by Alexandre Kimenyi
California State University at Sacramento
This article presents the main linguistic features of Kinyarwanda in phonology,
tonology, morphology and syntax. It shows that it is one of the one of the languages
that has maximized the main distinctive characteristics of the Bantu language
group. It thus shows clearly that Bantuists and theoretical linguists should
be familiar with it. It has already contributed to theoretical linguistics in
Relational Grammar, the study of complex consonants and autosegmental and metrical
phonology in the assignment and application of tone rules.
1. General background
Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda is probably, after Kiswahili the
second largest spoken language in the Bantu group. It is a sister dialect of
Kirundi, the national language of Burundi and Giha, another dialect spoken in
Tanzania. Despite genocide which took place taking lives of more than one million
Tutsi, its speakers are perhaps more than 20 million people. Rwanda has around
9 million people right now, Burundi has around 7 million but besides the Giha
speakers there are also ethnic Banyarwanda in Southern Uganda in the Kigezi
district known as Bafumbira. Other Kinyarwanda speakers are Banyamulenge in
Southern Kivu and ethnic Banyarwanda in Masisi and Rutshuro in Northern Kivu
in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinyarwanda belongs to the interlacustrine
(Great Lakes) Bantu languages.
2. Writing system
Although Kinyarwanda has both long vowels and short vowels as well as high
tones or no tones on syllables, the official orthography does not mark vowel
length and melody. Only the context can tell the reader which word was meant.
Written texts are thus ambiguous even to native speakers. Thus the written words
gusura can stand either for [gusura] 'to fart' or [gusuura) 'to visit', gutaka
for either (gutaka) 'to scream' or (gutaaka) 'to decorate'.
ino can stand for either (ino) 'toe' or (inó) 'here', inda for (inda)
'stomach' or (indá) 'louse', umuryango for (umuryaango) 'family' or (umuryáango)
and ikirere for (ikireere) 'banana leaf' or (ikiréeré) 'air space'.
Eventhough the sound p has been lost and is found only in onomatopeic words
and loan-words, the aspirated voiceless velar fricative h is spelled as p after
the bilabial nasal m as shown in the examples impuha (imhuuha)'rumors', impamvu
(imhaámvu) 'cause/reason'. The allophones, the voiced bilabial stop b
which appears only after the homorganic nasal m and the voiced bilabial fricative
ß realized intervocalically are also written the same way, using the voiced
bilabial stop symbol b. Although, the language has only one liquid, both r and
l are used in the orthography. The liquid r is used in all texts and l is used
only in loan-words which have l in their spelling such as Libiya 'Libya', Alijeriya
'Algeria', dolari 'dollar'.
3. Vowels and Consonants
Kinyarwanda has five vowels which are either long or short, high-toned and
no tones. The high tone can appear either on first mora or the second mora.
These vowels are the two high vowels i and u, the midvowels e and o and the
center low vowel a. The midvowels e and o are not allowed in both the (pre)prefix
and suffix positions. In verbs, however, these midvowels can appear in the suffix
position as a result of vowel harmony if the vowel of the verb stem is a midvowel.
ex. gukosa 'to make mistakes' gukosoora 'to correct' /ku-kos-uur-a/; kumenya
'to know' kumenyeesha /ku-meny-iish-a/.
The majority of word stems have the same identical vowel in all syllables: u-mu-biri
'body', u-bu-riri 'bed, i-ki-reenge 'leg', i-béere 'breast', u-mu-góongo
'back', u-mu-hoondo 'yellow', u-ku-guru 'leg', u-ru-túgu 'shoulder',
igihaánga 'skull', i-ki-gaanza 'hand palm'. This observation raises the
question as to whether the stem is assigned only one vowel which is copied or
spreads to other syllables.
