The Evolution of Numbers in Kiswahili

The Evolution of Numbers in Kiswahili

Swahili is a Bantu language that has evolved over time and space due to factors such as religion, trade, colonisation and governance and technology. The numbers as known today in present-day standardised Swahili are as a result of evolution and influence. 

Besides the core language structure, Arabic had the most apparent influence on the numbers, due to centuries of trade with the East African Coast.  In order to simplify numbering and possibly create uniformity in the syllabic pattern of the numbers, Bantu words for numbers such as six, seven, hundred, thousand and the multiples of ten between twenty and ninety were replaced with Arabic words. 

The numbering rules for early Swahili dialects were that one to ten had specific words and that the tens were formed by putting makumi before the multiplier digit eg. Makumi matatu for 30 and makumi manne for 40. This rule would also apply for the hundreds and the thousands. 

Standardised Swahili  Early Swahili Dialects
11kumi na mojakumi moja na moja
12kumi na mbilikumi na mbili
20ishirinimakumi mawili
30thelathinimakumi matatu
55hamsini na tanomakumi matano na tano
283mia mbili themanini na tatumagana mawili makumi manane na tatu

Due to the influence of trade and the constant use of numbers, a simpler mode of counting was adapted. In Zanzibar, it became common to use Arabic numerals for the tens between 20s and 90s (Steere 1894). Though Arabic words were adopted for the tens, the original structure of Swahili numbers was maintained. Arabic numbering rules require one to place the number denoting the ones before the number denoting the tens, with this said rule, 79 would read as tisa na sabini (Tis’a wa-sab’oun – تسعة وسبعون) instead of sabini na tisa.

The Arabic words also replaced the early names for six, seven and nine. Scholars assume that tandatu (6) and fungate (7) may have been replaced so as to fit better in the pattern of disyllabic words. The general pattern was consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. 

Te.nda.tu (Swahili)     Si.ta (Arabic)
Fu.nga.te (Swahili) (Arabic)

The Arabic word for eight was not adopted as the Bantu one was disyllabic and the Arabic one was not (Swahili) (Arabic)

Tisa (9) is proved to have been adapted later on as kenda is still in use in numerous places unlike the words for six and seven. One curious example is the commonly used proverb, ‘Kenda karibu na kumi’ which hasn’t yet replaced tisa for kenda. According to Knappert one of the probable causes for Swahili speakers to have preferred to use the word tisa is because kenda resembles the world for testicle- kende, similar to how English speakers eliminated words with a short vowel in the case of fuck (Hock and Joseph 1996: 223). Though this is debatable as the word kumi resembles the Swahili word for vagina, kuma.

Other Bantu words in Swahili numerals that have been replaced by Arabic words include gana for 100 and kikwi for 1000. The original Swahili numbers for six, seven nine and a hundred are similar to other Bantu communities as showcased below:

Early Swahili dialectsGiriama
1moja/moya/mosi mojaimweriimwe-modzimotsirimwe
6tandatuhandahuirandaduĩthathaĩu-sanu ndi -modzi tanhatugatandatuthandatu
7fungatefungahe mfungade mugwansa -sanu ndi -wirinomwekarindwi fungate
8nanenanewuyanyainyany-sanu ndi -tatusereumunanemnani
-sanu ndi -nayi
pfumbamwe icyendampya
10kumikumiikumiikũmi -khumi gumiicumikummi
11kumi na mojakumi na mwengaIkumi na imweriikumi na imwe -chikhumi ndi chimodzigumi neimwecumi na rimwe
16kumi na tandatukumi na tandahuIkumi na mfungandeiku na ithathatiekhumi ndi mphambu zisanu ndi imodzigumi nenhanhatu cumi na gatandatu
60makumi matandatumirongo mihandahumirongo irandadumirongo itandatoakumi asanu ndi limodzimakumi matanhatumirongo itandatu
100ganag’anaighana/ighana imweriigana rĩmwe  makumi khumizanaijana
1000kikwialifuMaghana ikumi, elfu imweringiri ĩmwe zikwi/chikwichuruigihumbi


-Bosha, Ibrahim, (1993). Taathira za Kiarabu katika Kiswahili Pamoja na Kamusi Thulathiya (Kiswahili-Kiarabu-Kiingereza) [The Influence of Arabic Language on Kiswahili With a Trilingual Dictionary (Swahili-ArabicEnglish)]. Dar es Salaam: Dar es Salaam University Press. 
-Hock, Hans Henrich & Brian D. Joseph, (1996). Language History, Language Change, and Language Relationship: An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 
-Knappert, Jan. (1990). “A grammar of literary Swahili”. Working Papers in Kiswahili, 10: 1-120. 
-Steere, Edward (1894) A handbook of the Swahili language, as spoken at Zanzibar. Fourth Edition.
-Johanseen, Aimee (2003). Why Kiswahili adopted the words for six, seven and nine. Studies in African linguistics Volume 32 Number 2 2003. University of Illinois

Cover photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “The Evolution of Numbers in Kiswahili

  1. This is a wonderful article, not heavy with technical terms but still informative enough for the average non-scholar.
    Understanding the evolution of the Swahili language and exploring its similarities with other Bantu languages is nothing short of fascinating.

  2. We need more of such information to prove that the Swahilis and Kiswahili existed long before the the arrival of the Arabs and other tribes in Kenya. This fact is always deliberately played down to portray the Swahilis as late comers, and yet they were hosts to many Kenyans.

  3. Swahili is almost identical to Kikamba.
    Research more on the Akamba to get to know the pure language that birthed Swahili..
    it is indeed a Bantu language that incorporated a few Arabic terms.
    We should not let the erasure of the Bantu be allowed to happen.

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