Gikuyu language

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This article is about the Gikuyu language. For other uses, see Kikuyu.
Pronunciation [ɣēkōjó]
Native to Kenya
Region Central Province
Native speakers
6.6 million  (2009 census)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ki
ISO 639-2 kik
ISO 639-3 kik
Glottolog kiku1240[3]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Gikuyu or Kikuyu (Gikuyu: Gĩkũyũ, pronounced [ɣēkōjó]) is a language of the Bantu family spoken primarily by the Kikuyu people of Kenya. Numbering about 6 million (22% of Kenya's population),[4] they are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Gikuyu is spoken in the area between Nyeri and Nairobi. Gikuyu is one of the five languages of the Thagichu subgroup of the Bantu languages, which stretches from Kenya to Tanzania. The Gikuyu people usually identify their lands by the surrounding mountain ranges in Central Kenya which they call Kirinyaga.

Gikuyu has four main mutually intelligible dialects. The Central Province districts are divided along the traditional boundaries of these dialects, which are Kirinyaga, Muranga [Maragua], Nyeri and Kiambu. The Gikuyu from Kirinyaga are composed of two main sub-dialects – the Ndia and Gichũgũ who speak the dialect Kĩ-Ndia and Gĩ-gĩcũgũ. The Gĩcũgũs and the Ndias do not have the "ch" or "sh" sound, and will use the "s" sound instead, 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. Other home towns for the Ndia, where purer forms of the dialect are spoken, will be in the tea-growing areas of Kagumo, and the cool Kangaita hills. Lower down the slopes is Kutus, which is a bustling dusty town with too many influences from the other dialects to be able to differentiate.

The unmistakable sing-song Gichugu dialect (which sounds like Embu, a sister language to Gikuyu) can be heard in the coffee growing areas of Kianyaga, Gĩthũre, Kathũngũri, Marigiti. The Gichugu switch easily to the other plainer Kikuyu dialects in conversation with the rest of the Gikuyu.

The Mwea division, which is part of the Kirinyaga District, is an amalgam of Gikuyu, mostly from Kirinyaga, settled in the mid to late 1960s, soon after independence, by displaced Gikuyu whose lands had been taken by the colonialists.


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 nasal sounds indicated by the raised letters are often not pronounced, so that /ⁿd/ is heard as [d], etc.


Gikuyu has two level tones (high and low), a low-high rising tone, and downstep.[5]


The canonical word order of Kikuyu is SVO (subject–verb–object). It uses prepositions rather than postpostions, and adjectives follow nouns.[6]

Written Gikuyu[edit]


Gikuyu is written with a modified Latin alphabet. Compared with English:

  • It does not use the following letters: f l p q s v x z
  • It denotes seven vowel sounds; in addition to a e i o u, there are i-tilde and u-tilde

The alphabet letters then are: a b c d e g h i ĩ j k m n o r t u ũ w y

Some sounds are represented by digraph combinations such as ng for the velar n (ŋ).

Sample phrases[edit]

English gĩkũyũ
How are you Ũhoro waku
Give me water He maĩ
How are you doing? Wĩ mwega?
I am hungry Ndĩ mũhũtu
Help me Ndeithia
I am good Ndĩ mwega
Are you a friend? Wĩ mũrata?
Bye, be blessed Tĩgwo na wega.
I love you Nĩngwendete.
Come here Ũka haha
I will call you Nĩngũkũhũrĩra

The full alphabet is shown in a French-language table here.


There is a notable literature written in the Gĩkũyũ language. For instance, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow) is the longest book written in a sub-Saharan African language. Other authors writing in Gĩkũyũ include Mwangi wa Mutahi, Gatua wa Mbugwa and Waithĩra wa Mbuthia. Mbuthia has published various works in different genres—essays, poetry, children stories and translations—in Gĩkũyũ language. The late Wahome Mutahi also wrote some of his literature in Gĩkũyũ.


  1. ^ Kikuyu at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  3. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kikuyu". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  4. ^ CIA Factbook [1] retrieved on 16 October 2007
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^


  • 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.
  • 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]