1994 - Emory University / Linguistic Anthropology


Ogiek / Okiek *

Emory University
Linguistic Anthropology

Okiek is a Southern Nilotic language, one of the related languages of the Kalenjin branch of that language group. Other Kalenjin languages are Kipsigis (the most similar to Kipchornwonek Okiek), Nandi, Tuken, Keiyo, Sebei, Pokot, and Marakwet. Kalenjin languages have been described by Tucker and Bryan (1966), Toweett (1979), and Creider (1981). I have discussed Okiek linguistic repertoires, lexical borrowing, and language use elsewhere (Kratz 1986, i.p.), as well as many aspects of Okiek verbal art (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994). I review here some of the most prominent aspects of Okiek language structure.

First, unmarked word order in Okiek is verb initial. Orders that front other constituents are used for clarification, emphasis, or other rhetorical purposes in various discourse conditions. The change is marked by the particle ko after the fronted word or phrase (cf. Creider 1976).

Nouns occur in two forms, primary and secondary. Tucker and Bryan (1964-65) used these terms, based on formal criteria rather than frequency of use; secondary forms are primary forms with suffixes. Secondary noun forms are by far the most common in conversational use; primary forms are used more frequently in song than in speech. The semantic distinctions between the two forms have yet to be precisely characterized.

According to Toweet 1979, referents of nouns in primary forms are in implicit comparison with other members of the set denoted by the noun, while referents of nouns in secondary form are in implicit comparison with members of sets denoted by other nouns. Thus tany' "cow" (primary form) refers to some cow (but not another), and teeta "cow" (secondary form) refers to a cow (and not to a goat or a human) (Creider 1982: 27-28).

Toweet calls the two noun forms inclusive and exclusive instead of primary and secondary.

Okiek use a number of affective particles that indicate a range of attitudes. The particles relate to the speaker's relation to the addressee, (e.g. -wei, a friendly marker, used between age-mates among others), attitude to what is said (e.g. ara, indicating doubt, uncertainty, tentativeness), and/or the ongoing interaction (e.g. -a, -ai, which have some senses shared with "then" or "now" in English examples like "take it, then"). These are difficult to translate, and a number of them appear in text translations here rendered simply as "then", "now", or "friend".

One of the most ubiquitous and difficult to translate is -toi, used in the Maa language as well as Okiek (Maa is an Eastern Nilotic language spoken by Maasai neighbors to Okiek, and also part of the linguistic repertoire of many Kaplelach and Kipchornwonek Okiek). -Toi has the sense of "friend" in some interchanges and is commonly used between age-mates. Yet in other contexts it indicates exasperation, something like "buddy" in an English example like "listen, buddy", though still retaining a friendly sense that is not entirely ironic. In the texts included here, -toi is common in accounts of pesenweek (social debts), where I usually translate it simply as friend.

I have maintained one feature of Okiek in the English translations, the use of -ii at the end of phrases. -ii is said with a jump of pitch, higher than the rest of the utterance, sometimes with rising pitch. This raised pitch is incorporated into the final syllable if it is a vowel. It occurs in several contexts. First, it is question intonation, added to the end of the sentence. Second, it is listing intonation, which can be used at the end of each item when going through a list; the pitch of listing intonation rises but does not jump as much as that of questions. Occurring by itself, ii? is a request for clarification, repetition, or for an indication that the listener has heard or agreed. With repeated use, ii can take on a tone of insistence or anger, as in arguments.

Tonal distinctions in Okiek carry both semantic meaning and grammatical information. Kalenjin morphotonemics are too complex to discuss here, but Toweet (1979) and Creider (1982) both offer detailed discussions. Okiek has a series of four unvoiced stop phonemes which become voiced after nasals, and after /l/, /p/, /t/, /c/, and /k/. Between vowels, /p/ and /k/ also become voiced. The stop /c/ sounds much like "ch". Nasal phonemes are also four, corresponding to the stops in place of articulation: /m/, /n/, /ny'/, and /ng'/. The other consonant phonemes in Okiek are /s/, /l/, /r/, /w/, /y/.

The distinction of vowel quality within a five-vowel system produces ten vowel phonemes in Okiek, each further differentiated by length. Vowel quality distinguishes between vowels pronounced with advanced tongue root and those with retracted tongue root. The latter are shown here with bolding. Aurally, these correspond to some extent to distinctions heard between tense and lax vowels, though the distinction is not one of height. The difference between /a/ and /o/ is the most difficult to hear. The following list of sound correspondances will guide pronunciation of Okiek words.

phoneme example
/i/ English "beat"; Kiswahili "nini"
/i/ English "bit"
/e/ English "bake"; Kiswahili "cheza"
/e/ English "bet"
/u/ English "boot"; Kiswahili "uma"
/u/ English "but"
/o/ English "boat"; Kiswahili "ona"
/o/ English "bought"
/a/ English "bought", but with a fuller, more open sound
/a/ English "father"; Kiswahili "ama"


References on Okiek and other Kalenjin Languages

Creider, Chet


1976 Functional Sentence Perspective in a Verb-Initial Language. Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Conference on African Linguistics.
1981 An Introduction to the Nandi Language. London, Ontario: Centre for Research and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages, University of Western Ontario.
1982 Studies in Kalenjin Nominal Tonology. Language and Dialect Atlas of Kenya, Supplement 3. Berlin: Sietrich Reimer Verlag.


Kratz, Corinne A.


1986 Ethnic Interaction, Economic Diversification and Language Use. Sprache und Geschicte in Afrika 7(2):189-226.
1988 The Unending Ceremony and a Warm House: Representations of a Patriarchal Ideal and the Silent Complementarity in Okiek Blessings. In Hunter-Gatherers -- Property, Power and Ideology. Edited by James Woodburn, Tim Ingold and David Riches.
1989 Genres of Power: A Comparative Analysis of Okiek Blessings, Curses and Oaths. Man (N.S.) 24:299-317.
1990 Persuasive Suggestions and Reassuring Promises: Emergent Parallelism and Dialogic Encouragement in Song. Journal of American Folklore 103:42-66.
1991 Amusement and Absolution: Transforming Narratives during Confession of Social Debt. American Anthropologist 93(4):826-851.
1994 Affecting Performance: Meaning, Movement, and Experience in Okiek Women's Initiation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
i. p. Forging Unions and Negotiating Ambivalence: Personhood and Complex Agency in Okiek Marriage Arrangement. In African Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry. Edited by Dismas Masolo and Ivan Karp. International African Institute Monograph. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Toweett, Taaitta


1979 A Study of Kalenjin Linguistics. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.


Tucker and Bryan


1964-65 Noun Classification in Kalenjin: Nandi-Kipsigis. African Language Studies 5: 192-247 and 6: 117-187.
1966 Linguistic Analyses: Non-Bantu Languages of North-Eastern Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

*  This sketch of Okiek is adapted from Kratz 1994.

Corinne A. Kratz
Department of Anthropology and Institute of African Studies
Emory University