The origin of Swahili Language: Arabic Loanwords

July 24, 2023 1 Comment
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You might think Swahili is an outlandish language spoken in a faraway place, but you already know more of it than you realize. Swahili words the lingua franca of East Africa, have borrowed heavily from Arabic, with as much as 25-30% of its vocabulary coming from Arabic loanwords. When you greet someone with “Jambo!” or exclaim “Asante!” in thanks, you’re using Arabic-derived words.

The Arabic influence permeates Swahili and is key to understanding this vibrant language spoken by over 100 million people across Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and beyond.

So the next time you hear a Swahili word or phrase, prick up your ears – you just might recognize its Arabic roots. Understanding these loanwords is the key to unlocking Swahili and connecting with a rich cultural heritage spanning the Indian Ocean coast.

The History of Arabic Influence on Swahili Words

Swahili has been heavily influenced by Arabic, and over time has adopted many Arabic words and phrases. This influence dates back over 1,000 years ago to when Arab traders first established themselves along the East African coast. As the Arabs and Swahilis began trading goods and intermarrying, the Swahili people started speaking Arabic and even writing using the Arabic script. It’s estimated that as much as 35-40% of Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic! Some common words borrowed from Arabic include:

  • habari (news)
  • duka (shop)
  • baiskeli (bicycle)
  • Machungwa (orange)
  • kofia (hat)

The Arabic influence is also seen in Swahili greetings like “Jambo!” (Hello!) and “Asante” (Thank you!). Even Swahili numbers are largely based on the Arabic numbering system. Arabic culture and religion also spread to the Swahili people. Many Swahilis adopted Islam, and with it came traditions, festivals, and even architecture like mosques.

The historical UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lamu and Zanzibar are perfect examples of traditional Swahili-Arabic architecture. The long history of contact between the Swahili and Arabic people led to a blending of languages and cultures that shaped what we now know as Swahili. So

when learning Swahili, don’t be surprised at how much Arabic you’ll also pick up! Studying the Arabic loanwords and their influence in Swahili is truly key to understanding this beautiful Bantu language.

Common Swahili Words Borrowed From Arabic

There are so many Swahili words borrowed from Arabic, it’s almost hard to know where to start! Once you start noticing them, you’ll realize just how much of the Swahili language has Arabic roots. Some super common words you’ll recognize right away are:

  1. Habari – meaning “news” or “information”. Use it when greeting someone to ask “What’s new?”.
  2. Duka – meaning “shop”. You’ll see this in stores all over.
  3. Sukari – meaning “sugar”. Sweet, just like the word itself!
  4. Chai – meaning “tea”. Perfect for inviting a friend over for a cup of masala chai.
  5. Chapati – a popular flatbread. Chapatis are delicious when served with stews, curries or sautéd greens.
  6. Mke – meaning “wife”. And mume means “husband”. Family words are so important in Swahili, and many come from Arabic.

There are hundreds more where these came from! Nearly half of Swahili’s vocabulary finds its roots in Arabic, imported along with the spread of Islam through East Africa. Studying Arabic loanwords is key to unlocking an understanding of Swahili.

The more you learn, the more you’ll recognize in conversations, stories, and songs. So dive in and explore all the Arabic-derived words Swahili has to offer. Your knowledge and appreciation of this beautiful language will blossom as a result! Swahili’s Arabic influences weave together a rich cultural tapestry that tells a story of the deep connection between peoples. What an amazing legacy of cultural exchange.

Numbers in Swahili: Counting From Arabic

The Arabic influence on Swahili is undeniable, and nowhere is it more evident than in Swahili numbers. Nearly all numbers in Swahili come directly from Arabic. Once you learn the numbers, you’ll start recognizing many Arabic loanwords in Swahili.

