120 Core Swahili Words — Basic Swahili To Get Along in East Africa

120 Core Swahili Words — Basic Swahili To Get Along in East Africa

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Swahili words are very similar to English words. By that I mean that they have no gender, no accents, and they are pronounced as they’re read.

If you thought Swahili was going to be too hard to learn, this should help you feel more confident!

I am a native Swahili speaker and I am going to put myself in your shoes to help you out.

In this post, I will break the language down in the easiest way possible and teach you words that you will actually use, not what you’d find in textbooks or in a generic language course.

I will then introduce you to the heart of East Africa by teaching you a few slang phrases that everyone uses.

10 Most Basic Swahili Words

If you’re only going to learn 10 Swahili words, these are the must-knows!

  • Habari – “Hello”
  • Kwaheri – “Goodbye”
  • Ndio – “Yes”
  • Sawa – “Okay”
  • Hapana – “No”
  • Tafadhali – “Please”
  • Asante – “Thank you”
  • Karibu – “You’re welcome”
  • Samahani – “I’m sorry”
  • Sijui – “I don’t know”

42 Basic Swahili Nouns

Benny, the founder of Fluent in 3 Months suggests that one of the best ways to hack a language is to learn based on words that you use every day.

I will now introduce you to some words you’ll hear a lot, especially when moving around.

13 Swahili Words for Time

  • Siku – “Day”
  • Wiki – “Week”
  • Mwezi – “Month”
  • Leo – “Today”
  • Jana – “Yesterday”
  • Juzi – “The day before yesterday”
  • Kesho – “Tomorrow”
  • Saa – “Hour”
  • Dakika – “Minute”
  • Saa – “Time”
  • Kabla – “Before”
  • Baada – “After”
  • Sasa – “Now”

10 Swahili Words for Places

  • Hapa – “Here”
  • Pale – “There” – if it’s close
  • Huko – “There” – if it’s far
  • Pahali – “Place”
  • Shule – “School”
  • Duka – “Shop”
  • Kazi – “Work”
  • Bafu – “Bathroom”
  • Nyumbani – “Home”
  • Nchi – “Country”

8 Swahili Words for Things

  • Hoteli – “Hotel”
  • Simu – “Phone”
  • Kitu – “Something”
  • Nyumba – “House”
  • Gari – “Car”
  • Chakula – “Food”
  • Chai – “Tea”
  • Maji – “Water”

11 Swahili Words for People

  • Mwanamke – “Woman”
  • Mwanaume – “Man”
  • Mzee – “Old man/respectful way of referring to a man”
  • Mama – Old woman/respectful way of referring to a woman
  • Msichana – “Girl”
  • Kijana – “Boy”
  • Rafiki – “Friend”
  • Mtu – “Person”
  • Bwana – “Husband”
  • Mke – “Wife”
  • Jina – “Name”

25 Common Swahili Verbs

These are the 25 most common Swahili verbs you need to know.

Swahili is pretty easy to master, because all you need to do is add the word ku before a verb to make it complete.

This is like in English where you add “-ing” to a verb to make it a gerund, which means “come” becomes “coming” and “walk” becomes “walking”.

In Swahili, instead of adding the letters at the back like a suffix, we place them at the front and so if we were to use the example in the previous sentence, kuja (come) becomes kukuja and tembea becomes kutembea.

Below are some common examples. Notice that each verb is conjugated to start with ku-

  • Kufanya – “To do”
  • Kuwa – “To be”
  • Kuwa – “To become”
  • Kusema – “To say”
  • Kuja – “To come”
  • Kwenda – “To go”
  • Kuweza kufanya – “To be able to do”
  • Kuona – “To see”
  • Kutuma – “To send”
  • Kuwa na – “To have”
  • Kuchukua – “To take”
  • Kungoja – “To wait”
  • Kukutana – “To meet”
  • Kuishi – “To live”
  • Kufikiri – “To think”
  • Kupa – “To give”
  • Kupata – “To receive”
  • Kujua – “To know”
  • Kutengeneza – “To make”
  • Kutumia – “To use”
  • Kusoma – “To learn”
  • Kula – “To eat”
  • Kunywa – “To drink”
  • Kucheka – “To laugh”
  • Kusoma – “To read”

19 Simple Swahili Adjectives and Adverbs

Like other languages, Swahili has many adjectives you could use to make your sentences more colourful.

