Ogiek / Okiek *
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
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
|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.
texts included here, -toi is common in accounts of
pesenweek (social debts), where I usually translate it simply as
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/,
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.
"beat"; Kiswahili "nini"
"bake"; Kiswahili "cheza"
"boot"; Kiswahili "uma"
"boat"; Kiswahili "ona"
"bought", but with a fuller, more open sound
"father"; Kiswahili "ama"
References on Okiek and other
Perspective in a Verb-Initial Language. Proceedings of the
Seventh Annual Conference on African Linguistics.
to the Nandi Language. London, Ontario: Centre for Research
and Teaching of Canadian Native Languages, University of Western
Kalenjin Nominal Tonology. Language and Dialect Atlas of
Kenya, Supplement 3. Berlin: Sietrich Reimer Verlag.
Kratz, Corinne A.
Economic Diversification and Language Use. Sprache und
Geschicte in Afrika 7(2):189-226.
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.
||Genres of Power: A
Comparative Analysis of Okiek Blessings, Curses and Oaths.
Man (N.S.) 24:299-317.
Suggestions and Reassuring Promises: Emergent Parallelism and
Dialogic Encouragement in Song. Journal of American Folklore
Absolution: Transforming Narratives during Confession of Social
Debt. American Anthropologist 93(4):826-851.
Performance: Meaning, Movement, and Experience in Okiek Women's
Initiation. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
||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
||A Study of
Kalenjin Linguistics. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.
Tucker and Bryan
in Kalenjin: Nandi-Kipsigis. African Language Studies 5:
192-247 and 6: 117-187.
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