Since kinyarwanda has open syllables only, loan-words with cluster consonants
copy the vowel of the syllable on the right or a default vowel u with bilabial
consonants and i with others. As the following work loan-word porogaramu 'program'
shows, both vowels o and a are copied on the preceding vowelless consonants
and the vowel u is inserted after the final consonant m.
program /p.$ro.$g.$ra.$m.$/ >porogaramu
This language has both simple and complex consonants. The simple consonants,
using the official orthography are the bilabials p, b, m, the interdentals f
and v, the alveolars t, d, s, z, and n; the alveopalatals sh, and j , and the
velars k, g, and h. Kinyarwanda has two glides, the palatal y and the bilabial
w. It has one liquid r which is written as l in some loan-words as was pointed
out earlier. The affricates are the labio-dental pf, the alveolar ts and the
The complex consonants are the prenasalized simple consonants, the palatalized
consonants, the velarized consonants, the palatalized-velarized consonants,
the prenasalized palatalized consonants and the prenasalized palatalized-velarized
Prenasalized consonants are the bilabial mp and mb; the interdentsal mv and
mf, mpf; the alveolar nt, nd, ns, nz and nts; the palatal nsh, nj and nc and
the velar nk, ng and nshy.
Palatalized consonants are the bilabial by, py and my; the interdental fy; the
alveolar ty, dy, sy, nny; the velar cy, jy and shy.
The velarized consonants are the bilabial pw, bw, mw; the interdental fw and
vw; the alveolar tw, dw, sw, zw, nw rw and tsw; the palatal shw, jw, cw and
yw; the velar kw, gw and hw. Palatalized-velarized consonants are the bilabial
byw, pyw, and myw; the alveolars tyw, dyw, syw and the velar fricative shyw.
Palatalized consonants, velarized consonants and palalized-velarized consonants
can in turn be prenasalized as shown in the following examples : mbyw (prenasalized
palatalized-velarized voiced bilabial), mvyw (prenasalized palatalized-velarized
voiced interdental, nshyw prenasalized palatalized-velarized voiceless fricative
velar, njyw (prenasalized palatalized-velarized voiced stop velar). The complex
consonants in Kinyarwanda are discussed at great lenght in Kimenyi (2002) and
Simon Bizimana et all (1998). It is still an open debate in phonetics and phonology
as to whether these complex consonants are one with mutliple articulators or
a sequence of independent segments.
a. Role of tones
Tones are lexical, morphological and syntactical. Lexical tones differentiate
words which look alike segmentally as shown in (a), morphological tones play
the role that segmental morphemes are assigned in other languages as illustrated
in (b), whereas syntactic tones are assigned depending on where the word bearing
the tone occurs in the noun phrase, verb phrase or the sentence as shown in
a. inda 'stomach'<>indá 'louse' , ino 'toe' <>inó
b.basoma 'they read'<>basomá 'who read' <>básoma 'when
c. baraaza bagakóra 'they come and work'<> baraaza bagakora akazi
'they come and do the
In b the lack of tone shows the present tense, the high tone on the second syallable
shows that the verb is a relative clause whereas the high tone on the first
syllable of the verb stem shows that the verb is a temporal or conditional clause.
In (c ) the verb loses its high tone because it is followed by a complement.
b. Tone rules
Tone rules in Kinyarwanda were thought to be complicated. But when looked at
very closely they are very simple. There is only one lexical high tone per morpheme.
Some morphemes are toneless. Noun tone patterns differ from verb tone rules.
Any noun can have a lexical high tone on any syllable of the stem, except the
augment and the prefix. A verb, however, even when it is polsyllabic and has
multiple suffixes, can have a high tone only either on the first mora of the
first syllable or the first of the the second syllable of the stem. Other syllables
are extraprosodic. When high tones are found there, they are stray tones, since
they don't participate in tone rules such as Meeussen rule, Beat Movement, Iambic
Reveral, etc. The first syllable verb high tone assignment is lexical whereas
the second syllable high tone assignment is grammmatical. The prosodic domain
of tone rules application of both nouns and verbs is the leftmost phonological
tone and the first mora of the stem first syllable. Tone rules apply from left
to right.whereas in the majority of languages whose tone rules have been studied,
they apply from left to right.
Nouns can get a secondary and a tertiary tone. A secondary high tone is assigned
on the first mora of the noun stem i f the lexical high tone is at least two
or more mora away from the first noun mora.
isáandukú 'box'/i-saandukú/, inkókorá
inshóberamáhaánga 'idiomatic expressions'
A noun can thus have only a maximum of three phonetic high tones.
