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Friday, November 23, 2007


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When does Kinyarwanda mean what it says? Towards a theory of sentence processing.

By Alexandre Kimenyi

Kinyarwanda has different types of ambiguities that it is important to find out how different existing models of sentence processing can adequately handle the data presented by this language. In addition to ambiguities found in other languages namely lexical, structural, idiomatic and pragmatic, Kinyarwanda uses very productively hyperboles, bipolar expressions, euphemisms, taboo language, onomastic expressions, vulgar language and many de-semantacized expressions in the regular everyday speech, which contributes to this ambiguity. The lexical ambiguity is due to homonymy, polysemy, and the mixing of dialects and specialized languages vocabulary in everyday language. Besides lexical homonymy, other types of homonymy result also from juncture phenomena and from phonogical rules which create phonetic neutralizations, and from both morphological and syntactic rules which also create identical surface structures. The ambiguity is thus paradigmatic (lexical) and syntagmatic (structural).
The structural ambiguity is caused by decategorization or the hybrid nature of some words such as finite verbs which can function as either main verbs, auxiliairies or function words as complementizers, conjunctions or coordinators, and syntactic operations which create the same structural configurations with other unrelated syntactic structures such as relativization, object-subject reversal, multiple pronoun-incorporation.
Kinyarwanda speakers are aware of the multiple ambiguities that their mother tongue can create. Not only many anecdotes abound about people who did funny things because they only understood one meaning which was not intended by the speaker. The most common are jokes by and about Semabinga, a well known personality during the colonial period, who would anger or make authorities laugh by intentionally doing the opposite of what he was told to do or would respond in an unpredicted funny manner because of the utterance ambiguity.
There is also a word play, a linguistic duel, to be precise called gucyóocyoorana 'to tease each other' or amahuúngu 'boy talk' in which the interlocutor tries to outsmart the other person by responding to what he or she had just said in a such a way that the challenger feels hurt or humiliated. This duel stops when one of the interlocutors "loses" by failing to find an appropriate response.
Poetry is also there to test both real world and linguistic knowledge. The poet is not only interested in creating an object of verbal aesthetic beauty pleasing to the ears by its rhythms, rhymes, and a harmonious association between sound and sense but also in elevating the intellect of the listeners in helping them to understand the hidden meanings of language by using a medium that only the ones who have mastered the lexicon and the structure of language, the culture and the history of the country can understand. The poet is called umusízi 'the one who outruns others' and to compose poetry is called gusíga 'to distance/outrun others'. To understand the poem a process called gusíguura is performed. A proper translation of the latter term would be 'to decipher' or 'to decode'.
The Kinyarwanda data clearly show that to get a correct interpretation of natural language utterances and texts, a good theory of natural language processing is needed. Clearly both linguistic and non-linguistic contexts are in order. This research is of both theoretical and practical importance. It shows how the mind works and it can also contribute to the writing of softwares which have to to with machine translation. By using Peircian approach to the study of signs, an association or similarity is seen among all these different types of ambiguities.
They all fall into three categories namely:
(i). Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Homonymies
(ii). Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Polysemies
(iii).Deiconized or Grammaticized Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Polysemies
a. De-metaphorized ambiguities
b. De-metonymized ambiguities

In this approach, a sign or structure can be considered as a paradigm at one level and a syntagm at another level just like in other systems. The semantic struture consists of several layers or tiers and it is not necessarily linear. In other words, semantic processing is reprented the way phonological features and rules are represented in autosegmental and metrical phonology. It starts with the stem to the word, the phrase, the sentence and the utterance and the whole text.

1. Kinyarwanda specialized languages

Kinyarwanda has one ethnic dialect ony: Namely the one spoken by Batwa. This one is also disappearing because of the decrease of its speakers and the Tutsi genocide by a Hutu supremacist regime which took place in 1994 killing more than one million people within only three months space. The other ones are mostly regional: two main dialects the northern dialect igikiga with its subdialects (ikirera/ikigoyi) and the southern dialect (ikinyanduga) with its subdialects also namely the southwest dialect spoken in Kinyaga, the southeast dialect spoken in Gisaka and the south-central dialect spoken in Nduga. The differences among these dialects are mainly lexical and phonetic.
The specialized languages use the same type of vocabulary as the regular language but these vocabularies acquire different meanings. A careful study shows also an associaton or similarity between these acquired meanings with those of the regular language. Sometimes archaic or loan-words from different dialects or neighboring languages are also found. The exception is the language used in the initiation of Lyangombe (kubaandwa). It too borrows from the ordinary language but many times these words are phonetically deformed by either adding syllables, deleting them, inserting others, or by substituting sounds. These specialized languages are: the language of poetry (ubusízi), the blacksmith language urucúzi), the hunting language (amahiígi), the apiculture language (amahuúmvu), initiation language (imaándwa), coronation language (ubwíiru), divination language (kuragura), stone game language (igisoro), war dance language (guhamiriza), decocation language (gutaaka), cards game language (amakáratá) and hoop language (uruzíga). This type of specialized vocabulary is like professional jargon found in other languages. There are three types of poetry in the language each with its own vocabulary namely the dynastic poetry (ubusízi) which praises kings, the panegyric poetry (ibyíivugo) which consists of praises for great warriors and national heroes and pastoral poetry (amazína y'íinká) which praises cows.

Homonymous and Polysemous ambiguity

The majority of ambiguities found in natural languages are due to either homonymy or polysemy. Homonyms are words which accidently happen to have the same phonetic shape as illustrated by the examples in (1).

igoóngo 'ruler'; ' soil which is unproductive because of trees/rainforest'
igitabo 'tradional house front ridge'; 'book'
gusoma 'to sip'; 'to read'
umupiíra 'ball'; 'sweater'
gutéeka 'to cook'; 'to reign'
umuseké 'royal reed'; 'dawn'
kwíima 'to mate'; 'to go to the throne'

Polysemous expressions or tropes, on the other hand, are signs whose referents belong to the secondary plane of expression or words with "extended meanings" to use a more familiar terminology. Because of this very nature, tropes are ambiguous because it may not be clear as to whether they are indeed tropes or used in the primary plane of expression. There are two types of tropes: metaphors and metonymies. Tropes are metaphors if their referents have similarities either physical or functional with those of the primary plane (size, shape, color, function, ...).

kwaaka 'to light/to shine'; umuriro 'fire/temperature/fever'; inzóka 'snake/intestinal worms'; umwíijimá 'darkness/liver'; gutwaára 'to carry/to lead'; ree-re 'long/tall/deep'; kunywá 'to drink'/'to smoke'; gusoma 'to have a sip'/'to have a puff', umugabo 'man/witness/husband/courageous'; umugoré 'woman/wife'; umuhuúngu 'boy/son'; umukoóbwa 'girl/daugther'; imbwá 'dog/coward'; kwúumva 'to hear/to listen/to feel/to understand'; ubwóoko 'clan/ethnicity/type/race', inkóno 'cooking pot'/smoking pipe', umuhehá 'straw'/ pipe's tail', uruhago 'shoulder/back pack'/bladder', inzóbe 'swamp antilope'/'light skin', umukara 'otter'/'black', ......

