16 August 2016

A Penny for Your Swahili Thoughts

If you've ever seen The Lion King, you know about a young cub named Simba and his adventures. You probably also know that "hakuna matata" means "no worries." But did you know that this is Swahili!? Okay, maybe you did, but I, on the other hand, am embarrassed to admit that I had no clue that Swahili words were hiding in The Lion King until I came to Tanzania. Here are some others.

- simba = lion
- rafiki = friend
- pumbaa = stupid or foolish

There's much more to Swahili than Disney's animal names, of course. One word I hear often is "karibu." Karibu means everything. It doesn't actually translate to the word "everything," but it does translate to a lot of other words.

- Karibu = welcome (to a place)
- Karibu = you're welcome (after thank you, or before thank you for that matter)
- Karibu = near or nearby
- Karibu sana = you're very welcome
- Karibu tena = come again
- Hivi karibuni = soon

Another word used quite frequently is "pole." It's sort of like "sorry," but it's not like "sorry" because a better word for "sorry" or "excuse me" is "samahani." I like to think of "pole" as Swahili's "awww." If you trip and fall in the street, you'll hear "pole." If you express that you're mildly tired, you'll get a "pole." Almost any time someone wants to express some sympathy, the word "pole" is the go-to.

There are also some interesting verbs.

- kujenga = to build (Have you ever played jenga?!)
- kusaidia = to help
- kujisaidia = to poop, literally "to help oneself"
- kuoa = to marry (if you're a man, because in this culture, the man marries the woman)
- kuolewa = to be married (this one can safely be applied to women)
- kumiss ... this one isn't actually Swahili. My friends will text "nakumiss" or "nakumic," which are their English/Swahili compromises in saying "I miss you."

There's a lot of familiar English hiding in Swahili. In fact, a large group of nouns are borrowed from a collection of languages, including English, Arabic, German, and Portuguese. The word "Swahili" itself was a word used by early Arabs visiting the coast, and it means, anticlimactically, "coast." Portuguese controlled coastal areas of East Africa from 1500 to 1700, Germany governed parts of Tanzania from the late 1800s, and during the 1900s, British mandate came into play.

- shule = school (German)
- meza = table (Portuguese)
- sita, saba, tisa = six, seven, nine (Arabic)
- basi = bus
- betri = battery
- boksi = box
- dansi = dance
- kompyuta = computer
- pensili = pencil
- redio = radio
- sola = solar ... I ought to know this one by now.

The list goes on. All of these nouns belong to a special noun class for borrowed nouns. There are seven noun classes, by the way, each one subject to its own set of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes for proper grammatical agreements. Who thought it would be a good idea to have seven noun classes? Here's the life-saving noun class agreement chart at the back of my kitabu cha Kiswahili (Swahili book... book is ki/vi class if you're curious) for reference.

The last Swahili penny thought I'll share concerns the term "mzungu." At first I was mildly offended by this term. Well, that's not true. Before that, during the real "at first," I had no idea what it meant but I heard people saying it on the streets in my general direction. Then I found out that it means "white person," at which point I became mildly offended. After consulting some wenyeji (natives), I learned that most people mean no harm using this term. In fact, small children shout it with glee when they see wazungu in the streets. (The plural of mzungu is wazungu because this noun belongs to the m/wa class, which encompasses many words for people and animals.) In Tanzania, people are simply more open and honest in asking questions and talking to people. Tact is not regarded as frequently as it is in the United States. This leads to people asking about your origins, your religion, your marital status, you name it. I like this comfort between people. I think it's because of this cultural demeanor that people can use a word that identifies skin color with ease, and without fear of offending the recipient. Though, I'm hoping that I remember what tact is by the time I return home, and that I remember some Swahili so that I can impress my friends with trivial Lion King knowledge.

P.S. If you're interested in learning Swahili and you like Duolingo, you can join me in eagerly stalking the course development here.


  1. This is so interesting. And I also DID NOT KNOW that all those Lion King words were Swahili! I feel much smarter today, than I did yesterday :) thank you for sharing such fun and interesting information!

  2. Asante sana! Now I can impress my young students with all the Lion King knowledge you have shared!

  3. This is really cool! I'm studying Arabic and there are quite a few similarities to Swahili. I actually just watched a video last night about the Swahili language and now I'm epically jealous you get to use it on a daily basis. Keep making new posts! You should also post a video of you speaking it!