What makes verb tones seem complex is the assignment of the tense-aspect-modality
morphemes. Some tenses or moods erase lexical tones thus making the whole finite
verb toneless or assign tones to toneless verb stems making both toneless verb
stems and high-toned verb stems look the same. As shown below, the verb stem
-kin- 'play' and -kór- 'work/do' are neutralized, becoming toneless or
both bearing a high tone in some tenses.
ntibagikora 'they don't work anymore'<>ntibagikina'they don't play anymore'
baracyáakóra 'they still work'<>baracyáakina 'they
bakoré 'they should work'<>bakiné 'they should play'
The metrical domain for verb tone rules is the first mora of the first object
pronoun and the first mora of the verb stem for lexical tones and the first
mora of the first object pronoun and the first mora of the second syllable of
the verb stem. Kinyarwanda is one of the Bantu languages which can have multiple
they-t-also-there-it-him/her-them-do-appl-caus-appl-appl-caus-asp 'they also
make them do it for him/her there'
a.Phonological Rules affecting vowels
Phonological rules affecting vowels are vowel deletion, vowel coalescence,
gliding, vowel harmony, vowel shortning and vowel lengthening.
When a word or morpheme which ends with a vowel is followed by another one which
starts with a vowel also, the final vowel of the word or morpheme on the left
is always deleted.
Vowel coalescence takes place if within a word if there is a sequence of two
morphemes ending with the central low vowel a and starting with the high vowel
i and u respectively.
a+i becomes e and a+u becomes o. ex. améenyo /a-ma-íinyo/ 'teeth'.
Gliding takes place within words or clitics if in a sequence of two vowels the
first one is a high vowel (i, u) or a round vowel (u, o) thus becoming y for
the front high vowel and w for round vowels. ex. harimó amáazi>harimw'áamáazi
'there is water in it', i-ki-úuma >ikyúuma 'knife',
/u-bu-oónko/ >ubwoónko 'brain'. Vowel harmony affects vowels
in the suffix position. If the suffix vowel is high (i, u) it becomes mid (e,
o), respectively if the word stem vowel is a mid vowel. ex. gukóra /ku-kór-a/
'to work' >gukóreesha /ku-kór-iish-a/ 'to cause to work/employ/use',
kumenya /ku-meny-a/ 'to know'>kumenyeesha /ku-meny-iish-a/ 'to let know/inform'.
Vowels in Kinyrwanda are always short in the beginning and final positions of
words. They always lengthen before prenasalized consonants and after palatalized
and labio-velarized consonants (Kimenyi, 1979 and Kimenyi, 2002).
Phonological Rules affecting consonants
Phonological rules affecting consonants are assimilation, dissimilation known
as Dahl's Law, fricative spread, deletion and insertion. As in other Bantu languages,
reduplication is also very productive in Kinyarwanda.
Consecutive consonants acquire the same voice, manner and place of articulation
phonetic features. Nasals take the place of articulation (labial, velar, palatal,
velar) of the consonant on the right. Consonants obtained through the palatalization
or velarization process also agree in voice, nasality and place of articulation
with the governor consonant.
gukúbita 'to hit'>gukúbitkwa 'to be hit' /ku-kubit-w-a/
kudóda 'to sew'>kudódgwa 'to be sewed' /ku-dód-w-a/
kubóna 'to see'>kubónnwa 'to be seen' /ku-bón-w-a/
If a word has a palalized fricative in one of the syllables on the right, fricatives
in preceding syllables get palatalized as well.
gusoonza /ku-soonz-a/ 'to be hungry'>gushoonjeesha /ku-soonz-iish-a/ 'to
basuuzugura /ba-suuzugur-a/ 'they despise'>bashuujuguje /ba-suuzugur-ye/
'they just caused
This phenomenon argues for the autosegmental treatment of phonological rules
because as the provided exùamples show, these fricatives don't have to
be in adjacent syllables.
