A Brief Lexico-Semantic Study of French and Kiswahili

Lester Mtwana JAO, “A Brief Lexico-Semantic Study of French and Kiswahili”, Mambo! Vol. XIII (2), 2015.

Languages are influenced and enriched by others all over the world. Today, there  is  hardly  any  “pure”  language  in the world, devoid of borrowed words from other languages. In this paper, we are going to examine the lexical influence of French to Kiswahili, spoken and taught in Kenya. This language is spoken in the whole country and is a compulsory subject in the  country’s  primary  and secondary schools. Kiswahili is very present in East Africa and parts of Central Africa: it is spoken in Kenya,  Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). However, it is mainly in Tanzania and Kenya that the importance of Standard Kiswahili is highly emphasized. Arguably, Kiswahili could easily be considered as the lingua franca of East Africa. People from some Indian Ocean islands such as Comoros Island and Mayotte also use this language. As is the case with many languages all over the world, different dialects of Kiswahili are spoken. Among these are ki-mvita, ki-amu, ki-ngozi and ki-ngwana.


A “composite” language, Kiswahili has its origins in Bantu languages spoken along the East African Coast. To these, were incorporated words from Arabic, Portuguese, English, Persian, Indian and even Chinese. All these are well documented, for example words such as peni (from the English word penny), chapati (an Indian word), meza (a Portuguese word meaning “table”) and kitabu (from the Arabic word al-kitab, which means “a  book”)   among many others. Interestingly, no comprehensive study has been conducted on French words found in Kiswahili. As we ponder over the French  lexical  legacy  to  Kiswahili, we find one hypothesis irresistibly convincing: contacts and interactions  between  French  speakers,  Kenyans and Tanzanians most likely contributed to the linguistic enrichment of Kiswahili with words of French origin. It is noteworthy that Kenya and Tanzania, both regarded as Kiswahili “strongholds” in Africa,  were  never  colonised by the French nor by Belgians, who bequeathed French [as an official language] to their former colonies. We are going to briefly look at some Kiswahili words that were inherited from the French language.

Some French lexical contributions to Kiswahili

Among the words found in Standard Kiswahili that originate from French are: divai, shamba, sinema, disko, menyu, bajeti and shampeni. These words were brought into Kiswahili directly from French speakers or indirectly through English (the English language having borrowed them from French), the language of the former colonial masters of Kenya and Tanzania. However, from the onset there is need to point out the fact that some of these words were originally English words even though today they are considered to be French words, for example the word budget. Most of these words, if not all of them,     are found in the classical Kiswahili dictionary: Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu (Standard Kiswahili  Dictionary).


We would like to start with the word divai [divai] (wine). According   to   the   renowned   French   lexicologist   and missionary, Charles Sacleux (1939: 169), who researched extensively on the Swahili language, notably the dialect that is spoken in the Comoros Islands, indeed divai has French origins. This word happens to be a contraction of two French words “du” and “vin” (Whiteley, 1969: 50). The resulting words “du vin” [dyvẼ] were “swahilified” by Kiswahili speakers and became divai [divai]. It is important to note that in Kiswahili there are no nasal sounds like [Ẽ], which is found in the French word vin [vẼ]. Besides, all Kiswahili words necessarily end in an oral vowel, such as   i in divai. The French word vin is itself of Latin origin and was first used in the French language in the 10th Century (A. Rey and J. Rey-Debove, 1991: 2095). Interestingly, the word divai is found in the first Kiswahili Bible, which was published in the 18th Century. It is worth mentioning that divai has a synonym in Kiswahili, mvinyo, which originates from  the  Portuguese  word  vinho  (wine).  Seemingly, the alcoholic drink in question did not exist on the East African Coast prior to the arrival of European explorers and missionaries.

An example of the use of the word divai is found in:

  • Divai safi. (Kiswahili)
  • Du bon vin. (French)
  • Good wine. (English)


Shamba [∫ãba], another word used in Kiswahili was probably derived from the French word champ [∫ã] (Whiteley, ibid.) and was first used in the French language in 1080 (A. Rey and J. Rey-Debove, ibid.: 283). It originates from the Latin word campus, meaning a “plain or a cultivated field”. In contemporary French, the word is used with the same meaning. Champ ended up being shamba in Kiswahili, most likely in conformity with a morpho-phonological rule in the Kiswahili language. The morpheme “sha-” [∫a] did not change but “ mp” became “-mb”; the nasal sound [m] combining with the voiced consonant [b], which is then followed by the vowel [a]. In short, the French word “champ” ended up being:    “sha-”

+ “-mb” + “a” → shamba. In the Kiswahili language, this word is polysemic.

This can be seen in the following two examples.

  • Shamba la mahindi
  • Champ de maïs. (French)
  • Maize field. (English)

In this example, shamba refers to a “field” where a crop is cultivated. It is however noteworthy that Zanzibaris tend to use another word, konde, to refer to a cultivated field.

