The Kikuyu language online: Past tenses

Kikuyu women carry goods on their backs, which is not very good for the back.
Kikuyu women carry goods on their backs, which is not very good for the back. | Source

Updated 5th April 2012


The Kikuyu language

The Kikuyu language is one of the most archaic of the Bantu group. It is spoken by about 20% of the Kenya population, mainly in Central Province and the Rift Valley. The vowels have been described by some linguists to be similar to those in Italian. I find them very close to those in the English language, the main difference being in spelling. Take the following examples for instance:

The ‘a’ in take and bake would be ‘ĩ’in Kikuyu.The ‘o’ in old and bold would be ‘ũ’ in Kikuyu.The other vowels – a, e, i, o, u, remain the same in Eglish and Kikuyu.ĩ,’ and ‘ũ’give Kikuyu the extra vowels to make a total of 7, but as we have seen, English spelling is able to achieve adequate spelling with only 5 vowels. I would suggest that English adopts Kikuyu spelling since the pronunciation becomes predictable to learner, but that is a matter for debate.

For an introduction to the Kikuyu language, go to the hub ‘The Kikuyu Language: vocabulary and conversation practice.’ The basics of Kikuyu spelling, pronunciation and a basic vocabulary are given in a simple style. Scholars in linguistics will find the hub ‘Kikuyu Phonology’ useful. I do not claim to be an expert in linguistics but I have attempted to be conventional with my main advantage being a native speaker. I believe that my writing will be useful to the eager student willing to teach themselves. I have scouted for Kikuyu language books and found very poor attempts by unregisterd publishers. Experts in linguistics are welcome to offer ideas on how to preserve this ancient language. In this hub, I have attempted to give examples of the tenses as I know them, beginning with the first person. The reader is encouraged to try the exercises given below to test your understanding.


1. First Person

A few moments ago - Me

It is common to start all the sentences with ‘Niĩ’ to mean me, but it is an unnecessary repetition.

All verbs end in ‘a’

English does not have as many tenses as Kikuyu. I kikuyu sentence can inform you whether something happened a moment ago, or early in the day by only slight modifications of the verb. The most appropriate English translation is in brackets.

Ndokĩra dagĩka Ikũmi ciathira – I woke up ten minutes ago (I have just woken up, ten minutes ago).

Ndethamba na maĩ mahoro – I took a bath with cold water ( I have just taken a cold bath).

Ndehumba nguo naihenya – I put on my clothes quickly (I dressed very fast).

Ndaruga ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - I made some porridge with sorghum flour (I have just made sorghum porridge).

Ndacoka ndahinga mũrango ndoima – Then I shut (locked) the door and left.


Early this morning

Note the distinct difference between the verbs above and the ones below. All verbs in the opening sentence end in re. There is no doubt to a Kikuyu speaker that what is stated happened early in the day. You are unlikely therefore to use this tense before noon.The use of ‘njũ has to be learned.

Njũkĩrire rũcinĩI woke up this morning.

Ndĩthambire na maĩ mahoro – I took a bath with cold water.

Ndĩhumbire nguo naihenya – I put on my clothes quickly (I dressed very fast).

Ndugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - I made some porridge with sorghum flour

Njokire ndahinga mũrango ndoima – Then I shut (locked) the door and left.


Yesterday

Note the change in the verb. It is now infixed with ‘ro’ or ‘re’ and ends in ‘re’.’ Again, there is no doubt to a Kikuyu speaker that the events reported happened yesterday and not any other time in the ‘past.’ While the word [yesterday] has been given in English, its Kikuyu equivalent – ira- is not necessary in the Kikuyu sentence unless the speaker wants to stress.

Ndirokĩrire rũcinĩI woke up [yesterday] in the morning.

Ndĩrethambire na maĩ mahoro – I took a bath with cold water.

Ndĩrehumbire nguo naihenya – I put on my clothes quickly (I dressed very fast).

Ndĩrarugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - I made some porridge with sorghum flour

Ndĩracokire ndĩrahinga mũrango ndĩroima – Then I shut (locked) the door and left.


