Teso language

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Native to Kenya, Uganda
Region Northwest Kenya, west of Lake Turkana
Native speakers
1.9 million  (2002 & 2009 censuses)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 teo
Glottolog teso1249[2]

Ateso (from Teso) is a Nilo-Saharan language, spoken by the Iteso people of Uganda and Kenya. It is one of the Teso–Turkana cluster of languages.

According to the 2002 Uganda population and housing census, over 1.57 million people (6.7% of the total Uganda population)[3] in Uganda spoke Ateso. Also an estimated 279,000 people in Kenya speak it. Its SIL code is TEO.[4]

The Ateso language comes from an area called Teso.

The alphabet[edit]

(ⅰ) There are twenty two letters in the Ateso alphabet[5] F,H,Q,V,H,X and Z are not used and ŋ and NY are added. F,H,Q,V,H,X,Z only appear in loan words. The pronunciation guides that follow are for practice only; the correct sounds can only be learned by practice from a teacher or an audio media.

(ⅱ)There are five vowels in Ateso
A, E, I, O, U.
These five letters, however, represent more than five sounds, for the letters E, I, O and U have two values each; a "close" value and an "open" value.

Close vowels are pronounced approximately as follows:

E as in beg (French é): aipet----- to kick
I as in seat: aidip----- to hit
O as in Scottish pronunciation of bone (French eau): aimor----- to insult, to abuse
U as in fool: aikut----- to scratch the earth, to scoop something

Open vowels are pronounced approximately as follows:

E as in beg (French è): aipet ----- to lay out
I as in sit: ailid----- to fasten
O as in gone (or in glory when long): aimor----- to share
U as in full: aikut -----to blow
A is pronounced as in art (never short as in ram)
abal 'to say'

Note that whether the root vowel is "closed" or "open" affects the conjugation of the verb.[6]

(ⅲ) Where the vowels AI or OI stand together, they represent sounds approximating the "i" in bite and "oy" in annoy respectively. In other vowel combinations, both vowels must be given their full values. The "au" in kau -----(behind) is pronounced "kah-oo" not "kow".

(iv) All words ending in a consonant possess a semi-mute or "shadow" vowel[7] after the final consonant, which is not pronounced when the word stands in isolation, but which is pronounced when the word is followed by another word beginning with a consonant:

e.g. The Ateso translation of "the women go to the house" is written:

elosete aŋor togo ----- the women are going to the house

but is pronounced: elosete aŋoro Togo

If the word following is normally written as one with the preceding word, the "shadow" vowel is not only pronounced but written:

e.g. elosete aŋoroke togo ----- his women are going to the house

Other examples are given in (vii) below.

(v) There are sixteen consonants and one semi-vowel in Ateso, pronounced approximately as follows:

B as in bat: bobo -----again
C as in chat (never as in cat): elacet ----- key
D as in dog: edou ----- rain
G as in get (never as in geology): agasia rubbish/trash
J as in jam: aijar life
K as in king: ekek door
L as in let: alalau width
M as in mat: mam ----- no
N as in nut: ainu ------ to hug
ŋ** as in hanger (never as in finger): iŋai ----- who
NY as in Spanish Señorita: anya ----- grass (plural)
P as in put: papa ----- father
R as in rat (should be well rolled): erute ----- gate
S as in service : aisab ----- to tell lies
T as in toss: toto ----- mother
y as in yellow: yoga ----- hello

Semi vowel:

W as in win: awasia ----- the end, aiwosa ----- to prosecute

(vi) In words of foreign origin introduced into Teso the missing sound F is replaced by P and the missing sound V by B or P. Z is replaced by S.

Thus mesa -----table (Kiswahili) becomes e-mesa
oki-fuga -----to rule (Luganda) becomes ai-puga

(vii) It is an invariable rule that two consonants can never stand together in the same word. Both in speech and in writing. When word construction brings two consonants together, either one of the consonants must be dropped or the "shadow" vowel mentioned in sub-paragraph (iv) above must be inserted between the consonants.

E.g. (Omission of one consonant)

Nen-pe-nen 'just there' is written and pronounced nepenen.