Reduplication is both lexical and grammmatical. Lexical reduplication consists
of stems which are already reduplicated. Grammatical reduplication affects the
stem. In verbs, it is very productive with verbs of movement or sound to show
repetition, iterativity or intensity.
Reduplication is done by either repeating the fist syllable or the whole stem.
gutuumba 'to swell' 'gututuumba 'to start swelling'
kugeenda 'to go'/'walk'->kugeendageenda 'to walk around'
ukwéezi 'moon/month'->icyéezeezí 'moonlight'
ubusá <nothing> 'ubusáabusá <very little quantity>
6. 1. Noun morphology
Kinyarwanda has 16 classes. Modifiers (adjectives, demonstratives, numerals,
possessives) agree with the head noun by taking this class marker.
In some cases, however, the class marker has different phonetic forms depending
on the grammatical category of the modifier as illustrated below.
The numbers 1-16 correspond to traditional conventional Bantu noun classification.
Noun adjective object pronoun demonstive possessive
1. u-mu- mu- -mu- u- u-
2. a-ba- ba- -ba- ba- ba-
3. u-mu- mu- -wu- u- u-
4. i-mi- mi- -yi- i- i-
5. i-ri- ri- -ri- ri- ri-
6. a-ma- ma- -ya- a- a-
7. i-ki- ki- -ki- ki- ki-
8. i-bi bi- -bi- bi- bi-
9. i-n- n- -yi- i- i-
10. i-n- n- -zi- zi- zi-
11. u-ru- ru- -ru- ru- ru-
12. a-ka- ka- -ka- ka- ka-
13. u-tu- tu- -tu- tu- tu-
14. u-bu- bu- -bu- bu- bu-
15. u-ku- ku- -ku- ku- ku-
16. a-ha- ha- -ha- ha- ha-
The sentence in (2) shows how this type of noun class agreement works. The
head noun abagabo (a-ba-gabo) 'men' with class 2 prefix -ba- prefix has it copied
to all modifying elements (adjectives, subject pronouns, object pronouns
bá-no ba-gabo ba-tatu ba-gufí, mu-ra-bá-bon-a, ba-mez-e
these men three short you-pres-them-see-asp they-are-asp well all
'These three short men, you see them, they are all of them doing well.'
The use of the preprefix
The preprefix or augment usually doesn't have any semantic function. Some Bantu
languages such as Kiswahili don't have it. In Kinyarwanda, it is deleted, after
demonstratives, in the vocative case and in onomastics (name creation). Within
certain words, however, its absence marks definetess and its presence indefiniteness.
mugaanga 'the doctor' >umugaanga 'a doctor'
munywáanyi 'the buddy' >umunywáanyi 'a buddy'
mugeenzi 'the friend' >mugeenzi 'a friend'
mwaarimú 'the teacher' >umwáarimú 'a teacher'
The absence of the preprefix bleeds tone rules and its absence feeds them.
The secondary tone assignment on the first more of the noun stem takes place
only if it has a preprefix.
Noun derivation with the prefix.
Kinyarwanda nouns have a small number of suffixes. The most productive one
is -kazi which is added to the stem to show feminine : ex. umunyarwaanda 'Rwandan'<>umunyarwaandakazi
'female Rwandan', umwáarimú 'teacher'<>umwáarimúkazi
Derivation is productive with the preprefix which creates new words which are
either metaphorically or metonymically related to the original noun as shown
by the stem -ntu in the follong examples.
umuuntu 'person', ikiintu 'object', ukuuntu 'manner', ubuuntu 'generosity',
6. 2. Verb Morphology
The simple Kinyarwanda verb form consists of the subject pronoun, the verb
stem and the aspect marker. The aspect marker is either -a(ga) (imperfective
aspect) or -ye (the perfective aspect as seen below. The -aga suffix is used
in past tenses only and is not used in Kirundi.
basoma (ba-som-a) 'they read'; basomaga /ba-a-som-aga/ 'they were reading';
basomye (ba-som-ye) 'they just read'.
