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Native to Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Native speakers
9.8 million (2007)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-1 rw
ISO 639-2 kin
ISO 639-3 kin
Glottolog kiny1244[2]
Linguasphere 99-AUS-df
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Kinyarwanda (IPA: [iciɲɑɾɡwɑːndɑ]); called in Uganda Igifumbira) is an official language of Rwanda and a dialect of the Rwanda-Rundi language spoken by 12 million people in Rwanda, Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjacent parts of southern Uganda. (The Kirundi dialect is the official language of neighbouring Burundi.)[4]

Kinyarwanda is one of the four official languages of Rwanda (along with English, French and Kiswahili) and is spoken by almost all of the native population. That contrasts with most modern African states, whose borders were drawn by colonial powers and do not correspond to ethnic boundaries or precolonial kingdoms.[5]



The table below gives the consonant set of Kinyarwanda.

Labiodental Bilabial Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t c k
voiced b d ɟ g
Affricate voiceless t͡s t͡ʃ
Fricative voiceless f s ʃ ç h
voiced v β z ʒ
Approximant j w
Rhotic ɾ


The table below gives the vowel sounds of Kinyarwanda.

Front Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

All five vowels occur in long and short forms. The distinction is phonemically distinctive. The quality of a vowel is not affected by its length.


Kinyarwanda is a tonal language. Like many Bantu languages, it has a two-way contrast between high and low tones (low-tone syllables may be analyzed as toneless). The realization of tones in Kinyarwanda is influenced by a complex set of phonological rules.


A a B b C c Cy cy D d E e F f G g H h I i
J j Jy jy K k L l M m N n Nk nk Nt nt Ny ny O o
P p R r S s Sh sh T t U u V v W w Y y Z z

Except in a few morphological contexts, the sequences 'ki' and 'ke' may be pronounced interchangeably as [ki] and [ke] or [ci] and [ce] according to speaker's preference.[citation needed]

The letters 'a', 'e', or 'i' at the end of a word followed by a word starting with a vowel often follows a pattern of omission (observed in the following excerpt of the Rwandan anthem) in common speech, though the orthography remains the same. For example, Reka tukurate tukuvuge ibigwi wowe utubumbiye hamwe twese Abanyarwanda uko watubyaye berwa, sugira, singizwa iteka. would be pronounced as "Reka tukurate tukuvug' ibigwi wow' utubumiye hamwe twes' abanyarwand' uko watubyaye berwa, sugira singizw' iteka."

In the colloquial language, there are some discrepancies from orthographic Cw and Cy. Specifically, rw (as in Rwanda) is often pronounced /ɾɡw/. The most obvious differences are the following:

Orthog. Pron.
rw /ɾɡw/
pw /pk/
bw /bɡ/
mw /mŋ/
my /mɲ/
tw /tkw/
dw /dɡw/
cw /tʃkw/
by /bɟ/

Note that these are all sequences; /bɡ/, for example, is not labio-velar [ɡ͡b]. Even when Rwanda is pronounced /ɾwanda/, the onset is a sequence, not a labialized [ɾʷ].



Kinyarwanda uses 16 of the Bantu noun classes. Sometimes these are grouped into 10 pairs so that most singular and plural forms of the same word are included in the same class. The table below shows the 16 noun classes and how they are paired in two commonly used systems.

Prefix Classification Number Typical words Example
Bantu Cox  ???
umu- 1 1 singular humans umuntu – person
aba- 2 plural abantu – people
umu- 3 2 singular trees, shrubs and things that extend umusozi – hill
imi- 4 plural imisozi – hills
iri- 5 5 3 singular things in quantities, liquids iryinyo – tooth
ama- 6 5/8/9 3/8/9 plural (also substances) amenyo – teeth
iki- 7 4 singular generic, large, or abnormal things ikintu – thing
ibi- 8 plural ibintu – things
in- 9 3 5 singular some plants, animals and household implements inka – cow
in- 10 3/6 5/6 plural inka – cows
uru- 11 6 singular mixture, body parts urugo – home
aka- 12 7 singular diminutive forms of other nouns akantu – little thing
utu- 13 plural utuntu – little things
ubu- 14 8 n/a abstract nouns, qualities or states ubuntu – generosity
uku- 15 9 n/a actions, verbal nouns and gerunds ukuntu – means
aha- 16 10 n/a places, locations ahantu – place


All Kinyarwanda verb infinitives begin with ku- (morphed into kw- before vowels, and into gu- before stems beginning with a voiceless consonant due to Dahl's Law). To conjugate, the infinitive prefix is removed and replaced with a prefix agreeing with the subject. Then a tense marker can be inserted.

singular singular before vowels plural plural before vowels
I a- y- ba- b-
II u- w- i- y-
III ri- ry- a- y-
IV ki- cy- bi- by-
V i- y- zi- z-
VI ru- rw- zi- z-
VII ka- k- tu- tw-
VIII bu- bw- bu- bw-
IX ku- kw- a- y-
X ha- h- ha- h-

The prefixes for pronouns are as follows:

  • 'I' = n-
  • 'you' (sing.) = u-
  • 'he/she' = y-/a- (i.e. the singular Class I prefix above)
  • 'we' = tu-
  • 'you' (pl.) = mu-
  • 'they' (human) = ba- (i.e. the plural Class I prefix above)

Tense markers include the following.

