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There are several slightly different orthographies for Kinyarwanda including those created by the first Protestant and Catholic missionaries. There is also no official dictionary which means there is some disgreement about the spelling of many words. However, this dictionary tries to be consistent with what is taught in Rwandan schools.

General rules

In Kinyarwanda there are many combinations of letters which will cause some letters to change. This is usually done to ease pronunciation, as can be observed if you try to pronounce something like umu+ana.

Letters Result Examples
u + vowel u → w umu+anaumwana, ku+igakwiga
i + vowel i → y imi+endaimyenda, iki+oboicyobo
a + a a aba+anaabana
a + e e ama+eziamezi
a + i i ama+izeroamizero
a + i (start of adjective) e ma+izameza, ba+inshibenshi
n + labial (b, m, v, f, p) n → m n+fitemfite, in+bwaimbwa
n + vowel (at start of stem) n → nz in+ogainzoga, n+izanziza
n + h nh → np → mp in-hanukaimpanuka, n+huzamahangampuzamahanga
n + r r → d in+rwaraindwara, n+ra+korandakora

The change down rule

When the next consonant after k is one of c, f, h, p, s, t or k, then it becomes g, e.g.

Likewise t becomes d, e.g.

The A-I-U rule

This rule governs which vowels will occur in a verb suffix. If the next to the last syllable in a verb stem contains a, i, or u, the added suffix will contain i but if the next to the last syllable has e or o, the added suffix will contain e. For example, when adding the locative suffix to a verb:

  • gukoragukorera - to work at, work for
  • kuririmbakuririmbira - to sing at, sing for

Similarly when added the causative suffix:

  • gukoragukoresha - to cause to do
  • kuririmbakuririmbisha - to cause to sing

Word interactions

The pronunciation rules of Kinyarwanda mean that usually vowels between words are not pronounced to allow words to flow into each other. Sometimes this is reflected in the spelling such as with the prepositions na and nka, e.g.

  • na umugabon'umugabo - and the man
  • nka ijambonk'ijambo - like the word

However sometimes the spelling remains unchanged despite the change in pronunciation, e.g.

  • ni umugabo - he is a man
  • uri umwarimu - you are a teacher

Mu and ku

The prepositions mu and ku usually cause the proceeding noun to drop its initial vowel (augment), e.g.

  • mu umujyimu mujyi - in town
  • ku umugorobaku mugoroba - in the afternoon

However if the noun is class 5 (i-, iri-) then the initial vowel is retained, e.g.

  • mu ijuru (pronounced mw ijuru) - in Heaven
  • ku isoko (pronounced kw isoko) - at the market

Common variations

  • Sometimes ku+u is written as kwu rather than ku. Likewise ku+o is sometimes written as kwo rather than ko. This is most commonly seen in verb infinitives like kumva or koga which are sometimes spelled kwumva and kwoga.
  • A few words commonly occur without their final syllable, such as ikizamini (ikizami) and imodokari (imodoka)