Linguistics and English Language

Linguistic Circle

Speakers: Hannah Gibson & Teresa Poeta (University of Essex)

Title: Investigating grammatical variation in Swahili: contact, change and identity

Abstract: This talk explores issues involved in investigating dialectal variation in Swahili - a crucial lingua franca spoken across East Africa by more than 100 million people. Dialectal variation in Swahili, particularly in relation to phonology and morphology, has long been noted (e.g. Bakari 1985, Stigand 1915). However, there has been little attention paid to structural variation. We report on a new collaborative project which seeks to explore present-day morphosyntactic variation in Swahili, its connection to language contact, and the role this variation plays in constructing speaker identity. We are particularly interested in investigating the intersection of dialectal variation and language contact to understand how multilingualism and patterns of language use affect variation in present-day Swahili.

This project is set against the backdrop of existing syntax dialect projects and microvariation projects on other languages (e.g. Scots - Smith et al. 2019, Dutch - Barbiers et al. 2005, isiXhosa - Bloom Ström 2017, etc.). The talk will explore how we may be able to draw on these projects and their methodologies, as well as the challenges specific to the Swahili context. Furthermore, we explore the notion of decoloniality in reflecting on how the study of a major African lingua franca can broaden the scholarship on language variation within global languages, often dominated by work on languages of the ‘Global North’.


  • Bakari, Mohamed. 1985. The Morphophonology of the Kenyan Swahili Dialects. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
  • Barbiers, S. Bennis, H. J. de Vogelaer, G. Devos, M. & van der Ham, M. H. 2005. Syntactische Atlas van de Nederlandse Dialecten/Syntactic Atlas of the Dutch Dialects Volume I. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Bloom Ström, Eva-Marie. 2017. Morphosyntactic variation in the dialects of Xhosa. University of Gothenburg.
  • Smith, Jennifer, David Adger, Brian Aitken, Caroline Heycock, E Jamieson and Gary Thoms. 2019. The Scots Syntax Atlas. University of Glasgow.
  • Stigand, Chauncy Hugh. 1915. Dialect in Swahili: A Grammar of Dialectic Changes in the Kiswahili Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Contact details

Linguistic Circle committee

Jan 27 2022 -

Linguistic Circle

2022-01-27: Investigating grammatical variation in Swahili: contact, change and identity

Online via link invitation