Meet the lad behind the Kinyarwanda dictionary

Rowan Seymour is an Irish software developer living in Rwanda. He has developed an online dictionary (http://kinyarwanda.net) as well as a free Android app called Kumva (http://goo.gl/2W7M5) for those with Android smartphones. Education Times’ Eric Bright caught up with him for a chat.

Rowan Seymour is an Irish software developer living in Rwanda. He has developed an online dictionary (http://kinyarwanda.net) as well as a free Android app called Kumva (http://goo.gl/2W7M5) for those with Android smartphones. Education Times’ Eric Bright caught up with him for a chat.

What made you decide to develop the Kinyarwanda/English dictionary?

I initially started this project to help me learn Kinyarwanda. I was taking lessons and learning new words each week that I needed to record somewhere. I started adding them to a spreadsheet and once it got big enough, I started sharing it with other Kinyarwanda learners. I couldn’t find any good online resources so I decided to make something myself.

What’s the main goal of this dictionary?

The main goal of the dictionary is to make an online resource to help people who are learning Kinyarwanda. I have also always tried to make it helpful for Kinyarwanda speakers who are learning English. Based on the feedback I am getting it seems to be helpful for both sets of people.

When did you start?

The website went live in late 2010.  Since then it has handled over a million searches and now gets 300-500 unique visitors per day. That’s not that many users, but we haven’t had much publicity. Most people still don’t know the site exists.

How do you collect Kinyarwanda words?

In the beginning I would just ask my Kinyarwanda teacher to give me translations of any word I could think of. Later I started adding words from old dictionaries written by missionaries.

Shortly afterward I met fellow amateur lexicographer Emmanuel Habumuremyi who shared with me some of his work. It became apparent as I tried to compile these various sources into one that making good translations required discussion between native English speakers and native Kinyarwanda speakers.

So I developed the website to allow contributors to propose and discuss new words and changes to existing words. My friends Kamonyo Mugabo and John Doldo IV have made significant contributions to the project and in total there are about a dozen contributors.

I now have a Sunday tradition of asking Rwandan ‘tweeps’ (Twitter users) for their help with new translations.

What are the main challenges that you meet?

We’ve had some very interesting discussions on the website and everyone likes to think that their Kinyarwanda is the “true” Kinyarwanda. But defining the “true” Kinyarwanda is a task that we’ll leave to others like the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture.

We’re more focused on making a tool for the language that is spoken on the streets of Kigali today, whether or not it’s considered good Kinyarwanda. We’re also not in the business of defining new words ourselves so often the debates are around what constitutes common usage. That is, at what point can we say that a given word is commonly used enough in Rwanda to be considered Kinyarwanda.

Have you come across any gaps in the language that need to be addressed?

It’s true that Kinyarwanda simply doesn’t have words for a lot of modern concepts. It is interesting to look at the recent history of Kinyarwanda and see how other languages have usually filled those gaps.

Going back 100 years we can see the German influence (e.g. ishuri from schule) and later on the French influence (e.g. leta from l’état). Now it seems that most new words are entering Kinyarwanda via English (e.g. imeyili from email).

A purist will say this is a corruption of Kinyarwanda whilst others may see it as a natural evolution. France’s L’Académie Française has famously tried and failed to defend their language from borrowed words like “le weekend”, so I am not convinced that that is the best approach.

I’m also not as worried as some about the future of Kinyarwanda. Who knows whether in twenty years from now, Rwandans will refer to their computers as “mudasobwa”, “orudinateri”, or “komputa?” Perhaps the more important matter is how well they will be able to use their computers.

Finally, although Rwandans are rightly proud of their own mother tongue, it is important to note that Kinyarwanda is actually one dialect of a larger Rwanda-Rundi language that has 35 million speakers across Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, DRC and Uganda.

If a Kinyarwanda Academy wants to maintain their language as a modern and important language in East Africa and beyond, they might benefit from joining forces with linguists from all of those countries to promote a shared language together.

 

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