June 6, 2022
Over the years Swahili or Kiswahili, as it is referred to by native Swahili speakers in the larger East and Central Africa area, has been featured, used, or referred to in Western media. ‘Sauti ya Amerika’ (Voice of America) and BBC Swahili are some western media fraternities that have dedicated a section of themselves to Swahili.
Hollywood and other filmmakers have also featured the Swahili language and culture in their works, most notably, The Lion King. So, what is the origin of the Swahili language? So much has been said in the quest of finding the answer.
Swahili categorically falls under the Bantu group of languages, being spoken originally by the Swahili people. It shares its structure and vocabulary with other local Bantu languages spoken in Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. However, a huge percentage of vocabulary (about 30%) can be traced to Arabic. The contact between Arabic and Coastal Bantu languages can be traced back to 2 AD.
The contact between the two cultures, Arabic and East Africans, came by when Arab merchants came to the East African coast following the Indian Ocean. The business people had to find a lingua franca- a common language to enable them to transact with each other.
Over time also, the Arabs settled in coastal cities across East Africa such as Lamu and Mombasa where some even started families. The spread of Islam also contributed to the growth and development of Swahili as a language. As this was happening, such places saw a huge influence on culture, architecture, and business model which is prevalent to this day.
Most of the everyday Swahili words are borrowed from Arabic. Even the word Swahili itself comes from the Arabic word Sawahel which is Arabic for ‘the coast.’ Darasa is Swahili for class which is borrowed from the Arabic word dars meaning lesson or class.
Another interaction that led to Swahili's language origin is the interaction with Portuguese. This didn’t contribute to so much of the Swahili language as is today, but it did lead to an addition of vocabulary such as meza (mesa in Portuguese) meaning ‘table.’ Mvinyo (Swahili for wine) is also borrowed from the Portuguese word vinyo with the same meaning.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the spread of Swahili into other parts of Kenya received a great stimulus because it was the language of the Arab ivory and slave trade caravans, which ended up going as far as Uganda and Congo to the West.
The Swahili language later got a boost (ironically) when European colonialists, specifically the Germans, used it primarily as the language of administration in Tanganyika (Later renamed Tanzania) because they saw German as too special for the locals to speak and encouraged them to speak Swahili. This, therefore, laid the foundation for its acceptance and adoption as the national & official language when Tanzania got its independence.
All these should not however take away from the fact that Swahili is almost 70% a Bantu language, which is African. Swahili’s linguistic structure is Bantu. In instances where Swahili doesn’t have a word for a certain item or scenario, it localizes the word from another language using its rules. Showing its nature as a native language of Eastern Africa.
One rule that is very important for example is that all words in Swahili end in a vowel sound. Polisi and televisheni, for example, are Swahili words borrowed from the English words Police and Television respectfully.
Jason is an Fulbright scholar and experienced Swahili instructor who formerly taught at Yale University. He completed an MA degree in the US, writing a thesis about Swahili commentaries on Hollywood films. He currently teaches English language and literature at a high school in Kenya while serving as the Africa Fulbright Network's Ambassador to Kenya.