Kenya is an East African country with some 48 million inhabitants. It’s the birthplace of the Swahili language and a very linguistically diverse country.
According to some sources, close to 70 different languages are spoken in Kenya. The country has two official languages, Swahili, spoken by the majority, and English which Kenya inherited from the British colonizers. While English is used in official matters, Swahili is much more commonly spoken by the people. The rest of the languages spoken are mainly tribal languages belonging to the Bantu, Cushitic and Nilotic language families, but Arabic as well as several South Asian languages are also spoken by immigrants.
The languages belonging to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo language family are the most dominant in Kenya. Around 65% of the Kenyan population speak a Bantu language. Swahili is a Bantu language, but in Kenya, it’s a second language to most, whereas the Kikuyu, Oluluhyia and Kamba languages are among the most common first languages of the Bantu group.
The second largest group of languages is the Nilotic group which consists of languages spoken by 31% of the Kenyan population. The Nilotic branch of languages belong to the Nilo-Saharan language family. The most spoken Nilotic languages in Kenya are Dholuo and Kalenjin.
The Cushitic group of languages belong to the Afroasiatic language family which also comports a wide range of other tongues, such as the Middle-Eastern Arabic and Hebrew, but in this context more importantly Somali and Rendille which are the two Cushitic languages spoken in Kenya.
Arabic, Hindustani, Punjabi and a variety of other languages including English (as a first language) are also found in Kenya and are mostly spoken by more or less recent immigrants.
In the following, I’m going to dive into the linguistic landscape of Kenya, have a look at some of the major languages and try to give you an overview of them.
- 1 The Official Languages Of Kenya
- 2 Sheng: An Urban Dialect
- 3 Minority And Tribal Languages In Kenya
- 4 Immigration Languages Spoken In Kenya
The Official Languages Of Kenya
The two official languages in Kenya are English and Swahili. They are both second languages to most Kenyans who speak them and function as a kind of Lingua Francas in the country.
The English language in Kenya came to the country when it became a British protectorate in 1885 (and later, in 1920, a colony). Since then, English has been the language of most official matters such as laws, administration, politics and big-scale business.
While the official English language used by the government, media and educational institutions is relatively standard, a certain variant of Kenyan English is commonly used in the country as well. Kenyan English is mutually intelligible from most English dialects, but it is distinguished by having certain figures of speech, specific vocabulary and another pronunciation.
There doesn’t appear to exist any recent statistics as to the number of English speakers in Kenya, but as English is taught in public schools, we can assume that most educated individuals speak English to a certain degree, which puts the percentage at around 30-50% of the population. These are second language speakers, however. People who speak English as a first language in Kenya are very few, and are limited mostly to English and American immigrants.
Swahili is the most widely spoken language in Kenya, and it’s a Lingua Franca spoken by people all over East Africa as a second language.
The Swahili language actually originated from Kenya‘s coastal regions, where it evolved from a language called Kingozi as far back as the 13th century. The language is strongly influenced by Arabic from which it has close to 30% of its words. Even the name “Swahili” comes from the Arabic “سَوَاحِل” or “Suwahil” which is the plural form of the Arabic word for “coast” referring to the coastal origins of the Swahili speakers.
Kenyans refer to their language as Kiswahili, the prefix “ki” signifying “language”. Likewise, in Swahili all language names begin with this prefix, like English “Kiingereza”.
Despite the Swahili language’s Kenyan origins, almost no one in Kenya speak Swahili as a mother tongue. The language is taught in Schools, where children learn to speak it in its Standard Zanzibar-accent. All over Kenya, however, Swahili is spoken in seven different dialects.
Sheng: An Urban Dialect
Sheng was originally a slang-dialect of Swahili which was spoken by the youth of Nairobi and other urban centers. Today, it is also spoken by the cosmopolitan and well-educated population of most bigger cities, and it has even spread to Tanzania and Uganda.
The name “Sheng” is derived from a combination of the two words “Swahili” and “English” which are also the two languages on which it’s primarily based.
Sheng builds on a Swahili structure but adapts English vocabulary in different ways to form a slang-filled accent quite different from both languages.
Minority And Tribal Languages In Kenya
As mentioned, almost 70 languages are spoken in Kenya, and depending on what you qualify as a “language” as opposed to a “dialect” the number could be even higher.
In the following I’m going to go through some of the regional languages spoken by ethnic minorities and different tribes and peoples in Kenya. These are the actual native languages of the Kenyan population. (Please note, however, that the list is incomplete and that many more languages are spoken in Kenya).
Kikuyu is a Bantu language spoken in Central Kenya between the cities Nairobi and Nyeri by approximately 7 million members of the Kikuyu tribe.
Quite interestingly, Kikuyu is a tonal language and has a rising and a falling tone. Tones, which are much more prevalent in Asian languages like Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, are different pitches applied to syllables, meaning that the same words could have different meanings depending on the pitch used to pronounce them.
As a bit of trivia, the Kikuyu language was used in the 1983 Star Wars movie “Return Of The Jedi” where a character called Nien Nunb speaks a few lines in the language. Below is a subtitled clip from the movie.
For a longer (and slightly more serious) example of the Kikuyu language, click here.
Kamba is another Bantu language spoken by around 4.6 million people in Kenya (and 5.000 in Tanzania). The language is relatively close to Kikuyu and the two languages share a great deal of vocabulary.
The Kamba language is spoken by the Kamba people who mostly reside in the South-Eastern Kenyan counties of Machakos, Kitui, and Makueni.
