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COLUMN SIXTY-THREE, SEPTEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
FROM THE SOA (SONS OF AFRIKA)
[soa] A Brief History of the Swahili Language
Sent: April 14, 2001 3:59:49 PM GMT
Subject: Fwd: A Brief History of the Swahili Language
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SWAHILI LANGUAGE
Hassan O. Ali; revised by Abdurahman Juma)
Swahili language, is basically of Bantu (African) origin. It has borrowed words
from other languages such as Arabic probably as a result of the Swahili people
using the Quran written in Arabic for spiritual guidance as Muslims.
regards the formation of the Swahili culture and language, some scholars
attribute these phenomena to the intercourse of African and Asiatic people on
the coast of East Africa. The word "Swahili" was used by early Arab
visitors to the coast and it means "the coast". Ultimately it came to
be applied to the people and the language.
the history of the Swahili language, the older view linked to the colonial time
asserts that the Swahili language originates from Arabs and Persians who moved
to the East African coast. Given the fact that only the vocabulary can be
associated with these groups but the syntax or grammar of the language is Bantu,
this argument has been almost forgotten. It is well known that any language that
has to grow and expand its territories ought to absorb some vocabulary from
other languages in its way.
suggestion has been made that Swahili is an old language. The earliest known
document recounting the past situation on the East African coast written in the
2nd century AD (in Greek language by anonymous author at Alexandria in Egypt and
it is called the Periplus of Erythrean Sea) says that merchants visiting the
East African coast at that time from Southern Arabia, used to speak with the
natives in their local language and they intermarried with them. Those that
suggest that Swahili is an old language point to this early source for the
possible antiquity of the Swahili language.
is an undeniable truth that Arab and Persian cultures had greatest influence on
the Swahili culture and the Swahili language. To demonstrate the contribution of
each culture into the Swahili language, take an example of the numbers as they
are spoken in Swahili. "moja" = one, "mbili" = two, "tatu"
= three, "nne" = four, "tano" = five, "nane" =
eight, "kumi" = ten, are all of Bantu origin. On the other hand there
is "sita" = six, "saba" = seven and "tisa" = nine,
that are borrowed from Arabic. The Swahili words, "chai" = tea, "achari"
= pickle, "serikali" = government, "diwani" = councillor,
"sheha" = village councillor, are some of the words borrowed from
Persian bearing testimony to the older connections with Persian merchants.
Swahili language also absorbed words from the Portuguese who controlled the
Swahili coastal towns (c. 1500-1700AD). Some of the words that the Swahili
language absorbed from the Portuguese include "leso" (handkerchief),
"meza" (table), "gereza" (prison), "pesa" ('peso',
money), etc. Swahili bull-fighting, still popular on the Pemba island, is also a
Portuguese legacy from that period. The Swahili language also borrowed some
words from languages of the later colonial powers on the East African coast "
English (British) and German. Swahilized English words include "baiskeli"
(bicycle), "basi" (bus), "penseli" (pencil), "mashine"
(machine), "koti" (coat), etc. The Swahilized German words include
"shule" for school and "hela" for a German coin.
centuries, Swahili remained as the language for the people of the East African
coast. Long-time interactions with other people bordering the Indian Ocean
spread the Swahili language to distant places such as on the islands of Comoro
and Madagascar and even far beyond to South Africa, Oman and United Arab
Emirates. Trade and migration from the Swahili coast during the
nineteenth-century helped spread the language to the interior of particularly
Tanzania. It also reached Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Central African
missionaries learnt Swahili as the language of communication to spread the
Gospel in Eastern Africa. So, the missionaries also helped to spread the
language. As a matter of fact the first Swahili-English dictionary was prepared
by a missionary. During the colonial time, Swahili was used for communication
with the local inhabitants. Hence the colonial administrators pioneered the
effort of standardizing the Swahili language. Zanzibar was the epicenter of
culture and commerce, therefore colonial administrators selected the dialect of
the Zanzibar (Unguja) town as the standard Swahili. The Unguja dialect (Kiunguja)
was then used for all formal communication such as in schools, in mass media
(newspapers and radio), in books and other publications.
Swahili is spoken in many countries of Eastern Africa. For Tanzania, deliberate
efforts were made by the independent nation to promote the language (thanks to
the efforts of the former head of state, Julius K. Nyerere). Tanzania's special
relations with countries of southern Africa was the chief reason behind the
spread of Swahili to Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and other neighbouring
countries to the south. Swahili is the national as well as the official language
in Tanzania - almost all Tanzanians speak Swahili proficiently and are unified
by it. In Kenya and Uganda, it is the national language, but official
correspondence is still conducted in English.
Swahili is the most widely spoken language of eastern Africa and many world
institutions have responded to its diaspora. It is one of the languages that
feature in some world radio stations such as, the BBC, Radio Cairo (Egypt), the
Voice of America (U.S.A.), Radio Deutschewelle (Germany), Radio Moscow
International (Russia), Radio Japan International, Radio China International,
Radio Sudan, and Radio South Africa. The Swahili language is also making its
presence in the art world - in songs, theatres, movies and television programs.
For example, the lyrics for the song titled "Liberian girl" by Michael
Jackson has Swahili phrases: "Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi we!"
(I love you, and I want you, my dear!). The well-celebrated Disney movie,
"The Lion King" features several Swahili words, for example "simba"
(lion), "rafiki" (friend), as the names of the characters. The Swahili
phrase "hakuna matata" (No troubles or no problems) was also used in
The promotion of the Swahili language is not only in its use but also deliberate efforts are made throughout the world to include it in education curriculum for higher institutions of learning. It is taught in many parts of the world. ##
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