ɔl Maa
Native toKenya, Tanzania
RegionCentral and Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania
EthnicityMaasai people
Native speakers
1.5 million (2009 census – 2016)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2mas
ISO 639-3mas
Maasai woman

Maasai (previously spelled Masai) or Maa (English: /ˈmɑːs/;[2] autonym: ɔl Maa) is an Eastern Nilotic language spoken in Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania by the Maasai people, numbering about 1.5 million. 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 variety of ɔl Maa as spoken in southern Kenya and Tanzania has 30 contrasting sounds, which can be represented and alphabetized as follows: 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).

The tone is extremely important to convey the correct meaning.


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 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⟩
Plosive pulmonic p t k ʔ ⟨' ~ ʔ⟩
implosive ɓ ɗ ʄ ɠ ⟨g⟩
Fricative s ʃ h
Rhotic tap ɾ ⟨r⟩
trill r ⟨rr⟩
Lateral l
Glide lenis w j ⟨y⟩
fortis ⟨wu⟩ ⟨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.[3]

Front Central Back
High i u
ɪ ⟨ɨ⟩ ʊ ⟨ʉ⟩
Mid e o
ɛ ⟨ɛ⟩ ɔ ⟨ɔ⟩
Low a


Word order is usually verb–subject–object, but it can vary because the tone is the most important indicator of subject versus object. What determines the order in a clause is topicality since the 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, the object occurs 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 tone patterns. The tone pattern affects the case, voice and aspect of words, as in the example below:






(Surface Form)



ɛ́yɛ́tá ɛmʊtí

ɛ̀-ɛ́t-á ɛn-mʊtí(LH) DEF.FEM.SG-pot(ACC)

"She removed (meat) from the pot."






(Surface Form)



ɛyɛ́ta ɛmʊ́ti

ɛ̀-ɛ́t-a ɛn-mʊ́ti(HL) DEF.FEM.SG-pot(NOM)

"The pot is de-meated."[4][5]

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 literal [English translation] question.[6]

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

Pronouns in Maa usually assign gender (male, female, or place); if gender is unknown, the meaning of the noun in context usually refers to a gender. For example, the context of a female might include working in the house, and a male gender would be implied if the action referred to work outside the home. Maasai 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).[6]

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 a past action, not to a specific time or place.[7]


The Maasai have resisted some forms of colonization and Western expansion, and their systems of communication and exchange revolve primarily around trade among themselves. However, some loss of the Maasai language, while not rapid, is happening as a result of close contact with other ethnic groups in East Africa and the rise of Swahili and English as the dominant languages. In Tanzania, former President Nyerere encouraged the adoption 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.[8] 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 under-represented minority.[7]

The Maasai way of life is embedded in their language. Specifically, the economic systems of trade that the Maasai rely on to maintain their nomadic way of life, rely on the survival of the Maasai language, even in its minority status. With language endangerment, the Maasai people would continue to be threatened and their cultural integrity threatened.[9] The minority status that the language currently faces has already threatened traditional Maasai practices. Fewer and fewer 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.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Maasai at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018) Closed access icon
  2. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  3. ^ Payne, Doris L. (2008). "The Maasai (Maa) Language". Retrieved 2017-08-02.
  4. ^ Payne, Thomas E. (1997). Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 20–21
  5. ^ "English - Maa". Retrieved 2020-03-26.
  6. ^ a b 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.
  7. ^ a b Munke, David (2015). The Maasai Language: an Introduction. IN: Bloomington. pp. 1–15.
  8. ^ a b McCabe, T. (Summer 2003). "Sustainability and Livelihood Diversification among the Maasai of Northern Tanzania". Human Organization. 62 (2).
  9. ^ Nicholson, N. (2005). "Meeting the Maasai". Journal of Management Inquiry. 14 (3).


  • Andrason, A. and Karani, M. 2019. Dative applicative elements in Arusa (Maa) – A canonical approach to the argument-adjunct distinction. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus. Vol. 58, 177-204. doi:10.5842/58-0-842.
  • Andrason, A. and Karani, M. 2017. The perfective form in Arusa – A cognitive-grammaticalization model. Asian and African Studies, 26:1, pp. 69-101.
  • Andrason, A. and Karani, M. 2017. Radial Categories in Syntax: Non-Resumptive Left Dislocation in Arusa. Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis, 134(2), pp. 205-218.
  • Karani, M. Kotikash, L. and Sentero, P. 2014. A Unified Standard Orthography for Maa Languages, Kenya and Tanzania: Arusa, Ilchamus, Maasai/Kisongo, Parakuyu, Samburu, Monograph series No. 257. Cape Town, CASAS.
  • Karani, M. (2018) "Syntactic categories and the verb-argument complex in Parakuyo Maasai". PhD Thesis, Stellenbosch University.
  • 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.