For an example of the Kamba language, watch the below video:
Around 2,8 million people speak the language in Kenya as well as a minority of 600 people in Tanzania.
For an example of Gusii, watch this video:
The Kimîîru language, or Meru as it’s also called is a Bantu language spoken by approximately 2 million Meru people in Kenya to the North East of Mount Kenya.
The Meru language has a lot of words in common with the Kikuyu language as it’s the case with the Kamba language.
While I haven’t been able to find a good sample of spoken Kimîîru, a group of Meru musicians have made a cover of the popular song “Despacito” that you can listen to here.
The Oluluhyia, or Luhya language is a Bantu language spoken by close to 15 million people in Western Kenya by different Luhya tribes.
The Luhya people speak quite a few different languages and all of them aren’t necessarily dialects of Oluluhyia. Those that are, despite being different, are mutually intelligible.
For a couple of short examples of sentences in the Luhya language, watch the video below.
Kipokomo, or Pokomo is the language of the Pokomo tribe which lives in the Eastern Kenya by the Tana river. It is spoken by a quite modest community of around 100.000 people.
Kipokomo, a Bantu language, is a descendant of the Kingozi language which is said to have been the language on which Swahili has its roots. This would indicate that Swahili and Kipokomo are closely related despite Kipokomo having much less foreign vocabulary.
It’s difficult to find good examples of spoken Pokomo online, but like it’s the case with many languages “The Jesus Movie” has been translated into Pokomo, and you can listen to it here.
Kigiryama is a Bantu language spoken by the Giriama people who live in South-Eastern Kenya by the coast in an area between the coastal cities of Mombasa and Malindi and approximately 30 kilometres inwards.
The Giriama people have close to a million members and most speak the Kigiryama language.
To listen to an example of Kigiryama, watch the below video.
Kiembu, or simply Embu, is a Bantu language spoken in the central Embu country in Kenya by approximately 3-400.000 members of the Embu people.
I haven’t been able to find a good example of spoken Kiembu, but here’s a link to the Jesus Movie in Embu.
Dhuluo, or simply Luo is a language belonging to the Nilotic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family of languages. It is, in other words, completely unrelated to Bantu languages like Swahili and the other languages mentioned above.
Dhuluo is spoken in Kenya and Tanzania, East of Lake Victoria by more than 4.2 million people. The Dhuluo language is equally mutually intelligible with several Nilotic languages spoken in Uganda.
It is unclear how many speakers of the language live in Kenya, but it appears that Kenya has a higher number of Luo people than Tanzania, which might signify that the country has more Dholuo speakers too.
For an example of Dholuo, watch the video below, or click on it to go to the “Luo English Dictionary” YouTube channel, where a father and daughter make weekly lessons for learning the Luo language. A great idea if you ask me!
The Kalenjin language is another Nilotic language spoken by approximately 1.6 million people in Kenya, but also in Uganda and Tanzania in different variants.
It’s a language spoken by different tribes and ethnic groups which joined together in the 1940’s and 50’s to form a common identity with the language as a common denominator.
Kalenjin is also known as Nandi and in Kenya it is spoken in the Western parts of the country.
Interestingly enough, Kalenjin is a tonal language and it relies on tones both for marking grammatical cases, vocabulary differences, and even in distinction between singular and plural nouns and adjectives.
For an example of the Kalenjin language, watch the video below where a few simple greetings are exemplified.
Maasai, or simply Maa, is a Nilotic language spoken in Central and Southern Kenya as well as Northern Tanzania by about 1.5 million people, a little over half of which are Kenyans.
Like other Nilotic languages, Maasai also uses tones. In Maasai, the tones have primarily grammatical functions.
To listen to an example of the Massai language, watch the video below:
The Turkana language is the Nilotic language spoken by the Turkana people in the North-Western Turkana county. It is related to languages spoken in both Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia and it is spoken by approximately one million people.
For a sample of the Turkana language watch the below video:
Rendille is an Afro-Asiatic language belonging to the Cushitic branch of languages. It is spoken in the Marsabit country in Northern Kenya by 60-100.000 people.
The Rendille language is closely related to Somali and the two languages share a certain degree of mutual intelligibility.
For an example of the Rendille language, watch the below video:
The Somali language is spoken in North Eastern Kenya by over 2.5 million people. It is the primary language of Somalia and Somaliland, a national language in Djibuti and is equally spoken in certain regions in Ethiopia and there exists a big diaspora of Somalis in Europe and the Americas. The total number of Somali speakers might be well over 36 million.
Somali, like Rendille is a Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family.
While Somali has been spoken in Northern Kenya for centuries, many Kenyan Somalis have arrived in Kenya in recent times, and most migrated to the country because of the Somali civil war in the 1990’s.
To listen to an example of Somali, watch the below video:
Immigration Languages Spoken In Kenya
Since the beginning of the British colonial rule over Kenya, the country has seen immigration from South Asia and more particularly, India.
Today, the Indian population of Kenya is recognized as an official minority and has the status of a Kenyan tribe. Around 90.000 people of Indian origin live in Kenya today, about half of which having Kenyan citizenship.
They speak a wide rage of languages including Tamil, Hindustani, Punjabi and others and their communities are most concentrated in the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa.
Kenya equally has a small Arab community, also mostly located in coastal cities such as Mombasa. The community consists of mainly Yemenis and Omanis and their numbers are close to 60.000.
As mentioned above, a large number of Somali migrants equally reside in Kenya, but other Somali speakers are native to Kenyan soil.