Another example of its use is illustrated in the Kiswahili proverb below:

  • Jogoo la shamba haliwiki mjini
  • Un coq de la campagne ne chante pas en ville. (Literal French translation)
  • A cock from the countryside does not crow in the (Literal English translation)

In this context, shamba refers to “rural  areas”.


For  a  long  time,   the   word   cinema   was   a   byword for entertainment. It is interesting to note that  the  English language got this word from the French word cinématographe, which itself has Hellenic origins (it is derived from the Greek words kinêma and  kinêmatos, both of which refer to movement or motion). It is no wonder then that cinema or films are sometimes referred to as “motion pictures”. Cinema, an abbreviated form of cinématographe, was invented  by  the  French,  precisely by the Lumière brothers (Louis and Auguste Lumière) in the 19th Century. Through colonization, the British passed this word to Kiswahili. In this language,  sinema  means “the showing of events in films” (maonyesho ya matukio kwa picha za filamu). It also refers to the place or building where films are shown (jengo maalumu ambamo ndani yake  huonyeshwa matukio fulani kwa picha za  filamu – a building in which some events are shown in moving pictures). In Kiswahili, sinema has at least two different meanings, as the following examples show:

  • Tutakwenda sinema leo
  • Nous irons au cinéma ce (French)
  • We are going to the cinema this evening. (English)

In this example, the word sinema is used to mean “a building in which films are shown” (Hornby, 1998: 199). The word can also be used with a different meaning, as in the following sentence:

  • J’aime le cinéma. (French)
  • Napenda
  • I love films/movies. (English)

In this particular context, cinéma (rendered filamu in Kiswahili) refers to films, movies or moving pictures. In Kenya, the word sinema features in the vocabulary of movie-goers. One can also hear it on the radio or read it  in the local Kiswahili daily, Taifa  Leo.


In the 70s and 80s, disco was en vogue as a form of entertainment. This is the time when the  word  disco  was on the lips of many young people, having being popularized mainly in Europe and North America. It is through English that Kiswahili got the word (in Kiswahili it is written with a ‘k’: disko). The word is actually an abbreviation of the French  word  discothèque  and  it  was first used in this language way back in 1932 (A. Rey and J. Rey-Debove, ibid.: 549) meaning “a place where discs (records made of vinyl) were sold and kept” or “a  collection of discs”. According to the same source, it is from 1960 that the word discothèque has been used with its current meaning: “a place where people dance to pop music”. In Kiswahili, disko refers to both the “equipment that produces the sound and lighting effects of a disco” and “a club, party, etc., usually with flashing lights, where people dance to pop music” (Hornby, ibid.: 329). An example of its use is as follows:

  • Wakati wa likizo nilikuwa nikienda
  • Pendant les vacances j’allais à la discothèque. (French)
  • I used to go to the disco [thèque] during the holidays. (English)

In this example, the word disko refers to the venue or place where people dance to pop music.


When we go to different eating places such as hotels, restaurants and cafés we are normally given a list of dishes, known as a menu. Even though this word is widely used in the English language, it has French origins. It is found in English, French, Kiswahili and other languages.  In Kiswahili, the word changes slightly phonetically: it is pronounced menyu [meɲu] as opposed to the English pronunciation [menju:] and the French one [məny]. For a long time, it has been used in eating places such as hotels, restaurants and cafeterias. The example below illustrates this fact:

  • Kuna mlo gani kwenye menyu?
  • Qu’y-a-t-il au menu? (French)
  • What do we have on the menu? (English)

In recent years however, just like in English and French, Kiswahili uses the word menyu to equally refer  to “the  list of actions from which a [computer] user can choose, displayed on a computer screen” (Hornby, ibid.:  731).  This definition is not different from the one given by Dictionnaire Hachette Encyclopédique (1998:  1201): “liste des opérations qu’un logiciel est capable d’effectuer, et qui s’affiche sur l’écran” (a list of actions that can be effected by computer software, displayed on a computer screen). The word menu is therefore also used in computer jargon.

