Vocabulary Swahili

by Thilo Schadeberg  

The vocabulary contains 1815 meaning-word pairs ("entries") corresponding to core LWT meanings from the recipient language Swahili. The corresponding text chapter was published in the book Loanwords in the World's Languages. The language page Swahili contains a list of all loanwords arranged by donor languoid.

Word form LWT code Meaning Core list Borrowed status Source words

Field descriptions


An attempt has been made to estimate the age of each word. In the case of words that are unlikely to have been borrowed, the level to which a word can be reconstructed provides a hypotheses for its estimated minimum age. Lexical reconstructions and dates for the three proto-languages follow Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993. No further claims are made about intermediate branches between proto-North-Eeat-Coast and proto-Bantu. Non-borrowed words for which we have no reconstructions are all assigned to the “pre-modern” Swahili period.

earlier Bantu -3000 – 1 CE

proto-North-East-Coast 1 – 500

proto-Sabaki 500 – 700

proto-Swahili 700 – 800

pre-modern Swahili 800 – 1940

The database contains almost no probable loanwords for the reconstructed stages, but loans form a large group of lexical innovations at later stages. The age of words and phrases for which we have no reconstructions and that are not identified as probable loans has been classified as “no information”.

The remaining age categories are:

1500 – 1700 loans from Portuguese

1800 – 1940 mainly loans from English

1940 – 2000 mainly loans from English

The year 1940 is a convenient cut-off date since two leading Swahili dictionaries were published in 1939 (Sacleux and Johnson).


In the great majority of cases, the identification of loanwords and donor languages follows the existing literature on the subject. However, the credibility of proposed etymologies varies a lot, and this is reflected in the scalar values in the field “Borrowed status". The assignment of these values is admittedly subjective, but I have tried to be bold and minimize the intermediate values 2 and 3.

0. No evidence for borrowing:
No serious borrowing etymology is known to have been proposed.

1. Very little evidence for borrowing:
A proposed etymology is judged to lack credibility.

2. Perhaps borrowed:
The item may or may not be a loan; the particular proposed etymology is rather doubtful.

3. Probably borrowed:
The item is very likely a loan, but the proposed etymology is not fully convincing.

4. Clearly borrowed:
There is strong evidence that the item is a loan, generally including a good foreign etymology.

I could have boosted the number of category 2 and 3 items by applying a strict “regular phonology” strategy, by which every item that does not in all details adhere to assumed historical sound changes and thus cannot in a fully regular way be derived from Proto-Bantu is considered to be a loan. I have not chosen this (admittedly interesting) path for several reasons. One is that most of the existing literature on the loan component of Swahili lexis is exclusively concerned with non-Bantu donor languages. Secondly, I am not certain that all sound changes have been applied to all lexical items in a regular fashion (e.g., *l-deletion). Finally, Standard Swahili and its base Kiunguja is a rather complex blend straddling the major north-south divide of Swahili dialects — which makes it difficult to decide what is “native” and what is not.


All Swahili data comes from published sources, though in some cases speakers have been consulted to clarify finer points of semantics and actual usage. Bibliographical references to Swahili dictionaries (in the references field and in the Other Comments field) refer mainly to hypotheses about the etymology of particular words.

Beaujard, Philippe. 1998. Dictionnaire malgache (dialectal)-français : dialecte tañala, sud-est de Madagascar, avec recherches étymologiques. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Besha, Ruth M. 1993. A classified vocabulary of the Shambala language with outline grammar. (Bantu Vocabulary Series, 10.) Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA).

Brauner, Siegmund. 1986. Zum Verhältnis von Kultur- und Sprachgeschichte: Chinesische Lehnwörter im Swahili. Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 89:595-601.

Dozy, Reinhart P. A. 1881. Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Grosset-Grange, Henri; texte établi par Alain Rouaud. 1993. Glossaire nautique arabe ancien et moderne de l’Océan Indien. Paris: Éditions du C.T.H.S.

Höftmann, Hildegard, and Irmtraud Herms. 1979. Wörterbuch Swahili-Deutsch. Leipzig: Verlag Enzyklopädie.

Höftmann, Hildegard. 1963. Suaheli-Deutsches Wörterbuch. Leipzig: Verlag Enzyklopädie.

Holes, Clive. 2001. Dialect, culture, and society in Eastern Arabia. Vol. 1: Glossary. Leiden: Brill.

