Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Adaptation of Swahili Loanwords from Arabic: A Constraint-Based Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Adaptation of Swahili Loanwords from Arabic: A Constraint-Based Analysis

Article excerpt


This paper touches on two languages; Kiswahili and Arabic. Kiswahili is a Bantu language spoken by more than 80 million people mainly in East and Central Africa (Bosha 1993:45); while Arabic belongs to the Semitic group and is mainly spoken in the Middle East. There has been an interaction between Arabs and East Africans for hundreds of years leading to linguistic interferences on both sides. Though so, the most affected language between the two seems to be Kiswahili and the most affected domain of the language is phonology. Kiswahili has borrowed heavily from Arabic. Zawawi (1979:73) notes that "a collection and collation of loanwords in Johnson's Standard English-Swahili Dictionary yielded a total of 3,006 words of foreign sources out of which 2,354 (80%) were of Arabic origin".

This paper seeks to analyze how Kiswahili loanwords from Arabic have been nativized by the recipient language. I have replicated the data used here from Bosha (1993). A few words have been chosen (see Appendix) for the purpose of this analysis. In choosing the words, care was taken to include words with various types of syllables, for example, words that do not change phonologically, words with consonant clusters in the initial, mid and final positions, words with consonant geminates, vowel hiatus and long vowels.

The syllable, being a major component of phonological organization, will be the focus of this paper. The arrangement and rearrangement of the phonemes in the syllable in the recipient language will be explained by using constraints interaction. The purpose is to show how the recipient language repairs borrowed syllables coming into the word using constraints interaction.

Theoretical Background

The analysis in this paper is based on Optimality Theory whose central idea is that surface forms of a language reflect resolutions of conflicts between competing constraints. A surface form is "optimal" if it incurs the least serious violations of a set of constraints, taking into account their hierarchical ranking (Kager 1999). The following comprise the core principles of Optimality Theory:

(a) Violability: Constraints are violable, but violation is minimal.

(b) Ranking: Constraints are ranked on a language-particular basis; the notion of minimal violation is defined in terms of this ranking.

(c) Inclusiveness: The constraint hierarchy evaluates a set of candidate analyses that are admitted by very general considerations of structural well-formedness.

In the analysis that follows, the following constraints are used:

*COMPLEX = no complex syllable margins

*COMPLEXVOW = no strings of vowels

DEP-C = output consonants must have input correspondents (no C epenthesis)

DEP-IO = output segments must have input correspondents (no epenthesis)

IDENT-IO (F) = the specification for the feature of an input segment must be preserved in its output correspondent

IDENT-IO (place) = the specification for place of articulation of an input segment must be preserved in its output correspondent

MAX-IO = input segments must have output correspondents (no deletion)

MAX-V = input vowels must have output correspondents (no deletion of vowels)

NOCODA = syllables are open

ONSET = syllables must have onsets


SON-SEQ = complex onsets rise in sonority, and complex codas fall in sonority

Before delving into the analysis, it is necessary to explain the kind of syllable structures found in Kiswahili language.

Kiswahili Syllable Structure

Kiswahili, just like other languages, has its words divided into syllables according to the principle of increasing sonority. The CV syllable is the most common in Kiswahili.

(1)      CV CV
        / k i. t i /    'chair'
        / f i. k a /    'arrive'
        /ka.ta/         'cut'

The first word can be represented by the following syllable tree. …

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