Swahili: Arabic loan words


English, Australia
Does anyone on these forums speak/have some familiarity with Swahili?
I was wondering whether someone here could tell me more about the prevalence of Arabic loanwords in the Swahili lexicon. I vaguely remember coming across a source claiming the number and use of Arabic loanwords was roughly analogous to the case of French loanwords in English (i.e more prestigious/formal) but have read nothing to back this up.
Does anyone have any hard facts or at least an informed personal observation?
  • Kate,
    I do not speak Kiswahili ( I speak some Arabic), but in Kenya I can recognize many Arabic words and sometimes understand much of what people say.Some people mix the language with English. Arabic safar becomes safari. For book they have buku from English, andiko from Bantu and kitabu from Arabic kitab. As many people are mixed Bantu and Arab (some also Persian) Arabic words are often more formal when they have synonyms to choose from. See this link note on the list vitabu for book is the plural of kitabu so it should say books. The connection with Islam and Arabic is also important. So my observations although not scientific agree with what you have heard.
    I am interested in Swahili (Studying it for now and working on a Kisawahili-Arabic Dictionary). I believe this will answer you:
    Kiswahili has borrowed heavily from Arabic. Zawawi notes that “a collection and collation of loanwords in Johnson’s Standard English-Swahili Dictionary yielded a total of 3,006 words of foreign sources out of which 2,354 (80%) were of Arabic origin”.

    So Arabic loan word in Kiswahili constitutes 80% of loan words.

    The source: Zawawi, Sharifa M. "Loanwords and Their Effect on the Classification of Swahili Nominals", page 73, Leiden,1979, E.J. Brill.
    I lived in Kenya some twenty five years ago, and I learned Swahili then, although I've forgotten a great deal of it. Swahili does indeed have a great number of Arabic loan words. For example, the words for the numbers after the number five are mostly from Arabic. Most learned or bookish words in Swahili come from Arabic.

    In fact, in some earlier descriptions Swahili was defined as an Arabic/Bantu pidgin. It is true that Swahili started its life as the language of the Muslim settlers on the East African coast, but that was a long time ago and Swahili actually has a considerable literature of its own from medieval times, mostly in poetry.

    Of course, the most common words of the language come from Bantu roots, just as in English the commonest words are from Anglo-Saxon roots. The grammar is unquestionably Bantu as well, with the system of affixes for verbs and the noun classes such as other Bantu languages have.

    If you can get your hands on a copy of the "Standard Swahili English Dictionary" from Oxford University Press, you can learn more on the subject, since it gives the origin of all non-Bantu words. This will show a large number of Arabic borrowings, along with a healthy sprinkling of Farsi and Malay. The book is a remarkably good read for a dictionary, even if the information is a bit out of date.
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