May 23, 2022
Any growing language interacts with other languages. In their interaction languages influence each other to varying degrees. Swahili, one of the fastest-growing languages in Africa and one that is gaining traction around the world is no exception. So, what languages influenced Swahili?
Arabic, a language that has a major presence in North Africa, would jump out to any speaker of Swahili to whom the question, “What languages influenced Swahili?” may be posed. Swahili has borrowed heavily from Arabic.
The degree of the Arabic language's influence on Swahili is so high that among the three major theories of the origin of Swahili as a language is one suggesting that Swahili is actually an Arabic language. While Swahili scholars have endlessly torn apart this theory, even they would have Arabic as their first answer if asked what languages influenced Swahili.
So, what makes “Arabic” such an obvious answer to people considering the question, “what languages influenced Swahili?”? The influence of the Arabic language on Swahili is centuries old. It started almost a millennium ago when Arabian traders first made contact with East Africa’s coastal region people.
The Arab influence on the East coast of Africa goes beyond the language. Many cultural aspects of Africa’s East Coast—including Islam, the region’s dominant religion—have been borrowed from Arabic culture.
In terms of language, Swahili has adopted a humongous number of Arabic loanwords. The word “Swahili” itself is an Arabic word that comes from the Arabic sawāhilī which means “of the coast.” Almost twenty percent of all Swahili vocabulary is estimated to be borrowed from Arabic, and Arabic script was once used to write Swahili. It is therefore only logical for Arabic to spring onto one’s mind when asked what languages influenced Swahili.
The fact that another popular theory explaining the origin of the Swahili language asserts that it started as a pidgin and eventually developed into a creole when Arabs made contact with East African peoples, serves to further demonstrate the great extent to which Arabic has influenced Swahili.
This being the second of three theories attempting to trace the origin of the Swahili language, and pointing to Arabic as key to the existence of Swahili similar to the first theory, it is not surprising that one would immediately answer Arabic when the question of what languages influenced Swahili is posed.
Nevertheless, Arabic is hardly the only language that has had an influence on Africa’s fastest-growing language. While it may be the first answer that comes to mind when one is facing the question, “what languages influenced Swahili?” one is likely to pause and ponder about other answers. English will most certainly be an answer too.
Words such as eropleni from the English “aeroplane,” kompyuta from “computer,” penseli from “pencil,” mashine from “machine” and shule or skuli from “school” are all English adaptations into Swahili. It will not be a surprise therefore if you get “English” as an answer to the question, “What languages influenced Swahili?”
There exists an answer to the question “What languages influenced Swahili?” that many Swahili speakers may fail to easily think of. Ostensibly hiding in plain sight, the answer “Bantu languages” may not easily occur to one as an answer.
Yet, local Bantu languages and Swahili share not only vocabulary but also structure. Swahili scholars hold that Swahili is itself a Bantu language. Among the three theories explaining Swahili’s origin, Swahili as a Bantu language is the most widely accepted and the only unchallenged one in Swahili scholarship.
Kimathi got his education degree to teach Swahili at the University of Nairobi and taught Swahili language and literature at a high school there for three years before coming to the US for graduate studies. He has worked as a translator and editor for the last few years as well as teaching Swahili language and African cultural studies classes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.