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Kikuyu Language Online: Vocabulary and Conversation Practice

Kariuki is a Museum Exhibits Designer and author of several children's and young adults story books. He is also a gifted artist.

This article will introduce you to the Kikuyu language. By the end of this article, you should be able to express yourself satisfactorily in Kikuyu. This will take a few months so plan a weekly programme and read small bits of the lessons at a time.

The article starts with a brief background of the Kikuyu people before progressing to the language, its structure, and vocabulary. Finally, there are dialogues to aid you in conversation practice. You may request additional help by posting a comment at the bottom of this article.

The correct name for the language is Gĩgĩkũyũ, and the speakers are Gĩkũyũ. Kikuyu is the Anglicised form of both the language and the speakers. The word Kikuyu has gained currency and will be used in this article to refer to both the people and the language. Gĩkũyũ was also the name of a patriarchal ancestor.

Leakey (1959, p. Vii) says, “Kikuyu is probably one of the most archaic of the Bantu languages and in consequence has a grammatical structure with fewer exceptions than in most of the others.” This means that Kikuyu resembles the ancestor of the Bantu language (proto-Bantu), more than the other Bantu languages spoken today. At the time of the Bantu migration, all Bantu speakers probably spoke something similar to Kikuyu. I am of the same opinion, having identified archaic Kiswahili words that are no longer in use but are of everyday use in Kikuyu. This may imply that words used in both Kikuyu and Kiswahili, long became archaic in the latter but continue to be utilized by the former.

The Kikuyu are classified linguistically as Highland Bantus together with the Kamba, Kuria, Gusii, Embu, Kurya, Tharaka, and Meru of Kenya (Ogot ed. 1980, p. 82). The other Highland Bantus in East Africa are the Meru (Tanzanian), Segeju, Sonjo, Ikoma, Chagga, Gweno, Shashi, Zanaki and Nguruimi of Tanzania. They are all of the Benue-Congo language division of the Niger-Congo family (Ogot ed., 1974).

Standard Kikuyu has three main divisions. These are Gaki (Nyeri), Metumi (Muranga) and Kabete or Kiambu Kikuyu (Muriuki 1974). Gĩkũyũ was not only a language but also the name of a patriarchal ancestor.

The Mount Kenya peoples and the Kamba of the Eastern province are sometimes assumed to be Kikuyu because the languages are intelligible. However, some, like the Meru, are thought to be a separate tribe. Though I have found evidence to link them to the Kikuyu (in a sort of confederacy) in ancient times.

Defining the Kikuyu

Some experts were asked to rate the Kikuyuness of the Mount Kenya tribes, including the Akamba, on a scale with 'Most Kikuyu' and 'Least Kikuyu' on the extreme ends. All five (5) respondents felt that the Muranga, Kiambu, and Nyeri were “more Kikuyu” than the others. The Embu, Ndia, and Gichugu were closer to the Kikuyu than the Meru and subtribes. All the respondents were unanimous that the Kamba were not part of the Kikuyu but always in the periphery. Only one of the respondents insisted that the Nyeri, Muranga, and Kiambu were the only true Kikuyu.

On September 28, 2006, I interviewed Dr. Muriuki, a history professor. According to Muriuki, the Kikuyu are no more than 500 years old. Consequently, he considers the Tene and Agu generations to have started around 1400 AD, about one hundred years before Vasco Dagama landed at Mombasa (in 1497). This was not in agreement with my findings. If Akhenaten and Smenkhare correspond with tene (long ago) in Kikuyu and Kare in Meru, then the history of the Kikuyu can be traced to at least three thousand years ago.

Muriuki believes that the Kikuyu came from “Cameroon, near Lake Chad,” and moved into Kenya through Congo, Zambia, and South Africa, before veering northwards into present day Kenya where they faced hostile Somalis at the Shebele river, in (today’s) North Eastern Kenya, and stopped further movement. In their advance towards mount Kenya, they “pushed the Igembe and Tigania leaving some of their people behind.” They then moved East into Tigania, Embu, Mwea, Murang’a (Mukurwe wa Gathanga); North into Nyeri, Mukurweini, Kahuhia, Maragwa; and finally, they expanded into Kiambu.


Archaic Terms for the Months of the Year

January

Mũgaa

February

Mũratho

March

Kĩhu (beginning of the 'Njahi season)

April

Mũratho

May

Mũgiranjara

June

Gathathanwa

July

Gathano

August

Mworianyoni

September

Mũgaa 2

October

Kĩhu 2 (Beginning of the 'Mwere season)

November

Kanyuahũngũ

December

Gatumu

Kikuyu is similar to Arabic in its syllable structure. Arabic is a CV syllable language where “C” stands for a consonant and ‘V’ for a vowel (Cook 1997). Kikuyu however also allows for a VCV structure where a word can start with a vowel. The rule is that the word must end in a vowel. In Kikuyu a dog is called Ngui (CV), and Uga (VCV) means “say.” In phonemics, “NG” is a single phoneme rendered with two graphemes. The English CVC structure is not possible in Kikuyu but can work in Luo. An example of the word "dog" is given in two languages: English - Dog (CVC); Luo – Guok (CVC).

