The Swahili language, is basically of Bantu (African) origin. It has borrowed words from other languages such
as Arabic probably as a result of the Swahili people using the Quran written in Arabic for spiritual guidance as
Muslims. As regards the formation of the Swahili culture and language, some scholars attribute these phenomena to
the intercourse of African and Asiatic people on the coast of East Africa. The word "Swahili" was used by early
Arab visitors to the coast and it means "the coast". Ultimately it came to be applied to the people and the language.
Regarding the history of the Swahili language, the older view linked to the colonial time asserts that the Swahili
language originates from Arabs and Persians who moved to the East African coast. Given the fact that only the
vocabulary can be associated with these groups but the syntax or grammar of the language is Bantu, this argument
has been almost forgotten. It is well known that any language that has to grow and expand its territories ought to
absorb some vocabulary from other languages in its way.
A suggestion has been made that Swahili is an old language. The earliest known document recounting the past
situation on the East African coast written in the 2nd century AD (in Greek language by anonymous author at
Alexandria in Egypt and it is called the Periplus of Erythrean Sea) says that merchants visiting the East African
coast at that time from Southern Arabia, used to speak with the natives in their local language and they intermarried
with them. Those that suggest that Swahili is an old language point to this early source for the possible antiquity
of the Swahili language.
It is an undeniable truth that Arab and Persian cultures had the greatest influence on the Swahili culture and
the Swahili language. To demonstrate the contribution of each culture into the Swahili language, take an example
of the numbers as they are spoken in Swahili. "moja" = one, "mbili" = two, "tatu" = three, "nne" = four, "tano" =
five, "nane" = eight, "kumi" = ten, are all of Bantu origin. On the other hand there is "sita" = six, "saba" =
seven and "tisa" = nine, that are borrowed from Arabic. The Arabic word "tisa" actually replaced the Bantu word
"kenda" for "nine". In some cases the word "kenda" is still used. The Swahili words, "chai" = tea, "achari" =
pickle, "serikali" = government, "diwani" = councillor, "sheha" = village councillor, are some of the words borrowed
from Persian bearing testimony to the older connections with Persian merchants.
The Swahili language also absorbed words from the Portuguese who controlled the Swahili coastal towns (c.
1500-1700AD). Some of the words that the Swahili language absorbed from the Portuguese include "leso" (handkerchief),
"meza" (table), "gereza" (prison), "pesa" ('peso', money), etc. Swahili bull-fighting, still popular on the Pemba
island, is also a Portuguese legacy from that period. The Swahili language also borrowed some words from languages
of the later colonial powers on the East African coast - English (British) and German. Swahilized English words
include "baiskeli" (bicycle), "basi" (bus), "penseli" (pencil), "mashine" (machine), "koti" (coat), etc. The
Swahilized German words include "shule" for school and "hela" for a German coin.