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Currency of Grammar Book

I have downloaded a free PDF Swahili grammar and vocabulary book. It was published in 1910. I appreciate that 109 years on the vocabulary will be dated but just how out of date may the grammar be? Hopefully someone with a good knowledge of Swahili will answer this rather than people just guessing by its age it will be definitely out of date. I have a grammar of English of the same vintage. Anyone learning English from it would have no difficulty being understood in 2019.

December 1, 2019



From my limited knowledge of Swahili, I'd guess it hasn't changed a lot - and much less than many languages. The reason being, as you probably know, that Swahili is the general language used by 41 of the 42 main tribes of Kenya (as well as being used in Tanzania and parts of other countries) to communicate with each other, although each has their own language as well. Therefore, by my (possibly faulty!) logic, any rapid changes in the language would be difficult and cause communication problems, particularly in a country where travel and other forms of communication have moved forward much more slowly, until very recently, than in America or Europe ( or many others).

I would guess that the change in language will be beginning to move faster now, with the rise of Sheng among younger people and improvement in communications generally. It will be interesting to see whether the changes are starting to affect the Maasai, who have generally tried to maintain their own culture and lifestyle, resisted learning Swahili (or English), and proudly kept their traditions - it would be a pity to lose their uniqueness.


Not everything in that is still applicable to standard Swahili of today. It may be that this book is describing the Mombasa dialect, but if they explicitly said that, I didn’t see it. Some consonants are written with Italics and this may be to indicate corresponding differences between dialects, but if so, it doesn’t seem to be consistently used, at least not in a way that lets you deduce the modern standard form from the form in the book. For example, often, but not always, where the book has an italic t, modern standard Swahili has ch.

Here are some differences I’ve noticed just skimming haphazardly down through the PDF.

It gives sisi and ninyi as swiswi and nywinywi.

It gives the present tense of kuwa as nawa, wawa, awa etc. These forms exist but are virtually never used in standard Swahili today. It then does explain ni but says it is only used in the third person, which is not true in standard Swahili today.

It gives the subject prefixes as standalone words for “be”, which are now usually suffixed with -ko even when not referring to a place: e.g. Yu(ko) tayari (S/he is ready.)

A lot of vocabulary items are a little bit different. These differences are surely still present in dialects in areas where Swahili is the traditional native language, but it doesn’t help you learn the current standard:

ila (except) and kila (every) as illa and killa/kulla

kutazama (to watch) as kutezama

njaa (hunger), nje (outside), njia (way), kukunja (to fold), kuvunja (to break) and njoo (come!) as ndaa, nde, ndia, kukunda, kuvunda and ndoo

kucheka (to laugh) as kuteka (which means “to kidnap!” in modern standard)

chini (down, below) as tini

kuacha (to let, leave, stop) as kuata

mchana (afternoon, daytime) as mtana

kuchukia (to hate) and kuchukua (to take) as kutukia and kutukua.

kufagia (to sweep) as kufyagia

saba (seven) as sabaa

kudhani (to think, suppose) as kuthani

mwizi/wezi (thief/thieves) as mwivi/wevi and Wezi si wengi. (Thieves are not many) as Wevi si wangi.

wengi, mingi and mengi (many, classes 2, 4 and 6) as wangi, mwingi and mangi.

mingapi (how many, class 4) and ngapi (how much/many, class 9/10) as mwingapi and nyingapi.

It also goes on to say there is no separate relative pronoun, the author apparently being unaware of amba-, or possibly it wasn’t used back then either at all or in whatever dialect this book describes.

It correctly describes the positive relative forms of “be”, but then describes the negative relative forms of “be” as meaning “have”, e.g. describing nisiye (I who am not) as “I who have not” although that is nisiye na.

The continuation forms of “be”, ningali (I am still ...) etc. are given with a k instead of ng: nikali etc.

There’s a lot more, a lot of vocabulary where I didn’t recognise the word but know a common equivalent where I can’t say the word is not used in modern standard, but that there would be a more common alternative.

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