Kinship metaphors in Swahili language and culture


  • Iwona Kraska-Szlenk University of Warsaw, Faculty of Oriental Studies



cultural models, kinship terms, metaphor, polysemy, Swahili


Swahili kinship terms are highly polysemous and occur in many figurative meanings out of which some are fully conventionalized in language usage. The article focuses on a specific case of such extensions which metaphorically frames an unrelated person as one’s kin. The usage patterns of this “fictive” kinship will be analyzed in various pragmatic contexts demonstrating their illocutionary and perlocutionary effects. In addition, it will be shown that this particular extension, as well as other multiple figurative uses of kinship terms correlate with the Swahili cultural model and the high appreciation of one’s family in the community’s system of values.


Swahili Sources

(HCS) Helsinki Corpus of Swahili. Compilers: Institute for Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki, and CSC – IT Center for Science 2004.

(Heri) Kalumuna, Zefania J. N. 2002. Heri. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota.

(Janga) Ruhumbika, G. Janga Sugu la Wazawa. Dar-es-Salaam: Azania Graphics 2001.

(Kiu) Mohamed, Suleiman Mohamed. Kiu. Dar-es-Salaam: East African Publishing House 1972.

(Rabeka) Nyasulu, L. Rabeka. Dar es Salaam: Press and Publicity Centre 1982.

Scheven, A. Swahili Proverbs. Washington: University Press of America 1981.

(Sultan Darai) Steere, E. L. D. “Sultan Darai”, told by Masazo. Swahili Tales as Told By the Natives of Zanzibar. London: Bell and Daldy 1870, pp. 11-136.

(Tafrani) Khamis, A. A. Tafrani. Tamthiliya ya Vita vya Ukale na Usasa. Zanzibar: Zanzibar Daima Publishing 2016.

The team. Television series produced by Alkemist Media with support of Common Ground Productions, director Seko Shamte 2013.

(TUKI) Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu. Dar es Salaam: Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili and Oxford University Press 2004.

(Vuta) Shafi, Adam Shafi. Vuta N’kuvute. Dar-es-Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers 1999.


Agha, Asif. Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007.

Barsalou, L. W. “The human conceptual system”. The Cambridge Handbook of Psycholinguistics, Michael Spivey, Ken McRae and Marc Joanisse (eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012.

Beck, R. M. “Perceptions of gender in Swahili language and society”. Gender Across Languages. The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men Vol. 3, Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussman (eds.), Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins 2003, pp. 311-337.

Braun, F. Terms of Address: Problems of Patterns and Usage in Various Languages and Cultures. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 1988.

Brenzinger, M. and Kraska-Szlenk I. (eds.). The Body in Language: Comparative Studies of Linguistic Embodiment. Leiden: Brill 2014.

Casasanto, D. “Linguistic relativity”. Routledge Handbook of Semantics, ed. by Nick Riemer, New York: Routledge 2016, pp. 158-174.

Casasanto, D. “Relationships between language and cognition”. Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Barbara Dancygier, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017, pp. 19-37.

Dickey, E. “Forms of address and terms of reference”. Journal of Linguistics 33 (1997), pp. 255-274.

Enfield, N. J. and Wierzbicka A. (eds.). The Body in Description of Emotion: Cross-Linguistic Studies. Special issue of Pragmatic and Cognition 10, 1/2 (2002).

Geeraerts, D. „The sociosemiotic commitment”. Cognitive Linguistics 27(4): 527–542.

Habwe, John Hamu. 2010. “Politeness phenomena: a case of Swahili honorifics”. Swahili Forum 17 (2016), pp. 126-142.

Holland, D. and Quinn N. (eds.). Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987.

Keshavarz, Mohammad H. “The role of social context, intimacy, and distance in the choice of forms of address”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 148 (2001), pp. 5-18.

Kövecses, Z. Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture and the Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge: Cambrigde University Press (2000).

Kövecses, Z. Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2005).

