Kikuyu: colour spectrum and ‘kikuyunised’ words

Learning a new language is always a mind-boggling process. Learning a language whose origins are very far apart from one’s mother tongue could be assimilated to thought-splitting. One has to totally come out of the usual frame of mind to re-discover the world through ‘the eyes of the language’, if I may.

A Kikuyu lesson threw me off balance and on to a fruitful search: I was told that the language has only three colours, black, white and red! How could people possibly describe every possible nuance using only these three colours, I wondered? And how does one perceive the world then?

  • The three basic colours: black, red and white

The three basic colour adjectives  –irũ (black), –erũ (white) and –tune (red) agree with the noun they qualify by means of a prefix depending on the noun class concerned. We would thus say mũndũ mwerũ (a white/light-skinned person), ikombe njirũ (black cups) and rĩitho rĩtune (red eye, figurative meaning: envious) and so on.

In certain contexts, -erũ can also mean new.

  • Comparison to objects

In fact, what has been translated as black above rather means a dark colour while white refers to a lighter colour. Nuances in colours can thus be expressed through comparisons. For example, to identify something as green – as we understand it in English -, you might say that it is ‘dark like the leaves’. Poetic, isn’t it?

Dark like the grass

To indicate any other colour, direct comparisons also come in handy. This is the case of kimuhu which means ‘grey like the ash’. Other such words seem to have been common in Kikuyu in the past but have since become obsolete.

  • Borrowed words

In fact, many of the colour words used in modern speech are borrowed from English. Although these are not originally Kikuyu, they have become more or less part of the language.

In lesson 13 A of an online Kikuyu forum, we are told that:

In the Kikuyu language, there is not as big a spectrum of colours like in English. However, any of the English names can be Kikuyunised to produce a name.

This would apply to such words as ‘ngirini’ for green or ‘mburuu’ for blue for example. That is to say that the English word is ‘adopted’ and its pronunciation and spelling adjusted to the Kikuyu language.

[Note the interesting neologism ‘to kikuyunise’= to make Kikuyu. I love it! If I learn Kikuyu, am I being kikuyunised?]


What are the words for colours in your language? Do you know any idioms involving colours such as rĩitho rĩtune ?

I have come across a great project gathering idioms related to colours in various world languages and so far the only African language represented is Kiswahili…that’s a shame! Click here to let the world know about your colourful language!


Further Reading:

Alan Kennedy’s color/language project : a great insight into ways of expressing colours across languages.

The Kikuyu Language, a Hub article by Emmanuel Kariuki.

6 thoughts on “Kikuyu: colour spectrum and ‘kikuyunised’ words

  1. I don’t actually have an example of the usage of ‘ritho ritune’, but this does raise my interest in colours in indigenous African languages. Keep it up!:)

  2. great article but African languages do have indigenous names for colors and in particular the Kikuyu language.
    here is a list of just but a few
    gakaraku- purple
    ngoikoni- yellow
    gitiiri- brown
    mbiruiru- blue
    runyeni- green

    several other names do exist but the text would not make sense without the Kikuyu notation

  3. That teaching is misguided . Blue is mbiruiru Pink is Gakaraku,Green in kikuyu is Ngoikoni, Grey is Kimuhu, Red is Mutune,Black is Muiru, White is Mweru. “Mugi ni mutare” He who is wise must have been advised.

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