Where does Swahili come from?
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Swahili


A movie with people speaking Swahili

April 2016 - Swahili was (and still is) a language that people spoke mainly in East Africa. When Bantu people moved into East Africa around 300 AD, they brought their West African language with them. Swahili is a language based on Bantu, with a lot of words from Arabic, Hindi, and other languages brought into it by Muslim and Indian traders and other travelers. Most people who lived in East Africa after about 900 AD spoke some Swahili, although for some of them it was a second or third language instead of their first language. One famous bit of Swahili (for Americans) is the "hakuna matata" phrase from the Lion King movie.

In what is now Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili was many people's first language. But in other places in Africa, all up and down the coast of East Africa, people spoke Swahili as their second or third language, because Swahili was the language people used to communicate with people from other places. Because a lot of people used Swahili without being really fluent in it, they simplified the way they spoke Swahili to make it easier to learn and understand. (This is the same thing that happened to English after the Norman invasion). Some linguists call this sort of language a "creole", though others don't.

Learn by doing: use YouTube to learn a few words in Swahili
More about East African history
More about African languages

Bibliography and further reading about Swahili:

Xhosa
!Kung
Swahili
Yoruba
African languages and literature
Ancient Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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