Take the word safari, for example – you know it, but did you know it’s Swahili? If you’re like a lot of people, you might even think Swahili is either a dead language, no longer spoken, or a generic term for African languages. But it’s a distinct, beautiful language all its own – although it is becoming a “lingua franca” for Africa in the modern age.
Swahili Historical Facts
Swahili is an official language in two countries: Tanzania and Kenya. It’s also widely spoken in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Comoros Islands, Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. It is spreading further every year and your chances of encountering people with at least a small mastery of Swahili grows every year. In fact, if you were planning a trip around Africa, I would advise you to learn Swahili or at least some phrases.
In Swahili, the name for the language is Kiswahili, and it comes from Arabic. The word sahil in Arabic means boundary or coast, and swahili is the plural form. Kiswahili is thus Arabic for “coastal language,” which is how it was initially described. Arabic, in fact, has had a lot of influence over Swahili – Swahili could be accurately described as a combination of Arabic words and the ancient Bantu language found in East Africa. About 35% of Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic, in fact. This is from contact with the Arabic communities of Zanj over the course of 1200 years.
The earliest written example of Swahili dates only to 1711, which I know sounds incredibly ancient to some of you, but in a historical sense is very recent. These were letters sent out to various allies and other local governments. There is also a document dated to 1728 which is the epic poem Utendi wa Tambuka, History of Tambuka. The poem is in Swahili, but is written in an Arabic script. Yet in modern times Swahili is written in the Latin script due to the lengthy influence of European explorers, merchants, and conquerors.
Swahili and English
There are many words in English which either come from Swahili or which have been adopted into Swahili, so you already know more vocabulary than you think. Some examples are polisi (police), boksi (box), hoteli (hotel), televisheni (television), baiskeli (bicycle), hospitali (hospital), soksi (socks),
picha (picture), muziki (music), and redio (radio).
Image courtesy salvonaris.com