the Kikuyu and Luo languages of Kenya: some similarities between them
updated 30th June 2012
Classification of Kikuyu and Luo
The Kikuyu are classified as Bantu while the Luo are Nilotes. There are major differences between them, but this post will dwell on similarities. Who are the Nilotes?
Nilotic languages belong to the Nilo-Saharan languages. The Nilotes are the largest sub family in this group and are found in the modern African country called Sudan. The term Nilote is derived from the River Nile a major African North-flowing river with two major tributaries, the White Nile and Blue Nile. The source of the White Nile is Lake Victoria which is shared by Kenya Uganda and Tanzania. The Nile is the longest river in the world and has been a source of water for Ancient and Modern Egypt fishing and farming activities for millennia.
The Luo form a section of Jii- speaking groups who by 1000 AD still occupied Southern Sudan. The generation that moved into South Nyanza is referred to as the Joka-jok.
Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian Luos have their origins in the Sudan from a place they call Dhowath.
They arrived along the shores of Lake Victoria with their cousins the Padhola, the Paluo, the Alur and the Lang’o who remained in what is the modern state of Uganda. It is thought that the word Luwo is derived from Lupo (fishing - Fishermen are called 'Jolupo), or Luw meaning 'to speak; to come after or even to follow'. 'Lew' means tongue, the root of the word Luw (Luo).
In Kenya, Nilotes are largely pastoralists and fishing communities with the Luo being more famous for fishing though they have also taken to mixed farming activities like other Kenyans.
The Luo of Kenya speak Dholuo, a language with a CVC (Consonant/Vowel) pattern (eg. nyal - can). Some words follow a Bantu VCVCV and CVCV pattern ( eg. Otoyo - hyena; Kure - where). There are many monosyllabic words which is a rarity in Kikuyu. Thi (go), bi (come), are two examples. As will be explained in another section, Kikuyu appears to have had similar monosyllabic words in ancient times which have since been compounded.
Now for some linguistic similarities between the Kikuyu and the Luo
The word for boy in Luo is Wuoyi. In Kikuyu, if a man is called, he is supposed to respond - Wũũĩ. Women are supposed to respond - yũũ. The Kikuyu male response to a call and the Luo word for boy must have the same roots, perhaps in a place where everybody, male and female dressed the same and the distinction was only made by the response to a call.
The Kikuyu word for 'your mother' is nyũkwa. This conjugation is baffling because the word for 'his mother' is nyina, which appears to be totally unrelated to the first word. My mother is maitũ. Now the Luo word for girl is Nyako. We know that a nyako (girl) will one day be somebody's mother and therefore one day someone will point to her while telling her son “nyũkwa.” Clearly the word Nyako and Nyokwa have a common origin, even if it was to be assumed that one community borrowed from the other. Where could this have been?
The word for 'go' in Kikuyu is Thiĩ (pronounced - thi-e). The Luo say Dhi. It is clear that the root for 'go' in both languages is 'thi'
Another fascinating word is 'health.' The Kikuyu say - ũgima. The Luo say - Mangima. The luo greeting - Ingima- can be literally translated as - are you whole (healthy)? If you ask the same thing in Kiukuyu, you will ask - wĩ mũgima? We can conclude that the root word for health in both languages is 'gi.' In ancient Egypt, the sign for 'health' was the 'ankh' symbol that was later adopted as a sign of the cross in some Christian denominations. Could it have been the origin of the 'gi' syllable in the compound words 'Mangima' and 'Ugima?'
If you think I am making up stories, take the word for story in Luo - Sigana. In Kikuyu it is - rũgano. Any linguist will tell you that the 'rũ' in Rugano is a prefix. We can also assume that the 'si' in Sigana is a prefix to stand for 'the' or 'a.' Here is another concept that shares the same root in both languages.
Now let's try one that is completely out of the box. The words for hailstones in Kikuyu is 'mbura ya bebe' - literally maize rain. But we know that maize was introduced by the Portuguese to Africa from the America's in the 14th/15th centuries. However, hailstones must have been known by the Kikuyu for millennia. We can therefore conclude that when the Kikuyu saw maize for the first time, they thought the seeds looked like 'bebe' - Hailstones. The proof of this statement can be found in Luo who call water 'Pi'. The word is pronounced as 'Pe' and pek in some other Nilotic languages. The Kikuyu merely doubled the syllable to PIPI (PEPE- BEBE). The transformation from a 'P' to a 'B' can be explained by accents much in the same way that some communities are unable to say barabara and instead parapara. Perhaps the syllable was doubled in a bid to show that the water has solidified and become quite something else. Of course the Kikuyu call water 'Mai,' but the above argument shows that 'pi' or 'pe' was known as an alternative or archaic word for water. Perhaps it was the original word before a 'borrowing' took place – from Arabic or other semitic language. Water is Mai in Arabic.
The prefix 'nya' when added to a name turns it into 'female.' This applies to both Kikuyu and Luo. The word for female in Luo is Nyako as stated above. This is probably the origin of the prefix in Nilotic and Bantu. The Kikuyu name Nyambura is however translated to a 'baby cat' in Luo which Luos find very amusing.
The luo say Cham to mean eat. The Kikuyu say Cama (pronounced shama)to say taste. When you eat you obviously also taste so the words do share a semantic field – food in the mouth.
Take a look at the word for Testament in Luo – Muma. The New Testament has been translated as Muma manyien. InKikuyu, an oath is called Muma. A testament is an agreement, which is binding. Well, so is an oath.
The similarities are numerous. I will be adding more as time goes on. But I need to close with an interesting one. The Kikuyu and Luo are imagined to be worlds apart or strange bedfellows. Talking of strange bedfellows, the Luo call a bed 'uriri.' The Kikuyu call a bed ũriri. In the ancient Kiamu (Swahili) dialect, a bed was called 'uriri.' Here then is an ancient word that has not changed its form in either the Kikuyu, or the Luo language.
Who came up with wira for work? Who borrowed from the other? The word means the same in both languages even though the Luo have tich to mean work. Perhaps, like ũriri for bed, it is a very archaic word that has survived since the time when proto-nilotes and proto-bantus shared an ancestor.
Now look at these sentences very closely:
LUO - Idhi kure?
KIKUYU - Wathii ku? where are you going?
LUO - Ne ose dhi
KIKUYU - Ni athire - He/she has gone.
You are probably asking, who between the two communities is more Nilote than the other.
Let me hear from you if you have more examples from the LUO and KIKUYU languages of Kenya.
More by this Author
The Kikuyu claim that their father was called Gikuyu and his wife was called Mumbi. The entire Kikuyu community refers to itself as the 'House of Mumbi.'
Akhenaten the monotheistic Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty had some influence in Kikuyu culture, language and religion. The evidence is not very obvious but once you see it, it stands out like a white elephant.
Here, you will get a brief background of the Kikuyu people before progressing to the language, its structure, and vocabulary. There are simple dialogues to aid you in conversation practice.