“What’s in a name?” Swahili toponymy of past towns on the East African coast

  • Monika Baumanova University of West Bohemia
  • Rosanna Tramutoli University of Naples "L'Orientale"


For the last century, archaeologists have surveyed and studied archaeological sites on the Swahili coast of East Africa, that represent the remains of past Swahili settlements and, in few cases, living historical towns. This paper is the first discussion of a collection of the names under which these past towns have been known, some of which may date back to the precolonial period. The present enquiry is concerned with the analysis of linguistic features, folk etymology and the conceptual content of these toponyms. It considers the recognised important themes in archaeology and history of the Swahili society, such as the political functioning of these towns as city states and the attested social and economic relevance of trade, the built environment and the ocean. Utilising this knowledge, it reflects on how the names contributed to place-making and defining the identity of these towns both as individual entities and as part of the Swahili cultural sphere. The interdisciplinary approach and perspectives (linguistic and archaeological) help to elucidate the connection between the socio-historical relevance of these sites with their cultural conceptualisations.


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Author Biographies

Monika Baumanova, University of West Bohemia

Monika Baumanova is an archaeologist specialising in the built environment, architecture and urbanism, as well as space and the sensory environment, particularly on the Swahili coast of East Africa. She is currently a Lecturer and a Research Fellow at the Centre for African Studies, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of West Bohemia in the Czech Republic, leading a research project on comparative analyses of public space transformations in precolonial and colonial towns. She has published papers in journals such as African Archaeological Review, Azania, Journal of Urban History, Time and Mind, and Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

She can be reached at: monibau@kbs.zcu.cz

Rosanna Tramutoli, University of Naples "L'Orientale"

Rosanna Tramutoli is a Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Naples “L’ Orientale.” Her research focus is Bantu lexical analysis and a comparison of Swahili and Zulu body terminology. She holds a PhD in Swahili linguistics (2018) from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” and the University of Bayreuth. Among her main research interests are cognitive linguistics, anthropological linguistics, semantic analysis, and lexicography. She has published contributions on International Journals, such as Research in African Literatures, Kervan, Africa and Swahili Forum. She has published a monograph entitled Encoding Emotions in Swahili. A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis with a Consideration of the Socio-cultural Context (Köln, 2020).

She can be reached at: rosanna.tramutoli@gmai.com