(Insertion of "shadow" vowel)

ŋon-tuŋa-nan 'every man' is written and pronounced: ŋonituŋanan
Elacet-kon 'your key' is written and pronounced elacetekon

**Due to the introduction of typesetting & word processing machines, ŋ is now almost entirely written NG. It is only in old literature that ŋ still appears. The fact that in some works the two letters NG are found together in place of ŋ is no exception to the above rules. These two letters are merely an alternative representation of the sound ŋ, in the same way as the letters NY represent one sound. The semi-vowel W, however, can and frequently does follow a consonant:

aswam work
ekwam air


The correct pronunciation of these letters when formed into words can only be learned by practice. As a general rule, all syllables should be given equal stress, though the stem or root syllable often carries slightly more stress than other syllables. Stress does not,however, affect the length of the vowel stressed or its pitch or tone. It is equally important to note that syllable pitch plays a vital part in correct pronunciation and that many words, which are spelled identically, have a different meanings according to syllable pitch.

For example:

__ ↗ __ élípì ----- I am praying
___ ___ ‿ elìpǐ ----- I was praying
___ ___ ↗ elipí ----- he/she was praying


(i) The spelling used in most of the first published Ateso books is in accordance with the official orthography agreed upon by the Ateso Orthography Committee in 1947.[8] It was then accepted as a general principle that all words should be written in full even though normally contacted in speech. It should be particularly noted that a short -a or -e at the end of a word is dropped in speech when the word is followed by a word beginning with a vowel.

e.g. ekitabo loka etelepat ----- the book of the boy
is pronounced ekitabo lok' etelepat.

(ii) Recently, it is evident that the spoken language is continuing to move away from the written language especially in most parts of Uganda. This means that some aspects of orthography may well need revision soon.

(iii)While the Iteso of Tororo district in Uganda and Teso district in Kenya retain the letter k in the spoken language, the Iteso in most other areas of Uganda tend to omit it in most of the words.[9]

Ateso in Teso, Kenya & Tororo, Uganda Ateso in Amuria district, Uganda English meaning
Akilip lok'asuban ailip loasuban to pray to the creator
akinyam emkati/atap ainyam atap to eat bread
akimat akile aimat akile to drink milk
akitabu lokalaunan eitabo loalaunan a holy book
Akote inyamat/inyamen aimo ainyamat to look for food

Basic lexicon[edit]

Hello – yoga
How are you? – Ijai biai (singular), Ijaasi biai (plural)
Fine, and you? – Ejokuna, arai ijo?
Fine – ejokuna
What is your name? – Ingai bo ekon'kiror?
My name is ... – Eka'kiror ...
Name --- Ekiror
Nice to see you. --- Eyalama ewanyun (also: Eyalama aanyun)
See you again --- Awanyunos bobo
Book – Eitabo
Because – Naarai

The first sentence in the bible can be translated as Ageunet, abu Edeke Kosub akwap keda akuj ("In the beginning God made the earth and the heavens" lit. "the down and the up").

Gender and noun prefix[edit]

As with many other languages, Ateso words have grammatical gender. For grammatical purposes all nouns in Ateso are divided into three classes or genders:(a) masculine, (b) feminine and (c) neuter.

Noun prefix[edit]

Every noun in Ateso has a prefix which varies according to the gender of the noun or according to whether the noun is singular or plural. Nouns (in the singular) starting with "E" or "O" are usually masculine. Those starting with "A" are feminine while those that start with "I" are neuter. See table below for details.

masculine feminine neuter
singular e,o a i
plural i,o a i
e.g. etelepat → itelepai
(boy → boys)
apese → apesur
(girl → girls)
ikoku → idwe
(child → children)

The only exception to the above rule are certain nouns denoting relationships and directions.
e.g. toto ----- mother; papa ----- father; mamai ----- uncle; inac ----- sister ; ija ----- aunt

kide ----- east; too ----- west; ŋalakimak (or agolitomei) ----- south; nyakoi ----- north

It should, however, be noted that the noun prefix is always dropped when the noun comes after the following pronouns or adjectives and their feminine, neuter or plural forms:

pronoun or adjective examples
ece, ace, ice – other, another;

ngol (m) or ngin (f,n) – every

edio (m), adio (f),
idio (n) – any, some

ediope (m), adiope (f) – one

ecetunganan – another man; aceberu – another woman;

icetunganan -another person; icetunga -other people
etunganan – a man; ngolitunganan (or nginitunganan) -every man;
aberu – a woman; nginiberu – every woman

ediotunganan -any man; adiopese -any girl; idiokoku – any child

adiopeberu – one woman; ediope kiliokit bon -only one man

The following is a general classification of most nouns.

