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Kikuyu language

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Native toKenya
RegionCentral Province
Native speakers
6.6 million (2009 census)[1]
  • Gichugu
  • Mathira
  • Ndia
  • Northern Gikuyu
  • Southern Gikuyu
Language codes
ISO 639-1ki
ISO 639-2kik
ISO 639-3kik
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
CountryBũrũrĩ Wa Gĩkũyũ

Kikuyu or Gikuyu (Gikuyu: Gĩkũyũ [ɣēkōjó]) (also known as Gĩgĩkũyũ) is a Bantu language spoken by the Gĩkũyũ (Agĩkũyũ) of Kenya. Kikuyu is mainly spoken in the area between Nyeri, Nairobi and Nakuru. The Kikuyu people usually identify their lands by the surrounding mountain ranges in Central Kenya, including Mount Kenya, which they call Kĩrĩnyaga.


Kikuyu has four main mutually intelligible dialects. The Central Province districts are divided along the traditional boundaries of these dialects, which are Kĩrĩnyaga, Mũrang'a, Nyeri and Kiambu.

The Kikuyu from Kĩrĩnyaga are composed of two main sub-dialects – the Ndia and Gichugu who speak the dialects Kĩndia and Gĩgĩcũgũ. The Gicugus and the Ndias do not have the "ch" or "sh" sound (same as in Mũrang'a) and will use the "s" sound instead (Kikuyu has no letter S), hence the pronunciation of "Gĩcũgũ" as opposed to "Gĩchũgũ". To hear Ndia being spoken, one needs to be in Kerugoya, the largest town in Kirinyaga County. Other home towns for the Ndia, where "purer" forms of the dialect are spoken, are located in the tea-growing areas of Kagumo, Baricho, Kagio, and the Kangaita hills. Lower down the slopes is Kutus, which is a bustling town with so many influences from the other dialects that it is difficult to distinguish between them. The dialect is also prevalent in the rice growing area of Mwea.

The unmistakable tonal patterns of the Gichũgũ dialect (which sounds like Meru or Embu, sister languages to Kikuyu) can be heard in the coffee-growing areas of Kianyaga, Gĩthũre, Kathũngũri, Marigiti. The Gichugu switch easily to other Kikuyu dialects in conversation with the rest of the Kikuyu.


Symbols shown in parentheses are those used in the orthography.


Front Central Back
High i u
Mid-high e (ĩ) o (ũ)
Mid-low ɛ (e) ɔ (o)
Low a


Bilabial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless t (t) k (k)
voiced prenasalised ᵐb (mb) ⁿd (nd) ᵑɡ (ng)
Affricate ᶮdʒ (nj)
Nasal m (m) n (n) ɲ (ny) ŋ (ng')
Fricative voiceless ʃ (c) h (h)
voiced β (b) ð (th) ɣ (g)
Liquid ɾ (r)
Approximant j (y) w (w)

The prenasalised consonants are often pronounced without prenasalisation, and thus /ᵐb ⁿd ᶮdʒ ᵑɡ/ are often realised as [b d ɡ].


Kikuyu has two level tones (high and low), a low-high rising tone, and downstep.[4]


The canonical word order of Gĩkũyũ is SVO (subject–verb–object). It uses prepositions rather than postpositions.[5] Nouns are followed by possessive and demonstrative pronouns, which can coexist in that order, and subsequently adjectives, quantifiers, and numerals, which have no order among themselves.[6]

Noun classes[edit]

Gĩkũyũ has 17 noun classes.

Class 1 (prefix mũ-) comprises animate/human nouns and is singular, while class 2 (prefix a-) comprises animate/human nouns but is plural. Kinship terms and some other words belong to these classes but take no prefixes.

Class 3 (prefix mũ-) comprises nature/landscape words and others that are not semantically related, and is singular. Class 4 (prefix mĩ-) comprises the same words, but is plural.

Class 5 (prefix rĩ- if stem is vowel initial, i- if consonant-initial) comprises plant/landscape words and others that don't fix the pattern, and is singular. Class 6 (prefix ma-) comprises the same words, but is plural. Occasionally, class 6 nouns have the prefix marĩ-, perhaps because the class 5 form is reanalyzed as the stem. Nouns of classes 1, 9, 11, 12, 14, and 15 can be pluralized with the class 6 form.

Class 7 (prefix gĩ- if stem is t, k, c, or th initial, kĩ- otherwise) is an augmentative class with some inherent, not especially augmented members. Class 8 (prefix ci- if stem is vowel initial, i- if consonant initial) is the same, but plural. These classes' prefixes can be used to augment nouns of other classes.