A long time a go (earlier than yesterday to infinity. It could even be fifty years ago).

The infixes are gone, and the verb is shorter. The prefix in the first verb takes the form ‘Ndo’ or ‘Nda’ or ‘Ndi.’ Proceeding verbs in the same sentence start with ‘ngĩ.

Ndokĩrire rũcinĩI woke up [some time before yesterday] in the morning.



Ndethambire na maĩ mahoro – I took a bath [some time before yesterday] with cold water.

Ndehumbire nguo naihenya – I put on my clothes [some time before yesterday] quickly (I dressed very fast[some time before yesterday]).

Ndarugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - I made some porridge [some time before yesterday] with sorghum flour

Ndacokire ngĩhinga mũrango ngiuma – Then I shut (locked) the door [some time before yesterday] and left.

Vocabularly – ũkira – wake up; Gwithamba – to take a bath; mai Mahoro – cold water; Mai mahiu – hot water; Naihenya – quickly; kahora – slowly; mũtu – flour; cook- come back; hinga – lock (close); mũrango – door; ndirisha – window; uma – come out.

Exercise 1.

Write the following words in the tenses above i.e. 1. A moment ago 2. Early today (this morning), 3 yesterday, and 4. Long ago (earlier than yesterday).

Example: ria (eat) 1. Ndaria 2. Ndĩire 3. Ndĩrarĩire 4. Ndarĩire

Tengera (ran), Ikara (stay), Koma (sleep), ona (see), igua (hear), ĩkĩra (put), ruga (cook), aka (make – construct), rĩma (dig), rũgama (stand), tonya (enter), tuma (sew), rora (look) Thikĩrĩria (listen).


2. Second Person

A few moments ago - you

Note that ‘Nd’ for first person is replaced by ‘w.’

It is common to start all the sentences with ‘We’ to mean you, but it is an unnecessary repetition.

Wokĩra dagĩka Ikũmi ciathira – You woke up ten minutes ago (You have just woken up, ten minutes ago).

Wethamba na maĩ mahoro – You took a bath with cold water (You have just taken a cold bath).

Wehumba nguo naihenya – You put on my clothes quickly (You dressed very fast).

Waruga ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - You made some porridge with sorghum flour (You have just made sorghum porridge).

Wacoka Wahinga mũrango Woima – Then you shut (locked) the door and left.


Early this morning

‘Nd’ of the first person is replaced by ‘w’ and ‘u.’

ũkĩrire rũcinĩYou woke up this morning.

Wĩthambire na maĩ mahoro – You took a bath with cold water.

Wĩhumbire nguo naihenya – You put on my clothes quickly (You dressed very fast).

ũrugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - You made some porridge with sorghum flour

ũcokire Wahinga mũrango Woima – Then You shut (locked) the door and left.



Yesterday

Note that in this second person past tense for yesterday, all the verbs start with ‘ũ’

ũrokĩrire rũcinĩYou woke up [yesterday] in the morning.

ũrethambire na maĩ mahoro – You took a bath with cold water.

ũrehumbire nguo naihenya – You put on my clothes quickly (You dressed very fast).

ũrarugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - You made some porridge with sorghum flour

ũracokire ũrahinga mũrango ũroima – Then You shut (locked) the door and left.


A long time a go (earlier than yesterday to infinity. It could even be fifty years ago).

Wokĩrire rũcinĩYou woke up [some time before yesterday] in the morning.

Wethambire na maĩ mahoro – You took a bath [some time before yesterday] with cold water.

Wehumbire nguo naihenya – You put on my clothes [some time before yesterday] quickly (You dressed very fast [some time before yesterday]).

Warugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - You made some porridge [some time before yesterday] with sorghum flour

Wacokire ũkĩhinga mũrango ũkiuma – Then You shut (locked) the door [some time before yesterday] and left.

Exercise 2.

Write the following words in the second person tenses above i.e.

