The Language of Kenya: The Nilotic, Bantu and Cushitic Language Groups

Untitled (2009) by Shake MakeleleNational Museums of Kenya

The 3 language families

The history of the diverse people of Kenya goes beyond the memories of the living. It begins when the communities concerned emerged as, and perceived themselves to be, distinct ethnic groups. Each of these groups belong to one of three different language families.

Turkana festivalNational Museums of Kenya

Beyond language and culture

Ethnic groups that belong to the same linguistic family share much in terms of culture, but increased interaction with neighbors from a different language family can also produce much mutual borrowing of various cultural aspects of their lives.

Turkana WomenNational Museums of Kenya

Cushitic, Nilotic and Bantu

Kenyan languages have been classified into three groups: Cushitic, Nilotic and Bantu. The Cushitic is part of the Afro-Asiatic family, the Nilotic is part of the Nilo-Saharan family, and the Bantu of the Nigerkordofan family.

Cushites were the first of the three groups to enter Kenyan territory, followed by the Nilotes, and then the Bantu-speaking people.

Celebrations (2010) by Sebastian KiarieNational Museums of Kenya

Human Pride by Frederick MbuguaNational Museums of Kenya

1: The origin of the Cushitic Afro-Asiatic languages

The term Afro-Asiatic was introduced by Joseph Greenberg in the 1950s to replace the connotation of a linguistic opposition between Semitic and the remaining languages of the phylum, as suggested by Semito-Hamitic and similar terms.

The Afro-Asiatic languages are genetically related and form a linguistic phylum that consists of five or six branches, each having the status of a linguistic family: Ancient Egyptian Berber, Semitic, Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic.

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The Cushitic languages – named after Cush, a grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:6-8) – are spoken in Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania.

In the 1970s, a group of languages spoken in southwestern Ethiopia, and previously classified as West Cushitic, was separated by some scholars to form a new Omotic branch (named after the Omo River). The Cushitic languages are also spoken in areas where Nilotic and Bantu-speaking people live. The speakers are divided into the Eastern and Southern Group.

Sanye (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

The Southern Cushites

The Southern Cushitic language was the first of all the present day Kenyan languages to be spoken in this country. Long ago people speaking a south Cushitic language departed from the Ethiopian Highlands and occupied large parts of Kenya, including the highlands.

The southern speakers Yaaku and Dahalo (also known as Sanye or Waata) were progressively displaced and absorbed by incoming Nilotic and Bantu groups until they wound up in Tanzania. As a consequence of these movements, Southern Cushites have become distinct in Kenya.

Orma (1996) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

The Eastern Cushites

The second group of immigrants, according to the linguistic evidence, were the Eastern Cushites. They speak Afro-Asiatic languages, and originally came from Ethiopia and Somalia in North-East Africa. Cushitic people traditionally live in the arid and semi-arid Eastern and North-Eastern parts of Kenya. They reside along a very large area of land that runs from the east of Lake Turkana, stretches to the north of Kenya, and through to the Indian Ocean. The Cushitic speakers include those from the Somali, Rendille, Borana, Gabbra and Orma communities.

Kitengela Glass by Josphat KiniaruNational Museums of Kenya

2: The origin and expansion of the Bantu languages

The Bantu languages are part of a subgroup of the Niger-Congo (Niger-Kordofanian) family, which represents two-thirds of Africa’s approximately nineteen hundred languages. Well-known examples of the Bantu languages are Swahili, spoken in eastern Africa, Lingala in Congo Kinshasa, and Zulu in southern Africa.

All of the Bantu languages are tonal, except Swahili. The Swahili (Kiswahili) language is one of the national languages of Kenya. The Bantu speakers are commonly divided into three groups: Western/Lacustine, Central/Eastern and Coastal Bantu.

