Ever heard of Mayotte? Located in the Mozambique Channel, and geographically one of the Comoros Islands, it’s France’s newest département (1). Recently back from my second trip there, I thought I’d share with you some information about the languages of this little-known island.
As a French (overseas) département the official language is French and this is what is used in administration, public education and the media. However French presence in Mayotte only dates from the mid-19th century, whereas the Comoros islands have been inhabited for roughly 1000 years. A 2006 survey showed that about 57% of the population spoke French as a first or second language. Archaeology has established that the island was peopled by a mix of Bantu tribespeople from East Africa, Arabs from the Persian Gulf, people of Indonesian origin (possibly travelling to Madagascar), traders, and sailors. This diversity influenced the languages spoken on the island and today there are two main vernacular languages spoken on Mayotte, which illustrate its geographical position well: Shimaore, derived from Swahili, and Kibushi, of Malagasy origin. Arabic is also known, as children attend Quranic schools from an early age, (where they learn to read from right to left before attending French public school where they learn to read from left to right!).
Shimaore is mother tongue for about 80% of the population, and belongs to the same linguistic family as the languages of the other Comorian islands, which are known as Shimasiwa. At a higher level it belongs to the Bantu language group, spoken in most of Central and Eastern Africa, and has similarities with the Shona and Makua languages. Shimaore can be written in Roman or Arabic characters, but doesn’t (yet) have set spelling. It has three varieties: a pure form called swafi, and two varieties influenced by the dialects of the neighbouring islands of Anjouan and Grande Comore. It’s mainly used in public meetings, in the media, and in personal correspondence.
Kibushi is from the Malagasy language family and is native to roughly 30% of the population (some families grow up bilingual, which explains why the percentage total of speakers is more than 100%). It is heavily influenced by Shimaore and Arabic. Here too there are two dialectal forms: Kibushi kimaore, linked to the dialects spoken in Nosy Be and eastern Madagascar, is spoken in south and west Mayotte and probably arrived in the 19th century. Kibushi kiantalautsi seems to be older as it borrows many more words from Shimaore.
Finally more and more inhabitants of Mayotte (35.2% as a first or second language according to the 2006 survey) speak Shindzwani, the Comorian dialect spoken on Anjouan. This is because Mayotte is currently in the grip of a high level of illegal immigration from its nearest neighbour.
Here are some examples of French, Shimaoré and Kibushi using the short phrase “Welcome to Mayotte!” (note that Shimaore and Kibushi can also be written in Arabic script).
French: Bienvenue à Mayotte !
Shimaore: Namukaribu hunu Maore !
Kibushi kimaoré: Karibu anareu amin-ni tani Mahori !
For what it’s worth before travelling I looked up translators in Mayotte on Yellow Pages and Proz.com and found no results! (That’s not to say there are no translators or interpreters there of course, just that they’re not registered on either of these resources).
(1) For more information about Mayotte see here.
Mayotte Encycloguide by Gilles Nourault and François Perrin, Editions Orphie 2003, ISBN: 2-87763-207-5
- Welcome to France: home of sun, sea, sand, polygamy and the Indian Ocean - The Guardian - 26th May 2009
- Mayotte votes to become France’s 101st département - The Telegraph - 29th May 2009
- EU shores spread to Indian Ocean island - Deutsches Welle - 31st March 2011
- Mayotte: Department 101 - The Basement Geographer - 4th April 2011
- Mayotte moves to modernity - The Guardian - 19th April 2011
- More Trouble in France: Mayotte Riots - PJ media - 19th October 2011
- Mayotte: The EU’s—and France’s—Troubled New Exclave - Geocurrents - 27th October 2011