IYIP Blog: How good is your Swa…English? Put your language skills to the test with these loanwords.

Did you ever play Jenga when you were a kid? Have you ever advertised or searched for something on Kijiji? Would you have been able to sit through The Lion King without rolling your eyes if there had been characters named “Lion” and “Friend”instead of cool, exotic-sounding ones like Simba and Rafiki? Did you know that you don’t actually have to come all the way to Africa to go on a safari?

I love languages, and one of the things I love most is that words from one language somehow find their way into the vocabulary of another. No, they don’t run away. They aren’t stolen, either. We call them loanwords, or borrowings. If a word is lucky and the group of people who borrowed it reaches a subconscious consensus, changes start happening to the word and it slowly starts to seem like it really does belong in its adoptive language.

Jenga, a great game with a strange name. Who knew Swahili popped up in so often in childhood?

Confused? Let me see what I can do…

Spaghetti, in Italian, is the plural form of spaghetto, but in English, spaghetti is a mass noun – you can’t count it and you don’t pluralize it (like rice, flour, salt, etc.). In Quebec, spaghetti is not a mass noun, it’s been pluralized, Francophone-style, so it’s des spaghettis. In Quebec, sushi is not a mass noun, it’s been pluralized, Francophone-style, so it’s des sushis. Woah, that sentence was such a déjà-vu!

That, my rafiki, is true integration. And what more could a borrowed word ask for? (If only it were as simple for people to integrate!)

Who does not remember the Lion King!?!?!

Well, let me tell you, Swahili, like English, is no stranger to loanwords – shule looks rather German, don’t you think? Oh, and if you stay in Tanzania long enough to get tired of eating ugali and rice, be sure to ask for supageti when you go to the shop looking to satisfy your Western craving!

Okay, I think you get the picture. Time for the fun stuff! According to the blog-writing tips that I’ve been checking out, people love lists. So check out this list of words in Swahili and do your best to figure out their English counterparts. If you’re really sharp and get the last two, my hat’s off to you, because they’re much more difficult to guess out of context.

Helpful hint: Read them out loud as you try to guess – Swahili words are pronounced exactly as they’re spelled.

  1. kompyuta
  2. picha
  3. baiskeli
  4. lifti
  5. daktari
  6. kalenda
  7. namba
  8. kodi
  9. wiki
  10.  karoti
  11. ofisi
  12. akaunti
  13. koti
  14. geti
  15. sigara
  16. kwaya
  17. pancha
  18. betri
  19. bia
  20. reli
  21. biki
  22. simu


1. computer  2. picture  3. bicycle  4. lift  5. doctor  6. calendar  7. number  8. code  9. week  10. carrot  11. office  12. account  13. coat  14. gate  15. cigarette  16. choir  17. puncture (flat tire)  18. battery  19. beer  20. rail (railway)  21. pen (from Bic pens)  22. cell phone (your phone has a sim card, doesn’t it?)

Check your score:

  •  If you got 20 or more correct, you either cheated or you’ve been to Tanzania before. But good job!
  •  If you got between 16 and 19 correct, congratulations, you’re very clever and you’ll probably be able to write Swahili soon!
  • If you got between 11 and 15 correct, you’ve done a good job, but you probably let yourself get distracted by the spelling of some of the words.If you got fewer than 10 correct, you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking you were too cool to follow my instructions. Try again, reading aloud!

Translations for the words in the intro paragraph:

jenga = building, kijiji = village, simba = lion, rafiki = friend, safari = journey/trip

-Elena Togias, Education Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012


3 thoughts on “IYIP Blog: How good is your Swa…English? Put your language skills to the test with these loanwords.

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