They are metonymies if an association exists between the referent of the secondary plane and that of the primary plane such as cause and effect, content and container, possession and possessor, part and whole, work and artist, product and origin, etc.

ukwéezi 'moon/month'; imyáaka 'crops/years'; ingoma 'drum/reign';
ururími 'tongue/language'; kwíiba 'to steal/to rob'; inda 'stomach/pregnancy'; itéeká 'law/news/always'; umunyurúru 'chain/prisoner/jail'; isáahá 'watch/hour';
integé 'hollow of the knee/energy', etc.

Like English in which words such as wind [wind] and [wajnd], bow [baw] and [bow], tear [tijr] and [tejr], etc. are ambiguous because they are spelled the same way, Kinyarwanda also has homographic ambiguities due to the fact that the official orthography doesn't mark tones and vowel length as examples in (4) show:

umusambi [umusaambi] 'straw mat' or [umusaámbi] 'crested crane'
ikirere [ikireere] 'banana leaf' or [ikiréeré] 'firmament'
gusega [gusega] 'to climb' or [guseega] 'to beg'
gusura [gusura] 'to fart' or [gusuura] 'to visit]
umuryango [umuryaango] 'family' or [umuryáango] 'door'

In this paper this orthographic ambiguity will be ignored.

Polysemous or polyfunctional morphemes

Like regular words, smaller morphemes: function words, suffixes and prefixes can also have multiple functions or meanings. The same noun class marker can represent nouns in different categories for instance and the same verbal suffix can have multiple functions as examples below show.

Noun class markers:

agakóokó: 'small animal/insect'
ubwáana 'small children/childhood'
ubuuntu 'generosity/small people'
urufúunzo 'papyrus/swamp'

the associative morpheme -a

The associative morpheme has many functions: possession, qualification, identification, enumeration, accompaniment, origination, etc. For this reason it creates ambiguities.

umugoré w'úmugabo 'a courageous woman/a man's wife'
woman of man
umwáana w'úmukoóbwa 'a young girl/a girl's child'
child of girl
umugoré w'úmugaanga 'a woman doctor/a doctor's wife'
woman of doctor
umuhuúngu w'íimbwá 'a boy with a dog/'a coward boy'
boy of dog

This is the same as the applicative suffix -ir- which is added to the verb stem to show different types of grammatical roles: benefactive, dative, possessor, goal, locative, etc.

arasomera umugoré ibáruwá 's/he is reading a letter to the woman'
s/he is reading woman letter 's/he is reading a letter for the woman' 's/he is reading the woman's letter'

kubáagira umuuntu ibisiiga 'to slaughter the vultures for somebody'
'to slaughter somebody for the vultures'

The causative suffix -iish- can also stand for the causee and the instrument:

umupoórisi arakururiisha imódoká abanyurúru.
policeman causes to pull car prisoners
'The policeman is having the prisoners pull the car'
'The policeman is pulling the prisoners with the car'
umugoré araríisha inkokó ubugarí.
woman eats-with chicken cassava-dough
'The woman is having the chicken eat cassava dough'
'The woman is eating chicken with cassava dough'

The clitics -hó, -mó, and -yó are found with many verbs to create idiomatic expressions or are used as pronouns referring to specific antecedents.

twaahise mó 'we selected/we chose' (idiom) [guhíta 'to pass' mó 'in']
twaahise mó 'we went throught it'
siga hó 'stop' (idiom) [gusíga 'to leave' hó 'on']
siga hó 'leave on it'
babyiitaaye hó 'they care about it' (idiom) [kubyíita 'to throw oneself' hó 'on']
babyiitaaye hó 'they have just thrown themselves on it/them'
ari hó 's/he lives' (idiom) [ -ri 'be' hó 'on']
ari hó 's/he is on it'

Many space and time concepts share the morphemes also resulting again in many ambiguities as we see below.

Siinzí ahó agarúkira. 'I don't know where s/he will be back from'
'I don't know when s/he will be back'
Iyó agiiyé aratúbwiira when/where s/he-goes s/he-tells-us
'Wherever s/he goes, s/he tells us'.
'Whenever /she goes, s/he tells us'.

In the next sections, we will see that the ambiguities which are discussed also fall into these two categories: homophonous paradigmatic or syntagmatic ambiguities and polysemous paradigmatic or syntagmatic ambiguities because of the accidental similar phonetic shape or because of the tropical relationship with referents in the primary plane of expression.

3. Everyday language

In everyday language, different types of figure of speech can be used. These are
idiomatic expressions, euphemisms, vulgar language, taboo language; hyperboles; names; empty words; auto-opposite words.

3. 1. Idiomatic expressions.

As I have shown earlier, idioms are just like other tropes that is metaphors and metonymies or deiconzed tropes. The only difference between regular tropes and idiomatic expressions is that the former consist of single lexical items whereas the latter consist of larger structures or syntagms (Noun Phrases, Verb Phrases, Adjective Phrases, Adverbial Phrases, etc. ).

