An overview of Arabic words in Swahili, from greetings and numbers through to complex verbs and even some expressions.
Swahili is definitely an African language. It’s not a Middle Eastern language, nor a Semitic language like Hebrew. The structure of Swahili is Bantu, and the lion’s share of the words are of Bantu origin. (See here for a more general overview of the Swahili language.)
But it’s blindingly obvious that Arabic had a great influence on Swahili. Historically, we understand that this influence came via trade with Arabs and through the influence of religion (Islam).
It’s also interesting to note the types of Arabic words that got a foothold in Swahili. So much so that as an amateur hobbyist linguist I decided to try to categorise them. The interpretations and observations are my own, and comments are welcome.
Note — there are many, many more Arabic words in Swahili. If you get a dictionary you’ll have a field day. The following are the Arabic words you’ll come across in Swahili by the time you’re at a intermediate conversational level (B1/2 in the Common European framework).
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Arabic/Islamic greetings in Swahili
The first category of Arabic any Swahili learner will come across is Islamic greetings in Swahili.
Even those these are accepted standard Swahili, they’re mostly used by people who either are Muslims or who live in a predominantly Muslim environment, like in Zanzibar (which is 98% Muslim).
|English phrase||Swahili||Arabic + pronunciation|
|Peace be upon you (standard muslim greeting)||Salam aleikum||سلام عليكم (salaam a’leikum)|
|Come in! (Please approach!)||karibu||قريب (qareeb)|
|How are you? (What’s news?)||habari yako||خبر (khabar)|
|I’m well/at peace (one possible response)||salama||سلام (salaam)|
|Good morning||habari ya asubuhi||صبح (morning)|
|Excuse me||samahani||سامحني (saamaHani)|
Many of these Arabic words in Swahili are direct imports. The Islamic greeting salam aleikum is used daily in Zanzibar, as is the standard response wa aleikum as-salami.
Some of the Arabic phrases have modifications, like habari ya asubuhi. Nobody asks this question in Arabic (“What’s news of the morning?”).
Another modification is karibu. In modern Arabic, nobody ever asks someone else to “approach”. Maybe in some regal setting, but not every day! But in daily Swahili, karibu is used many times a day.
Another loose category of Arabic words in Swahili is legal/social concepts, many of which were imported via Islam.
|Legal/social concepts||Swahili||Arabic word|
|marriage/divorce||arusi/talaka||عرس / الطلاق (‘ars, Talaaq)|
|to legalise||halalisha||حلال (halaal)|
|company, organisation||shirika||شركة (sherkah)|
Most of these Swahili words are direct imports from Arabic.
A few are related. E.g. faa’idah in Arabic means “benefit” more than “profit”, which uses another word in modern Arabic.
Similarly, the word halaal in Arabic relates to a specific kind of religious legality. A more general word qaanun (قانون) is used for law.
Arabic Numbers & Time Concepts in Swahili
A third and important category of Arabic words in Swahili is numbers.
Anyone studying Swahili will quickly realise that the numbering system is hard to understand. Unlike other languages, where you form numbers like 31 by saying “3-10-1” or something like that, Swahili has two only vaguely similar (between single digits and tens) numbers for 3 and 30: tatu and thelathini.
|tatu, sita, saba, nane, tisa||ثلاثة (thlaathah)|
|later||baadaye||بعدين (ba’dayn) (note: colloquial)|
|in the distant past||zamani||زمان (zamaan)|
|to add, count||-hesabu||يحسب (yiHsab)|
|to wait||-subiri||صبر (Sabr)|
|to postopone||-ahirisha||يأخر (yi’akhkhar) (“to delay”)|
Not only are half the digits from 0 to 10 in Swahili the same as Arabic numbers, what’s really interesting is all the multiples of ten and above come directly from Arabic!
Further, many concepts of time and counting are imported Arabic words. It shows the impact of trade with Arabs on Swahili coastal culture.
Not all these words are 1:1 correspondences. For example the concept of “in the distant past” in Swahili, using the word zamani, is related to the word zamaan which in modern Arabic just means “time”.
In the same way, only a couple of the days of the week, Thursday and Friday, made it from Arabic into Swahili. The other five of them remain pure Swahili.
There are other words related to work and occupation that are imported from Arabic into Swahili but they’re at a more advanced level.
Arabic Words for People and Professions in Swahili
Another set of borrowed Arabic words in Swahili are those for people and professions.
These are words both for social relationships as well as professions that perhaps became more common with the arrival of traders (I note “soldier” in particular).
Most people who know any Arabic will have watched The Lion Kong, heard “rafiki” and thought, hey, that sounds familiar…
And the first time I heard that my teacher wanted to be addressed as mwalimu I started looking out for more Arabic words. I was surprised!
|teacher||mwalimu||معلّم (mo’allem — archaic)|
|daughter||binti||بنت (bint — “daughter”)|
Some borrowed Arabic words in Swahili are archaic in modern Arabic.
For example, mwalimu has an equivalent in Arabic, معلّم (moallem), but that’s not used universally in modern Arabic (one reader tells us it’s common in Syria, though my teachers told us it’s not common in Egypt). It’s still used in Persian though with the same meaning.
This is quite simply a list of a few food words with Arabic roots.
On pilipili/felfel — sometimes the word “f” gets mixed up when coming from Arabic, as it has no “P” sound. In Hebrew the word for pepper is pronounced pilpel.
I used to think maji (water) was Arabic roots, as it’s so similar to ماء (maa’, often pronounced “maayah”), but it turns out that was a coincidence as maji has similar words in many Bantu languages. Or perhaps Arabic got this one from Bantu. (Thanks to everyone who wrote in to correct this!)
A handful of Arabic adjectives made them into Swahili. The below ones are the ones that I came across in my few months of study.
My favourite entry here was “fulani”. This Arabic word that means “some miscellaneous object” has made it into a number of languages (including Persian) because it’s so damn useful!
|some random thing||fulani||فلان (fulaan)|
|to originate from||-wasili||أصل (aSl)|
Mind, Body, Health
The final category of words I recognised is a generally broad category, but includes things relating to the body, mind, and health. (Oh, and one item of clothing added in).
|a thought||fikra||فكرة (fikrah)|
|to think||-fikiri||يفكر (yifkar)|
Other words of Arabic origin in Swahili
This is a beginner’s list from my first 2000 words of studying Swahili. Even in that list I have probably missed some.
Any good Swahili dictionary — unfortunately only available in physical formats — will have even more Arabic words in Swahili in it. Usually they’re denotated with an “(Ar.)” after them.