The complex form consists of the preprefix, the subject pronoun, the tense-aspect-modality
morphemes, the object markers, the reflexive pronoun -i-, the verb stem, the
lexical verb extensions, the grammatical morphemes, the aspect marker and the
postsuffixes -mó, -hó, or -yó.
The preprefixes are either the morpheme nti- or ni-, negative and temporal morphemes
respectivelly. The tense-aspect-modality morphemes (TAM) show time, mood or
aspect. Two TAM morphemes can occur in the same slot. Kinyarwanda can have multiple
object pronouns, multiple lexical verbal extensions and mutliple grammatical
suffixes. Lexical extensions such as -agur-, -iir-, uur, -aang, iriz-, etc.
add lexical information such inchoativity, iterativity, repetitivity, intensity,
Grammatical morphemes such as the causative
morpheme -iish-, the applicative morpheme -ir-, the comitative/reciprocal morpheme
-an-, can be added to any verb stem. The sentence below serves as an exemple
to illustrate a verb with multiple object pronouns and multiple grammatical
Umugoré a-ra-na1-ha2-ki3-zi4-ba5-ku6-n7- som-eesh-eesh-er-er-eza woman
'The woman is also making them use it to do it for me for me there'
Lack of adjectives
Kinyarwanda has a handful of adjectives (less than twenty). What is expreesed
by adjectives in other languages is rendered by either the possessive construction
(X of Y) or by the relative clause construction.
'a poor person' : umuuntu w'úmukené
person of poor
person who-is poor
Ideophones are not only common in Bantu languages but found in the whole Niger-Congo
language family. They are different from onomatopeias which imitate sounds of
nature. They can express different concepts which don't have anything to do
with sound by using sound symbolism, short or long vowel, reduplication, triplication
or quadriplication. They can also have different grammatical functions.
umuseké weerá de.
dawn which-is clear ideophone
'a very clear dawn'
'a very dark coffee'
As was pointed out earlier, Kinyarwanda has a handful of adjectives. It is
the same with function words as well namely auxiliaries, prepositions, cnjunctions,
and subordinators. These are expressed by noun phrases or verb phrases. It is
in most of the cases the structure which tell whether the noun or verb is the
noun or the verb or a function word.
muu nsí y'áaméezá
under earth of table
'under the table'
baravúgana usíibye kó batabonána.
they-talk-to-eath-other you-are-absent that they-don't see each other
'they talk to each other except that they they don't see each other'
Stems of nouns, verbs and unclassified words can have different phonetic variations
as the word for diploma shows :
diploma : dipóroómi, dipóromá, dipóromé,
dipóromí, dipóromó, dipóromú, dipóroóma,,
dipóroóme, dipóroómu, dipóroómo, diipóroómu,
diipóroómo, diipóroóme, diipóroómi,
It is still an unsolved questions for Kinyarwanda lexicographers to decide
which form should be considered as the main form or if all forms should entered
in the dictionary as independent lexical entries.
Kinyarwanda like other Bantu languages is a SVO language. Modifiers follow
head nouns. What is interesting about this language as pointed out in Kimenyi
(1980) and (2002) is the existence of (a)the subject-object reversal, (b) the
wh-question in situ, (c) the lack of relative pronouns, (d) serialization and
(e ) the existence of multiple direct objects.
7.1. Object-subject reversal and existential construction
The object-subject reversal consists of interhanging the object and the subject
positions whereas the existential construction puts both the subject and object
after the verb, prefixing the verb with the locative morpheme ha- (CL16). Both
constructions don't change the meaning except that focus is on the object.
Umwáana a-ra-som-a igitabo. 'The child is reading the book.'
child s/he-t-read-asp book
Igitabo ki-ra-som-a umwáana. 'The book is reading the child.'
book CL7-t-read-asp child
Ha-ra-som-a igitabo umwáana. 'It is the child who is reading the book'
CL16-t-read-asp book child
The object-subject reversal and the existential constructions have the same
function as the passive which is shown by the suffix -w- added to the verb just
before the aspect marker.
Igitabo ki-ra-som-w-a n'úumwáana. 'The book is being read by the
book CL7-t-read-pass-asp by child
7.2. Wh-question in situ
In Kinyarwanda and many other Bantu languages, wh-questioning is only allowed
'you are called who?' > 'What is your name?'
