Archive for the ‘Kinyarwanda’ Category

As I mentioned back when I was just embarking on my adventure in Rwanda, Kinyarwanda is definitely one of the most difficult languages I have ever tried to learn. Understanding Kinyarwanda grammar entails learning 16 different noun classes (delineated by 16 unique prefixes) and verbs whose conjugations and objects are inserted before the root, as well as navigating the dangers posed by the fact that Kinyarwanda is tonal (slightly varied intonations completely change the meaning of words with the same spelling). Kinyarwanda is a Bantu language and a member of the Niger-Congo language family. It shares some grammatical structures and vocabulary with Swahili, but seems to be infinitely more complicated and daunting to learn.

Since nouns are classified in 16 different groupings, there are almost as many variations in the adjectives used to describe nouns. Below, I’m going to enumerate the numerous forms and ways to use the word “good” (depending on the context, it can also mean “beautiful,” “cute,” “delicious,” and “nice.”) There are 12 different forms of this adjective, each ending in -eza or -iza. (Note: the noun root without its classification prefix is  found by looking at the second or third letter of the word, which I’ve bolded below.) It’s fairly complicated and took me a while to wrap my head around, but it’s also quite an interesting and useful system. Here they are:

beza (bay-zah)
example: abana beza – good children, abantu beza – good people
usage: plural descriptions of humans

bwiza (bghee-zah)
example: ubuki bwiza – delicious honey, ubuzima bwiza – good health/life
usage: generic or abstract nouns or states

byiza (bjee-zah)
example: ibijumba byiza – delicious sweet potatoes
usage: general or large plural nouns

cyiza (chee-zah)
examples: icyumweru cyiza – nice week, igitabo cyiza – good book
usage: general or large singular nouns (singular version of byiza above)

heza (hay-zah)
example: ahantu heza – nice place
usage: for places

keza (kay-zah)
example: akana keza – a cute baby, agaseke keza – a nice little basket
usage: singular diminutive form of other nouns, for small or young people

meza (may-zah)
example: amata meza – good/delicious milk, amateka meza – good history
usage: for things in quantities or liquids

mwiza (mwee-zah)
example: umwana mwiza – nice child, umwarimu mwiza – good teacher, umukobwa mwiza – beautiful girl
usage: singular descriptions of a human (singular version of beza above)

neza (nay-zah)
example: agenda neza – he drives nicely/he goes nicely, fata neza – be careful (with a thing)
usage: adverb, nicely

nziza (nn-zee-zah)
example: inkoko nziza – good chicken, inshuro nziza – good time
usage: singular or plural animals, plants, or ideas

rwiza (rgwee-zah)
example: Rwanda rwiza – beautiful Rwanda, urugendo rwiza – bon voyage
usage: miscellaneous, generic or abstract nouns

twiza (twee-zah)
example: utwana twiza – cute child
usage: plural diminutive forms of other nouns, for small or young people (plural version of keza above)

I’m sure I’ve made a few mistakes, so I ask that any Rwandans or Kinyarwanda speakers reading please correct them!

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*Translation: I speak a little Kinyarwanda.

As many of you probably know, I love learning new languages and I love challenges. There’s something so thrilling about plunging headfirst into a new way of thinking and new forms of self-expression. And I also really enjoy surprising people who don’t expect Americans to know anything other than “hello” and “where is the bathroom?” (“muraho” and “aho kwituma ni he?”)

After three weeks here, I can proudly say that I can sort of get around and communicate the most essential ideas and requests in Kinyarwanda (Hello, how’s it going?, what are you staring at?, my name is Helaina, I’m hungry, I’d like four chapatis please, the food is delicious, cockroach!, thank you, I’d like a cold beer, do you have any bread?, that’s too expensive!, are you happy?, I don’t understand that, I don’t have any money, good job!, etc.). However I still have a lot of trouble understanding the responses to questions…it’s a work in progress.

Of the languages I speak/have learned (English, French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Hebrew), I actually find Kinyarwanda the most difficult – mostly because of the pronunciation and because so many words are really similar. For example, the words for water, fish, eggs, milk, and butter are (in order): amazi, amafi, amagi, amata, and amavuta. I also haven’t yet been able to wrap my head around many verb conjugations, but that will hopefully come with time.

Besides speaking with locals and Rwandan friends, a resource that I’ve found invaluable for learning the language is a fairly comprehensive Kinyarwanda-English dictionary that a travel blogger named Morgan put together a few years ago. I’ve also started a tandem language exchange with a student who is teaching me Kinyarwanda and Swahili in exchange for helping him work on his pronunciation. A particular problem he has, which is common for many East Africans, is distinguishing between l and r. It’s not uncommon to hear “I look forward to corrabolating with you” or “would you like some lice and beans?” Mmm, crunchy.

In other news, this past weekend Caitlin did end up cutting my hair…it’s pretty drastic! I think she took 4-5 inches off. Although I’m still kind of in the requisite mourning period, it makes showering ten times faster and it feels a lot healthier. I’ll try to upload a picture sometime in the near future.


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