Knowing these is what will set you apart from a typical foreigner, and you will be treated very well if you can use these adjectives.

  • Mingi – “Many, lots of”
  • Kidogo – “Few”
  • Kubwa – “Big”
  • Ndogo – “Small”
  • Refu – “Tall”
  • Fupi – “Short”
  • Karibu – “Near”
  • Mbali – “Far”
  • Poa – “Good, nice”
  • Mbaya – “Bad”
  • Rahisi – “Easy”
  • Ngumu – “Difficult”
  • Poa/maridadi – “Beautiful”
  • Mbaya – “Ugly”
  • Tamu – “Delicious”
  • Moto – “Hot”
  • Baridi – “Cold”
  • Sana – “Very”

Pro tip: If you go to buy something from a shop, especially curio items, you’ll most likely be charged a lot more than locals.

Here’s what to do:

When the seller mentions the price, just smile and say Hiyo pesa ni mingi sana. Niuzie vizuri. (“That’s a lot of money. Sell it to me at a better price.”)

You’ll catch the seller by surprise and you’ll definitely get a discount.

5 Core Swahili Conjunctions and Connectors

If you want to be fluent in any language, conjunctions are super helpful. They give you a moment to think and help to connect your sentences smoothly.

Here are five common ones in Swahili:

  • Lakini – “But, however”
  • Pia – “Also”
  • Kwa mfano – “For example”
  • Kwa hivyo – “So”
  • Halafu – “Then”

Swahili Pronouns

There aren’t many pronouns in Swahili. Most of the time they aren’t even necessary because they are absorbed into the sentence.

Here are some examples:

  • “The driver is coming. He went to buy some soda” – Dereva anakuja. Ameenda kununua soda.
  • “The guests are late because they stopped in Nairobi” – Wageni wamechelewa kwa sababu walisimama Nairobi.

As you can see, the translated sentences seem to have no pronouns, and that’s because the pronoun has been integrated into the verb.

However, it’s still good to know the pronouns. If it’s not clear who or what you’re talking about, then you need to be able to use them in the sentence.

So here are the Swahili pronouns

  • Mimi – “I”
  • Wewe – “You”
  • Yeye – “He”
  • Yeye – “She”
  • Wale – “They”
  • Sisi – “We”
  • Hii – “This”
  • Ile – “That”

Pro tip: Never refer to someone as “you”. It is very offensive.

East Africa has a bad aftertaste of white colonialists and whenever you disrespect someone, they feel that you are behaving like a colonialist and will avoid talking to you.

If you want to call someone, use their name. If you don’t know their name and they are close, walk up to them and start by greeting them. If you don’t know their name and they are far away, use hand gestures. Whoever sees you waving will draw the person’s attention toward you.

Bonus: 5 Cool Swahili Phrases to Talk in The East African Street Slang

Would you like to be the coolest foreigner in East Africa? Then learn some slang.

Why?

Everyone on the street uses the slang words I’m about to give you. We dumped the Swahili we learnt in school and developed our own version for ease of communication and it’s quite different from formal Swahili.

That said, here are five slang phrases you can use to sound like a true Kenyan.

  • Unaitwa? – “What’s your name?”
  • Noma sana – “Amazing, great”, or “that’s crazy”
  • Fiti kabisa – “The best, really great,”
  • Baadaye – “Goodbye, see you later”
  • Niaje bro – “Hello, brother”

If you speak to me using any of these words, you’ll be my new best friend. 🙂

Now that you know a few Swahili words, I would like to explain to you why Swahili words aren’t that hard to learn…

5 Reasons Why Swahili Words Are Easy to Learn

If you can speak English, Swahili will be quite similar to what you are used to.

1. Swahili Words Have No Gender

When I started learning German, I was taken by surprise by the fact that a “dog” is masculine, a “cat” is feminine and a “rabbit” is neutral. At first, I thought that only words for living things have a gender… Only to find out that “beer” is neutral but “glass” is masculine.

So much confusion!

In contrast, Swahili is very straightforward. Not only there are no genders, but we don’t even use articles, whether definite or indefinite!

Let me give you an example: in English, if you say “the car”, you are being more precise than if you said, “a car”. In Swahili, “the car” is ile gari, while “a car” is still ile gari. Simple, right?

2. You Don’t Have to Learn Swahili Pronouns

In most languages, you have to know which pronoun to use in a sentence. This changes depending on who or what you are referring to.

