A few basic terms and phrases:
- Swahili: Kiswahili /ki swa hi li/ (kee-swa-HEE-lee)
- hello: Jambo (ja m boh) or (ya m boh)
- good-bye: kwa heri /kwa he ri/ (kwa HAY-ree)
- please: tafadhali /ta fa ða li/ (tah-fah-tha-lee)
- thank you: asante /a san te/ (ah-SAHN-tey)
- that one: yule /ju le/ (YOO-lay)
- how much?: ngapi /ŋga pi/ (ng-AH-pee)
- How much? (cost of something): shilingi ngapi (shee-leen-gee ng-gah-pee)? or bei gani?
- where?: wapi /wa pi/ (WA-pee)
- English: Kiingereza /ki iŋge re za/ (kee-ing-gay-reza)
- yes: ndiyo /n di jo/ (nn-DEE-yoh)
- no: hapana /ha pa na/
- generic toast: //
- no worries: hakuna matata /ha ku na ma ta ta/ (ha-KOO-na ma-TA-ta) or hamna shida (ham-na she-da)
Greetings in Swahili are a crucial aspect of Swahili culture; it is not uncommon for a conversation to go on for several minutes before it actually moves beyond saying what would be considered “hello” in western cultures. There is no generic word for “hello” in the language, rather there are numerous options depending on the relative ages and race of the people involved, as well as singular and plural forms, time of day, and other factors.
- Greetings are somewhat regular and formulaic, with specific responses required (not completely, but somewhat).
- Often, Swahili greetings are structured in a call-and-response format, where a certain initial greeting will require a particular response (for example, shikamoo is always followed by marahaba).
- Positive responses are the norm, even more so than in the west. Thus you will not generally respond that you are unwell, regardless of your actual state.
- You will note that some greetings fall into "families," where many greetings are derived from variations on a theme, such as the habari family, including habari, habari yako, habari za..., habari gani.
Note that if you mess up with the greetings, or anything else in the language, Swahili people are not likely to become angry or offended, but instead to be somewhat amused, yet understanding and helpful of your language difficulties, especially if you are white-skinned. (African-descended western individuals may face varied difficulties in being mistaken for Africans, including being expected to know the language, at least until the situation becomes clear.)
A non-comprehensive list would include “hujambo” (reply “sijambo”) for two people of similar age and race, “jambo” (reply “jambo”) for between white and black people, “shikamoo” (reply “marahaba”) for a young person to an elderly person, “hodi” (reply “karibu”) when in the doorway of a house. There are additionally numerous informal greetings such as “mambo”, “safi”, and many more. Farewells are abrupt or even non-existent. Habari is perhaps the most common and general-use single greeting, as it can range from very informal to semi-formal.
Greetings are shown in rough order of formality, with very formal greetings at the top and very informal ones at the bottom of the table.Niaje || poa
|shikamoo (alt. shikamuu)||marahaba||Young person begins exchange, older person responds.|
|habari (lit. "news")||nzuri (good)||Often the responder will immediately continue by beginning the following exchange.|
|habari yako? (lit. "your news?")||nzuri|
|habari za asubuhi? (lit. "news of morning?")||nzuri|
|sabalkheri? (good morning)||nzuri|
|habari za mchana? (lit. "news of afternoon?")||nzuri|
|habari za usiku? (lit. "news of evening?")||nzuri|
|habari za watoto? (lit. "news of children?")||nzuri|
|mambo (vipi)||poa ("cool"), safi (sana), mzuka...|
|habari/mambo||mzuka||Greetings from here down are "street language"—extremely informal/slang. They can be rude if used in the wrong company.|
|bomba (lit. "pipe")||safi|
|Is vipi||Is Poa|
(Please add greetings to this table as you think of them...)