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the Kikuyu and Luo languages of Kenya: some similarities between them

Updated on July 10, 2013
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Kariuki is a Museum Exhibits Designer and author of several children's and young adults story books. He is also a gifted artist.

Luos are known to like fish while Kikuyus are said to love potatoes
Luos are known to like fish while Kikuyus are said to love potatoes

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.


Submit a Comment
  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    22 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hello Deadb4hague.

    In Kikuyu Jika is an ear infection.

    The Zulus must have separated from the East African Banutus a while back, but many words are still cognitive.

    It would be interesting to find out what your people's story of origin is and compare it with the Kikuyu.

  • profile image


    2 years ago

    Interesting stuff I read up there. I am a Southern Bantu of the Zulu tribes we call (nyoko ) means your mother (nina) His/her mother similar to things you said above there. to turn back is (Jika) same as Joka you mentioned joka jok. A story is (ingano) or inganekwane again related to what is written here.

  • profile image

    Edwin Muchiri 

    2 years ago

    A great piece and makes me go out there and research something too. I landed here through a project am doing.

  • barii profile image

    Wa Barii 

    6 years ago from Kenya

    Hi Emmanuel,

    I have some very useful information about the agikuyu genetics and the ultimate bantu/nilotic/cushitic link to the ancient Egypt.I would like to contact you on this.


  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks for that Addition Alex and a fresh debate. My friend Adoyo says we spell it without the 'N' - The word I knew for door is 'Dho-ot' which I now learn is 'entrance', literaly 'mouth of the house!'

    According to Adoyo 'Wall' is 'Kor-ot' - literaly the trunk (like human ribb cage) of the house. You have sparked a debate on doors and entrances.

  • profile image

    Alex Waweru 

    6 years ago

    Yup, In Luo the word for door is nthigo, while the word Thingo or ruthingo is wall in Kikuyu.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    6 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Hello kanzz. I don't doubt that they met at some point. They must have - the coincidences are too striking. I will check the URL for more insight. Thanks for commenting.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    whaatt !! those similarities are crazy.

    I have the solution though....A greater function of the Luos came from Sudan (given). In fact history says they originated there.

    The Kikuyus on the other hand came from Ethiopia (originally b4 moving to Congo). The 2 communities must have met as the Kikuyus traversed Southern Sudan looking for suitable farming land (getting them to Congo eventually).

    I know, Kikuyus and Ethiopia ??? Rubbish u say ? hold on.... read this:

    hey or read Facing Mount Kenya

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    7 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya


    Thanks is the shortest comment yet. Thanks for visiting and keep coming back.

  • profile image


    7 years ago


  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    8 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks for that one John.

    Now is the word for intestinal worms 'Jokni'?

    In Kikuyu it is Njoka.

    There was an era in Luo migration called Jokajok, which I have interpreted as the giving the impression of 'coming back.' The Kikuyu agesets on the other hand had 'Choka' - return.

    Keep the updates coming.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    Great analysis. Here is another one that is even stranger. If you tell someone in a matatu to squeeze so that he can give you space you would say thia thia in Kikuyu, and in Dholuo you would say dhia dhia.

    The correct approach to understanding Africa's languages is to proceed from the assumption that they all had a common origin, and then proceed from there.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Ero Kamano Ouma. Life is a learning process and I appreciate the correction. I had also noted some time back that the word for intestinal worms was similar in both languages. Kindly remind me the term in Dholuo.

  • profile image

    Ouma Olare 

    9 years ago

    Interesting stuff. This shows clearly that we had at one time a single origin. I would however like to point out some mistakes in the analysis. "Thi" does not mean go in Luo language the way it is written. The correct witting would be "Dhi". "Thi" is actually used to emphasize the degree of quietness i.e "ling thi" literally meaning "quiet completely". The Luo have "Thi" and "Dhi" which apparently don't exist in the Kikuyu Language. So the correct way to put "where are you going?" in Luo is "Idhi kure?" not "Ithi kure?"

    Note the following Thingo' and Dhingo' are two Luo words with completely different meanings and may be difficult for a Kikuyu to pronounce correctly. The Luo language like Swahili has "Dh" as in Dhahabu and "Th" as in "Thelathini".

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile imageAUTHOR

    Emmanuel Kariuki 

    9 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    I am in the process of compiling some and will post them soon. Stay connected.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Interesting. I have also been noticing some similarity between my kikuyu language and kalenjin. Do you have any information?


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