Gikuyu language

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This article is about the Gĩkũyũ 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[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

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

Gĩkũyũ has four main mutually intelligible dialects. The Central Province districts are divided along the traditional boundaries of these dialects, which are Kîrînyaga, Mûranga, Nyeri and Kiambu. The Gĩkũyũ from Kîrînyaga 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 Kîrînyaga. Other home towns for the Ndia, where purer forms of the dialect are spoken, are located 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 so many influences from the other dialects that it is difficult to distinguish between them.

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

The Mwea division, which is part of the Kîrînyaga District, is an amalgam of Gĩkũyũ, mostly from Kîrînyaga, settled in the mid to late 1960s, soon after independence, by displaced Gĩkũyũ 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.


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


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

Written Gĩkũyũ[edit]


Gĩkũyũ 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).

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

Sample phrases[edit]

English Gĩkũyũ
How are you Ũhoro waku
Give me water He maĩ
How are you doing? Ûrĩ 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.
I love you Nĩngwendete.
Come here Ũka haha
I will phone you Nĩngũkũhũrĩra thimû

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 Mûtahi, Gatua wa Mbûgwa and Waithĩra wa Mbuthia. Mbuthia has published various works in different genres—essays, poetry, children stories and translations—in the Gĩkũyũ language. The late Wahome Mûtahi also wrote some of his literature in Gĩkũyũ.


  1. ^ Kikuyu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Kikuyu". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  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]