pronouncing vowels in kikuyu

I’m reading Wizard of the Crow, the longest book ever written in an African language. It was written in Kikuyu, one of Kenya’s main languages, and then translated into English. The author is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. As you can see by his name, Kikuyu has some extra vowels. This afternoon I sat down with a Kikuyu colleague to figure out how to pronounce vowels in Kikuyu:

a as in car*
e as in egg
i as in me
o as in toe
u as in blue
ĩ as in day
ũ as in toe

You’ll note that I’ve given the same pronunciation for o and for ũ. She repeated the difference for me several times and I could finally hear it but the best I can characterize it is that the ũ sounds higher in tone whereas the o sounds lower. Very scientific, I know.

So Ngũgĩ is actually Go-gay: the n is at best very faint. One on-line writer suggests “place your tongue against the back of your front teeth and start to say ‘no.’ But instead of adding the ‘o,’ replace it instead with” go-gay.  But when my friend said it, I essentially couldn’t hear it.

*I’m (obviously) not a linguist; this is my best effort based on chatting with my friend.

1 thought on “pronouncing vowels in kikuyu”

  1. Hmmm…. wizard of the crow. I still cannot find anyone in Kenya who has read it. Personally, I couldn’t get beyond page 10.

    On another note, I have just read yet one of those emails- from a Kenyan writers’ collective I am part of- that just show how the young generation do not get him to a point of aversion.

    Personally, and I am kikuyu, I can not countenance his obvious Kikuyu chauvinism. But certainly the disconnect between the old guard kikuyu writers and the new is telling and yet on a subtle level, we are being told to keep our dirty linen out of the public clothesline.

    But I am ranting… see this essay:

    and a couple of others on the same site


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