Kikuyu Language Online: Phonology

Updated on March 27, 2020
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki is a native Kikuyu speaker and has written extensively about the Kikuyu community and the language on Hubpages

A pre - 1950 (most likely 1930s) Kikuyu woman and child
A pre - 1950 (most likely 1930s) Kikuyu woman and child


Updated on 10 th March 2020

Phonology is the study of the building blocks of language. Morphology on the other hand is the study of the rules that govern how these blocks are put together. In other words, It establishes the rules that govern the internal structure of words, how they are formed or altered.

Here is the Kikuyu alphabet. a b c d e g h i ĩ j k m n o r t u ũ w y.


Gĩkũyũ is written with seven vowels. Two of the additional vowels are i-tilde (ĩ) and u-tilde (ũ). These are: a (low /central), e (ɛ Mid-low/Front), i (high/front), ĩ (e Mid-high/Front), o (ɔ Mid-low /Back), u (High/Back), ũ (o Mid-high/Back).

Kikuyu and Italian seem to share the same vowels - /a/, /e/, /ɛ/, /i/, /o/, /ɔ/, /u/

The vowels are pronounced in two groups. The first group below is non-rounded, pronounced in the anterior position:

Kikuyu Vowel
Kikuyu meaning
IPA letter
English equivalent
Iga (keep)
ĩka (do)
endia (sell)
aca (no)
Kikuyu Vowel
Kikuyu word and meaning
IPA letter
English equivalent
uma (come out)
ũka (Come)
oha (tie)

The second group below is pronounced in the posterior position, and rounded.

Vowels at the beginning of words are rarely short. Fore example Eha is more like Eeha. Rehe sounds more like Reehe.

It should be noted that this writer assumes Muranga Kikuyu to be the standard.

a – like the vowel in “hut, Abraham”

Asha (no), Athiĩ (he/she has gone), arĩa (has eaten), Athamaki (kings/rulers)

e – like the e in “hen, pen, ”

eha? (where is he/she?), kena (be happy), ndehere (bring to me)

ĩ – as the i in “it”. This writer suggests that a in “ate, hate, late” are closer to the real pronunciation.

ĩkĩra (put), thĩna (problems, poverty), mĩtĩ (trees)

i – like the e in “he”. This writer suggest ‘bee’ is closer. In any case, Kikuyu vowels are mainly long.

Ihi (no), hihi (maybe), iho (they [objects] are there), ngima (cooked maize floor- ugali)

o – like the au in author. This writer suggests the o in “only.”

Ona (see), okoka(come closer), koma (sleep), tonya (come in)

ũ – like the oo in “good.” This writer suggests the oh in “oh dear.”

Ũka (come), tũma (send), mũndũ (person)

u – like the u in “who.”

Guka (Grandfather), ruta (remove), uma (come out), muma (oath)

Minimal pairs

Minimal pairs are pairs of words or phrases in a specific language, differentiated by only one phonological element. This element may be a phone, phoneme, toneme or chroneme and have a distinct meaning. The first three elements (phone, phoneme, toneme) are features of the Kikuyu language. Minimal pairs demonstrate that two almost similar sounding phones are really two separate phonemes in the language.

Chronemes are determined by consonant lengths, a phenomena that is absent in Kikuyu language. Though vowels in Kikuyu are ordinarily long, excessively stressed vowels can differentiate certain phonemes.

Here is an example for Kikuyu.

The pair “mai” and “maĩ” demonstrate that the phones [i ] in mai and [ĩ ] in mai represent distinct phonemes / i / and /e /.

The following Minimal pairs show that each of seven vowels (a /a/, e /ɛ/, i /i/, ĩ /e/, o/ɔ/, u/u/ ũ /o/) constitute different phonemes

word 1
word 2
/ɾea /
/ɾia /
eat -weed (noun)
/ina /
/ɛna /
Sing - he has (she has)
/ kɛna /
/kena /
be happy - of some kind
/uɾa /
/oɾa /
bleed - escape
/ ɔna /
/una /
see - break
/una /
/ ɔna /
break - see
/aɾa /
/ɛɾa /
lay (lay a mat) - told
word 1
word 2
sweep/plant (verb)


b (mb) mbarĩki – castor oil, t (t) tene – long ago, k (k) kariũki – man’s name,

d (nd) ndathiĩ – I have gone, n (ng) ngari – car, dʒ (nj) njeri – woman’s name, β (b) baba – father, ʃ (c) cũcũ – grandmother, h (h) haha – here, ð (th) thani –plate, ɣ (g) guka – grandfather, m (m) maitũ – mother.

