Maasai language

"Maa language" redirects here. For the Southeast Asian language, see Maa language (Vietnam).
ɔl Maa
Native to Kenya, Tanzania
Region Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania
Ethnicity Maasai people
Native speakers
1.3 million (2006–2009)[1]
  • Purko
  • Kwavi (Baraguyu)
  • Kaputiei
  • Keekonyokie
  • Matapato
  • Laitokitok
  • Iloodokilani
  • Damat
  • Loitai
  • Siria
  • Moitanik (Wuasinkishu)
  • Kore
  • Arusha
  • Kisonko
Language codes
ISO 639-2 mas
ISO 639-3 mas
Glottolog masa1300[2]
Masai woman

Maasai (Masai) or Maa (English pronunciation: /ˈmɑːs/;[3] autonym: ɔl Maa) is an Eastern Nilotic language spoken in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania by the Maasai people, numbering about 800,000. It is closely related to the other Maa varieties: Samburu (or Sampur), the language of the Samburu people of central Kenya, Chamus, spoken south and southeast of Lake Baringo (sometimes regarded as a dialect of Samburu); and Parakuyu of Tanzania. The Maasai, Samburu, il-Chamus and Parakuyu peoples are historically related and all refer to their language as ɔl Maa. Properly speaking, "Maa" refers to the language and the culture and "Maasai" refers to the people "who speak Maa."

The Maasai people, from the Eastern region of the African continent, have been protected from the widespread Westernization of agriculture and colonization because they inhabit a primarily desert area. Because the Maasai have resisted forms of colonization and Western expansion, their systems of communication and exchange revolve primarily around the trade they do within the tribe. Therefore, the spoken language is not only the most significant point of contact that the Maasai use but also one of the only ways that Maasai can continue to thrive in their traditional tribal way of life.[4]

The loss of the Maasai language, while not rapid, is happening as a result of close contact with other tribal groups in East Africa and the rise of Swahili and English as the dominant languages. In Tanzania, former President Nyerere encouraged the adaptation of Swahili as an official language to unite the many different ethnic groups in Tanzania, as well as English to compete on a global scale.[5] Although the Maasai language, often referred to as Maa, has survived despite the mass influx of English and Swahili education systems, economic plans, and more, the socioeconomic climate that the Maasai people face in East Africa keeps them, and their language, as an underrepresented minority.[6]

The Maasai way of life is embedded in their language. Specifically, the economic systems of trade that the Maasai rely on in order to maintain their nomadic way of life, relies on the survival of the Maasai language, even in its minority status. With language endangerment, the Maasai tribe would continue to be threatened and its cultural integrity threatened.[4] The minority status that the language currently faces has already threatened traditional Maasai practices. Less and less groups of Maasai continue to be nomadic in the region, choosing to settle instead in close knit communities to keep their language and other aspects of their culture alive.[5]


The Maasai variety of ɔl Maa as spoken in southern Kenya and Tanzania has 30 contrasting sounds, which can be represented and alphabetized as followsː a, b, ch (a variant of sh), d, e, ɛ, g, h, i, ɨ, j, k, l, m, n, ny, ŋ, o, ɔ, p, r, rr, s, sh (with variant ch), t, u, ʉ, w, wu (or ww), y, yi (or yy), and the glottal stop ' (or ʔ).

Tone is extremely important for conveying correct meaning in the Maasai language.


In the table of consonant phonemes below, phonemes are represented with IPA symbols. When IPA conventions differ from symbols normally used in practical writing, the latter are given in angle brackets.

For some Maasai speakers, the voiced stop consonants are not particularly implosive (e.g. IlKeekonyokie Maa), but for others they are lightly implosive or have a glottalic feature (e.g. Parakuyo Maa). In Arusha Maa, /p/ is typically realized as a voiceless fricative [ɸ], but in some words it can be a voiced trill [ʙ]. At least in native Maa words, [] and [ʃ] occur in complementary distribution, with the former occurring directly after consonants and the latter elsewhere.