Johnson, Frederick. 1939. A standard Swahili-English dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Kazimirski, A. de Biberstein. 1860. Dictionnaire arabe-français, contenant toutes les racines de la langue arabe, leurs dérivés, tant dans l’idiome vulgaire que dans l’idiome littéral, ainsi que les dialectes d’Alger et de Maroc. 2 vols. Paris: Maisonneuve.

Kirkeby, Willy A. 2000. English-Swahili dictionary. Skedsmokorset: Kirkeby Forlag; Dar es Salaam: Kakapela (2001).

Kisbey, Wa. A. 1906. Zigula-English dictionary. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Knappert, Jan. 1970. Contribution from the study of loanwords to the cultural history of Africa. In Language and history in Africa, ed. by D. Dalby, pp. 78-88. London: Frank Cass.

Knappert, Jan. 1972/73. The study of loan words in African languages. Afrika und Übersee 56: 283-308.

Knappert, Jan. 1983. Persian and Turkish loanwords in Swahili. Sprache und Geschichte in Africa 5:111-143.
Krumm, Bernhard. 1940. Words of oriental origin in Swahili. London: Sheldon Press.

Lane, Edward William. 1863-1893. An Arabic-English lexicon. 8 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.
LangHeinrich, F. 1921. Schambala-Wörterbuch. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen.

Lodhi, Abdulaziz Y. 2000. Oriental influences in Swahili: a study in language and culture contact. Göteborg: Acta Universatits Gothoburgensis.

Maganga, Clement, and Thilo C. Schadeberg. 1992. Kinyamwezi: grammar, texts, vocabulary. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Nurse, Derek, and Thomas J. Hinnebusch. 1993. Swahili and Sabaki: a linguistic history. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Platts, John T. 1884; reprint 1977. A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi and English. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

Sacleux, Ch. 1939. Dictionnaire swahili-français. (Travaux et Mémoires de l’Institut d’Ethnologie, 36/37.) Paris: Musée de l’Homme.

Steingass, Franz. 1892. A comprehensive Persian-English dictionary including the Arabic words and phrases to be met with in Persian literature, being Johnson and Richardson's Persian, Arabic and English Dictionary revised, enlarged, and entirely reconstructed. London.

TUKI. 1981. Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu. Dar es Salaam & Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

TUKI.1996. English-Swahili dictionary / Kamusi ya Kiingereza-Kiswahili. Institute of Kiswahili Research, University of Dar es Salaam.

TUKI. 2001. Kamusi ya Kiswahili-Kiingereza / Swahili-English dictionary. Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili, Chuo Kikuu cha Dar es Salaam.

Velten, Carl. 1910. Suaheli-Wörterbuch. 1. Teil: Suaheli-Deutsch. Berlin: im Selbstverlag.

Velten, Carl. 1933. Suaheli-Wörterbuch. 2. Teil: Deutsch- Suaheli. Leipzig: Magliaso for Otto Harrassowitz.

Wagenaar, H. W. (comp.), S. S. Parikh (ed.), D. F. Plukker (indologist), and R. F. Veldhuyzen van Zanten (engineer). 1993. Allied Chambers transliterated Hindi-Hindi-English dictionary. New Delhi: Allied Chambers (India).

Wilkinson, R. J. 1901-1902. A Malay-English dictionary. 2 parts. Singapore: Kelly and Walsh.

Wilkinson, R. J. 1932. A Malay-English dictionary (romanised). 2 vols. Mytilene: Salavopoulos and Kinderlis.

Worms, A. 1898. Wörterverzeichniss der Sprache von Uzaramo. Zeitschrift für afrikanische und ozeanische Sprachen 4:339-365.


The vocabulary provides information about the grammatical status of each Swahili item (field "Grammatical information"). Numbers refer to the Swahili (Bantu) noun classes, a slash separates singular/plural classes. “Gen” refers to the nominal possessive (also known as “associative”) construction.

The following non-standard abbreviations are used:

a adjective
AdvP adverbial phrase
conj conjunction
GenP genitival phrase
interrog interrogative
inv invariable (a subcategory of adjectives)
n noun
NP noun phrase
NPx nominal prefix
num numeral (a subcategory of adjectives and nouns)
NumP numeral phrase
PPx pronominal prefix
prep preposition
pro personal pronoun
S sentence
TAM time-aspect-mood
v verb
VP verb phrase