This means that if you are talking about a person, then you use “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “they”, e.t.c, and if you are talking about something then you use “it”.

In Swahili, the pronouns are absorbed into the sentence, and so you don’t have to know which pronoun to use, meaning you end up with fewer words to learn.

Here are some examples:

“Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world. He has scored very many goals.” – Ronaldo ni mmoja wa wachezaji bora kabisa wa kandanda. Amefunga mabao mengi sana.

She said the dog ate her book…but we all know it didn’t.” – Alisema mbwa alikula kitabu chake. Lakini sote twajua kwamba hakula.

3. Words in Swahili Are Pronounced as They Are Read

Yes, in Swahili, there are no umlauts that cause pronunciation changes, no silent letters that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and no accents that make language acquisition an entirely awkward affair.

On top of that, we don’t pronounce any letters differently from how they appear.

In German, for example, the word welt is pronounced as velt, while vater is pronounced as fater.

This is not the case in Swahili as every word is pronounced as it is read.

4. Nouns Are Referred to Only as Either Animate or Inanimate

When you are referring to something in Swahili, the only thing that determines the word you use to refer to it is if the thing is alive or not.

This means that demonstrative pronouns, such as “this” and “that”, are the same for living things and the same for non-living things. Let’s look at the tables below:

Examples in singular form Examples in plural form
This person Huyu mtu These people Hawa watu
This table Hii meza These tables Hizi meza
This cat Huyu paka These cats Hawa paka
This car Hii gari These cars Hizi gari
This lion Huyu simba These lions Hawa simba
This house Hii nyumba These houses Hizi nyumba

Once you master the demonstrative pronouns, you are good to go.

Note: There is one exception – plants.

Plants are neither referred to as being animate or inanimate, and the descriptive pronoun used changes depending on the noun class (ngeli) of the item you are referring to.

This is very complicated, even for us Swahili speakers! But don’t worry. Don’t try to learn any of this by heart. We didn’t learn it by heart either, we just learnt naturally by developing a feel of what’s right. You can develop this feeling too through listening and speaking.

Fortunately, you can get along 90% of the time without ever referring to a plant in Swahili, but if you’d like to learn online naturally, you can try the Fluent in 3 Months method.

Related learning: The Best Podcasts to Learn Swahili at Any Level

5. There Are Little Differences Between the Formal and Informal Versions of Words

I will explain this point with an example. While there are many versions of the Swahili word for “hello”, the most common one is habari.

If you want to be formal, then you could say hujambo if you are greeting one person, or hamjambo if there are many people.

Here’s the problem: many people will look at you in a very weird way if you use the formal version, so much so that you’d be better off simply saying “hello”.

This is because no one uses hujambo/hamjambo, and I’d advise you not to use it unless you are at the coast, where the language is much more polite as the culture is very different from other parts of the country.

If you are in Kenya and really want to get along like a true Kenyan, here are the common Swahili words you could use for hello:

Greeting Mode of use
Habari Will work 100% of the time
Mambo Use mostly with friends, younger people or people at the market, hotel etc.
Vipi Use mostly with friends, younger people or people at the market, hotel etc.
Niaje The best way to greet a Kenyan.
Sasa Use only with kids

Let me put this into perspective…

When some friends came visiting from Finland and learnt the word mambo, everyone they greeted was very pleased and didn’t look at them as regular tourists.

And how did Obama greet people while in Kenya? He said “niaje”!

Interesting, right?

Now here’s a little challenge: if you are in Kenya, or have a friend from East Africa that you can talk to or send a message to, just type the word niaje and see the excitement you will cause.

How to Learn Swahili Words and Speak Better Than 90% of Foreigners

If you are a foreigner in East Africa, people will instantly know you are not from around even if you are not white, and you will draw attention whenever you speak.

If you, however, speak some Swahili, the people you meet will be shocked and you’ll receive a lot of favours in return.

The problem is that you can only speak well if you learn through immersion, and if that’s not an option, you can try the Fluent in 3 Months method and you may start speaking Swahili in as little as 7 days.

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Martin Mbae

Email and content copywriter

Martin is a native swahili speaker from East Africa. As a copywriter, he specializes in email conversions and launch sequences for B2B and consumer-facing companies.

Speaks: English, Swahili, German

View all posts by Martin Mbae


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