A table with tonal minimal pairs will be added here soon.

The following are more Minimal pairs of a some consonants (b c d g h J k m n r t w y) in the Kikuyu language.

Lips (Labial sounds
Teeth (dental sounds)
Teeth ridge (alveolar sounds
Soft palate (velar sounds)
Plosive - Voice
t (t)
k (k)
Plosive + Voice
b (mb)
d (nd)
g (ng)
dʒ (nj)
Fricative - Voice
β (b)
ʃ (c)
h (h)
Fricative + Voice
ð (th)
ɣ (g)
Nassal - Voice
Nassal + Voice
m (m)
n (n)
ɲ (ny)
ŋ (ng’)
ɾ (r)
y (y) w (w)

Kikuyu Tenses

Inflection or inflexion is the modification of a word to express different grammatical categories. Examples are tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case.

The Kikuyu language is heavily inflected. Below are examples of inflections to express a variety of tenses

1. I eat, 2. You (sing)…, 3. You (plr)… 4. We…, 5. They…

Note that the pronouns are fused prefixes in the conjugated verb.

Present Tense (I eat) 1.Nĩndĩaga 2. Nĩũrĩaga 3. Nĩmũrĩaga 4. Nĩtũrĩaga 5. Nĩmarĩaga

(I am eating) 1.Nĩndĩrarĩa 2. Nĩũrarĩa 3. Nĩmũrarĩa 4. Nĩtũrarĩa 5. Nĩmararĩa

Future tenses (I will eat)

Before the end of the day 1.Nĩngũrĩa 2. Nĩũkũrĩa 3. Nĩmũkũrĩa 4. Nĩtũkũrĩa 5. Nĩmukurĩa

Tomorrow and after 1.Nĩngarĩa 2. Nĩũkarĩa 3. Nĩmũkarĩa 4. Nĩtũkarĩa 5. Nĩmakarĩa

Past Tenses

A moment ago (I have eaten) 1.Nĩndarĩa 2. Nĩwarĩa 3. Nĩmwarĩa 4. Nĩtwarĩa 5. Nĩmarĩa

Sometime today (I ate) 1.Nĩndĩire 2. Nĩũrĩire 3. Nĩmũrĩire 4. Nĩtũrĩire 5. Nĩmarĩire

Yesterday (I ate) 1.Nĩndĩrarĩire 2. Nĩũrarĩire 3. Nĩmũrarĩire 4. Nĩtũrarĩire 5. Nĩmararĩire

A long time ago (I ate) 1.Nĩndarĩire 2. Nĩwarĩire 3. Nĩmwarĩire 4. Nĩtwarĩire 5. Nĩmarĩire

Thiathia – move a little bit,

Thiathiaga – keep moving a little bit

Definite article

In English there is only one definite article (the). Kikuyu does not have a definite article in that sense. The nearest translation for ‘The boy’ would be kĩhĩĩ kĩu (that boy).

One can also say:

This boy (uncircumcised) - kĩhĩĩ gĩkĩ, that boy – Kĩhĩĩ kiĩrĩa, Those boys – ihĩĩ iria

This girl – Mũirĩtu ũyũ, that girl - Mũirĩtu ũrĩa, those girls – airĩtu arĩa


Kikuyu nouns are neither masculine nor feminine. For example, the word for table is female in French. This cannot happen for any word in Kikuyu.


Kikuyu is also lacking in conjunctions. Except for ‘and’ which is ‘na’ complete phrases play the role of the following conjunctions:

"after," - thutha wa…

"although," - ona gũtuika…

"because," tondũ wa… (niamu…)

"till," – kinya riria

More conjuctions

And – They eat pork and they drink beer - nĩ marĩaga ngũrwe na makanyua njohi

Nor – They neither eat pork nor do they drink beer - Matirĩaga ngũrwe na matinyuaga njohi

But – They play but they do not dance - Nĩ mathakaga no matinaga

Or – You can take a pen or a book - No woye karamu kana ibuku

Yet – he ordered a meal yet he had no money - Aretirie irio na ndararĩ na mbeca

So – He was given money, so he went to the movies - Araheirwo mbeca kwa ũguo (kwoguo) arathiĩ thenema

Vowel fusion (Liaison)

When a word ending in a vowel is followed by a word starting with a vowel, the two words are fused with by a vowel sound that may be different from the one at the end of the first word and the one at the beginning of the second word. The two examples below show how a and ũ are replaced by o, while ‘a’ and ĩ are replaced by a long e.