Counting in SwahiliTo count in Swahili, you only need to know the numbers 1 through 10. After that, it’s just a matter of combining those numbers!1 – moja2 – mbili3 – tatu4 – nne5 – tano6 – sita7 – saba8 – nane9 – tisa10 – kumi See, those first 10 numbers look familiar, don’t they? Swahili borrowed them directly from Arabic. After 10, you just combine numbers, so 11 is kumi na moja (10 and 1), 15 is kumi na tano (10 and 5), and so on up to 99.

For the hundreds, you say mia moja (100), mia mbili (200), up to mia tisa (900). For example, 345 is mia tatu, arobaini na tano (300, 40, and 5). The thousands follow the same pattern, so 2000 is elfu mbili, 3000 is elfu tatu. Once you’ve got the numbers down, you’ll start noticing many other Arabic loanwords in Swahili. Words like duka (shop), baiskeli (bicycle), and kahawa (coffee) come directly from Arabic.

Numbers and these loanwords make up a significant portion of Swahili vocabulary, demonstrating the huge influence Arabic has had on the development of the Swahili language. Learning Swahili numbers and recognizing Arabic loanwords is key to understanding Swahili. With regular practice, you’ll be counting and identifying Arabic-derived words in no time! Swahili’s close relationship with Arabic gives you insight into Swahili’s history and culture. Enjoy exploring all the connections between these two languages.

Greetings and Common Phrases in Swahili From Arabic

Learning common greetings and phrases in Swahili is a great way to start understanding the influence of Arabic on the language. Swahili absorbed many loanwords from Arabic during centuries of trade and cultural exchange, and greetings are no exception. Familiarizing yourself with these borrowed words and expressions will open you up to Swahili culture in an authentic way.

Jambo! – Hello!

The standard Swahili greeting ‘Jambo’ comes from the Arabic word ‘salām,’ meaning ‘peace.’ To say ‘How are you,’ use ‘Habari gani?’ – also from Arabic, meaning ‘What news?’ The common response is ‘Mzuri sana’ – ‘very good’ in Swahili, from the Arabic ‘jayyid,’ meaning ‘good.’

Karibu! – Welcome!

‘Karibu’ is used frequently in Swahili to welcome someone or make them feel at home. It originates from the Arabic ‘qaraba,’ meaning ‘to approach’ or ‘draw near.’ You’ll hear ‘Karibu’ said with enthusiasm to greet guests, customers, or new friends.

Asante! – Thank you!

Expressing gratitude in Swahili comes from the Arabic ‘shukran,’ meaning ‘thanks.’ ‘Asante’ is used in the same way as ‘thank you’ in English, to show appreciation for any act of kindness, generosity, or goodwill.

Kwaheri! – Goodbye!

To bid someone farewell in Swahili, say ‘Kwaheri!’ This word was borrowed from the Arabic ‘wa al-salām,’ which means ‘and to peace’ – a common parting greeting. ‘Kwaheri!’ is used when leaving a place or ending a conversation with someone.

From greetings to expressions of welcome, thanks, and goodbye, Swahili adopted many useful phrases from Arabic. Familiarizing yourself with these common sayings is a great first step to learning Swahili and connecting with its cultural roots. Use them confidently in conversation and experience firsthand how Arabic has shaped the language.

Swahili Words Pronouns From Arabic

Swahili has adopted many Arabic pronouns, which provide insight into the language’s grammar. The pronoun ‘mimi’ means ‘I/me’, ‘wewe’ is ‘you’ (singular) . For plurals, say ‘sisi’ (we/us), ‘ninyi’ (you plural), and ‘wao’ (they/them).

Subject Pronouns

To be a proper subject of a verb, use ‘ni’ (I am), ‘ume’ (you are), ‘tuko’ (we are), ‘mko’ (you plural are) and ‘wako’ (they are). For past tense, say ‘nilikuwa’ (I was), ‘ulikuwa’ (you were), ‘tulikuwa’ (we were), ‘mlikuwa’ (you plural were) and ‘walikuwa’ (they were).