3. 2. Euphemisms:

Euphemisms are nice or polite words which are used to refer to referents which are unpleasant to talk about such as death, bodily functions, etc. such as 'to pass away', 'sanitary napkins', 'restrooms', 'to make love', etc. in English. Here are some examples from Kinyarwanda.

kwíituma 'to send onself somewhere' >to defecate, to urinate
kwíihagarika 'to stand up by oneself' > to urinate
umusáraáni 'toilet' >excrements
gusooba 'to urinate (women)'
kujya mu méezi 'to go into moons';
kujya mu mugóongo 'to go in the back';
kubá mu mugóongo 'to be in the back';
kujya mu mirimi y'ábakoóbwa 'to go into the chores of girls';
kuzira inzúki 'to be victims of bees';
kuzira inká 'to be victim of cows' > to have periods'
kuvúna umugóongo 'to break the back' > to have first periods
gufuungura 'to mix drinks' >to eat
guhérekeza abashyitsi 'to walk away guests' > to eat
kwíitaba imáana 'to answer the call of god' > to die
kwíitahira 'to go home' > to die
gutabaaruka 'to come back from war' > to die
uburuhuukiro 'rest area' >morgue
kuryáamana 'to sleep together' >to copulate
nkoobwaá'girl' >igituba 'vagina'
ubukoóbwa 'girlhood' >igituba 'vagina'
ubugabo 'manhood' >imboró 'penis'
muu nsí y'úmukoóndo 'under the navel' >igituba 'vagina'
umubiri 'body' >sex organ
kunywá 'to drink' > kwíiyahura 'to commit suicide'
kwuururuka 'to get down from the bed' > kubyáara 'to give birth'

Euphemistic terms are also used to refer to the king's activities and body parts and to cows as well. Illustrating examples are presented in (11)a and (11)b, respectively.

igisaabo 'milk calebash' >king's stomach
gutáanga 'to give' > to die
kwíibaambura ' >to wake up
kwíibiikiira 'to put onelf to sleep' >to sleep
umurishyo 'drum stick' > king's arm
inyuundo 'hammer' > king's leg
iseembe 'the drum bottom' >the king's behind
guhweema 'to rest' > to fart
umugogó 'a big firewood' >the king's cadaver
igisasiro 'the made-bed' > king's bed
inkomo 'monkey hair' > king's hair

(11) b.
guseka 'to laugh/smile' >to break (milk calebash/maternity crown, ...)
gutá amasé 'to throw away dung' > to defecate
inda y'ámagaanga 'the stomach of urine' >cow's vagina
inda y'amasé 'the stomach of dung' >cow's anus
guhúumuza 'to cause to smell good' >to finish milking
kujíisha igisaabo 'to tie a milk gourd' > kumanika 'to hang a milk gourd'

3. 3. The taboo language

The taboo language is used by women in what is known as gutsíinda . A woman can never pronounce the name of her parents-in-law. These are not restricted to the husband's father and mother but also to his uncles and their wives and to his aunts and their husbands. Words which sound like their names are also avoided and substitutes have to be found.
A full discussion of this linguistic phenomenon is discussed at great length in Kimenyi (1994).

intózi 'red ants' > abaruúndi (Barundi people)
izúuru 'nose' > itoónde (from gutóonda 'to be an appendix')
kwúubaha 'to respect' > gushémera
umugarágu 'servant' > umushobá
umugoré 'woman/wife' > umushashi 'the bed maker',
umuheté 'woman who has given birth to a second child'
umugabo 'man/husband' > umugaanji 'the victorious'
intaama 'sheep' > igipfuura (from gupfuura 'to remove hair or feathers')
urweeso 'a small clay pot' >ururáma (from kurama 'to live long)
gukoka > kwíira 'to fall' (night)
gukáraba 'to wash hands'> kuryá 'to eat'
inyigínya 'what belongs to the Nyiginya clan'> inká 'cow'
umushashi 'the maker of the bed'> umugoré 'women/wife'
umusobáne 'what is intertwined' >umunáani 'eight/heritage'
urusobáne 'what is intertwined' > urumaanzi 'tattoo'
sogókuru 'grandfather'>daatábukwé 'father-in-law'
imesé > imbeba 'rat/mouse'
amazira-ntoki 'what is taboo to touch'> amabyí 'excrements'

Some specific taboo words also which take prefixes of all classes have been created to refer to any object (animate or inanimate): -seréza ; -shemére, etc.
Many of the taboo language vocabulary are borrowed from the hunting language. The hunting language is used mostly to avoid bad luck such as being killed in the game or coming back from hunting empty-handed.
Although many taboo words don't have other referents in the primary plane, the majority are metonymies or metaphors also.

3. 4. Hyperboles

Hyperboles are used to exaggerate. They are also either metaphors or metonymies: having similarity or the association between the referents of the primary plane and those of the secondary plane.

kwíicwa n'ínzara 'to be killed by hunger'> 'to starve'
kwíicwa n'ínyóota 'to be killed by thirst' > 'to be thirsty'
kwíicwa n'ámatsiko 'to be killed by curiosity' > 'to be curious'
kwíicwa n'ágahiinda 'to be killed by sorrow' > 'to be sad'
kwíiciisha umuuntu imyóotsi 'to kill somebody with smoke' > 'to expose someby to smoke'
kwíiciisha umuuntu amatsiko 'to kill somebody with curiosity' > 'to make somebody curious'
kwíiciisha umuuntu imbého 'to kill somebody with the wind' > 'to cause somebody to get cold'
gukúbitwa n'ínkubá 'to be thunderstruck' > 'to be amazed'
guseka ukagwa haasí ugatéembagara 'to laugh and to fall down and roll down' > 'to laugh a lot'
kuríibwa muu nda 'to be eaten in the stomach' > 'to have a stomach ache'
kuríibwa mu kanwa 'to be eaten the mouth' > 'to suffer in the mouth'
kuríibwa mu gituúza 'to be eaten in the chest' > 'to have a chest pain'
gukúuka umutíma 'to have the heart pulled out' > 'to be scared'
gucíika umugóongo 'to have a broken back ' > 'to become sad'
gucíika integé 'to have the hollow of the new cut' > 'to be tired/discouraged'
gusara 'to be crazy'> 'to be funny'
aratumaze! 's/he finishes us' > 'she is the champion'
aratwíishe! 's/he just killed us' > 'she is the champion'
ntawe umúkira! 'nobody is going to survive her' > 's/he is the champion'
turashíze 'we are finished' > 'we are amazed'

The last expressions are used to complement somebody for what he or she has just done or the looks such as new hairstyle, new clothes, etc.