Labial Alveolar Alveopalatal
/ palatal
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ny ŋ ŋ ~ ng
Stop voiceless p t k ʔ ' ~ ʔ
implosive / glottalized ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ g
Fricative s ʃ h
Tap ɾ r
Trill ɲ rr
Lateral approximant l
Glide lenis w j y
fortis ww wu jj yi


Like the other Maa languages, Maasai has advanced tongue root vowel harmony. There are nine contrasting vowels, with the vowel /a/ being "neutral" for harmony.


Word order is usually verb–subject–object, though order can vary because tone is the most important indicator of subject versus object. What really determines order in a clause is topicality; order in the most simple clauses can be predicted according to the information structure pattern: [Verb – Most.Topical – Less.Topical]. Thus, if the object is highly topical in the discourse (e.g. a first-person pronoun), and the subject is less topical, then the object will occur right after the verb and before the subject.

The Maasai language has only two fully grammatical prepositions, but can use "relational nouns" along with a most general preposition to designate specific locative ideas. Noun phrases begin with a demonstrative prefix or a gender-number prefix, followed by a quantifying noun or other head noun. Other modifiers follow the head noun, including possessive phrases.

In Maasai, many morphemes are actually tone patterns. For example:

ɛ́yɛ́tá ɛmʊtí
Gloss: remove.meat pot.ACC
Translation: "She removed meat from the pot."
ɛyɛ́ta ɛmʊ́ti
Gloss: remove.meat.MID pot.NOM
Translation: "The pot is de-meated."[7]

The Maasai language carries three forms of gendered nouns; feminine, masculine, and place. Native speakers of the language attach a gendered prefix to a noun. The meaning of the noun in context then refers to its gender. Nouns place gender as follows:

"Who has come?" would be asked if the gender of the visitor were known. The noun would be preceded by a gendered prefix. If the gender of the visitor were unknown, "it is who that has come?" would be the correct [English translation] question. [8]

Adjectives in Maa serve only to describe the noun, and change tenses depending on the noun that they are describing.

Pronouns in Maa usually assign gender (male, female, or place); if gender is unknown, the meaning of the noun in context will usually refer to a gender. For example, the context of a female might include working in the house while a male gender would be implied if the action referred to work outside the home. The Maasai language uses place as a personal pronoun because place can help identify male or female (i.e. an action occurring in the house will almost always be done by a female).[8]

Consonants in Maasai are pronounced with a “gulp” sound. Tone helps to indicate the verb-subject-order agreement

Present tense in Maasai includes habitual actions, such as “I wake up” or “I cook breakfast”. Past tense refers only to past action, not a specific time or place. [6]

See also


  1. Maasai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Masai". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. 1 2 Nicholson, N (2005). Meeting the Maasai. 14 (3) 2005th ser.: Journal of Management Inquiry.
  5. 1 2 "McCabe, T. (2003). Sustainability and Livelihood Diversification among the Maasai of Northern Tanzania". Human Organization. 62 (2) Summer 2003. horizontal tab character in |title= at position 95 (help)
  6. 1 2 Munke, David (2015). The Maasai Language: an Introduction. IN: Bloomington. pp. 1–15.
  7. Payne, Thomas E. (1997). Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 20–21
  8. 1 2 Payne, Doris (1998). MAASAI GENDER IN TYPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE (PDF). University of Oregon and Summer Institute of Linguistics. pp. 160–163 via Studies in African Linguistics Volume 27, Number 2.


  • Mol, Frans (1995) Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language. Lemek: Maasai Center.
  • Mol, Frans (1996) Maasai dictionary: language & culture (Maasai Centre Lemek). Narok: Mill Hill Missionary.
  • Tucker, Archibald N. & Mpaayei, J. Tompo Ole (1955) A Maasai grammar with vocabulary. London/New York/Toronto: Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Vossen, Rainer (1982) The Eastern Nilotes. Linguistic and historical reconstructions (Kölner Beiträge zur Afrikanistik 9). Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
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