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 12 million people right now, Burundi has around 10 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.
The following text is intended to alert the reader to the general characteristics of the pronunciation of Kinyarwanda. Because of dialect situation, some variations in pronunciation will be encountered. Please, remember that an acceptable pronunciation can be attained through careful attention to the speech of native speakers.
Like all other languages, Kinyarwanda is made of a certain set of sounds. Its spelling is based on the Latin alphabet. The consistent relationship between sounds and spelling lacks. Since this language is a tonal one, variations of pitch of voice as well as length of its syllables will completely change the meaning. The result is that written Kinyarwanda is often an inadequate and misleading representation of the spoken language.
Remember that each written letter is pronounced, unless it is a part of the consonant combinations. Kinyarwanda syllables appear under three forms: - It can be made of a single vowel or several ones (interjections) : e.g., u-mu-ga-bo (four syllables), aa ! (one syllable); - It can be made of consonant plus a vowel : e.g., u-mu-go-re (four syllables); - It can be made of consonant combinations plus a vowel : e.g., i-mbwa (two syllables).
Normally, written Kinyarwanda has five vowel phonemes (distinctive sounds) represented by the graphs a, e, i, o, and u. These approximately have Latin, Spanish or Italian values. There are important differences between English and Kinyarwanda vowels. For one, the Kinyarwanda vowels are sometimes short or long and are not diphthongized as are the comparable English ones.
With these differences in mind, a special caution should be mentioned: Do not tend to neutralize unaccented vowels. Each vowel should be given its full value whether accented or not.
p [p] (only stands alone in foreign loanwords)
ki and ke can be pronounced interchangeably as [kyi] and [kye] with some dialectal pronunciation: [či] and [če] by people who were in exhile in Uganda or people whose mother tongue is oruciga or runyankore, and [ki] and [ke] for people from northern Rwanda.
A vowel at the end of a word followed by a word starting with a vowel often follows a pattern of omission in common speech, though the orthography remains the same. See the following example from Cyprian Rugamba's song:
e.g. 'Umwami ubasumba aratsinze. Atsimbuye icyaha araganje...' can be pronunced as 'Umwam ubasumb aratsinz. Atsimbuy icyah aragaje...'