'Where do they live?'
7.3. Lack of relative pronouns
Kinyarwanda doesn't have relatvive pronouns. Relative constructions are marked
by a high tone on verb stem instead.
Abáana ba-som-á ibitabo.
children they-read-asp/rel books
'The children who read books'
Ibitabo abáana ba-som-á.
books children they-read-asp/rel
'The books that the children read'
7. 4. Serial verb construction
When multiple verbs precede the sentence main verb, they lose their semantic
function and serve as auxiliaries or tense-aspect-modality bearers. This is
illustrated by the following sentences.
a. Ba-a-ri bá-tuu-ye bá-saanz-w-e bá-jy-a bá-kuund-a
they-t-be they-dwell-asp they-join-pass-asp they-go-asp they-like-asp to-die
aux1 aux2 aux3 aux4 aux5 aux6 V
'They usually at least called us'
b. Mu-siga-ye mú-geend-a mú-heerako mú-du-subiz-a.
you-stay-asp you-walk-asp you-start from you-us-answer-asp
aux1 aux2 aux3 V
'Now you respond to us immediately'
7. 5. Multiple direct objects
Kinyarwanda like many other Bantu languages can have multiple direct objects.
These objects are either inherent or structural.
Recipients or benefactives are introduced directly to the verb without any preposition
with some interactive verbs (giving, showing,
Umugabo a-haa-ye abáana ibiryó
man he-give-asp children food
'The man has just given food to the children'
Umwáarimú a-r-éerek-a abanyéeshuúri amashusho.
teacher he-t-show-asp students pictures
'The teacher is showing pictures to the students'
Inalienable possessions can appear as direct objects without any verb extension
Umugoré a-ra-kúbit-a umwáana ukuguru n'ínkoni.
woman sub.pr.-t-hit-asp child leg with stick
Umugoré a-ra-kúbit-a umwáana inkoni ku kuguru
woman sub.pr.-t-hit-asp child stick on leg
'The woman hitting the child on the leg with a stick'
As shown by the above examples the inalienable possession 'ukuguru' and the
instrmental 'inkoni' can appear as either adjuncts or direct objects without
any verbal extension.
Structural direct objects are obtained by deleting prepositions of adjunct
objects and by adding suffixes such as -iish-, -ir-, -an- to the verb stem.
Umugabo a-ra-andik-a ibáruwá n'íikáramú
man sub.pr.-t-write-asp letter with pen
Umugabo a-ra-andik-iish-a ikáramú ibáruwá
man sub.pr.-t-write-caus-asp pen letter
'The man is writing a letter with a pen'
Kinyarwanda is a prototypical Bantu language. It has all the features that
characterize this language group. Its main contributions in syntax have been
about the nature and function of grammatical relations (Kimenyi, 1980) and in
tonology, it has been about the nature of tone, tone representations and tone
rule application (Kimenyi, 2002).
Bizimana, Simon&all. 1998. Imiteérere y'Ikinyarwaanda. Kigali, Rwanda
: Pelloti Set Press.
Coupez, André.1980. Abrégé de Grammaire rwanda. Tome I
and Tome II. Butare, Rwanda.
Institut National de Recherch Scientifique.
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1979. Studies in Kinyarwanda and Bantu Phonology. Edmonton,
Alberta. Linguistic Research Inc.
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 1980. A Relational Grammar of Kinyarwanda. Berkeley and
Angeles. University of California Press.
Kimenyi, Alexandre. 2002. A Tonal Grammar of Kinyarwanda : An autosegmental
Metrical Analysis. Lewiston, New York. The Edwin Mellen Press.
// : linguistic that appear between slashes indicate the underlying or phonemic
() : brackets indicate the phonetic representation.
appl : applicative
asp : aspect marker
aug : augment
aux : auxiliary
caus : causative
CL : class marker
pass : passive
sub.pr. : subject pronoun
t : tense marker
multiple object pronouns
multiple direct objects
palatal fricative spread
serial verb construction
wh-question in situ