  • Present ('I do'): - (no infix)
  • Present progressive ('I am doing'): -ra- (morphs to -da- when preceded by n)
  • Future ('I will do'): -za-
  • Continuous progressive ('I'm still doing'): -racya-
Example translations
Yego Yes
Oya No
Uvuga icyongereza? Do you speak English?
Bite? What's Up?
Mwaramutse Hi/Good Morning
Amata Milk
Ejo hashize Yesterday
Ejo hazaza Tomorrow
Nzaza ejo I will come tomorrow
Ubu Now
Ubufaransa France
Ubwongereza England
Amerika America
Ubudage Germany
Ububirigi Belgium

The past tense can be formed by using the present and present progressive infixes and modifying the aspect marker suffix.


Kinyarwanda employs the use of periphrastic causatives, in addition to morphological causatives.

The periphrastic causatives use the verbs -teer- and -tum-, which mean cause. With -teer-, the original subject becomes the object of the main clause, leaving the original verb in the infinitive (just like in English):[6]:160–1

(1a.) Ábáana b-a-gii-ye.
children they-PST-go-ASP
"The children left."
(1b.) Umugabo y-a-tee-ye ábáana ku-geend-a.
man he-PST-cause-ASP children INF-go-ASP
"The man caused the children to go.

In this construction, the original S can be deleted.[6]:161

(2a.) Abanntu ba-rá-bon-a.
people they-PRES-see-ASP
"People see"
(2b.) Ku-geenda gu-teer-a (abaantu) ku-bona.
INF-go it-cause-ASP (people) INF-see
"To travel causes to see."

With -túm-, the original S remains in the embedded clause and the original verb is still marked for person and tense:[6]:161–2

(3a.) N-a-andits-e amábárúwa meênshi.
I-PST-write-ASP letters many
"I wrote many letters.
(3b.) Umukoôbwa y-a-tum-ye n-á-andik-a amábárúwa meênshi.
girl she-PST-cause-ASP I-PST-write-ASP letters many
"The girl caused me to write many letters."

Derivational causatives use the instrumental marker -iish-. The construction is the same, but it is instrumental when the subject is inanimate and it is causative when the subject is animate:[6]:164

(4a.) Umugabo a-ra-andik-iish-a umugabo íbárúwa.
man he-PRES-write-CAUE-ASP man letter
"The man is making the man write a letter."
(4b.) Umugabo a-ra-andik-iish-a íkárámu íbárúwa.
man he-PRES-write-INSTR-ASP pen letter
"The man is writing a letter with the pen."

This morpheme can be applied to intransitives (3) or transitives (4):[6]:164

(3a.) Ábáana ba-rá-ryáam-ye.
children they-PRES-sleep-ASP
"The children are sleeping."
(3b.) Umugóre a-ryaam-iish-ije ábáana
woman she-sleep-CAUS-ASP children
"The woman is putting the children to sleep."
(4a.) Ábáana ba-ra-som-a ibitabo.
children they-PRES-read-ASP books
"The children are reading the books."
(4b.) Umugabo a-ra-som-eesh-a ábáana ibitabo.
man he-PRES-read-CAUS-ASP children books
"The man is making the children read the books."

However, there can only be one animate direct object. If a sentence has two, one or both is deleted and understood from context.[6]:165–166

The suffix -iish- implies an indirect causation (similar to English have in "I had him write a paper), while other causatives imply a direct causation (similar to English make in "I made him write a paper").[6]:166

One of these more direct causation devices is the deletion of what is called a "neutral" morpheme -ik-, which indicates state or potentiality. Stems with the -ik- removed can take -iish, but the causation is less direct:[6]:166

-mének- "be broken" -mén- "break" -méneesh- "have (something) broken"
-sáduk- "be cut" -sátur- "cut" -sátuz- "have (something) cut"

Another direct causation maker is -y- which is used for some verbs:[6]:167

(5a.) Ámáazi a-rá-shyúuh-a.
water it-PRES-be warm-ASP
"The water is being warmed."
(5b.) Umugóre a-rá-shyúush-y-a ámáazi.
woman she-PRES-warm-CAUS-ASP water
"The woman is warming the water."
(5c.) Umugabo a-rá-shyúuh-iish-a umugóre ámáazi.
man he-PRES-warm-CAUS-ASP woman water.
"The man is having the woman warm the water.


  1. ^ Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Kinyarwanda". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Jouni Filip Maho, 2009. New Updated Guthrie List Online
  4. ^ "Rundi", Ethnologue, 16th Ed.
  5. ^ Boyd, J. Barron (December 1979). "African Boundary Conflict: An Empirical Study". African Studies Review. 22 (3): 1. ISSN 0002-0206. JSTOR 523892. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kinyarwanda: Kimenyi, Alexandre (1980). A Relational Grammar of Kinyarwanda. University of California Press. pp. 160–172.


  • Habumuremyi, Emmanuel; et al. (2006). IRIZA-STARTER 2006: The 1st Kinyarwanda–English and English–Kinyarwanda Dictionary. Kigali: Rural ICT-Net. 
  • Jouannet, Francis (ed.) (1983). Le Kinyarwanda, langue bantu du Rwanda (in French). Paris: SELAF. 
  • Kimenyi, Alexandre (1980). A Relational Grammar of Kinyarwanda. University of California Press. 

External links