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Swahili Origins

Guest Author - Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu

Swahili is the national language of Kenya. It is taught in schools all over the country. It is the second language for students - their first language is their tribal language.

The origins of the Swahili language are a bit unsure. Swahili is considered a Bantu language. Its grammatical structure is the same as other Bantu languages. The earliest known existence of Swahili is in the 2nd century AD. A document written at that time says merchants from Southern Arabia visiting the coast used to speak with the natives in Swahili. Another possibility is the Swahili language originated from Arabs and Persians who moved to the coast - although it's really only the vocabulary of Swahili that is Arabian and Persian - not the grammar.

The Swahili language remained spoken only on the coast until about 200 years ago when settlers began to make their way west into the interior of East Africa.

The Arabs and Persians had a huge influence on the Swahili language. In fact, almost every culture that has attempted to control East Africa made its own impact on the Swahili language. The Swahili language is a sort of melting pot of many languages. Here are some examples:


Words with Bantu origins:
moja = one
mbili = two
Words borrowed from Arabic:
sita = six

saba = seven
Words borrowed from Persian:
chai = tea
serikali = government
Words borrowed from Portuguese:
meza = table

pesa = money
Words borrowed from English:
penseli = pencil
baiskeli = bicycle
Words borrowed from German:
shule = school
hela = German coin


Swahili is spoken in many East African countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda. In fact, Swahili is now the seventh most spoken language in the world.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jeanne Egbosiuba Ukwendu. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Dawn Denton for details.

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