Kwa ũguo - therefore

Thaa igĩrĩ – eight O’clock

Note that the word igĩrĩ is actually ‘two’ which is why most Bantus find ‘European’ time to be inverted.

Kwa ũguo’ becomes ‘kwoguo’ in normal speech. ‘thaa imwe’ becomes ‘theemwe.’ This is however not rendered orthographically.


Word stress is not distinctive in Kikuyu and therefore two words cannot be distinguished only by the way their syllables are stressed either initially or terminally.

Emphatic stress

Emphatic stress is used to express a contrast or to reinforce the emotive content of a word. In Kikuyu, the stress may fall on any syllable at the discretion of the speaker. It may also be achieved by lengthening a vowel.

Tarehe ibuku riu - could you bring that book

The stress is in the first three syllables, above. This is an order to someone who has shown resistance to handing over the book. The speaker is a little irritated.

Tarehe ibuku riu - could you bring that book

The stress is in the noun, book. In this case, the person requesting does not want to be given anything else, or be misunderstood.

Ehera – move away

The stress is on the last two syllables for ‘move.’ This is a sign of irritation.


Submit a Comment
  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hi Eugene Walucho. Thanks for the reminder. I will read, correct and update within this month of March 2020. Have a very prosperous 2020

  • Eugene Walucho profile image

    Eugene Walucho 

    8 months ago

    We are waiting for your update, long time sir

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    2 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hello Alinaess.

    Follow also our face book page -

  • Ben716 profile image

    Alianess Benny Njuguna 

    2 years ago

    Thank you. I have liked and followed the page. I have it hard to pronounce the words but I know through practice I will become fluent in it.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    2 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hi Alianess Benny Njuguna .

    Even though I was born in Murang'a, we moved to Nairobi when I was only 4 or 5. I grew up speaking Sheng but later came to detest and made an effort to learn Kikuyu. Fortunately I used to go to visit Grandparents during holidays and that probably also helped. I have a facebook page that might be of help.

  • Ben716 profile image

    Alianess Benny Njuguna 

    2 years ago

    Hi Emmanuel,

    Enjoyed reading this article. Well, am one of those people who were born in Nairobi whereby I cannot speak fluent Kikuyu without missing with Kiswahili And English words.

    Are there resources you can suggest or can you come up with resources to teach Kikuyu from beginner level?

    Thank you

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    The word IRIA offers one example of tones. Three tones high, mid and low to differentiate the words - milk; those; lake. Another word is 'we' to mean you. In another tone it can mean 'him/her'

    I believe there are three main tones and you could check what others have said about Bantu language tonal structure which should be similar to Kikuyu.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    i have to present on tone structure something which am not really familiar with

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    My training is not in linguistics, so take heart that you know more than I do. How can I help you Nyambura?

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    i have a presentation this month on my phology seminar i am so nerveous coz i am not good in kikuyu could u help me?

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    I am glad to hear that my hub is useful. I will update as often as I can.

  • profile image

    Wa muriuki 

    9 years ago

    My husband is kikuyu and I'm trying to learn kikuyu. Your hubs are very useful/helpful... Please keep updating.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Kikuyu like all Bantu languages is not difficult once you grasp the grammar. Missionaries used to speak it within a very brief period without qualified teachers. Read my hub on 'kikuyu language' for the basics.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    good kikuyu language ... very hard to learn ????????????????????????????????????????/

    isn,t it hard

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Yes am on face book. Search the name and match the photo though it is a different photo

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Are you on facebook?

  • profile image

    Nĩ Thithi 

    9 years ago

    ?? Kariuki,n?ndakugeithia.. .Ngwendaga kumenya kana w? facebook u nyongerere.Njitagwo Thithi.


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