The Swahili Language

Since one of my friends is doing a semester abroad in Nairobi, I thought I would do a post about the Swahili language. You might already know more than you think.

Simba = lion in Swahili. Thank Disney for this one.

Uhuru = freedom. Remember that character in Star Trek? (I don’t.) The actress who played Commander Uhara actually chose her own name based on this word.

Safari = journey. This makes sense.

Kwanzaa (the holiday, which started in 1966) comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza“, which means “first fruits”. Kwanza = first. Kwanzaa celebrates unity.

Jambo = hello. Jumbo, the popular circus elephant, was probably named after this word. Now we call anything that’s very large jumbo.

Swahili is only spoken by maybe 5-10 million people as a first language, but it’s a common lingua franca in East Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A lingua franca (literally Frankish language) is a language that’s used to communicate when 2 people (or more) speak different languages. For example, if I speak English and Harry speaks French, but we both know Italian – we can use Italian to communicate, and Italian would be a lingua franca. English is commonly used as a lingua franca, and this is part of the reason why English has become so popular. I think Swahili will grow from its use as a lingua franca.

Wikipedia says that Swahili is a national/official language of four nations. It’s the only language of African origin among the official working languages of the African Union.

Swahili has been influenced by many other languages. Almost 35% of the language comes from Arabic (12 centuries of trading with Arabic speaking traders), and it also has English, French, German, and Portuguese influences.

The word for Swahili in the language is Kiswahili (we hear this word sometimes in English too). Ki- is a prefix for languages.

I really liked learning about Swahili (I should say Kiswahili), so I may decide to do another one sometime soon!

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  1. 1

    Oh, I love African languages! 😀

    So to prove your point, “safari” (سفاري) comes from the Arabic route s-f-r (س-ف-ر), which has to do with travel. “Safr” (سافر) is the verb ‘to travel’, and “asfr” (اسفر) is the participle ‘left’.

    The prefix ‘ki’ is used for a lot of Bantu languages to describe the language of the people: the Nande people speak Kinande and Swahili people speak Kiswahili (as you said). In addition, some Bantu languages use the prefix ‘bu-‘ to refer to the area where the speakers live. That’s how people in Burundi speak Kirundi.

    As for Swahili being a lingua franca, it has become an integral part of many cultures as well. For instance, in Kinande, there are two ways to say ‘4’ – the traditional pronunciation, and the borrowed word from Swahili. (Swahili ‘4’: “nne”; Kinande borrowed ‘4’: “ebini”, where ‘ebi’ is a special prefix.) These days, the borrowed word is much more common, showing the strong Swahili influence in central Africa.

    Actually, the word for ‘7’ in Kinande is borrowed from Swahili, which was borrowed from Arabic!
    Arabic (سبعة) “saba3a” > Swahili “saba” > Kinande “esaba”

    Okay, I’m done! 😉

  2. 2


    Despite living in Tanzania and trying very hard to learn Kiswahili I only retained a little, but I thought you’d be interested to know that the language was not ever written down until the Arabs started trading perhaps a thousand years ago, so initially kiswahili was written in the Arabic script from right to left. Then when first the Germans then the Brits colonized Tanzania (then Tanganyka) they transliterated the language using the roman alphabet. Since most people were illiterate they started schools and this reinforced the change. This means that unlike English kiswahili is spelled the way it sounds.

    In addition to the prefix “ki” for languages one can use the prefix “wa” as in “waswahili” to indicate the Swahili people.

    Also, most people may have picked up additional words from the Lion King such has:

    Rafiki – Friend (The name of the Baboon who was a ‘friend’ of Simba)

    Hakuna matata – Well… I think you can guess the general meaning of that phrase.

  3. 3

    i love your blog. what a cute layout. This is so great. I have really enjoyed reading so far!

  4. 4

    Yay! Swahili is awesome. I actually didn’t know what uhuru meant, depite the fact that one of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares is named Uhuru Highway. Makes sense!

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