Possessive Pronouns

To show possession, attach ‘-angu’ (my), ‘-ako’ (your), ‘-ake’ (his/her), ‘-etu’ (our), ‘-enu’ (your plural), and ‘-ao’ (their) to the noun. For example, ‘kitabu changu’ (my book), ‘nyumba yako’ (your house) and ‘watoto wao’ (their children).As you can see, Swahili pronouns have been heavily influenced by Arabic. Mastering pronouns is key to learning Swahili grammar and understanding how sentences are structured. Study these pronouns, listen to native Swahili speakers, and practice using them in speech and writing. In no time, pronouns will become second nature!

Question Words in Swahili From Arabic

Swahili absorbed many words from Arabic during historical cultural exchanges, and question words are no exception. These borrowed terms allow you to gain valuable insight into how native Swahili speakers think and express themselves. Who – Nani? Nani means “who” in Swahili, just like in Arabic. Use it when inquiring about someone’s identity or characteristics. For example, you might ask “Nani anafundisha somo hili?” (Who teaches this class?) or “Nani anayepika chakula hiki?” (Who cooks this food?).

What – Nini? The word nini, derived from Arabic, means “what” in Swahili. Pose open-ended questions beginning with nini to gather information. You could say “Nini unafanya leo?” (What are you doing today?) or “Nini unapenda kula?” (What do you like to eat?). When – Lini? Lini, originally from Arabic, means “when” in Swahili. Use it to ask about the time or date something occurs. For instance, “Lini tunakutana?” (When shall we meet?) or “Lini shule inaanza?” (When does school start?).

Where – Wapi? Wapi, another Arabic loanword, means “where” in Swahili. Ask Wapi when you want to know the location or place of something or someone. You might say “Wapi unaishi?” (Where do you live?) or “Wapi ninaweza kupata chakula hiki?” (Where can I get this food?).Why – Kwa nini?

Kwa nini, which combines the Swahili preposition kwa with the Arabic nini, means “why” in Swahili. Pose questions starting with kwa nini when you seek to understand the reason or purpose behind something. For example, “Kwa nini hujanisalimia?” (haven’t you greeted me?) or “Kwa nini unacheka?” (Why are you laughing?). Learning these common question words from Arabic will boost your Swahili fluency and allow you to have more engaging conversations. Ask away!

Time Expressions in Swahili: The Arabic Connection

swahili words

Swahili has borrowed many time expressions from Arabic, adding a colorful layer of cultural richness to the language. Once you understand these terms, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the influence of Arabic on Swahili. When talking about the time of day, you’ll come across words like asubuhi (morning), alasiri (afternoon), jioni (evening), and usiku (night). The Swahili word saa (hour) also comes from Arabic. You can say saa ngapi? (What time is it?) or saa tatu (three o’clock).

The days of the week are also mostly Arabic in origin: Jumatatu (Monday), Jumanne (Tuesday), Jumatano (Wednesday), Alhamisi (Thursday), Ijumaa (Friday), Jumamosi (Saturday), and Jumapili (Sunday). Friday, Ijumaa, is considered a holy day for Muslims, while Sunday, Jumapili, is set aside for Christians.

The names of the months similarly have Arabic roots. Mwezi wa kwanza (January), Mwezi wa pili (February), Mwezi wa tatu (March), Mwezi wa nne (April), Mwezi wa tano (May), Mwezi wa sita (June), Mwezi wa saba (July), Mwezi wa nane (August), Mwezi wa tisa (September), Mwezi wa kumi (October), Mwezi wa kumi na moja (November), and Mwezi wa kumi na mbili (December).

So you see, Arabic has lent Swahili many fundamental expressions related to the passage of time. By learning these terms, you’ll gain insight into the cultural connections between the languages as well as a useful set of vocabulary for discussing dates, schedules, and calendars. Understanding Arabic loanwords in Swahili allows us to appreciate how languages influence each other and spread cultural concepts between groups.

