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Number of Speakers: 3.5 million

Key Dialects: According to Stafford (1967), there are two primary regional Luo dialects: Trans-Yala Luo (spoken in Ugenya, Alego, Imbo, and parts of Gem) and South Nyanza Luo (spoken in various parts of the South Nyanza district and those parts of Central Nyanza which are not included in the Trans-Yala area).

Geographical Center: Nyanza province of Kenya

Luo is spoken by 3.2 million people or 13.8% of the Kenyan population (Gordon 2005) on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria. As such, the Luo are the second largest ethnic group in Kenya (behind the Kikuyu). Outside Kenya, over 200,000 people speak Luo in Tanzania, near the Kenya border.

Luo is a Western Nilotic language of the Eastern Sudanic subgroup of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Closely related languages include Lango and Acholi.

Little dialectal research exists. Both dialects are said to be highly mutually intelligible, but distinct enough accent-wise to enable one to determine the speaker’s point of geographic origin. Officially, there is no standard Luo dialect. Nonetheless, the South Nyanza variety is used in Luo Bibles and educational materials.

Luo is written in a modified Roman orthography

The Luo sound system consists of twenty-one consonant phonemes, five vowel phonemes, and two tonemes, depending on the analysis. Diphthongs and consonant clusters are tolerated. Most prominent among the latter are the five nasal-stop compounds that some linguists regard as unit phonemes. Most major phonological processes in Luo involve the vowel system, namely, vowel harmony (ATR harmony), deletion, glide formation, and compensatory lengthening. The Luo tone system is comprised of two underlying tones (high and low), which when combined in a variety of ways yield complex derived (surface) tonal melodies (cf. rising and falling tones). Tone is both lexically contrastive and grammatical (marking aspectual and modal distinctions) in the language. Luo root morphemes are monosyllabic. Stress is fixed and falls on the root syllable of the word. The syllable structure of the language is (C)V(V)(C). The only clusters permitted word-internally are the nasal-stop compounds. All other clusters must be associated with distinct syllables.

Morphologically, Luo is an isolating language. That is to say, grammatical information is for the most part encoded word-externally on discrete root morphemes as opposed to word-internally via a series of affixes. Some categories, however, do inflect morphologically. Luo verbs inflect for definiteness [definite/indefinite], number [singular/plural], aspect [habitual/progressive/perfective], and mood [indicative/imperative/interrogative/subjunctive], either by means of prefixation, suffixation, or tone, depending on the category of inflection. Tense is marked independently by what are traditionally referred to as temporal adverbials that surface pre-verbally. Verbs agree in definiteness and number with their subjects. Cognate object constructions (verbs taking identical de-verbal nominal objects) and serial verb constructions (verbs followed by other verbs without mediation of coordination or subordination) are widely attested. Luo nouns inflect for definiteness, number, and possession (the later is possibly a relic of genitive case). Luo nouns do not overtly bear marking of case. Reduplication is productive in Luo nominal expressions, functioning as a means of expressing diminuition, augmentation, and generalization. Adjectives do not form a distinct category of expressions in the language. The function of adjectival modification is performed by a subclass of verbs, which like other verbs in the language inflect for definiteness, number, and aspect. The basic clause order in Luo is SVO.

Luo does not have official status in Kenya or Tanzania nor is it a lingua franca. Luo speakers use the language in everyday activities, such as at markets and in areas of traditional culture and religion. Luo is taught in schools, but English is often the language of instruction. The language is broadcast on KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation), formerly the Voice of Kenya.

The ancestors of the Luo were pastoral nomads. Towards the end of the 15th century A.D., they migrated south from Sudan, first settling in central Uganda. The Luo were gradually forced southwards and eastwards by Bantu migrants. This is evident in the Jopadhola, Langi and Acholi populations of Uganda, who also speak Luo. The Bantu tribes that the Luo came in contact with were considerably influential. By the time the British colonizers arrived (the 1840's), the Luo had a tight-knit society with ruoths or regional chiefs. In 1915, the British colonial government sent the chief of Gem, Odera Akang'o, to Kampala, Uganda. Akang'o was so impressed by the British settlement there that upon his return home, he initiated a forced assimilation process of adopting the western style of education, dress, and hygiene. As a result, the Luo quickly became educated in the English language and culture. The Luo tribe played a pivotal role in the struggle for Kenyan independence. A Luo leader, Oginga Odinga became the first Vice President of independent Kenya.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Gregersen, Edgar. 1961. Luo: A Grammar. Ph.D. dissertation. Yale University.

Okoth Okombo, Duncan. 1982. Dholuo Morphophonemics in Generative Framework. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

Okoth Okombo, Duncan. 1997. A Functional Grammar of Dholuo. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Omondi, Lucia Ndong'a. 1982. The Major Syntactic Structures of Dholuo. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Stafford, Roy L. 1967. An Elementary Luo Grammar with Vocabularies. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, Archibald N. 1994. A Grammar of Kenya Luo (Dholuo). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

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