An example of this particular use of the word would  be:

  • Menyu inakupa orodha ya mambo unayoweza kutekeleza kwenye kompyuta
  • Le menu vous propose une liste des opérations que vous pouvez effectuer sur (French).
  • The menu gives you a list of actions that you can do on a (English)


In life, it is common practice for one to budget for things one needs to buy. Countries equally have their national budgets that are debated and approved by their respective parliaments or senates. The word budget therefore features in the  vocabulary  of  most  people.  First  used  in the French language around 1764 (A. Rey and J. Rey- Debove, ibid.: 225), the word budget is believed to have its origin in English (treasurer’s bag or treasury) and in another word, bougette, used in Old French. According to Rey and Rey-Debove (id.), bougette was the diminutive of the word bouge, which meant bag or suitcase. The English then “borrowed” the word budget [bydʒε] from French and used it with the meaning it has today.  Kiswahili got    it from the English word budget [b/\dʒιt] and swahilified  it to bajeti [badʒeti]. One may come across the following words in a Kiswahili newspaper, such as Taifa  Leo:

  • Waziri wa fedha amewasilisha bajeti
  • Le ministre des Finances a présenté le budget au Parlement. (French)
  • The Minister for Finance presented the budget in Parliament. (English)

Other than the national budget, one can have his/her personal budget. The following sentence illustrates this particular use of the word:

  • Fanya bajeti yako ya kibinafsi. (Kiswahili)
  • Faites votre propre budget. (French)
  • Prepare your personal budget. (English)

In short, bajeti is used with the same meaning as in English and even French. It basically refers to an “estimate or plan of the money available to an individual, an institution, an organization or a state and how it will be spent over a given period of time”. Again, here we can see that Kiswahili faithfully retains the English meanings of the word.


It is not uncommon during wedding parties and other important occasions to hear a pop when champagne bottles are uncorked. Ritually, during such ceremonies champagne happens to be the  chosen  or  favourite  drink and it’s  usually  taken  in  very  small  quantities.  It is interesting to note that champagne, pronounced [∫æm’peιn] in English and [∫ãpaɲ] in  French  derives  from the Latin words campania and campus. Officially,    in the French language, it was first used in 1695 (cf.  A.  Rey and J. Rey-Debove, ibid: 283) with the meaning    that

Le menu vous propose une liste des opérations que vous pouvez effectuer sur (French The menu gives you a list of actions that you can do on a (English)The menu gives you a list of actions that you can do on a (English) we know today: a kind of wine from a region known as Champagne, in France. The Kiswahili pronunciation of the word, shampeni [∫ampeni] comes from the English word champagne, through colonization. An example of its use in Kiswahili could be:

  • Shampeni hunywewa kwenye
  • Le champagne se boit lors des fêtes. (French)
  • Champagne is drunk at parties. (English)

All the words discussed above fall under the category of “loan words”. Such words end up being part of the lexicon of the language that borrows them and can be classified in different categories, as we shall see in the following rubric.

Categorization of loan words

In categorizing loan words, we refer to the taxonomy of the French lexicologist, Jean Tournier. In his book, titled Les mots anglais du français  (1998),  based  on  form  and meaning, he distinguishes different types of loan words, namely: morpho-semantic loan words (emprunts morpho-sémantiques), semantic loan words (emprunts sémantiques) and morphological loan words (emprunts morphologiques).

Morpho-semantic loan words

In this category, both the form (and almost similar form) and meaning of a word are borrowed by a language from another. For example, the French language borrowed basket-ball from English without changing its form (spelling) or meaning. This kind of borrowing happens to be the most common in many languages.

Semantic Loan Words

In this case only the meaning of a word is borrowed. A concrete example is the French verb réaliser (to carry out, to do) which has virtually the same form as the English verb to realize (to become aware of something, to understand). There is a tendency of incorporating the English meaning in contemporary French (cf. J. Tournier, 1998: 9). Thus, it can be said that French has given a second meaning to the verb réaliser. In fact, according to J. Tournier, only the meaning would have been borrowed, even though réaliser and realize are very close, orthographically  speaking.

Morphological Loan Words

These words are quite rare. A language only borrows the form (the morphology) of a word but gives it a completely different meaning. To illustrate this fact, Tournier (id.) gives the example of the English word slip. In English one of  its meanings is “loose undergarment without sleeves worn under a dress”. The French borrowed it without changing its form but gave it a different meaning: “undergarments, pants that are worn by men or women”.

Most of the words that we have looked at in this paper,    if not all, fall under the first category (morpho-semantic loan words). For instance, morphologically words such as sinema, menyu and disko resemble cinema, menu and disco respectively. They also have the same meanings. Tournier (ibid.: 11) goes on to talk about another category of loan words: direct vs. indirect loan words. Explaining what an indirect loan world would be, this lexicologist gives the example of the word French kangourou borrowed from English (kangaroo). It so happens that the English themselves borrowed the word from Aborigines, found   in Australia. The majority of the Kiswahili loan words of French origin that we have examined in this paper are indirect loan words, most of them transiting through English. More research, however,  needs to be done. It     is our belief that the findings would be interesting, not only to lexicographers but also to speakers and lovers of the French language in East Africa and the Francophone world at large.


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Fouquet, E. (éd). Dictionnaire Hachette Encyclopédique. Paris : Hachette Livre, 1998.

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Lester Mtwana Jao (2015, 11 septembre). A Brief Lexico-Semantic Study of French and Kiswahili. Mambo ! Consulté le 23 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/r7qx

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