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What are Sabaki languages? How people formed ethnic groups along the coast of East Africa

A new book called Ethnicity, Identity and Conceptualizing Community in Indian Ocean East Africa tracks the history of the coastal communities of East Africa and how the Sabaki family of Bantu languages was formed, shaped in part by the sea and the arrival of visitors from other shores and within the continent. We asked historian Daren Ray to tell us more about his book for International Mother Language Day.


DAREN RAY, Assistant Professor of History, Brigham Young University

Which languages fall into the Sabaki family?

Sabaki languages are a grouping of Bantu languages spoken near the east African coast. The Sabaki language family includes Kiswahili, Mijikenda, Pokomo, Elwana and Comorian. Except for Comorian, which is the language of the Comoros Islands, each of these languages is spoken in Kenya. Kiswahili has a broader reach beyond Kenya to Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as worldwide.

The Sabaki language family also includes “dead languages” that linguists call proto-languages, the “mothers” of modern languages. All Sabaki languages come from Proto-Sabaki. Not all Sabaki languages survived to the present.

What is the book’s premise?

The major premise of the book is that ethnic identities have ancestors. That is, not only can we trace when people like the Swahili or the Mijikenda became an ethnic group, we can also examine when they first came up with the idea of an ethnic identity.

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Since ethnicity means different things to different people, the book traces what it meant specifically to Sabaki speakers. I investigated many of the different kinds of communities that they met before they organised themselves into ethnic groups.

So, in the first part of the book I collect and analyse decades of evidence from linguistics, oral traditions and archaeology to identify the ancestral ideas of community that Sabaki speakers used to form ethnic groups in modern times.

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In the second and third parts I examine documents that show how they adapted these and other ancestral identities to work with Portuguese, Omani and British officials who claimed to rule over them from the 1500s to the mid-1900s.

Was there once a shared language?

That’s a great question. It’s important to remember that linguists (people who study languages) reconstructed Proto-Sabaki by systematically comparing features of modern languages, like sounds and grammar. It’s not exactly a language we can speak, but we can make a list of its vocabulary and understand how words were put together in a sentence.

Like modern languages, the first Sabaki language probably had several dialects. But its speakers could understand one another even more easily than, say, Pokomo speakers can understand Comorian speakers today.

Some of these dialects may have sounded similar to neighbouring Bantu languages, like the ancestors of the Taita, Bondei or Chagga languages in Kenya and Tanzania. But linguists have identified features that made all Proto-Sabaki dialects more similar to one another than to any other Bantu languages of the time, which covered a large area from Cameroon in the west to Kenya in the east to South Africa.

What shaped the development of Sabaki languages?

All Bantu languages share similar sounds and grammar, but each sub-group, like Sabaki, changed its sounds and grammar in minor ways that make them distinct. For example, while many Bantu languages have seven vowels, most Sabaki languages have only five.

The speakers of the Sabaki languages live in a unique environmental and political geography: the east African coastal region. They first divided into different languages as they expanded their settlements. The ancestors of the Pokomo created a vocabulary for living along the Tana River, the ancestors of the Swahili created a vocabulary for living along the coast, and so on. As they drifted apart, so did their languages.

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The second major influence on some Sabaki speakers in northern Kenya was herding communities that spoke Cushitic languages. These were commonly spoken in the northeast parts of Africa and are distantly related to Arabic. It seems that these herders abandoned their language once they settled in towns alongside Sabaki speakers. However, they changed how people in Lamu (off the north coast of Kenya), for example, pronounce their “t”s. Examples of Cushitic languages that have survived in Kenya are Orma and Rendille.

Joining together with people who spoke and lived differently helped speakers of Sabaki languages live in more varied environments. They started establishing towns that attracted merchants from the Indian Ocean. So Persian, Arabic, Portuguese and English have also all had an influence on Sabaki languages.

What is often overlooked, however, is that Africans from the interior also influenced languages along the coast. The shared ancestors of the Segeju (in Kenya) and Daisu (in Tanzania) are part of another language family (Central Kenya Bantu) that includes Kamba and Kikuyu. But instead of remaining in central Kenya like their linguistic cousins, they joined Sabaki speakers along the coast in the 1500s. Mijikenda dialects probably have the greatest number of loanwords from these people, but they influenced other Sabaki languages too.

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What big ideas did your book bring to the table?

There are three big issues I want readers to know after reading my book.

First, Sabaki speakers have been the primary inventors of their own identities. There are competing notions that colonial governments imposed “tribal” or ethnic identities on African people in the 1900s or that ethnic identities are as old as the languages that people speak. Instead my book lays out the different identities that Sabaki speakers invented across 2,000 years. Sabaki speakers transformed new ideas from outsiders to reflect their own values and initiatives. Outsiders were largely unable to dictate how Sabaki speakers actually formed and conceived of their communities.

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Second, language is a tremendous resource for learning about the African past, but it can and should be paired with other kinds of information from archaeology, oral traditions and documents. The identities I trace in each chapter are still relevant to speakers of Sabaki languages today, even if their ancestors created them centuries or millennia ago.

Finally, ethnic identities are not necessarily a negative force in Africa today. I arrived in Kenya just a few months after an election marred by ethnic violence. However, I rarely found anyone in coastal Kenya who suggested that the solution was to eliminate the entire idea of ethnic groups.

Instead, my consultants emphasised that the history and heritage of their respective ethnic groups should be used as national resources to reconcile people. I wanted my book to reflect their hope for a future where their mother tongues and cultures would be valued instead of treated as a barrier to progress.

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By The African Mirror

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