Class 9 comprises most animals, most loanwords, a few body parts, and semantically unrelated others. Class 10 is the same, but plural. Because words of these classes begin with nasal or unnasalizable consonants, and lose their nasality when marked with a different class prefix, the proposed prefix is nasalization. This prefix cannot always be applied to loanwords.

Class 11 (prefix rũ-) comprises long, thin, or string-like nouns, as well as others that don't fit the pattern. Its default plural is class 10, with occasional class 6 forms. It is hypothesized that if the prefix rũ- is added to a stem that already begins with rũ, the prefix is deleted. The class 6/11 plurals vary just as the Class 5/6 plurals do: the Class 6 prefix, ma-, attaches sometimes to the noun stem itself, and sometimes to the class 11 form.

Class 12 (prefix ga- if stem is t, k, c, or th initial, ka- otherwise) is a diminutive class with some inherent, not especially diminutive members. Class 13 (prefix tũ-) is the same, but plural. These classes' prefixes can be used to diminutize nouns of other classes.

Class 14 (null prefix) comprises abstract concepts and semantically unrelated others, and is pluralized by class 6.

Class 15 (prefix gũ- if stem is t, k, c, or th initial, kũ- otherwise) comprises only body parts and verbal infinitives—more semantically and syntactically motivated than other classes. It is pluralized, when possible, by class 6.

Class 16 (prefix ha-) is a definite locative class. Class 17 (prefix kũ-/gũ-) is an indefinite locative class. These classes can be singular or plural based on context.[6]

Adjectives and pronouns[edit]

Adjectives agree with the noun via adjective class prefixes (usually identical to the noun class prefixes). Other modifiers do so via agreement class prefixes, which are often simply the vowel of the noun class prefix.

Personal pronouns may take the place of a noun or a noun phrase. Since person and noun class are marked on verbs, they are usually only used emphatically or in response to questions. Except for those of classes 3 and 14, the pronouns are formed by adding agreement class prefixes to the stem o.

The dependent pronoun - ‘and/with X’ - is formed by adding comitative preposition to the relevant personal pronouns.

The possessive pronoun is formed by adding the relevant possessive stem to the agreement class prefix of the possessed noun.

Relative pronouns are formed by adding the relevant agreement class prefix to the relative stem.

Demonstrative pronouns come in distal, proximal, and anaphoric forms. Relative pronouns are written identically to distal demonstratives, but are distinguished by vowel length - the first syllable of a relative pronoun is short, while the first syllable of a distal demonstrative is long.

Adjectives are comparatively rare, and don't cover even every color. Qualities are usually expressed instead as associative constructions, which connect two nouns or noun phrases where the first noun (head) is modified by the second. The associative is formed by prefixing the stem a with the agreement class prefix of the head noun. It can also denote possession, location, and ordinal numerals.[6]


Numerals 11-19 are formed with the construction 'ten and X'. The final numeral, if it inflects, agrees with the noun being counted. However, if the final numeral is 1, it agrees with the singular class of the noun being counted, because 1 is singular, even if the overall number being formed is not.[6]


Verbs can be marked for focus, noun class agreement, negation, reflexivity, reciprocality, causativity, intensive meanings, reversive meanings, applicative (valency increasing) meanings, tense, and aspect.[clarification needed] Tenses include past, present, or future; and remote, near, or current. Aspects include habitual/imperfective, completive, perfect, and progressive, which is unmarked. Sequential, a subtype of progressive, denotes events that occur in a sequence. There is also a marker for persistive events, which occur continuously until the time of speaking. Special subject agreement particles exist for 1st and 2nd person, the discourse participants, but subject agreement is otherwise based on noun class. A verb can exhibit noun class agreement for all arguments, but agrees less commonly with non-human nouns.

In addition to active and passive voices, there is a middle voice with an intermediate connotation.[6]


Kikuyu is written in a Latin alphabet. It does not use the letters l f p q s v x z, and adds the letters ĩ and ũ. The Kikuyu alphabet is:

a b c d e g h i ĩ j k m n o r t u ũ w y[7]

Some sounds are represented by digraphs such as ng for the velar nasal /ŋ/.