(a) Masculine nouns are[edit]

(i) Names of male beings:
e.g. ekingokdog

ekoroi ----- he-goat
emong ----- bull
etelepat/esapat ----- boy
Ekue ----—fox
Ekokor ----—cock

(ii) Names of most trees and fruit
e.g. eloa* – mvule tree (* now generally referred to as emapule )

enimu ----— lemon
etaget ----— banana
emucuuga ----— an orange

(iii) Names of insects:
e.g. esirut – mosquito

emukuny ----— black ant
ekonyelet ----— beetle
ecwarenit ----— bed-bug
eidepit ----—flea

(iv) Names of non-indigenous liquids:
e.g. ecaai ----— tea

akaawa** ----— coffee (** derived from the Arabic word qahwa)
ebia ----— beer
ebino** ----— wine (** ewain is also accepted )

(c) Feminine nouns are[edit]

(i) Names of female beings:
e.g. akingokbitch

akinei ----— she-goat
apese ----— girl
Akokor ----—hen

(ii) Names of languages and countries:
e.g. Ateso ----— the Teso language

Amusugun ----— the English language
Alulatin ----— the Latin Language
Amugana ----—The Ganda language (or Ganda women)

(iii) Names of indigenous liquids:
e.g. ajon ----—local cereal brew

akipi ----— water
akile ----— milk
acece ----—soup
akima ----—porridge (also akuma)

(iv) Abstract nouns:-
e.g. ajokus----—goodness (*also ajokis, ajokisu are used depending on the area)

amin ----- love
aojau ----—height
alalau ----—width
ajijim ----—tastiness
apianis ----—tastelessness
anyunyura ----—anger

(v) Verbs used as nouns:

e.g. alosit ----- going
abunere ----- coming
aisiom ----- reading
aisom ----- jumping

(c) Neuter nouns are[edit]

(i) Names of neuter or generic objects:
e.g. ituŋanan ----- person (sex unknown)

irotin ----- roads/ways

(ii) Names of diminutive objects:
e.g. ikiŋok ----- puppy

ipese ----- baby girl
Imoru ----- pebble
imiot ----- chick
imukeru ----- baby


(i) To form the plural the ending of the noun is changed. This change may consist of the omission of the last syllable, the addition of another syllable or syllables, or the alteration of the last syllable or syllables:

Plural formation example
omission: amukat (shoe) -amuk (shoes); atipet (bead) – atipe (beads);
addition: akan (hand) – akanin (hands); akwap (country)- akwapin (countries)
alteration: apese (girl) – apesur (girls); ekek (door)- ikekia (doors);

(ii) In the case of masculine nouns the noun prefix also changes as shown in the table on noun prefix above.

(iii) These changes in the endings of nouns are so irregular that it is not worth while trying to formulate rules for the formation of plurals.

(iv) Certain nouns, however, which are derived from verbs,form their plurals according to rules;

(a) Nouns denoting an agent of action (a person who does the action of the verb) form a singular ending in -an or -on and a plural ending in -ak or -ok: e.g. ekamejan – hunter ; ikamejak – hunters; ekecokon – herdsman; ikecokok – herdsmen;

ekadukon -a builder; ikadukok -builders; ekatubon – judge; ikatubok -judges.

(b) Nouns denoting something which does or, is done, form a singular ending in -et or -etait and a plural ending in -eta:

e.g. elacet – (a thing which loosens) key; ilaceta – keys; arapetait – cover arapeta -covers;

(v) Some nouns have no singular and exist only in the plural:
e.g. akipi—-water; ajony – local brew; asinge – sand; ajo – sleep; ileic – shame

Other nouns have no plural and exist only in the singular;
e.g. ekuron – ashes; akoloŋ—sun; adam – brain; eduan – weeds

(vi) Abstract nouns and names of diseases, as in English, have no plural.
e.g. aiyalama -happiness; amin -love.

