Swahili Dialects

When learning Swahili and spending time in East African countries, one might realize that there are some differences between the way people speak Swahili across places. The first differences that occur to some Swahili students might be between the Swahili spoken in Kenya as compared to Tanzania, between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar, or between rural and urban spaces across East Africa. However, how are the different dialects of the Swahili language systematically divided by linguists and what are the more nuanced characteristics that set one dialect apart from another?

One source that closely tracks now over 7,000 languages around the world, Ethnologue, is published annually by SIL (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc.). SIL is a U.S.-based, international faith-based nonprofit organization. SIL’s main purpose is to research, translate, and offer trainings for “sustainable language development,” although it originally set out to translate Bibles into different languages and dialects.

According to SIL, the Swahili spoken in Tanzania can be broken up into the dialects of Mrima (Mtang’ata), Unguja (Kiunguja, Zanzibar), Pemba, and Mgao (Kimgao). SIL also has a measure of how close to each other different dialects are, called “lexical similarity”: Bajun dialect 85% with the Amu dialect, 78% with the Mvita dialect, 72% with the Mrima dialect; Mvita dialect 86% with Amu, 79% with Mrima; Mrima dialect 79% with Amu. The Swahili spoken in Kenya can be broken up into the dialects of Amu (Ozi), Mvita (Kimvita, Mombasa), Bajuni (Bajun, Gunya, Tikulu, Tikuu, Tukulu), Pemba (Hadimu, Phemba, Tambatu), Mambrui (Malindi), Pate, Siu (Siyu), Jomvu, Kilindini, Changamwe, Ngare, Vumba, Tangana, Chitundi, Faza, Katwa, Kilifi, Mtwapa, and Shaka.

Here is a language map of Tanzania created by SIL:


Here is a language map of Kenya created by SIL:


Here is link to a different website with some great maps of language distribution.

According to another source, the main Swahili dialects in East Africa can be broken up as follows:

  • Kimrima [around Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania]
  • Kimvita [around Mombasa, Kenya]
  • Kiunguja [in Zanzibar and Pemba Islands]
  • Kiamu [around Lamu, Kenya]
  • Kingwana [in south-eastern Congo]
  • Kingazija [Comorian dialect: this dialect is significantly different from the other ones]
  • Kimtang’ata [to the north of Dar-es-Salaam and south of the Kenyan border]

However, besides Kingwana (a lingua franca in Congo) and Kingazija (the main lingua franca in the Comoros), this source argues that the other Swahili dialects are less distinguishable today.  Swahili is regarded standardized (“Kiswahili sanifu”) in mainland Tanzania, and particularly in Dar es Salaam, but there are still some detectable regional differences between people who speak Swahili in Zanzibar and on the coast of mainland Tanzania, as compared to other parts of Tanzania.  Some make the distinction in Kenya between standard Swahili and up-country Swahili, the latter being less grammatically correct.  Another broader difference is that Tanzanians and Kenyans mix and/or code-switch with Swahili and English, while Central Africans mix Swahili and French.

Examples of Kenyan Up-Country Swahili (more details here):

English Standard Swahili Up-Country Swahili
Where is he/she! – Yuko wapi? – Ako wapi?
I was at the shop. – Nilikuwa dukani. – Nilikuwa kwa duka.
Come here! – Njoo hapa! – Kuja hapa!
I don’t eat rice. – Sili wali. – Sikuli wali.
I don’t know. – Sijui. – Mimi pana jua.
car – motokaa – mtukaa
my friend – rafiki yangu – rafiki wangu
He/She is ill. – Yeye ni mgonjwa. – Yeye iko mgonjwa.
tea without milk – chai ya rangi – sturungi


This all goes to show that there are different characteristics of the Swahili language that can be taken into account when considering the life of dialects across time and place.  For more information about SIL International’s method and language development programming, see the SIL website or their online publication of the annual SIL Ethnologue.


Works Cited

SIL International. “About SIL.” https://www.sil.org/about.

Simons, Gary F. and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2017. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twentieth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.

Kiswahili.net. “Swahili Dialects.” http://www.kiswahili.net/5-information/general-info/swahili-dialects.html. Verlag AM-CO Publishers.


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