Sample phrases[edit]

English Gĩkũyũ
How are you Ũhoro waku or kũhana atĩa?
Give me water He maaĩ
How are you doing? Ũrĩ mwega? or Wĩ mwega
I am hungry Ndĩ mũhũtu
Help me Ndeithia
I am good Ndĩ mwega
Are you a friend? Wĩ mũrata?
Bye, be blessed Tigwo na wega/Tigwo na thaayũ
I love you Nĩngwendete.
Come here Ũka haha
I will phone you Nĩngũkũhũrĩra thimũ
I give thanks Nĩndacokia ngatho
I'm blessed Ndĩĩ mũrathime
Give me money He mbeca / He mbia
Stop nonsense Tiga wana / tiga ũrimũ
Don't laugh Ndũgatheke
You are learned Wĩ mũthomu
Thank you Thengiũ / Nĩ wega / Nĩ ngaatho
Go in peace Thiĩ na thaayũ
Day Mũthenya
Night Ũtukũ
God Ngai
Ancestral Spirits Ngomi

Sample texts[edit]

English[8] Kikuyu[8]
The Gikuyu believe in God

the creator of heaven and earth,

the giver of all things.

Gikuyu ni gitikitie Ngai

mumbi wa Iguru na Thi na muheani wa indo ciothe

Letter from the Hen to the Eagle[9] MarŪa Ma NgŪkŪ KŪrĪ RwĪgĪ[9]


There is notable literature written in the Kikuyu language. For instance, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow) is the longest known book written in Kikuyu. Other authors writing in Kikuyu are Gatua wa Mbũgwa and Waithĩra wa Mbuthia. Mbuthia has published various works in different genres—essays, poetry, children stories and translations—in Kikuyu. The late Wahome Mutahi also sometimes wrote in Kikuyu. Also, Gakaara wa Wanjaũ wrote his popular book, Mau Mau Author in Detention, which won a Noma Award in 1984.[10]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 1983 movie Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, the character Nien Nunb speaks in the Kikuyu language.[11]

The 2023 song, Mwaki, by the Brazilian DJ, Zerb, features the Kenyan artist, Sofiya Nzau, singing in Kikuyu.[12]


  1. ^ Kikuyu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Glottolog 4.8 - Gikuyu-Temi".
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ Kevin C. Ford, 1975. "The tones of nouns in Kikuyu," Studies in African Linguistics 6, 49–64; G.N. Clements & Kevin C. Ford, 1979, "Kikuyu Tone Shift and its Synchronic Consequences", Linguistic Inquiry 10.2, 179–210.
  5. ^ Wals.info
  6. ^ a b c d e Wa-Ngatho, Wambũi Mũringo; Englebretson, Robert. "A Basic Sketch Grammar of Gĩkũyũ" (PDF). Rice Working Papers in Linguistics. VI (special): 36–70. Retrieved 20 April 2024. This article incorporates text from this source, which is available under the CC BY 3.0 license.
  7. ^ "Langue : kikuyu". 2006. Archived from the original on 9 June 2020. Retrieved 21 March 2009.
  8. ^ a b "Kikuyu Language Products". WorldLanguage.com. Retrieved 21 December 2023.
  9. ^ a b Rwígí, Kúrí (17 December 2018). "MARŪA MA NGŪKŪ KŪRĪ RWĪGĪ". Kikuyuland.com. Archived from the original on 21 December 2023. Retrieved 25 April 2024.
  10. ^ Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo (1986). Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: J. Currey. p. 24. ISBN 0-435-08016-4. OCLC 13333403.
  11. ^ Feldmann, Linda (28 July 1983). "In Kenya, audiences roar at language in 'Jedi' film". Christian Science Monitor. ISSN 0882-7729. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
  12. ^ Bain, Katie (29 January 2024). "Zerb & Sofiya Nzau Star in Dazzling 'Mwaki' Video Shot in Kenya's Hells Gate National Park: Watch". Billboard. Retrieved 1 February 2024.


  • Armstrong, Lilias E. 1967. The Phonetic and Tonal Structure of Kikuyu. London: Published for the International African Institute by Dawsons of Pall Mall.
  • Barlow, A. Ruffell and T. G. Benson. 1975. English-Kikuyu Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Barlow, A. Ruffell. 1951. Studies in Kikuyu Grammar and Idiom. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons,
  • Benson, T. G. 1964. Kikuyu–English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gecaga B. M. and Kirkaldy-Willis W.H. 1953. English–Kikuyu, Kikuyu–English Vocabulary. Nairobi: The Eagle Press.
  • Kihara, Claudius P. "Middle and Antipassive Voices in Gĩkũyũ (E51)." Arusha Working Papers in African Linguistics, 6(1): 17-39.
  • Leakey L. S. B. 1989. First Lessons in Kikuyu. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.
  • Mugane John 1997. A Paradigmatic Grammar of Gikuyu. Stanford, California: CSLI publications.

External links[edit]