Days of the Week in Swahili Words: Tracing the Arabic Origin

swahili words

The days of the week in Swahili come directly from Arabic, a reminder of the historical contact between Swahili and Islamic cultures. Understanding their origins provides insight into how much Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic. When Arab traders first made contact with Swahili speakers in East Africa, they brought their language and religion. As Swahili developed into a lingua franca for trade, many Arabic words were borrowed. This includes the names of the days of the week.


Meaning “first day” in Arabic, Jumatatu is Monday. The root “juma” means week or Friday in Arabic.


Jumanne is Tuesday. It comes from the Arabic word “thnain” meaning “two” or “second”.


Wednesday is Jumatano, from the Arabic “thalatha” for “three” or “third”. See the pattern emerging?


Thursday is Alhamisi, derived from the Arabic word for “five” – “khamsa”.


Friday is Ijumaa, meaning the day of “juma” or gathering for prayer in Arabic.


Saturday is Jumamosi, from the Arabic word “saba” meaning “seven”.


Sunday is Jumapili, whose roots trace back to the Arabic word “ahad” for “one”.As you can see, almost the entire week has Arabic roots. Understanding these origins provides a glimpse into the significant impact Arabic has had on Swahili. Studying Swahili opens a window into East African culture, religion, and history. The Arabic influence is a key part of that story.

Swahili Words From Arabic Loanwords FAQ: Answering Your Questions

Have you ever wondered just how much of the Swahili language comes from Arabic? Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa, and much of its vocabulary originates from Arabic. Read on for answers to your questions about Swahili’s Arabic loanwords!

How did Arabic words make their way into Swahili?

During the 8th to 19th centuries, Arab traders traveled by dhow along the coasts of East Africa and mingled with the native Swahili people. As the Arabs and Swahili interacted through trade and intermarriage, the Swahili people adopted many Arabic words into their language. This infusion of new vocabulary was also helped by the spread of Islam in the region.

What kinds of words were borrowed?

The Arabic loanwords in Swahili span many semantic domains. There are words relating to trade and commerce (duka, shop; cheti, receipt), religion (dini, religion; sala, prayer), family and social relations (ndugu, relative; mke, wife), and everyday objects (kitanda, bed; Chombo, utensil). There are also many abstract nouns (fahamu, understand; akili, intelligence), verbs (pika, cook), and adjectives (zuri, beautiful; -fu, abundant) from Arabic.

How did change the Swahili words?

The Swahili people adapted the Arabic words to fit the sounds and syntax of their own language. For example, Arabic words with “p” and “v” sounds were changed to “f” since Swahili lacks those consonants. Arabic broken plurals were replaced with Swahili noun prefixes like “ma-”. Verbs were changed to fit Swahili patterns, e.g. adding the infix “-i-” to form causatives.

How many Swahili words come from Arabic?

Estimates range from 25% to 60% of Swahili vocabulary originating from Arabic. The large variation arises from differing definitions of “loanword” and methods of estimating word origins. Regardless of the precise figure, it’s clear that Arabic has had an enormous influence on Swahili. The infusion of Arabic loanwords is a fascinating example of how languages can influence one another. The borrowed words have been so well assimilated into Swahili that their foreign roots are often obscured. Yet they provide an important window into historical cultural interactions along the East African coast.


You now have a glimpse into the rich linguistic heritage of Swahili and its deep connection to Arabic. Nearly half of the Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic, showing how cultures blend and influence each other over time. The next time you hear Swahili being spoken, listen for those familiar Arabic words and appreciate how they add flavor and nuance.

Languages evolve by borrowing from each other, and Swahili is a prime example of that. Its Arabic loanwords are a window into history and a bridge between cultures. So go ahead, pick up some Swahili phrases, and immerse yourself in this vibrant language that fuses Bantu roots with Arabic influences. You’ll gain a new appreciation for cultural connections that span vast distances. Arabic loanwords made Swahili what it is today, a language as diverse and colorful as the region from which it comes.

Want to learn more about the beautiful Swahili language? I have activities in my TPT store that are fun, interactive, and engaging, designed to help you learn Kiswahili while having fun! 

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 Asante na Kwaheri!

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