Kraska-Szlenk, I. “Emotional aspects of inversion in Swahili address terms”. Codes and Rituals of Emotions in Asian and African Cultures, ed. by Nina Pawlak, Warszawa: Elipsa 2009, pp. 110-127.

Kraska-Szlenk, I. Semantic extensions of body part terms: Common patterns and their interpretation. Language Sciences 44 (2014), pp. 15-39.

Kraska-Szlenk, I. Semantics of Body Part Terms: General Trends and a Case Study of Swahili. LINCOM Studies in Semantics 6. München: LINCOM Europa 2014.

Kraska-Szlenk, I. “Swahili embodied metaphors in the domain of family and community relations”. Current Research in African Studies: Papers in Honour of Mwalimu Dr. Eugeniusz Rzewuski, ed. by Iwona Kraska-Szlenk and Beata Wójtowicz, Warszawa: Elipsa 2014, pp. 163-174.

Kraska-Szlenk, I. „Address inversion in Swahili: Usage patterns, cognitive motivation and cultural factors”. Cognitive Linguistics 29/3 (2018), pp. 545-584.

Lakoff, G. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1987.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson M. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1980.

Langacker, R. W. “A dynamic view of usage and language acquisition”. Cognitive Linguistics 20/3 (2009), pp. 627-640.

Lindqvist, S. Terra Nullius: A Journey through no One's Land. New York: New Press 2007.

Lyons, John. Semantics, vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1977.

Maalej, Zouheir and Ning Yu (eds.). Embodiment via Body Parts: Studies from Various Languages and Cultures. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins 2011.

Morgan, L. H. Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution 1870.

Ndungo, C. “Social construction of gender with special reference to Gikuyu and Swahili proverbs”. Fabula 43/1-2 (2002), pp. 64-74.

Palmer, G. B. Toward a Theory of Cultural Linguistics. University of Texas Press 1966.

Podobińska, Z. „Use of address forms in directive speech acts in Swahili”. Studies of the Department of African Languages and Cultures 21 (1997), pp. 5-27.

Podobińska, Z. Politesse dans les actes pragmatiques en suahili. Warszawa: DIALOG 2011.

Schmid, H.-J. “Why Cognitive Linguistics must embrace the social and pragmatic dimensions of language and how it could do so more seriously”. Cognitive Linguistics 27/4 (2016), p. 543-557.

Schneider, D. M. A Critique of the Study of Kinship. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1984.

Sharifian, Farzad. Cultural Conceptualizations and Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins 2011.

Sharifian, Farzad. “Cultural Linguistics and linguistic relativity”. Language Sciences 59 (2017), pp. 83-92.

Sharifian, Farzad, Dirven R., Ning Yu and Niemeier S. (eds.). Culture, Body, and Language: Conceptualizations of Internal Body Organs across Cultures and Languages. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter 2008.

Ukosakul, M. “Conceptual metaphors motivating the use of Thai ‘face’. Cognitive Linguistics and non-Indo-European Languages. Cognitive Linguistics Research 18, Eugene H. Casad and Gary B. Palmer (eds.), Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter 2003, pp. 275-303.

Wierzbicka, A. Understanding Cultures through Their Key Words. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.

Yahya-Othman, Saida. “Covering one’s social back: politeness among the Swahili”. Text: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse 14/1 (1994), s. 141-161.

Yu, Ning. “Metaphor from body and culture”. The Cambridge Book of Metaphor and Thought, ed. by Raymond W. Gibbs, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2008, pp. 247-261.

Yu, Ning. From Body to Meaning in Culture: Papers on Cognitive Semantic Studies of Chinese. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins 2009.

Zeitlyn, D. „Reconstructing kinship, or, the pragmatics of kin talk”. Man, New Series, 28/2 (1993), pp. 199-224.




How to Cite

Kraska-Szlenk, I. (2018). Kinship metaphors in Swahili language and culture. Studies in African Languages and Cultures, (52), 49–72.




Most read articles by the same author(s)