A simple lesson in Kirundi phonetics

By Rachel


We've been in class now for a few weeks and wanted to give you a glimpse into what we're learning!  As opposed to French, where many of our readers speak (or have previously spoken, at least a little) the language we are immersed in, I doubt that more than a handful of you know even 1 or 2 words in Kirundi.  We certainly didn't.  And truthfully, we weren't even sure what to expect.  Easy?  Difficult?  Lots of obvious words?  Pronunciation?
Some blessings for us:
  1.  Everyone in the greater Banga area is excited to help us learn Kirundi.  Usually this is in the forms of gawking citizens lining the streets to watch the parade of "abazungu." (white person, similar to the Swahili muzungu)  But there are also several nuns who help to run the guesthouse who take it upon themselves to teach us new words and correct our pronunciation.  And even a few simple greetings go a long way in lighting up the face of just about everyone we try it out on.
  2. Our teacher Gilbert has been conducting class in French.  He speaks both French and English, and asked us on day 1 what we would prefer.  So to keep up our French skills, we have class in French which has been great.  I think all of us understand what he's saying and I for one feel my French speaking abilities are even improving here, which is great.  
  3. Once in awhile, there is a word that is the same in Kirundi as it is in Swahili.  That being said, most of us don't speak much Swahili. :)
Some of the challenges:
  1. French was frustrating because there were SO MANY LETTERS that no one ever pronounced.  Why are they even there?!  Kirundi has a straightforward pronunciation, sort of.  Maybe I should say it's consistent.  But at last count, there were more than 10 new sounds not in the English language.  Mw (pronounced mng), bw (bg, like a chicken), 2 types of r's (a flapped r/l combo and a trilled r) 2 snort-y kind of sounds, an "nt" and a "mp", not to mention that familiar letters like "b" and "k" are pronounced more…softly, without the big puff of air that English speakers use.  They sound more like v's and g's.  Good thing we all took a language acquisition class in Colorado before leaving for France, which introduced us to this concept of new sounds.  We were at first trying to come up with ways to avoid using many of these new sounds, but they are not exactly rare sounds….
  2. There are 16 different noun classes in Kirundi.  Huh?  Each noun starts with one of 16 different prefixes, which will then determine how you match it up with a number or adjective.  For example, umuhungu is the word for boy.  Abahungu is the word for boys.  If you wanted to say one boy, you say umuhungu umwe.  Two boys would be abahungu babiri.  But one cow would be inka imwe, and two cows would be inka zibiri.  So the word "two" (kabiri) could actually look about 16 different ways depending on what noun it describes.  Yikes!
  3. The language actually has turned out to be tonal.  Meaning, guhiga could mean to complain or to search for something depending on how you pronounce the "i".  
So, all this not to get you to feel sorry for us, but to marvel with us at the task to which we have been called, and recognize once again that our own abilities just aren't going to cut it.  And if you would like to learn along with us (Rosetta Stone hasn't released their Kirundi discs yet…), start with the traditional greeting of "Amahoro!", which means peace.  But don't forget that the r is actually pronounced somewhat like an l, with a flap of the tongue on the roof of the mouth...

Studious McCropders learning Kirundi.


Marina said...

I have picked up a handful of words in Kirundi after 5 yrs of short-term mission trips to Burundi, but, if you don't use it (and I don't) you definitely use it. I can greet someone, buy 10 eggs, and mumble my way through a few worship songs. I've had better luck teaching Burundians practical English words so that we communicate more easily since it is pretty obvious that my Kirundi skills aren't improving much! Good luck and I hope that we will get to meet all the McCropder's one day in Burundi. Our next trip is planned for mid-October.

davit hogg said...
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Sarah Halter said...

Personally, I find this fascinating and what you're describing makes sense to me! But I have swahili background and a bit of Luhya exposure. Enjoy the journey.