Pokomo Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Coastal Bantu

The coastal Bantu include the Mijikenda (Agiriama, Digo, Chonyi/Kauma, Duruma, Jibaba, Kambe, Rabai, Ribe), Taveta, Bajun, Malakote, Pokomo, Taita, and Swahili communities. They live mainly in the coastal regions of the country. They occupy Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu, Tana River and Taita Taveta counties. The Bantu languages spoken by these Bantu speakers are Kidigo, Swahili, Duruma, Kitaveta, Kidawida and Kisaghala among others, each with different dialects.

Tharaka Girl by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Central Bantus

The central Bantu speaking communities include the Kamba, Kikuyu, Rmbu, Tharaka, Mbeere and Meru. They are traditionally found in Central and Eastern regions of Kenya, occupying Kitui, Makueni, Machakos, Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Kiambu, Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties. The languages they speak include Kikamba, Gikuyu, Kiembu, Chuka, Kimbeere Kimwimbi and Meru among others. Meru and Tharaka belong to the Meru-Tharaka sub-branch, together with Igoji and Nithi, with dialects such as Igembe, Tigania, Imenti, Miutini Mwimbi and Muthambi. Chuka falls under the Chuka-Gikuyu sub-branch. These communities have a close relationship in how they conduct their cultural practices, such as circumcision.

Kuria Man by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The Western Bantus

These include the Luyia, Suba, Kuria and Kisii. They are traditionally found in Western region in Kenya, and their languages include Suba, Kuria, Ekugusii and the Luyia among others. The Ekugusii language is closely related to the Luyia and Kuria languages. Some words have been borrowed from Dholuo, a Nilotic language, and some of these communities have more dialects spoken. The western Bantus are traditionally known for large scale farming of food crops, especially maize and bananas.

Turkana womanNational Museums of Kenya

3: The origin and expansion of the Nilo-Saharan languages

The Nilotic language family is a member of the larger Nilo-Saharan phylum found in Africa. A Nilotic language is a group of East African languages which, according to the classification of the American scholar J. Greenberg, belong to the Chari-Nile branch of the Nilo-Saharan family of languages.

The Nilotic languages are divided into two groups: the northwestern and southeastern Nilotic languages In Africa. All Nilotic languages are tonal and have complex vowel systems with long and short vowels. The Nilotic-speaking people in Kenya include the River and Lake Nilotes, the Plain Nilotes and the Highland Nilotes.

Luo Woman by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Riverlake Nilote

Kenya has only one River Lake Nilotic people, the Luo. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in Kenya, and speak Dholuo. They are traditionally found along the Lake Victoria region and counties, namely: Kisumu, Migori, Siaya and Homa Bay. The Luo are traditionally known for their love of fish, and their fishing practices in Lake Victoria.

Turkana (1995) by Leonard KateeteNational Museums of Kenya

The Highland Nilotes

These communities are called Highland Nilotes because they inhabit the highland regions of the Rift Valley region. They include the Iteso, Njemps (il chamus), Ogiek and Kalenjin communities. The Kalenjin languages include: Nandi, Terik, Kipsigis, Keiyo, Elgeyo and Tugen. The Il Chamus (Njemps) speak the Maa language, the Teso speak Ateso, while the Ogiek speak Okiek. They traditionally practiced pastoralism and farming in their regions of settlement.

Eunoto CeremonyNational Museums of Kenya

The Plain Nilotes

The Plain Nilotes include the Maasai, Teso, Samburu and Turkana. They have traditionally practiced nomadic pastoralism. They occupy the vast sweep of western Kenya’s Rift Valley, which skirts the border of Uganda from Sudan in the north, to Tanzania in the south. They are traditionally found in Turkana, Laikipia, Samburu, Kajiado and Narok counties. The Maasai and the Samburu speak Maa language, while the Turkana speak Turkana/Turkwana.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curator: Philemon Nyamanga, Cultural Heritage Department.

Bibliography and research
1. Middleton, J. Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. 1997
2. UNESCO. Proceedings of the meeting of experts on the transcription and harmonization of African languages Niamey (Niger), 17-21 July 1978

Photography and Creative Direction: Gibson Maina Gibs Photography

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau and Quinter Anduto.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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