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Apart from learning what ‘Hakuna matata’ means, do you know which language it’s from? or what ‘Simba’ means? What about the translation for the opening lines of ‘The Circle of Life’?

Disney’s 1994 classic, ‘The Lion King’ included so many African cultural and linguistic references, but sadly most of them were lost on the average film-goer.

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After visiting South Africa, I became more interested in African languages, including Afrikaansand the Khoisan clicking language.This led me to want to explore the meanings behind many of the terms used in the Africa based movie, The Lion King. We all know the movie so well, yet at the same time, so much is lost in translation.

After reading this post you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the film after knowing the meanings behind the characters’ names and meaning behind those catchy lyrics.

Let’s start with the ones you kind of already know.

What Does Hakuna Matata Mean?

The most iconic phrase coined by the film is without a doubt ‘Hakuna matata’, this expression is taken from the African language Swahili. Roughly translated, ‘Hakuna Matata’ means “no worries”. It is formed by the words Hakuna (‘there is not here’) and Matata (plural form of ‘problem’).

While the phrase is commonly heard in Zanzibar and Kenya, it is uncommon amongst native speakers of Swahili in Tanzania, who prefer the phrase “hamna shida” in the north and “hamna tabu” in the south.


What are‘The Circle of Life’ Lyrics?

The dramatic first scene of the film reaches emotional heights with the accompaniment of Elton John’s ‘The Circle of Life’. While the song has some distinctive lyrics, unless you speak the lingo, the meaning is virtually lost.

The opening lines start out in Zulu before switching over to English. The song’s intro goes…

Nants ingonyama bagithi BabaSithi uhm ingonyamaNants ingonyama bagithi babaSithi uhhmm ingonyamaIngonyamaSiyo NqobaIngonyamaIngonyama nengw’ enamabala

Which means….

There comes a lion, fatherOh yes it’s a lionThere comes a lion, fatherOh yes it’s a lionA lionWe’re going to conquerA lionA lion and a leopard come to this open place

From this point, the song segues into English lyrics which you probably know by heart.


The translation of this song might sound pretty underwhelming but there’s more to it. The loosely translated line ‘There comes a lion’ the speaker of this sentence is speaking to an adult male whom he respects and refers to as ‘baba’, which means ‘father’ but in Zulu culture, it is seen as respectful to refer to one’s betters as mother or father.

The lion, in this instance, can beseen as symbolic of adversity as ‘The Lion King’ is based on the Masai tradition of having the young men kill a lion when they come of age. The speaker at this point would thus be a young Masai man prior to his initiation.

What Do the Characters’ Names Mean?

Did you know that each of the characters names have their own meaning?

As with many characters in Lion King, Pumbaa’s name derives from the East African language Swahili. In Swahili, Pumbaa means to be foolish, silly, weak-minded, careless, negligent.


Timon is one of the few characters whose name has no meaning in Swahili. Instead, Timon is a historical Greek name meaning “he who respects”. Timon’s name may also possibly derive from Shakespeare’s tragedy Timon of Athens which would be another Shakespeare reference in a film which derives its plot from Hamlet.


Here is a list of other names and their meanings:

Rafiki, the mandrill, is another Swahili name meaning ‘friend’.

Simba means ‘lion’.

While Sarabi, Simba’s mother, means ‘mirage’.


Nala means ‘gift’.

For the hyenas, Shenzi means ‘savage’ and Banzai means ‘to skulk’ or ‘lurk’.


All other names are real Swahili names.

What is Rafiki Singing About?

When Rafiki’s learn’s Simba is still alive and see him in the fields he sings a song repeatedly. Watch below.

The lyrics ‘Asante sana, squash banana, we we nuga, mi mi apana’ means ‘thank you very much, squash banana, you’re a baboon and I’m not’.

As the Genius annotations explain, it’s notable that the opening of the song is sung in Zulu, a language of South Africa, while all the characters’ names in are in Swahili, a language of eastern and southeastern Africa.

Some of the story’s elements also pull from Masai tradition, which has its own language and so, “The Lion King” is less a product of one nation than of pan-Africanism and of universal values.

So, now that you know the meaning behind the lyrics and character names, why not watch the movie again?

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Want to know more about learning languages? Start here!

Sources Business Insider/Wikipedia

Over to you!

Did you know the meaning of these names? Let me know using thecomments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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