About the Language

Photo courtesy of Tyler Duerson

Swahili, also commonly referred to by native speakers, as Kiswahili, is a Bantu language that is closely related to other Bantu languages.

A number of discoveries have revealed the deep bases of Swahili language and culture. Swahili has acquired a number of Arabic vocabulary with the appearance of Arabic in the last few centuries. Though the dominant religion of most of the coastal Swahili is Islam, local African influence in language and the materials of everyday life is stronger. 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. That is why Islamic culture came to be part of the Swahili culture.

Though it is undeniable that Arab and Persian cultures had the greatest influence on the Swahili culture and the Swahili language, it is also important to note that the Swahili language also borrowed words from the Portuguese who controlled the Swahili coastal towns (c. 1500-1700AD). According to Nurse and Spear (1985) most Swahili manuscripts date from the last two centuries, and very few possibly from the 17th century. Swahili literature was essentially oral and it is in most recent years that we are witnessing a lot of written Swahili literature being produced.

Common Phrases


Swahili English
Hujambo? How are you?
Sijambo. I am fine.
Jina lako ni nani? What is your name?
Jina langu ni... My name is...

(used for greeting elders)
Marahaba (elder's response)
Mama Mother
Baba Father
Mtoto Child
Mzazi Parent