A Rwandan Grammar: The Abbreviated Edition


Per its abbreviated nature, this grammar does not seek to present an all-encompassing description of Rwandan’s rich inventory of forms and sounds. For instance, the great gap between highest high vowel and lowest low valley is left for later editions. Decentralization of sounds is also unaddressed; its heavy politics better explained by a native speaker. To glean a deeper understanding, the author encourages readers to explore for themselves, in-person. Indeed, this is the only way to truly understand Rwandan’s speakers. Immersed in authentic forms, in the pragmatic realities, the routine movements, the so-called norms–then one can know.

Until such travel is possible or later editions arrive, may this brief description suffice.

Moreover, as a disclaimer let it be known that the author is an outsider: white, anglophone, and western. His observations are naturally colored by such. The author has also performed his research in a limited number of locales, mostly the East and to a much lesser extent, Kigali.

First, those interested in Rwandan features must know the physiology of greetings. Anatomically, oral and nasal are helpful, but hands are best. A simple display of a palm is enough, parallel to body. In response, a head may nod. In contrast with its Bantu neighbors, Rwandan does not seem to require even this. Often, speakers forego speaking altogether. They may maintain forward gaze, or downward mud-depending, and produce no sound whatsoever.1 That is, Rwandan is foremost a quiet tongue.

When greetings–both openings and leave-takings–are voiced, they are breathy, even whispered utterances. Speakers engage by grasping forearms, less bilabial and more bi-brachial. Tonally, the act is mid to low. Empathetically, the act is mid to very warm. After the bi-brachial embrace, participants clasp right hands, while the left stays visible for respect, ideally rested on the right elbow.2

Among Rwandan’s notable features is a preference for indirect communication, as well as face-saving culture. These sociolinguistic factors can often result in a disparity between prescribed sounds and the practical forms they are realized as.1-4 See Table 1, below, for an illustration of this.

In terms of morphology, Rwandan is both extreme and moderate. That is, elevation is eminent. With a vocabulary of over 1,000 hills, the language slopes and winds tremendously. To describe the climate is much less extreme. Though so near the equator, temperatures are not marked, but gentle on the soft palate.3 This is likely a correlative of the high, rising tones of aforementioned hills and mountains.

As for lexical derivation, history is of course important. Rwandan’s near past is common knowledge to most in the world. Less commonly known are the inventory of speech acts employed at present with regard to the history. One might expect plosive or even implosive sounds from such a violent, traumatic past. However, the author has witnessed great use of aspiration. While speakers understandably avoid direct discussion of historical acts under normal circumstances, a full 100 days of each year are prescribed to remembrance.

The second week of April sees speakers unite in locations throughout to perform speech acts focused on trauma with intent on understanding, uniting, then healing, respectively. Descriptively, the utterances are oft accompanied by voiceless, dental fricatives–a sucking of teeth–as listeners are moved by shame and horror. Nevertheless, speakers persevere, as do the receiving listeners.5 The author finds such speech acts to be nothing short of revolutionary in their honesty and quest for communal healing.

Table 1.

base form, prescribed realized as
EXPRESSING DISAPPOINTMENT This is unacceptable. “It’s fine, somehow.”
EXPRESSING MISUNDERSTANDING I do not understand you. (hold silence)
RESPONDING TO ‘THANK YOU’ You are welcome. “Eh, okay.” or “Yes.”
GREETING IN ENGLISH, MORNING Good morning. “Good morning.”
~ , AFTERNOON Good afternoon. “Good morning.”
~ , NIGHTTIME Good evening. “Good morning.”
ASKING A FOREIGNER WHERE THEY ARE TRAVELING TO Where are you going? “Yes, to Kigali?”


1. Men, Middle-Aged (2018). Interview conducted via whispers and lack of eye contact. March 2018.

2. Women, Elder (2018). Interviews and observations: occasionally being offered wives. Nyagatare.

3. Kigali, Rwanda (2018). Interview conducted via foot and bus. 12 February, 2018.

4. Children, Small (2018). Informal–often loud–interactions: on the street and in the home. Nyagatare, 1, 2-4.

5. A collection of speeches: The 24th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Eastern Province. (7-13 April, 2018).

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