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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why Kinyarwanda is hard: noun classes

Kinyarwanda is hard for many reasons, but one that continues to dog every Kinyarwanda learner is noun classes.

The noun class is a feature of Bantu languages that has no equivalent in English. It may be compared to the masculine and feminine nouns in French or Spanish, which must be matched to the correct form of an adjective (e.g. a tio gordo and tia gorda, or femme blanche and homme blanc). Still, even German, with its masculine, feminine and neuter, only has 6 permutations when you include singular and plural.

Kinyarwanda has 16 noun classes, marked by prefixes to the noun root. Although some line up with singular and plural (noun class 2 is the plural of noun class 1: umuntu person becomes abantu people, 4 is the plural of 3: imidugudu villages from umudugudu village, etc), there are plenty of irregulars (some class 9 nouns are pluralized with class 10, others class 6).

Sound complicated? That’s not even the hard part! In Kinyarwanda, each noun class not only must be matched by a distinct adjective prefix, but also by a verbal prefix, e.g. Impga nini irya. Additionally each noun class has its own prefix for possessives (impga yanjye, impga zanjye), demonstratives (iki kintu, ibi bintu), direct and indirect objects (which are employed as “infixes” within the verb, between the prefix for the subject and the root).

Confused? Me too.

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