The Africa Classroom Package:
Swahili Swirl

Activity #2: Swahili Made Simple

Jambo! Karibu (welcome to) Part II of Swahili Swirl. Are you a good sleuth? If so, in this activity, you'll learn a whole bunch of Swahili words which, believe it or not, you probably already know the meaning of. How can that be? Well, read on and you'll see. It's just one of the tricks that will help you to reach our goal of being able to form over ONE MILLION Swahili sentences. Twenda! (Let's Go!)

      So, now you know a few Swahili words - the first step in reaching our goal of being able to make one million Swahili sentences. Well, guess what: You won't even need those words the rest of the way; they were just a warm-up. The rest of the way, you'll learn four groups of words. In this section (Part II), you'll learn two of those groups. The first group will require just a little bit of memorizing - and the second a little bit of sleuthing. So, let's get the work done first, then we'll have some fun...

Group A Swahili Words
nina = I have
ana = he/she has
tuna = we have
ninataka = I want
anataka = he/she wants
tunataka = we want

      Group A contains six Swahili words. You can easily remember the first three if you think of them as names or nicknames. Imagine two girls, one named Nina and one named Ana (with only one 'n'), and one boy who's nickname is Tuna.

      Now, imagine that these three kids, Nina, Ana and Tuna, and some other kids are going to play a game and they are picking teams. In choosing players, one kid says, 'I have Nina;' another says, 'He has Ana;' another says, 'No, she has Ana;' and some kids say, 'We have Tuna.' In picking teams, the kids have revealed the Swahili meanings of the words: I have = nina; he has = ana; she has = ana (same for male or female); and we have = tuna.

      Three down, three to go. Easy! 'Taka' in Swahili means 'want.' Just add 'taka' to the three words you've already learned: ninataka = I want; anataka = he/she wants; tunataka = we want.

      There! Works over: time for fun...

Group B Swahili Words

redio                  suweta                  motoka                    biya
karoti                  dola                      daktari                      picha
skuli                    treni                      deski                      sigireti
soda                    tai                        peya                      penseli
televishioni          kalenda                    peni                        futboli
koti                      senti                      waya                      soksi
spinachi              gilasi                    komishna                  basi
betri                    postkadi                garaji                        taula
blauzi                  kontinenti 

      At first glance, the list above may seem to be made of completely foreign words. But, a closer look will reveal that these words are actually words which Swahili has borrowed from English (or other languages). So, if you can uncover the original English word, you'll already know  its meaning - no memorization necessary - a shortcut to knowing lots of Swahili words! The trick is to recognize the original English word after it has been Swahilized (that is, changed to fit Swahili spelling and pronunciation rules). Some are easy and some are hard, so we'll give you a few tips. But first, let's take a closer look at this idea of one language borrowing from another...

      Languages borrow from each other all the time, just as cultures do. We may think of them as being separate and different, but actually, just as people from different cultures, languages are connected and similar in many ways. Of all the words in the English language, for example, two out of every three originally came from a different language. Over the years, English has borrowed thousands and thousands of words from hundreds of different languages. But, why is this so?

        Well, the reason is that people of different cultures (who speak different languages) constantly interact with each other and, in doing so, share things with each other - like food, resources, products, inventions and ideas just to name a few. In most cases, when one group learns about something new from another group, they adapt the foreign word for that thing so it fits their language's spelling and pronunciation rules and they add it to their own language: that is, they borrow it.

  Take a look at this list of words:

spaghetti                karate                skunk                    anaconda 
shalom                  Buddhism            mango                    canoe 
shah                      kudzu                malamute                  samurai
sauerkraut            violin                  jaguar                kindergarten
batik                    orangutan          barracuda              barbecue

        These are real English words that can be found in an English dictionary; but, they did not start out as English words. Through the process mentioned above, English borrowed them from other languages.

        Let's take just two of these words to see how English ended up borrowing them... England, where the English language originated, is an island. On this island, there are certain plants and certain animals; certain crops grow well there and the people who settled there used these crops to make certain foods. Naturally, the people who lived there had their own words for all of these plants and animals and crops and foods. But across the waters surrounding this island there were many other lands where different plants and animals lived, where different crops were grown, different foods eaten and different languages spoken. In time, as English speaking people from this island traveled by boat to other parts of the world, they encountered these different things. In Italy, for example, they encountered a delicious food never eaten before in England; it was called spaghetti. Since there was nothing like it in England, English speakers called it by its Italian name. As spaghetti become a popular food in England, the word spaghetti became an English word - borrowed from Italian. Later in history, English speakers traveled to North American where, much to their disgust, they encountered an animal that the Native Americans called something that sounded like 'skunk' - and the word has been a part of the English language ever since. 

      A similar process occurred with all of the words listed above - and thousands of others, too. Due to interaction with African cultures, English has borrowed many African words, too. Here are just a few:

safari                  jazz                    banana                voodoo
chimpanzee        juke box                banjo                  kudu
topi                    conga                    okapi                baobab

      It only makes sense, then, that African languages like Swahili have borrowed many words from English in the same way. 

      Here are some tips that will help you to decipher the meanings of our Group B Swahili Words.

Tip #1: (As we mentioned in Part I) Swahili only has five vowel sounds: a = ah (as in 'saw'), e = ay (as in 'say'), i = ee (as in 'see'), o = oh (as in 'sew'), and u = ooh (as in 'Sue'). Pronounce the words on the list using Swahili vowel pronunciation and you will easily uncover many of the English words. For example, the first word on the list, 'redio,' is pronounced ray-dee-oh, which should easily allow you to uncover the English word.

Tip #2: If a borrowed English word has a sound that does not occur in Swahili (like soft e, i, and u sounds, or the two English r sounds, rh and err), then Swahili uses the next closest sounds that do occur. For example, the closest sound to the English soft e is the Swahili e which sounds like ay; and the closest sound to the English -er is the vowel sound a which sounds like ah. So, for example, the English word 'November' becomes 'Novemba' in Swahili. 

Tip #3: If a borrowed English word that ends with an -er sound that is followed by a vowel sound, usually a y is added to the a that replaces the -er. For example, pear = peya.

Tip #4: In Swahili, almost all words end in a vowel. So, if a borrowed English word does not end in a vowel, one is added - usually i. So, the English word 'April' becomes 'Aprili;' and 'science' becomes 'sayansi.' 

Tip #5: In Swahili, there are no hard c's - only k's - and no soft c's - only s's. So, the English word 'Africa' is 'Afrika' in Swahili, just as 'Christmas' is 'Krismasi,' and 'October' is 'Oktoba;' and 'December' is 'Disemba.'

Tip #6: There are no soft g's in Swahili - only j's.

Tip #7: Silent English letters (such as doubled consonants and vowels, and silent e's) are eliminated. So, the English word 'dollar' becomes 'dola;' and 'week' becomes 'wiki' (remember ee = i).

        So, now go back to the Group B Swahili Words list and start sleuthing. You should be able to figure out almost all the words on the list. We'll give you the answers in Part III, then go on to learn another list - Swahili numbers. So, till then, kwaheri kwa sasa: bye for now.

Swahili Swirl: Activity 3    Back to Activity 1    Swahili Swirl Index


Where to Begin
Reading Fun
Related Activities and Lessons
Swahili Swirl
Other Fun Stuff
Links and Resources
Classroom Package Home
Classroom Travel Resources

© 2007 OneWorld Classrooms. All rights reserved.