(vii) Some nouns form their plural from other roots:
e.g. aberu – woman, aŋor -women; ikoku -child, iduwe – children.

(viii) Some nouns, in addition to the normal plural, form a generic plural by adding -sinei to the plural form:
e.g. etuŋanan - man, ituŋa - men; ituŋasinei - mankind

akwap - country, akwapin - countries, akwapisinei - the world (n dropped for euphony).


There is no definite or indefinite article in Teso. Aberu means "a woman" or "the woman" according to the context.


Adverbs clarify the action of a verb.Interrogative adverbs usually follow the verb they qualify.

e.g. Elosit nesi ai? where did he go?

But if the interrogative adverb is strengthened by the particle BO, the adverb must precede the verb

e.g. aibo ejaas itelepai ? (Where are the boys?) =ejaas itelepai ai? , but all the other adverbs follow the verb.

Adverbs of place[edit]

Ai/aibo= where?
nen =there (not far off)

e.g. aibo ejai eka'kalaamu? Where is my pencil?; Ejai nen = it's there.

Ngina = over there (at a distance)

e.g. Aibo ejai toto? Where is mom; Ejai ngina = (she's) over there.

Lailo, laije =this way, that way.

e.g. Kobia lailo, mam ilosi ngina =come this way, don't go there; Kobongo laije, mam ibuni lailo = Go back there, don't come this way.

Juwai/Juwayi = at the back of / that way/that side (usually behind something)

e.g. Elosit papa juwai =Dad has gone to the other side / Dad has gone to the rear

Ajesan = down there.

e.g. Aeka je ajesan =He's gone down there

Nelwana/ne alwanan =far off

e.g. Alot onac ameja nelwana = (my) brother has gone hunting in a far place

Eyapye/eyapiei/eyapie = near

e.g.Eyapie ne elosit ngesi = he/she has gone nearby (to a near place)

Toma =inside

e.g. Ejai amunyu toma ocupa = the salt is inside the bottle;Eroko Yakobo ejai toma agoola ke = James is still inside his room

Kiding =in the middle/between

e.g. Ejai eyapesi ka kiding na eiduka kede ekanisa = my office is between the shop and the church;Ibirokina ekitoi kiding na erot = the tree has fallen in the middle of the road

Kau = behind
Ngaren (na) = in front (of)

e.g. Ngaren na ataker = In front of the boat

Osiep = near/on the side of/beside

e.g. Ikunyu ber ijo osiep ka = Please come near me (move closer)

Diye = very close

e.g. Anu inyo ilosia ijo diye do abongun kede akan? = Why did you go nearby and return empty-handed?

teten = (to the) right

e.g. Ibelokin teten = turn to the right

Kediany = left

e.g. Ejaasi kesi kediany = They’re on the left (hand side)

Kide = East
Too = West
Nyakoi = North
Agolitomei / Ongalakimak = South


Ateso numerals are from ones place to hundredth place. Numerals upwards from one thousand are borrowed from other languages.

(i) Numbers from one to five are the basis of the whole numerical system in Ateso. Six (6) is literally translated as 5+1 (five and one), 7 as 5+2 (five and two), etc. In the same way 16 is 10+5+1, 17 is 10+5+2, 21 is 20+1, 26 is also 20+5+1, etc.

(ii) Numerals agree in gender with the noun they define:
e.g. itelepai iuni three boys, ikekia iuni three doors, imeesan iuni three tables

apesur auni three girls, aturo auni three flowers, iduwe iuni three children

(iii) Numerals always follow the noun. ediope (one) can however, precede, in which case the noun prefix is dropped.
e.g. edioperot (or erot ediope) one road/way; adiopeberu one woman;

angor auni three women, irotin iuni three roads/ways

††The word for zero, esupur, is no longer used in the spoken language. In stead enoot, a loanword derived from the English naught is generally used.

