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Once just an obscure island dialect of an African Bantu tongue, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognised language. It is peer to the few languages of the world that boast over 200 million users.

Over the two millennia of Swahili’s growth and adaptation, the moulders of this story – immigrants from inland Africa, traders from Asia, Arab and European occupiers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers, and individuals from various postcolonial nations – have used Swahili and adapted it to their own purposes. They have taken it wherever they have gone to the west.

Africa’s Swahili-speaking zone now extends across a full third of the continent from south to north and touches on the opposite coast, encompassing the heart of Africa.

The origins

The historical lands of the Swahili are on East Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral. A 2,500-kilometer chain of coastal towns from Mogadishu, Somalia to Sofala, Mozambique as well as offshore islands as far away as the Comoros and Seychelles.

This coastal region has long served as an international crossroads of trade and human movement. People from all walks of life and from regions as scattered as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe all encountered one another. Hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers mingled with traders and city-dwellers.

This article is republished from The Conversation Africa under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.