Thus to express a large quantity of anything the following expressions are used:

ikivú 'Lake Kivu'; ubushyó 'herd of cows'; ishyano ryóose 'whole calamity', isoko 'flee market', urusiízi 'River Rusizi'; ururiba 'big well', urugaámba 'a battalion on the battlefied', inzuukira 'bees', isí n'íjuru 'earth and sky', u Rwanda 'Rwanda', amahaánga 'foreign countries', (inzu yé ní u Rwanda/inzu yé ní amahaánga 'his/her house is very big'), igihúgu 'country' ...
Haaje abaantu ikivú/ubushyó/ishyano ryóose/urugaamba/isokó... 'A lot of people came'.

The last examples are metaphors, whereas the first ones are metonymies.

3. 5. Vulgar language

The vulgar language is used only with close friends or with people that the speaker despises. It is never used with superiors or strangers. Below examples are

kuziindaaza >kuvúza indúurú 'to scream'
kuyooka 'to dissipate' > kugeenda 'to leave'
kuziba 'to close a hole' >gucéceka 'to be quiet'
gusokagura 'to piece repetitively' >kweenda 'to have intercourse'
kujáanjagira 'to walk like animals with pawns' >kugeenda 'towalk'
kujájura 'to break' >to hit
gutéemburuka 'to unfall' >kubyúuka to get up
gutáanyuuka 'to slice up' >kugeenda buhóro
gutiinduura 'to remove a pile of things' > to finish all drinks
gutiyuura 'to dig/to shovel'> to hit somebody repeatedly
gutiimba/kudiimba 'to cause to fall ' >gukúbita 'to hit'
gushíshura 'to peal' >guseka
umutoónzi'elephant trump' >izúuru 'nose'
gutumuuka 'to evaporate' > gutóongoora 'to disappear
kubátamuka 'to stick on something' > guháguruka
kubútama 'to squat' > kwiicara
kubwíigura > gusura 'to fart'
mugábo 'man!' > imbwá 'coward'
guhurumura 'to abort' (animals) > 'to abort'
guhuruutura 'to have diarrhea' > 'to give birth to a lot of children'
igihúunyirá 'owl' >igihunáme 'stupid'
guháambuura 'to untie' > kunnya 'to defecate'
guhúneentwa 'to have an uncontrollable desire for something'> to waste time looking for drinks or food
guhonyora 'to soften/weaken' > kwíica 'to kill'
guhenuura 'to stop showing the behind' > kubyúutsa 'to wake up
kwíikurura 'to pull oneself'> to stay for a long time where you are not wanted'
kuruundumura 'to pour out' > 'to give birth to a lot of children'
umwoobo 'hole' > inda 'stomach'
kwóohooha 'to err' > kwaangaara 'to wander'
kwóomoongana 'to scream' > kurira 'to cry'
uruneero 'defecating place' > innyo 'anus'
kunnya 'to defecate' > gutéta 'to be funny'
kunnyáafuka > guháguruka
kunnyáafagura > kwíihuuta 'to hurry up'
kunyáamfuka > guháguruka 'to stand up'
umunyó 'worms' > ururiba : byiínshi 'multitude'
kunyáanyuuka >guháguruka 'to stand up'
kunáantuura > gukúura 'to pull'
guhuruma ( associated to guhurura to come running') > 'die'
kubúunduka 'to come out of the hiding place' > guháguruka 'to stand up'
kugaasha 'to mutter angrily' > kuryá améenyo 'to bite'
mugábo 'man' > umukózi 'worker'
waampyá > inda 'stomach'
kunnyamó to defecate in it' > to perform badly
umwoobo 'hole'> inda 'stomach'
kugwa inzira 'to fall on the trail' > kugeenda 'to go'
kuziba 'to shut up' > gucéceka 'to stop talking'
kuziika 'to put at the bottom of a water container'> guháamba 'to bury'

The majority of these vulgar expressions refer to every day activities such as 'eat', 'drink', 'sit down', 'stand up', 'sleep', etc. and many synonyms for these referents are found as seen below.

'to eat' kuryá kugotomera 'to drink fast'; 'to talk' kuvúga < kuvúumvuura 'to make a caterpillar noise'; kubíka 'to crow'; kubwéejagura 'to bark like a puppy'; gusákabaka 'to make a vulture's sound'; gukaankama 'to bark'; gutoontoma 'to roar like a lion or pig'; guhébeba 'to utter a goat's sound'; gutémagura 'to cut into pieces' > to talk angrily to somebody'; 'to lie down' kuryáama < gutéembagara 'to fall down'/kuraambarara 'to lie down on the floor'; kwíihirika 'to push oneself' ; guhena 'to show one's behind'; guhirima 'to fall down with a lot of noise'.

The majority of the vulgar language vocabulary are metaphors. A physical or functional similarity is found between what is being referred to and the referent of the primary plane. Others don't have any other referent and belong to the primary plane only. Other factors, however, such as sound symbolism are utilized to convey the vulgar concept.

gutiimfunura > gukúbita 'to hit'
kwaanjama 'to start to'
kuguga/guhaca 'to eat'
guhuruma ( associated to guhurura 'to run fast') > gupfá
guhunira (associated to guhuna 'to rot/deteriorate') > gusiinziira 'to fall asleep'
guhoshya 'to give a lot of beer'
gufuutuura/kuzuutuura (from umufuútu vulgar term for 'anus')> guhena 'to show the behind'
kugohera 'to drink'
kugoongoma > kugotomera 'to drink fast'
kwáanagura 'to give birth to many children'
kwaanjama 'to start to'
ingetura > ingegera 'vagabond/crook'
guhuruma ( associated to guhurura to come running') > 'die'
waampyá > inda 'stomach'

3. 6. Bipolarity expressions

Kinyarwanda has many words and expressions whose meanings are found in the opposite poles, one being the opposite of each other such as to dust: 'to put dust'/ 'to remove dust'; to weed: 'to put weed'/ 'to remove weed'; sanction: 'to reward'/ 'to punish';
to rent: 'to be a landlord'/'to be a renter', etc. in English.
I refer to them as bipolarity expressions. They can be nouns, noun phrases, verb phrases, sentences or simple morphemes. They are found mostly with derivative expressive morphemes of class 7, 8, 11, 12 and 14, the negative sentences, the hortative mood and ideophones.
Class markers -ki-, -bi-, -ru- are augmentative morphemes but are also both pejorative and ameliorative morphemes in both moral and physical sense.

igikoóbwa/ibikoóbwa 'girl/girls' who inspires sympathy or antipathy'
icyáana/ibyáana 'child/children'(big, ugly or sympathetic)
uruhuúngu 'big boy'/'ugly boy'/'likeable boy'

The class marker -ka-, -tu- and -bu- are also diminutive morphemes but they too have also an ameliotive or pejorative meaning

agakoóbwa 'small girl'/'beautiful girl'/'naughty girl'
udukoóbwa/ubukoóobwa 'small girls/beautiful girls/naughty girls'
The negative construction can have double opposite meanings. However, for it to have the bipolar meanings, it either has to have intonation or be repeated as the following examples show.

