Monday, January 12, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Kenya

Over the past months we've looked at several linguistically-diverse countries in Africa, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, and most recently the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This week we're moving back to the eastern side of the continent in order to learn more about the languages of Kenya.

The Official Languages

Kenya has two official languages: English and Swahili, a Bantu language. Both languages are considered important lingua francas in this linguistically diverse country which is home to over 60 languages. English is often used in education, government, and business in Kenya. Various dialects of English are used, though the most common is British English due to Kenya's relatively recent colonial history as part of the British Empire between 1920 and 1963. However, some citizens also use Kenyan English, which has acquired various elements from Swahili and other regional Bantu languages over the years.

Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya.
Other Languages

As we mentioned before, Kenya's linguistic landscape features over 60 different languages. Most of these languages belong to the Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan language families.

The vast majority of the Niger-Congo languages spoken in Kenya are Bantu languages. The most spoken non-official Bantu language in Kenya is Gîkûyû. Also known as Kikuyu, it is spoken by approximately 6.6 million Kenyans. Other popular Bantu languages include the Kamba language with 3.6 million native speakers, Ekegusii (or Gusii) with 2.2 million speakers, and Kimîîru (or Meru), which boasts around 1.6 million native speakers.

Several languages in the Nilo-Saharan language family are also used in Kenya. The most spoken of these languages is Dholuo, also known as Luo, which has approximately 4 million speakers. It is also spoken in Tanzania and is often heard on radio broadcasts and used on the internet, especially on social media. In addition, the Turkana language is spoken by nearly 1 million Kenyans, while Maasai has over 800,000 speakers. The Maasai language is spoken by the ethnic group of the same name, which is a semi-nomadic group that primarily lives near the African Great Lakes in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.