Cardinal numbers[edit]

Numeral Masculine Feminine Neuter
1 Idiope(t) adiope(t) yenisodit
2 iyarei aarei as in masculine
3 iuni auni
4 ioŋon aoŋon
5 ikany akany
6 ikany-kape akany-kape
7 ikany-kaare akany-kaare
8 ikanykauni akany-kauni
9 Eikanykaoŋon akanyaaŋon
10 itomon atomon
11 itomon-kanu-diope atomon-kanu-diope
12 itomon'aare atomon'aare
13 itomon'auni atomon'auni
14 itomon'aaŋon atomon'aaŋon
15 itomon'akany atomon'aakany
16 itomon akany'kape atomon akany'kape
17 itomon akany'kaare atomon akany'kaare
18 itomon akanyauni atomon akanyauni
19 itomon akany aoŋon atomon akany aoŋon
20 akais aare as in masculine
21 akais aarei kanudiope
30 akais auni
40 akais aangon
50 akais akany
60 akais akany kapei
100 akwatat (adiope)
101 akwatat kanu diope
200 akwat aarei
500 akwat akany
1,000 elukumit ediope
10,000 ilukumin itomon
1,000,000 emilionit ediope
100,000,000 imilionin akwatat

Ordinal numbers[edit]

Ordinal numbers are formed from cardinal numbers by prefixing the relative forms lok- (m), nak- (f), yenik-(n) as appropriate, to the masculine form of the numeral and by adding -et after the numeral.
e.g. akany five, nakikanyet fifth (feminine singular)

iuni three, lokiuniet third (masculine singular)
iyarei two, yenikiyareit second (neuter singular)
No. Masculine Feminine Neuter
1st losodit nasodit yenisodit
2nd lokiareit nakiyareit yenikiyareit
3rd louniet nauniet yeniuniet
4th lowoŋonet nawoŋonet yeniwoŋonet
5th loikanyet naikanyet yenikanyet
6th loikanyet ape naikanyet ape yenikanyet ape
7th loikanyetaare naikanyetaare yenikanyetaare
8th loikanyetauni naukanyetauni yenikanyetauni
9th loikanyetaaŋonet naikanyetaaŋonet yenikanyetaaŋonet
10th loitomonet naitomonet yenitomonet
11th loitomonetadipe naitomonet adiope yenitomonetadiope
50th loakaisakany nakaisakany yenakaisakany
100th loakwatat naakwatat yenakwatat
last lo agolon nagolon yenagolon

‡ a majority of Iteso (especially those in the Ugandan districts of Soroti, Kumi, Amuria, Bukedea, Serere_District and Kaberamaido) do not pronounce some ks in speech.

Thus, nakikanyet is pronounced naikanyet, etc.


Ateso has taken a number of loanwords, primarily from English and Swahili languages.

Words marked with an asterisk (*) indicates that the last letter in the Ateso word is silent.

English Ateso
Car Emotoka
Television Etelevision
Radio Eredio
Fax Machine Afakis Mashin
E-mail E-emeilo *
Internet E-intanet
Computer Akompiuta
Telephone++ Esimu *
Record Player Arekod puleya
CD Player Asidi puleya
DVD player Adividi puleya
disc Adisiki *

++The Ateso word for a telephone that most Ateso speakers are familiar with is the word "Esimu" which comes from Luganda.


  1. ^ Teso at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Teso". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ "2002 Uganda population and housing census". Analytical Report. Uganda Bureau of Statistics. October 2006. Retrieved 3 September 2010. 
  4. ^ "Teso. A language of Uganda". 2007-07-09. Retrieved 3 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Kitching, Rev. A. L : "A handbook of Ateso language", London, 1915
  6. ^ An Introduction to the Ateso Language, 1956, Fr – Hilders, J. H.; Lawrence, J. C. D.
  7. ^ The Bantu languages, Derek Nurse, Gérard Philippson, (Routledge Language Family Series, 4), pp 214
  8. ^ Report of the Ateso Orthography Committee., Uganda, Ateso Orthography Committee, 1947, Printed by the Govt. Printer
  9. ^ Carol Myers Scotton (University of Nairobi), John Okeju (Manjast High School (Uganada). Loan word integration in Ateso. JSTOR 30029119. 


  • Loyola, Apuda Ignatius (2007). English-Ateso Pocket Dictionary Strategic Outcomes Inc., 274 pp. ISBN 9970-840-03-7.

External links[edit]