Ntaabeeeshyá! 'He is such a great liar' <> 'He never lies'
Ntaabeeshyá, ntáabeeshyá!
A verb in the negative form accompanied with a quantifier produces ambiguity of scope also:

Abaantu bóose ntíbaaje. 'Not all the people came'
people all not-came 'None of the people came'

This scope ambiguity is possible however only if the quantifier is in the head noun domain:

Abaantu ntíbaaje bóose. 'Not all the people came'.
*'None of the people came'.

The hortative mood with intonation or repetition, produces the same effect as the negative discussed above:

Yaabéeshya! 's/he would lie' <> 's/he is such a great liar'
Yaabéeshya, yaabéeshya!

The morpheme -ye is usually referred to as the perfective aspect marker because it shows a completed action or a state. In some verbs, however, it stands for both perfective and imperfective:

umukoóbwa arateetse. 'The girl is cooking'
girl she-coks
ihené iraatéeetse. 'The goat is cooking/the goat is being cooked'
goat it-cooks

Praise expressions have both opposite meanings also:

'you who should lose the case'<> 'dear one'
'you who should be dispossessed!'<> 'dear one'
nyagútsiindwa 'you who should lose'> 'dear one'
shaá(hu) 'castrated one' > 'dear one'
mutií(ndi) 'miserable one' > 'dear one'
umuvúnamuheto 'he who should break the bow'> 'son of a bitch'<>'the great one'
arakiicwa na Rwáabugiri! 'may he be killed by king Rwabugiri'! > the great one
kaabutiindi 'calamity'/umukénya 's/he would die at young age' /icyáago 'accident' /umucáacúmu 'the breaker of the spear' /kaasha/ihabyá/akaaraminwe 'embarrassing' > extraordinary , fantastic! (when refering to the performance in anything meaning excellent or poor performance)
gutéera ubwóoba: to be something else (negatively or positively).
gukóra akaantu 'to do something remarquable' bad or good
urakabyaara 'may you bear children' (good wish), a bad wish so that you have problems.

Many ideophones and interjections have bipolar meanings as well. The most common meanings are pain and pleasure, excitement and disappointment, approval and disapproval.

arárárárá/eréréréré/oróróróró/urúrúrúrú: sound used to express pain, surprise or astonishment.
maáma sheénge: expression used to mock somebody or to show happiness.

Some words have the opposite of what they mean depending on the subject or the object.
The word gupfá 'to die' and kwíica 'to kill' are some of those. With the word ibyoobo/ibihunnyo 'gupfá' means to 'grow' and kwíica 'pick':

Umugoré yiishe ibyoobo byóose byaapfiriye kurí uríiya mugina.
woman she-killed mushrooms all that-died on that anthill
'The woman picked all the mushrooms that had grown on that anthill'

Irony which is found in many languages is a figure of speech also in which the form is intented to express the opposite. Here are again some examples from Kinyarwanda:

Umusirikare yaankubise urushyí ruryooshyé 'The soldier hit me with a tasty slap'
soldier hit-me slap tastes-good
Umugabo yaankubise inkoni nziizá mu bitúgu 'The man hit me with a good stick in my man hit-me stick good in shoulders shoulders'
Arasa néezá kó kó! 'S/he looks beautiful indeed!'>'s/he is ugly!'
s/he-looks good indeed

Some verbs with the causative suffix -iish- or -y- can also be ambiguous as far as bipolaority is concerned:

Umwáalimú y-a-tsíind-iish-ij-e abáana.
teacher s/he-pst-win-caus-appl+caus+asp-asp children
'The teacher made the chidren win'.
'The teacher made the children fail'.

Umugeni a-jy-aan-a n'úmukoóbwa wó ku-mú-tiiny-iish-a
bride she-go-with-asp with girl of to-her-fear-caus-asp
'The bride goes with a girl to help her recover from fear'.
'The bride goes with the girl to cause her to be scared'.

Umugabo a-ra-rwaa-z-a umugoré.
man he-pres-be sick-caus-asp woman
'The man is going to make the woman sick'.
'The man is nursing the woman'.

Clearly to get the right interpretation of bipolar expressions, extralinguistic (pragmatic) information is needed.

3. 7. Onomastics:

Kinyarwanda names appear in all grammatical structures as verbs, nouns, noun phrases, verb phrases, sentences, etc.and are semantically transparent (Kimenyi, 1979). There are times therefore when it is not possible to tell if they are regular utterance constituents or names.

mukorukarábe 'touch her and wash your hands' (sentence)
mu-kor-e u-karáb-e
her-touch-subj you-wash hands-subj (sentence)
nduuwíimáana 'I belong to god'
n-ri uwo imáana
I-be of god
muuntumubí 'bad person' (ajectival phrase)
muuntu mubí
person bad

Secondly, each animate object (humans and animals) and inanimate can have surnames which look exactly like regular personal names. These surnames are iconic since they describe the object's attributes such as physical shape, moral character or function. Simple names are obtained by deleting from any word the preprefix or by adding to it onomastic prefixes such as nyir-, nyirá-, mukáa-, sée-; rwáa-, káa-, etc.

bizuuru 'big nose'> person's name> surname for somebody who has a big nose or a pig
séeruhuúga 'dirty'> person's name> surname for somebody who is dirty

There are regular words which also look like personal names. These refer mostly to types of crops, plants, insects, birds and animals, events:

nyiráhuúku 'cat'>person's name
nyiramasiibira 'person's name'> surname for somebody who eats a lot but remains skinny> 'type of rat'> 'type of dog'
samúsure 'type of bird'
sakábaka 'type of vulture'
nyirámugufí 'short'>person's name> surname> type of beans
mugabo 'man'> person's name> type of manioc > type of sorghum'
rutáre 'rock' > person's name> type of manioc> type of
mavúta 'oil'> person's name> type of manioc> type of beans> type of banana
kwéezi 'moon'> type of sweat potato
gitáre 'white'> person's name> cow's name
muh-impuúndu 'give her praises'> woman's personal name> type of manioc
séerwaakira 'the one that ligths on something' > whirweend

The abundance of surnames in Kinyarwanda originates probably from praise-poetry. Humoristic folk praise-poetry has indeed developed from it where funny objects are given praise-names even praise-poems just for entertainment purposes.