Example: ria (eat) 1. Waria 2. ũrĩire 3. ũrarĩire 4. Warĩire

Tengera (ran), Ikara (stay), Koma (sleep), ona (see), igua (hear), ĩkĩra (put), ruga (cook), aka (make – construct), rĩma (dig), rũgama (stand), tonya (enter), tuma (sew), rora (look) Thikĩrĩria (listen).


3. Third Person

A few moments ago - Him/Her

Note that the prefix for person at the beginning of the verb is ‘A,’ ‘E’ or ‘o.’ You must learn by heart when to use either prefixes appropriately.

It is common to start all the sentences with ‘We’ (in this case stated with a rising tone to differentiate with the second person above) to mean him/her, but it is an unnecessary repetition.

okĩra dagĩka ikũmi ciathira – He/She woke up ten minutes ago (He/She have just woken up, ten minutes ago).

Ethamba na maĩ mahoro – He/She took a bath with cold water (He/She have just taken a cold bath).

Ehumba nguo naihenya – He/She put on my clothes quickly (He/She dressed very fast).

Aruga ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - He/She made some porridge with sorghum flour (He/She have just made sorghum porridge).

Acoka ahinga mũrango oima – Then He/She shut (locked) the door and left.



Early this morning

Note that the ‘third person’ prefixes are still ‘A,’ ‘E’ or ‘o.’

Okĩrire rũcinĩHe/She woke up this morning.

Ethambire na maĩ mahoro – He/She took a bath with cold water.

Ehumbire nguo naihenya – He/She put on my clothes quickly (He/She dressed very fast).

Arugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - He/She made some porridge with sorghum flour

Acokire ahinga mũrango oima – Then He/She shut (locked) the door and left.


Yesterday

In this tense all the prefixes are ‘A’

Arokĩrire rũcinĩHe/She woke up [yesterday] in the morning.

Arethambire na maĩ mahoro – He/She took a bath with cold water.

Arehumbire nguo naihenya – He/She put on my clothes quickly (He/She dressed very fast).

Ararugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - He/She made some porridge with sorghum flour

Aracokire arahinga mũrango aroima – Then He/She shut (locked) the door and left.


A long time a go (earlier than yesterday to infinity. It could even be fifty years ago).

Okĩrire rũcinĩHe/She woke up [some time before yesterday] in the morning.

Ethambire na maĩ mahoro – He/She took a bath [some time before yesterday] with cold water.

Ehumbire nguo naihenya – He/She put on my clothes [some time before yesterday] quickly (He/She dressed very fast [some time before yesterday]).

Arugire ũcũrũ wa mũtũ wa mũhĩa - He/She made some porridge [some time before yesterday] with sorghum flour

Acokire akĩhinga mũrango akiuma – Then He/She shut (locked) the door [some time before yesterday] and left.

Exercise 3.

Write the following words in the third person tenses above i.e.

Example: ria (eat) 1. Aria 2. Arĩire (Said in a monotone, neither falling, nor rising) 3. Ararĩire 4. Arĩire (Stress the ‘A’ and drop the tone in the last syllables)

Tengera (ran), Ikara (stay), Koma (sleep), ona (see), igua (hear), ĩkĩra (put), ruga (cook), aka (make – construct), rĩma (dig), rũgama (stand), tonya (enter), tuma (sew), rora (look) Thikĩrĩria (listen).

About tones

As you know by now, Kikuyu is a tonal language. It is therefore essential that you listen to a native speaker keenly to hear the tones. In my estimation, which is not from a scientific investigation, there are three ways of rendering tone.

1. In a monotone, with neither of the syllables in the word rising or falling in relation to the rest.

2. In a rising tone. The syllables after the first or two will rise in tone.

3. In a falling tone. The syllables after the first or two will fall in tone.

Below are examples from the words ‘iria, mwaki, kiara,

Note the convention I have adopted to differentiate between monotone (lowercase) , rising (capital) and falling (underlined),

iriA – Milk, iria – lake, iriathose

mwaki – fire, mwaKI – builder,

kĩaRA – finger, kĩara – Rubish dump


This lesson ends with a Kikuyu proverb

Guoya ũtũũragia ũkia mũcĩi- Fear keeps poverty in the home. So go out and seek your fortune.

