The Kiswahili Language


The coastal settlements or small towns, it must be assumed, brought together different people, the majority of whom were of Bantu stock, a condition which must have favoured the development of Kiswahili.

The term Swahili is derived from the Arabic sähil (pl. satvâhil)-”coast’, and was employed first for the region stretching from Mogadishu to Lamu . The Kiswahili language (literally, ‘the language of the coast’) developed, of course, only later with the introduction of many Arab and Persian loanwords, that accompanied the progressive Islamization of the coastal people.
It would be therefore more proper to speak – at least before the sixth/twelfth century – about proto-Kiswahili as the Bantu language that formed the basis on which later Kiswahili developed. Many authorities argue that Kiswahili was first concentrated in the area north of the Tana Delta and along the Somali coast and then spread from there southward. […]

As the society of coastal townspeople who were the speakers of Kiswahili became more complex and as commerce became important, interaction with Arab traders increased. A s a result, a number of Arabic words and the Arabic script were adopted into Kiswahili. Subsequently, the language spread down the coast as it was carried by traders from Somalia and northern Kenya around the ninth century. A s the traders expanded their activity down the coast, they established n e w settlements and interacted with the
societies in which they settled. This gradually facilitated the adoption of Islam as the religion of the rulers.

This view is contrary to the thesis propounded by some historians w ho view the Kiswahili-speaking peoples of the East African coast as members of an Arab diaspora which due to trade spread all over the coast during the last two thousand years. They argue that the Swahili culture has very strong Arab elements, that the language uses Arabic script, that the stone buildings and mosques are constructed in the Arabic manner and that the religion of Islam which is predominant along the coast and the genteel social behaviour of the Swahili are all Arab, especially when contrasted with the African cultures of the interior.

This perspective is essentially diffusionist as it assumes that cultural innovation and historical development in East Africa could only come from outside. It is also racist to assume that race and culture are so inextricably linked that a separate ‘race’ of immigrants had to carry these n e w ideas. These historians failed to investigate the possible African roots of the Swahili culture as reflected in the language, in religious beliefs and values and in the economy or social structure.

Recent studies of Swahili culture and society reveal that African components are far more prominent than is allowed for by the diflusionists’ arguments:

(1) The Kiswahili grammatical structure as well as the greater part of the vocabulary are closely related to the Mijikenda and Pokomo languages, while its literature reflects the African oral code.
(2) The material culture of the Swahili has no analogues in Arabia or Persia. The Swahili stone architecture has no detailed parallels to justify the conclusion that it originated in the Near East, Arabia or Persia. Instead it developed locally out of the mud and wattle
architecture prominent along the coast as a result of increasing economic wealth and socio-economic differentiation. The coastal architecture which has been so much used as a proof that the coastal urban centres were founded by Arabs uses no materials which are not locally obtainable. Coral and coralline limestone which dominated the buildings were locally quarried. The mortar and plaster were also made from the available coral and gypsum.
(3) Even the Islam of the coast bears strong traces of historical traditional African religions in the prominence in it of beliefs in spirits and spirit possession, ancestor worship, witchcraft and divination which can be found in local traditions of Islam, co-existing with the more orthodox legal tradition.

F. T . Masao (Tanzania); archaeologist; specialist in the Later Stone Age and Prehistory rock art; author of numerous works on the subject; Director, the National Museums of Tanzania.
H . W . Mutoro (Kenya); specialist in African archaeology; author of numerous works on the subject.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.III. [Editor: M. El Fasi, Assistant Editor: I. Hrbek] Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. Chapter 21. The East African coast and the Comoro Islands.


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