4. Ambiguities created by phonetic neutralization

Phonetically motivated ambiguities are due to phonological rules which neutralize individual phonemes into the same phonetic realization in certain predictable environments such as the neutralization of t and d in English into a flapped voiced alveolar [rajDer] for rider or writer
The following Kinyarwanda examples show this type of ambiguity

p/h> h/N_ kuumpima 'to measure me' /ku-n-pima/
'to give hard time to somebody' /ku-n-hima/

r/g> z/_ye Ni bó baámureze 'It is they who raised him/her' (ba-á-mu-rer-ye)
'It is they who accused him/her' (ba-á-mu-reg-ye)
d/g> z /_ye inyamáaswa zaárahíinze túri mw'iishyaamba 'the animals roared when we were in the forest' (za-ára-híind-ye)
'the animals cultivated when we were in the forest' (za-ara-híing-ye)
V> Ø/_V kuura iby'aho 'Remove those (things) from there' (kuura ibyo aho)
'Remove the testicle from there' (kuura ibya aho)
ut'iki? 'What did you say? (uti: iki?)
'What do you throw away? (uta iki?)
uzaagira s'úté/s'uúte? 'What are you going to do? (sé uté)
'What are you going to do with his/her father'? (sé uté)
'What are you going to do with your father'? (só uté)
umugeenz'afité ní mubí 'the friend he has is bad' (umugeenzi)
'the habit he has is bad' (umugeenzo)
iríiya baand'iteeye ubwóoba 'that bandit is scary/is incredible' (ibaandi)
'that house is scary/is increbibly fantastic' (ibaanda)

Tone neutralization caused by the tense-aspect-modality especially in subordinate and negative clauses is also responsible of this type of ambiguity.

ntibákore 'they should not work'
'and if they don't work'
'and they don't work'
ntibaakora 'they would not work'
'they didn't work'

Many verbs with contrasting lexical tones are also neutralized in these tenses.
Thus verbs such as kuvuna 'to come to the rescue' and kuvúna 'to break'; gutoonda 'to lose recollection' and gutóonda 'to climb'; kuyoomba 'to finish very slowly/to disappear very slowly and kuyóomba 'to make a slow rhythmic sound'; etc. are neutralized in many negative and subordinate tense-aspect-modality:

ntibavúna 'they don't come to the rescue/they don't break'
abaantu bayóomba 'pople who finish very slowly/people who make a rhythmic sound'
ndabóna ibiintu bíbatoonda 'I see that they are losing remembrance of things/I see that things are climbing them'

Obviously, phonetically motivated ambiguities are paradigmatic homonyms.

5. Juncture phenomena, reanalysis or folk etymology

This type of ambiguity is due to morphemic segmentation or the assignment of boundaries.
Sometimes the word is wrongly segmented, giving another meaning than the intended one.
This occurs in both the prefix and suffix position in which the stem is shortened by detaching the segments on the right or the segments on left thought of as being prefixes or suffixes. This occurs mostly in verb forms.

baracyíiga 'they are still studying' (ba-racyáa-íig-a)
'they are studying it (ba-ra-ki-íig-a)
tuzaababara 'we will suffer' (tu-zaa-babar-a)
'we will count them (tu-zaa-ba-bar-a)
baragura nímugórooba 'They will buy in the evening' (ba-ra-gur-a)
'They do divination in the evening' (ba-ragur-a)
murarutana 'You are not the same size/age' (mu-ra-rutan-a)
'You peg it (animal's hide' (mu-ra-ru-tan-a)
bavuze kó baámugaye 'They said that they lost respect for him/her' (ba-á-mu-gay-ye)
'They said that they became handicapped' (ba-á-mugar-ye)
dore inká badahá amáazi 'Here is the cow that they don't give water to' (ba-ta-há-a)
'Here is the cow that they removing thewater from' (ba-dah-a)
wari wáabóna atúmira 'Have you ever seen him/her inviting (people)' (a-túm-ir-a)
'Have you ever seen him/her swallowing us' (a-tú-mir-a)
umugoré yataangiye gukíra 'The woman/wife started becoming rich/recovering'
'The woman/wife gave to become rich' (y-a-taang-ir-ye)
ni ikí mwaágabanye? 'what did you share'? (mu-aá-gaban-ye)
'what did you receive'? (mu-aá-gab-an-ye)
twaáraréenganye? 'we were victimized' (tu-ára-réengan-ye)
'we surpassed each other' (tu-aára-réeng-an-ye)
kukí uríiya mukóobwa ahorá atwíita imbwá 'why does that girl always conceive a a dog'? (a-twíit-a)
'why does that girl always call us dogs'? (a-tu-íit-a)
baraambika umwáana muu nzu 'thay are clothing the child in the house'
(ba-ra-aambik-a) 'they are lying the child on the floor in the house' (ba-raambik-a)
bavuze kó muu nzu hataatsé 'they just said that the house is decorated inside
(ha-taak-ye) 'they just said that the house has no light inside (ha-ta-aak-ye)
ubwo ndabá nzíra ikí? 'why should I come'? (n-z-ir-a)
'why should I be harassed'? (n-zir-a)
twaáraanganye 'we have hated each other' (tu-aára-ang-an-ye)
'we have got the same size' (tu-áara-ngan-ye)
inká zishobora kuuza 'the cows can ruminate' (ku-uz-a)
'the cows can come' (ku-´z-a)
baraaza bakaanga umwáana 'they come and hate the child' (ba-ka-aang-a)
'they came and scared the child (ba-kaang-a)
bámubwiiye yaakwéemera 'If they told him/her, s/he would accept' (a-aa-éemer-a)
'If they told him/her, s/he would believe you (a-aa-ku-éemer-a)
Nshóonje naakwíiba 'If I were hungry, I would steal (n-aa-íib-a)
'If I were hungry, I would rob you (n-aa-ku-íib-a)
Hátaboná twaakwaaka isítimú 'If it were dark, we would ask for a flashlight
'If it were dark, we would ask you for a flashlight
Bakwúumva 'They would hear' (ba-aa-úumv-a)
'They would listen to you (ba-ku-úumv-a)
Abáana na nyíraséenge ntíbaakuvugiisha
'If s/he lived with her father's sister, they would
not talk to you' (a-báan-a)
'The children and their father's sister would not talk to you' (a-ba-áana)

