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Kikuyu 

Kikuyu

Introduction

Wi mwega? How are you?

Kikuyu  (Gikuyu, Agĩkũyũ )belongs to Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family. It is spoken as a first language by 5.3 million people in Kenya in an area between Nairobi and Mount Kenya (Ethnologue). In recent years, the language has spread into other parts of southern Kenya, so that today Kikuyu are one of the largest linguistic groups of Kenya (not counting English).

mapStatus
Although Kikuyu does not have an official status in Kenya (the official languages are English and Swahili), it is, nevertheless, an important language spoken as a first language language by the Kikuyu people which is also learned as a second or third language by non-Kikuyu, particularly in urban areas, such as Nairobi, East Africa’s largest city and surrounding areas of central Kenya. In addition to a rich oral literature, Kikuyu has an older and more extensive written literature than any other East African language with the exception of Swahili. A good deal of the literature is political in nature, but there is also fiction published in Kikuyu by authors such as Ngũngĩ wa Thiong’o.

Dialects

According to Ethnologue, there are 5 major dialects of Gikuyu:

  • Southern Gikuyu
  • Ndia
  • Gichugu
  • Mathira
  • Northern Gikuyu

Structure

Sound system
The sound system of Kikuyu has many features in common with other Bantu languages.

Vowels
Kikuyu has 7 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Vowels can be long or short. Vowel length differentiates the meaning of words. In writing, long vowels are represented by double letters, e.g., aa represents long /a/. Vowels can also be nasalized. Nasalization is represented by a tildeeh table below (in red).

xxxx
Close
(i)
(u)
Close-mid
(ĩ)
(ũ)
Mid
ε (e)
ɔ (o)
Open
(a)
  • /ε/ = e in bet
  • /ɔ/ = o in bog

Consonants
Kikuyu has 18 consonant phonemes. The language is distinguished by the presence of prenasalized consonant phonemes. Prenasalized consonants are sequences of nasal plus another consonant that behave like a single sound unit. In the table below, the orthographic representations of the phonemes are given in red.

Interdental Palatal
Stops voiceless
t (t)
xx
(k)
voiced prenasalized
ᵐb (mb)
ⁿd (nd)
xx
ᵑg (ng)
Fricatives voiceless
ʃx(c)
x
(h)
voiced
β (b)
ð (th)
ɣ (g)
Affricates voiced prenasalized
ⁿdʒ (nj)
m (m)
(n)
ɲ (ny)
ŋ (ng’)
Flap/trill
r (r)
xxx
Semivowelsxx
(w)
xxx
(y)
  • /ᵐb, ⁿd, ᵑg, ⁿdʒ/ are prenasalized consonants consisting of a nasal plus a stop or affricate which are produced together as a single phonological unit.
  • /ɣ/ has no equivalent in English
  • /β/ has no equivalent in English
  • /ð/ = th in those
  • /ʃ/ = sh in shop
  • /tʃ/ = ch in chap
  • /dʒ/ = j in jeans
  • /ɲ/ = first n in canyon
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /j/ = y in yet

Tones
Kikuyu has two tones: high and low. High tone is represented by an acute accent, e.g., á, while low tone is represented by a grave accent, e.g., à.

Grammar
Kikuyu shares many grammatical features with other Bantu languages, namely a high degree of agglutination (adding affixes to a base form) in both nominal and verbal forms.

Nouns

  • Kikuyu nouns are divided into numerous noun classes. Although the content of some noun classes is semantically transparent, there is great unpredictability as to whether for whether a noun with a particular meaning belongs to a certain class. Each noun class is associated with a particular prefix, one in the singular, and another in the plural. Thus, the prefix - marks nouns denoting body parts in the singular, is paired with the prefix m- in the plural, e.g., kũ-gũrũ ‘leg’ versus m-gũrũ ‘legs.’
  • Nouns ordinarily carry an inflectional marking that simultaneously expresses gender and number, e.g., in mũ-ndũ mũ-kũrũ ‘old person’ (singular) and andũ a-kũrũ (plural) both noun and modifier carry a gender and number marker.

Verbs
Kikuyu verbs consist of a root which may be extended by adding various suffixes. Final modal suffixes mark the indicative and subjunctive. One of the suffixes is a subject marker, referring to and agreeing with the subject of the clause.

  • It may be immediately followed by the tense/aspect marker, e.g., a-gwat-ire ‘he held [today]‘ consists the the verb root -gwat- ‘hold’ + -ire, a suffix denoting an ‘action that has taken place on the day of speaking.’
  • The tense/aspect marker can also be a prefix, e.g., a-á-gwata where the prefix -á- denotes ‘an action taking place immediately before the time of speaking.’
  • Habituality is marked by the tense suffix -ga-, e.g., a-ra-gwata-ga ‘he/she kept holding’ where -ra- denotes ‘action that took place no earlier than the day before the day of speaking’ and -ga denotes ‘habitual.’
  • There is a fine distinction between degrees of pastness, e.g., a-gwat-ire ‘She/he held [recent past,' and a-ra-gwat-ire 'He/she held [remoter] past.’
  • Kikuyu allows concatenation of tense/aspect markers, e.g., ĩ-ngĩ-ka-na-endia ‘if I should ever sell [it]‘ where -ngĩ- is ‘hypothetical,’ -ka- is ‘future’ and -na- is ‘indeterminate time.’

Word order
The normal word order in Kikuyu is Subject-Verb-Object. However, topicalization is possible, so that the emphasized constituent precedes all other constituents in a sentence.

Vocabulary
Kikuyu has borrowed words from Swahili that were, in turn, borrowed by Swahili from colonial languages, e.g., bendera ‘flag’ from Swahili bendera from Portuguese bandeira; metha from Swahili meza from Portuguese mesa. Kikuyu has also borrowed words from English, such as njanji ‘judge.’ According to Ethnologue, Kikuyu shares a significant percent of its vocabulary with other languages spoken in Kenya, such as EmbuChukaKamba, and Meru.

Below are Kikuyu numerals 1-10.

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
ĩmwe
igĩrĩ
ithatuny
inya
ithano
ithathatuny
mungwanja
inyanya
kenda
ikunmi

Writing

Today, Kikuyu is written in the African reference alphabet, first proposed by a UNESCO-organized conference in 1978. It is a version of the Latin alphabet adapted to represent Kikuyu sounds. Nasal vowels are marked with a tilde. The alphabet is given below.

A a
B b
C c
Nd nd
E e
G g
Ng ng
Ng’ ng’
H h
I i
Ĩ ĩ
Nj nj
K k
M m
N n
Ny ny
O o
Ũ ũ
R r
T t
Th th
U u
W w
Y y

Below are the first two sentences from John 1:1 in Kikuyu.

Kĩambĩrĩianĩ Ũhoro aarĩ o kuo, na aatũire harĩ Ngai, nake aarĩ o Ngai.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Did You Know?

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Kikuyu?
There is no data on the difficulty of Gikuyu for speakers of English.

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