A renewed interested in Indian Ocean studies has underlined possibilities of the transnational. This study highlights lexical borrowing as an analytical tool to deepen our understanding of cultural exchanges between Indian Ocean ports during the long nineteenth century, comparing loanwords from several Asian and African languages and demonstrating how doing so can re-establish severed links between communities. In this comparative analysis, four research avenues come to the fore as specifically useful to explore the dynamics of non-elite contact in this part of the world: (1) nautical jargon, (2) textile terms, (3) culinary terms, and (4) slang associated with society’s lower strata. These domains give prominence to a spectrum of cultural brokers frequently overlooked in the wider literature. It is demonstrated through concrete examples that an analysis of lexical borrowing can add depth and substance to existing scholarship on interethnic contact in the Indian Ocean, providing methodological inspiration to examine lesser studied connections. This study reveals no unified linguistic landscape, but several key individual connections between the ports of the Indian Ocean frequented by Persian, Hindustani, and Malay-speaking communities.