Some common male Kikuyu names

Karanja, Kamau, Kariũki, Mwangi, Kĩmani, Njoroge, Mũngai, Ndũn'gũ, Mũchoki, Mũngai, Kamande, Gĩtaũ, Kĩhara, Macharia, Mũirũrĩ, Wanjaũ, Wahome, Gĩthĩnji, Cege (Chege), Kĩragũ, Ngigĩ, Ng'ang'a, Wanderi, Gĩtonga, Wambũgũ, Watene, Mũkundi, Kĩnyua, Mũrĩu, Gathu, Mũgo, Mwanĩki, Gĩthaiga, Mũraguri, Chomba, Njũki, Gĩchũki, Mũnene, Gĩchũrũ


Some common female Kikuyu names

Wanjirũ, Njeri, Wanjikũ, Wangarĩ, Wambũi, Nyambura,Njoki, Wambũi, Wairimũ, Waithĩra, Nyagũthiĩ, Nyokabi, Wangũ, Kanyi (is a male name in Nyeri), Ngendo, Nyawĩra

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Kikuyu vowels

Gĩkũyũ is written with seven vowels (Leakey 1959, p. vii). Leakey compares the pronunciation of these vowels with the English language as summarized below:

a – like the vowel in “hut”

e – like the e in “hen”

ĩ – as the i in “it”. I suggest that a in “ate” is closer to the real pronunciation.

i – like the e in “he”

o – like the au in author. I suggest the o in “only”

ũ – like the oo in “good.” I suggest the ‘o’ in “oh dear.”

u – like the u in “who”

Leakey (1959) notes that l, f, p, v, x and z consonants are missing in Gĩkũyũ and that the Gĩkũyũ r is something between r and l. Leakey also states that that c is pronounced ch and b “has a touch of f, v and p”. I suggest that b is like the sound bh in the Indian word “mahabharat.”

Gĩkũyũ is a tonal language and the orthography in current usage is inadequate. For example the word iria can mean ‘a lake (The Kikuyu language does not differentiate between a pool of water, a lake or even the sea. They are all 'Iria', or 'Maria' in plural, the plural being mainly for stagnant pools.)’ ‘those’ or ‘milk’ depending on the tone. When the stress is on the last syllable – ‘a’, with a higher tone than at the beginning, the word means milk. When the word is said with a monotone with no stress on any syllable, the word means a lake. The units that define tones in a morpheme have been termed “tonemes” by linguists (Martinet 1964). Martinet describes “melodic tones” as another characteristic of some languages. While tones manifest themselves in individual morphemes, melodic tones manifest themselves in sentences. It appears to I that Gĩkũyũ is both “tonal” and “melodic tonal”.


The Kikuyu alphabet made simple

Gĩkũyũ nouns.

Leakey has identified ten classes of nouns.

The first three classes of nouns in Gĩkũyũ represent things which are considered to have a spirit. Leakey divided them according to the importance of the category of spirit, which they are deemed, to possess.


1. Class I - these are nouns denoting human beings. Humans may be removed from this class to another class (but still retain a spirit) due to scorn or hatred, or otherwise for having “some special connection with religion, or magic…” Examples of class one nouns are:

Mũndũ – Person, kamũndũ - small person, Kĩmũndũ - big person (derogatory and should be avoided.), Andũ- many people, imũndũ - many large persons (derogatory and should be avoided.).

Mũndũ ũyũ mũraihu ni mwega– this tall person is good. (Note that the prefixes in the adjectives have to agree with the noun.

Mũtumia – married woman, Gatumia - small woman (derogatory and should be avoided.), Gĩtumia - big woman (derogatory and should be avoided.), Atumia - many women, Ndumia - many large women (derogatory and should be avoided.)

Gatumia gaka karaihu ni kegathis smallish tall woman is good (note that Gatumia is diminutive. The adjectives again have to agree with the noun. However, the prefixes that agree with Ga are Ka and Ga. One has to learn through usage which one to use appropriately.

Mũirĩtu – initiated girl, Kairĩtu - small girl.

Kairĩtu gaka karaihu nĩ kegaThis smallish tall girl is good.

Mũanake – Unmarried initiated man

Mũanake ũyũ mũraihu nĩ mwegathis tall (young) man is good


2. Class II nouns have second class spirits, lower than that of humans. Most large trees and plants. Epidemic diseases which are viewed as being spirit borne would According to Leakey (1959) normally go to class III, but for some reason may find themselves in class II. Below are four examples.

Mũrimũ - spirit-borne disease

Mũrimũ ũyũ nĩ mũru- this disease is bad (note again that the adjective has to agree with the noun).

Mũkũyũ - another kind of fig tree besides the mũgumo

Mũkũyũ ũyũ nĩ mũkũrũ – this fig tree is old

Mũtamaiyũ - wild Olive

Mũrũthi - lion


3. Class III - nearly all birds, reptiles, insects, mammals, and many lesser plants, are in this class. Below are some examples. Humans in this class have received quite a demotion.

Njangiri - an outcast

Njangiri ĩno nĩ ndwaruthis outcast is sick

Ngĩa - pauper

Ngombo - serf or slave

Njamba – brave warrior

Njamba ĩno ndungu nĩ nguhĩ- this brave is fat and short