This type of ambiguity is similar to the English juncture phenomena.
a notion/an ocean; a night rate/a nitrate; I scream/ice cream; an aim/a name; saturday/sadder day; an ice man/a nice man; get aboard/ get a board; great ape/grey tape;
peace talks/pea stals; keep sticking/keeps ticking...

6. Structural or Syntagmatic Ambiguity

This section discusses ambiguities found in larger grammatical constituencies. The ones to be discusses are serial verb construction, relative clauses, object-subject reversal and multiple pronoun-incorporation.

6.1. Ambiguity due to verb serialization

6.1.1. Function words

Function words in Kinyarwanda namely conjunctions, subordinators, etc. derive from regular verbs or look exactly like regular verbs. This phenomenon therefore causes ambiguities at the clause or sentence level.

Twaaríiye máze ndageenda
'We ate and when I finished I left'
'We ate and then I left'
Umugabo arabúurana agatsíinda ahora arwáana
'The man goes to court as a matter of fact he is always fighting'
'The man went to court , he wins and is always fighting'.
Urétse guhámagara ndamusuura.
'If you stop calling him/her, I am going to visit him/her'
'Except calling him/her, I visit him/her'
Usíibye kujya kw'iishuúri ibiíndi tuzaabikora
'If you miss to go to school, everything else we will do'.
'Except going to school, everything else we will do'.

6.1. 2. Auxiliairies

Auxiliaries are also regular verbs, what makes them auxiliary is their position in the sentence structure. I have refered to this as syntagmatic or structural derivation.

Ababyéeyi bé barihó barakóra cyane. 'His/her parents are alive, they work very hard'.
'His/her parents are working very hard'.
Umugoré akuunda kudúhamagara nimúgorooba 'The woman likes to call us in the evening'
'The woman always calls us in the evening'
Umugoré ageenda yíiruka 'The woman walks by running'
'The woman leaves by running'
Umugoré asaanzwe anániwe 'The woman is found tired'
'The woman is always tired'
Ubwó uwo mugabo atuuyé arwáana abaándi bazamwaanga.
'Since that man is settled down and fights others will hate him'
'Since that man is always fighting others will hate him'
Abáana baraaza kuríriimba 'The children are coming to sing'
'The children are going to sing'
Ntimúzirirwe muhámagara abáana 'Don't spend the day calling the children'
'Don't ever attempt to call the children'
Siinzí kó abagabo bazaapfá bádusuuye 'I don't know if the men will die having visited us'
'I don't know if the men will ever try to visit us'
Abagoré bavuze kó abagabo basigáye bárera abáana
'The women said that the men/husbands stayed home taking care of the children'.
'The women said that the men/husbands do the babysitting now'.

6. 2. Relative clauses

There is no segmental marker to mark the relative pronoun. The relative clause verb is marked by a high tone on the nucleus of the second syllable of the verb stem if the antecedent is an object but on the nucleus of the first syllable if the antecedent is subject. The lack of a relative pronoun makes relative clauses ambiguous.

Ntituuzí umubaré w'ábaantu biíbye' We don't know the number of people who robbed/stole/kidnapped'.
we-don't-know number of people they-robbed 'We don't know the number of people that they robbed/stole/kidnapped'.
Uzi umuuntu wiíshe? 'Do you know the person who killed'?
'Do you know the person that you killed'?
Uribuuka báa bagabo abagoré baátweeretse?
'Do you remember those men that the women showed us'?
'Do you remember those men the women that they showed us'?

6. 3. Object-Subject Reversal

Object-subject reversal consists of interchanging the subject and the object. The former object acquires all the subject properties namely verb agreement. The new sentence has a passive meaning, however. This is discussed in great detail in Kimenyi (1980).

Umugoré ateetse ibiryó. 'The woman is cooking food'.
woman she-cooks food
Ibiryó biteetse umugoré. 'The woman is cooking food'.
food it-cooks woman

When both subjects and objects are animate, however, the ambiguity is created.

Imbwá iraryá inzóka 'the dog is eating a snake'
dog is-eating snake
Inzóka iraryá imbwá. 'the snake is biting the dog'
snake is-eating dog 'the dog is eating the snake'
Mugaanga aravuura umwáana 'the doctor is treating the child'
doctor cures child
Umwáana aravuura mugaanga 'the child is curing the doctor'
child cures doctor 'the child is cured by the doctor'

6. 4. Multiple pronoun incorporation

Like Romance languages, Kinyarwanda allows multiple object clitics into the verb. They all precede the verb stem. Like in Romance languages also, there is a strict word order. This strict order depends either on the case role hierarchy or on the person hierarchy. Thus when it is the case hierarchy, the benefactive comes close to the verb stem, followed by the dative and farther away the accusative. The only case which is not bound by this constraint is the locative which can "float" ( for more details see Kimenyi, 1980). This is illustrated in (1)

Umugoré aramukuumpéera igitabo 'The woman is giving my book to him for you' /'The woman is giving your book to him for me/'The woman is giving my book to him for you'/'The woman is giving my book to you for him'/'The woman is giving his book to you for me'/'The woman is giving his book to me for you'

Ndamúkweereka 'I am going to show him to you'/'I am going to show you to him'
Baramúumpá 'They are giving me to him'/'They are giving him to me'

In the person hierarchy, it is the reflexive morpheme (-ii-) which comes next to verb stem, followed by the first person singular or plural , followed by the second person (singular or plural) and then the third person:

ba-ra-ku-m-pa 'They are giving me to you'/ 'They are giving you to me'
ba-ra-mu-ku-m-p-éer-a 'They are giving him/her to you for me'
'They are giving you to her for me'
'They are giving me to him for you'
'They are giving me to you for him'
'They are giving you to me for him'
'They are giving him to me for you'
ba-ra-ny-íi-h-á 'They are giving themselves to me'
'They are giving me to themselves'
ba-ra-mu-kw-íiy-erek-er-a 'They are showing themselves to him/her for you'
'They are showing him/her to themselves for you'
'They are showing you to him/her for themselves'

Incorported object pronouns of causative constructions cause ambiguities as well.
When both the causee and the causer clitics appear in the same verb, there is a fixed word order also. The object of the extension always comes next to the verb stem.

ba-ra-ba-tw-aandik-iish-a 'They are making us write them'
'They are making them write us'
tu-ra-mu-ba-kúbit-iish-a 'We are having them/you(pl.) beat h
'We are having him/her beat them/you (pl.)