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Comments 10 comments

Kamiti2810 profile image

Kamiti2810 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

Thanks. Clap Clap Clap


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Good work Kamiti2810

Sorry I was not able to respond earlier. Here we go.

Moment ago: ndatengera (Correct)

Early Today: tengerire (Wrong - Ndengerire)

I will now only indicate the wrong ones. In all cases the word "Ni" can be added to confirm the action ( more like "I did" in English)

Moment ago: ndikira (Wrong - Ndekira)

Long ago: ndikerire (Wrong - Ndekirire)

Early Today: nitonyire (Wrong - Ndonyire or Ni ndonyire)

Early Today: nitumire (Wrong - Ndukirire or Ni ndumire)

Early Today: thikiririe (Wrong - Thikiriire - the secon "I" is the Kikuyu sound A as in Ape - thikAYrAYirie)

Yesterday: ndirathikiririe (Wrong -ndirathikiriirie

Long ago: ndathikiririe (Wrong - ndirathikiriirie

75% pass mark,

You have qualified to move up (Clap, Clap,Clap)


Kamiti2810 profile image

Kamiti2810 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

tengera

Moment ago: ndatengera

Early Today: tengerire

Yesterday: ndiratengerire

Long ago: ndatengerire

ikara

Moment ago: ndaikara

Early Today: njikarire

Yesterday: ndiraikarire

Long ago: ndaikarire

koma

Moment ago: ndakoma

Early Today: ngomire

Yesterday: ndirakomire

Long ago: ndakomire

ona

Moment ago: ndona

Early Today: nyonire

Yesterday: ndironire

Long ago: ndonire

igua

Moment ago: ndaigua

Early Today: njigwire

Yesterday: ndiraiguire

Long ago: ndaiguire

ikira

Moment ago: ndikira

Early Today: njikirire

Yesterday: ndirekerire

Long ago: ndikerire

ruga

Moment ago: ndaruga

Early Today: ndugire

Yesterday: ndirarugire

Long ago: ndarugire

aka

Moment ago: ndaka

Early Today: njakire

Yesterday: ndirakire

Long ago: ndakire

rima

Moment ago: ndarima

Early Today: nimire

Yesterday: ndirarimire

Long ago: ndarimire

rugama

Moment ago: ndarugama

Early Today: ndugamire

Yesterday: ndirarugamire

Long ago: ndarugamire

tonya

Moment ago: ndatonya

Early Today: nitonyire

Yesterday: ndiratonyire

Long ago: ndatonyire

tuma

Moment ago: ndatuma

Early Today: nitumire

Yesterday: ndiratumire

Long ago: ndatumire

rora

Moment ago: ndarora

Early Today: ndorire

Yesterday: ndirarorire

Long ago: ndarorire

thikiriria

Moment ago: ndathikiriria

Early Today: thikiririe

Yesterday: ndirathikiririe

Long ago: ndathikiririe


Kamiti2810 profile image

Kamiti2810 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

Great. I will do that and post


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Go ahead and post on this page. Kikuyu accents (on the ū and ī) will not show on this comments capsule so underline the linstead. This interactivity will help others who are too shy to post.


Kamiti2810 profile image

Kamiti2810 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

Hi Emmanuel, i did the past tenses exercises that you have given and i definitely need you to mark them. Do i post on this page?


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks Kamiti. Stay with me at Hub pages


Kamiti2810 profile image

Kamiti2810 3 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

Great resource for those who would like to learn kikuyu or improve on their kikuyu.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks Paul for the first comment on the first day. Expect more on the Kikuyu language soon.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

This is a very interesting and useful hub for a linguist or anyone interested in the Kikuyu language. I look forward to reading related hubs on the Kikuyu language and see how this language compares with other African languages which I don't know about. I am sharing this with my followers.

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