAS, Co-Investigator
  • Teresa Poeta: University of Essex Post-doctoral Research Assistant
  • Julius Taji: University of Dar es Salaam, Co-Investigator