There is no way the ambiguity can be avoided especially when both object clitics belong to the same category (human/animate/inanimate).

7. Desemanticized expressions

Many words and expressions without any semantic content are also used in everyday language. These happen to be words or expressions which refer to greetings, exclamations, interjections, swears, dicourse fillers, surprise, . These ofcourse have meanings in other linguistic contexts.

7.1. Expressions showing surprise:

Surprise or exclamations are used when one sees something exciting or something that one were not expected to see.

Turashíze 'we are finished'
Yaámpaaye inká Rudáhigwá! '(King) Rudahigwa gave me a cow'!
Séemwaagá twaatáramye! 'Semwaga when we were in a party together!'
Mutára túri i Nyaánza! 'Mutara when we were together in Nyanza'!
dore ré! 'look!'
Ibi ni ibikí? 'What is this?"
this is what

These would correspond to English expressions such as Oh! my God! Jesus Christ!

7.2. Addressee expressions

The following expressions are used mostly when the speaker is asking him/herself questions outloud as if s/he was expecting an answer or response to the real or imagined listener.

babyeéyi baábyaaye 'mothers who gave births',
bakoóbwa baákwoowe 'girls to whom briwealth have been given',
bágabo baa maamá 'husbands of my mother',
rubáanda rw'úmwaámi 'people of the king', etc.
mugábo/mubyeéyi! 'man'/'parent'
mweéne maamá/mwaána wa máamá! 'child of my mother!'
mweéne daatá/mwaána wa dáatá! 'child of my father!'
maáma sé! 'Eh, mother!'
daáta sé! 'Eh, father!'
muvaándimwé! 'sibling!'

Again these expressions can be translated in English by some of the following: brother! man!
boy! my God.

7.3. Expressions referring to greetings:

Many of the greetings are about good wishes for wealth, health, and longetivity.
Others, however, out of an appropriate context, can be ambiguous:
For instance, Nimuduhé! 'Give us' is used when entering somebody's house-compound to announce oneself. Ngaahó turakóra. 'You see us working!' is the response.
Muraaré aharyáana 'spend the night where (the body) itches' is equivalent to Goodnight! in English. In other words, it means exactly the same as the other expression which is used namely uraramuke(hó) 'survive the night!'. The body which doesn't itch is a dead body.

7.4. Polite expressions used to leave the interlocutor

These desemanticized or conventionalized expressions are illustrated by the following examples:

Reka ntaahé umugabo ataankúbita.
leave I-go-home husband doesn't-beat me'
'Let me go home so that my husband doesn't beat me up'.

Ndagiiye maabuja ataanyírukana.
I-leave my-female-boss dosn't-kick-me-out
'I am leaving so that my wife doesn't kick me out!'

Rwandan husbands don't beat their wives and the wives cannot kick their husbands out since the husband is the head of the household and is the one who can repudiate his wife.

All these words and expressions, even though they are now devoid of semantic content, were at once tropes. But because of cultural change and linguistic dynamism, they have reached the level of the symbolic sign: the linguistic opacity and lack of relation between the linguistic sign and what it stands for. For instance, many expressions referring to the king especially in greetings, exclamations and swearing are still used in the language eventhough the country has been a republic for the last four decades.


A complete adequate grammar of natural languages has to generate and process, at the same time, acceptable utterances. It has to provide both the code and the decoding simultaneously. Unfortunately, for the last forty years, mainstream linguistics (generative grammar) has mostly focused on the former (sentence generation) sacrificing the latter (sentence processing). The latter seems to be more challenging, however, and more interesting because it is the one which closely deals with conceptual structures. In other words, how does the mind recognize the intended meanings when it is confronted with many competing semantic interpretations? The grammar of utterance production is indeed less complex when compared to the decoding aspect. There is indeed a small number of grammatical structures available and the rules which create them consist of a finite set of numbers as well. There is no limit, on the other hand, on what the language can express.
The human mind can be indeed understood metaphorically as a super computer where the brain is the hardware and the mind a set of of various softwares in which language is generated and precessed by its own software. These cognitive softwares (language, memory, vision, etc.) have to work simultaneously. Obviously, there must exist a central software probably the mind which does the coordination. In this approach any single linguistic item is considered as being a paradigm and a syntagm at the same time. A large structure is also viewed as being a paradigm as well. The way for instance, a linguistics department might be a paradigm when it is a university unit but a syntagm when it is a whole with its faculty and program. Unlike traditional generative grammar, parsing doesn't come after the utterance has been completed: that is from the top to the botton: sentence boundary, major constituents boundaries (NPs, VPs, etc) to small constituents. In this approach, processing starts as soon as speech starts and ends immediately when it stops. Each paradim and syntagm is also assigned all possible meanings and functions and identifies them as either homonymous or polysemous. If they are polysemous then, the parser has to tell whether they are metaphors or metonymies. This investigation into language processing has also shown that semantics cannot divorce itself from sociolinguistics. The language software or the dictionary has to recognize all the different dialects, specialized languages or jargons and the different registers for proper semantic intepretation. Communication is easier in societies with centralized governments because there exist language policies and the imposition of prescriptive grammars. A lot of cliches are thus used as opposed to societies which are not nations yet.


Kimenyi, Alexandre
1989. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi names: a semiolinguistic analysis of Bantu onomastics. New York:
The Edwin Mellen Press.
1980. A relational grammar of Kinyarwanda. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
1993. "Why is it that women in Rwanda cannot "marry"? in Locating power
Berkeley Women Linguistic Society.

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