The name Swahili derives from an Arabic word Swahili, the plural of
sahel, which means coast. The Swahili are the descendants of the Arabs who came
to the East African coast and intermarried with the Local Bantu-speakers. Arab
traders sailed down to the coast on the north-east monsoon winds, between
November and April, and sailed back up to south-west on the reverse monsoon
winds, between June and October, already in pre-Islamic times.
The coast, the land of Zenj to the Arabs, was inhabited by peoples of
undetermined origin-perhaps by Bushmanoid groups, by Bantu speakers, perhaps by
Cushitic-speakers, perhaps even by people of Indonesian ancestry(who had settled
in Madagascar as early as the first millennium A.D. and conceivably could have
settled further north as well). Initially Arab immigration was scarce,
settlement was sparse and it was limited to the islands. But it did occur,
marriage with the women of the coast took place and the first seeds for the
eventual emergence of a Swahili culture were sown.
The shirazi are also descendants of interracial marriages but in this
case it was the Persians who came to the coast. Shirazi is derived from the
Persian word Shiraz, the capital of faz in Persia. The Swahili and Shirazi
people have almost indistinguishable from each other. They are mainly traders
and small businessmen. Trade was increasing. The material attractions of East
Africa were ivory, rhino horn, turtle shell, and slaves.
The three most important dialects of Swahili are Kiunguja, spoken on
Zanzibar and in other mainland areas of Tanzania; Kimvita, spoken in Mombasa and
other areas of Kenya; and Kiamu, spoken on the island of Lamu and adjoining
parts of the coast. Standard Swahili is based on the Kinguja dialect.