Swahili vs. English in Tanzania and the political discourse

Karsten Legère


Tanzania is one of those few African countries that have been praised for their focus on an endoglossic language policy. This policy puts emphasis on the promotion of national languages (i.e. those of African origin) with regard to status and corpus empowerment. In the case of Tanzania, Swahili has been playing the role of a language of wider distribution or lingua franca with a broad social basis for many years. It is supra-ethnic in its function, thus facilitating the verbal interaction of people regardless of their ethno-linguistic origin. The legendary Tanzanian President JK Nyerere (1971: ii) once stated:
Lugha hii [i.e. Swahili, K. L.] ya watu wote ilikuwa na thamani kubwa sana katika juhudi za kupigania uhuru na katika kuliunganisha Taifa letu changa [This lingua franca was of great value in the struggle for independence and in unifying our young nation].
In fact, its supra-ethnic status is much appreciated in a country where a multitude of other languages/linguistic varieties (ranging from Bantu and non-Bantu languages to Indian and European languages – mainly English) coexist. Thus, Ethnologue (Lewis 2009) claims that there are 128 living languages and 1 has no known speakers. The Languages of Tanzania project which culminated in a Language Atlas for the country (LoT 2009) lists 150 languages. But these numbers need further clarification, as they only partly reflect the linguistic situation. Both sources do not take full account of the close lexico-grammatical relationship which is often characteristic of 48 neighbouring languages. Glossonyms in Africa – and Tanzania is no exception – do not reflect the high degree of mutual intelligibility, nor are they based on sound linguistic principles. Hence, as a consequence, the number of languages in Tanzania could be reduced as soon as a thorough dialect study would be carried out. Suffice it to note here the dialect continuum in Bagamoyo district, where Kwele, Kami, Kutu, Zaramo and possibly more linguistic varieties form a dialect cluster, similar to Vidunda, Saghala and Kwiva in Kilosa District or Sukuma and Nyamwezi in Tabora/Mwanza Region. Accordingly, just in this case the list of Tanzanian languages could be reduced by seven entries, if the dialect cluster concept is consistently applied.

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