Simplicity is a virtue, even in language

Not so long ago, the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture announced a few changes in the way Kinyarwanda is written. The announcement set off excited debate among the elite. Most ordinary people don't see what all the noise is about.

Not so long ago, the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture announced a few changes in the way Kinyarwanda is written. The announcement set off excited debate among the elite. Most ordinary people don’t see what all the noise is about.

Some of the discussion is healthy and well-informed. Some of it displays a lot of ignorance, intolerance and irrational resistance to change. For some reason, this is the shrillest. This group has made some very wild claims: they have killed our language; Kinyarwanda as we know it is dead and buried; our language has been so mutilated that it is unrecognisable, and so on.


As anyone who has read the new guidelines knows, there has been no such attempt at changing the language. What has been done is improving the way it is written, and even then in only a few instances.


Such alarmist claims do not come as a surprise. There is a long history in this country of resistance to new things, even when they are in the best interests of all of us. But first let us look at language as a whole.


What is the purpose of language and why do people anywhere learn it?

It is simple – it is primarily for communication, spoken or written. Ordinary people, and we are the majority, use language for interaction with others to express meaning of various sorts – a wish, request, search for information and many others. Except for academic study, language was never meant to be a subject for close analysis.

Experts tell us that communication is most effective when the language used is direct, simple and expressed in an easy to understand manner. Ordinary users of language stick to this principle, often unconsciously, because it comes naturally to them.

It follows therefore that the mode of communication, in this case language, should not impede, but rather facilitate this purpose.

That is why users of a language agree and adopt some conventions – orthography, phonology, syntax, and so on. But it must be understood that these are conventions, not immutable commandments written in stone and handed down through successive generations.

Over time they change. Sometimes usage forces change. Other times, different circumstances like new technology, globalisation and international relations dictate change. In many instances, because the change is incremental and over a long period of time, it is almost unnoticeable. For whatever reason, language must appropriately express and reflect these changes.

So, what happened in this particular instance to cause so much heat and noise?

All that the Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture did was to standardise an existing convention and make it easier for users of Kinyarwanda to write the language. They reduced uncertainties and, to borrow a term in common usage, made its writing user friendly. The work they did was not for experts in linguistics or pseudo linguists lately in evidence, but for ordinary people.

With the general user in mind, the Academy proposed improvements based on well-known principles of phonology (the system and pattern of sounds, or the “grammar” of sounds) because writing is a representation of the sounds of speech.

One of them is simplicity. Users of a language are usually not experts in it. Therefore, they should not be expected to have the ability to analyse the components of a word before deciding how to write it. For instance, why should the same sound in a word like icyerekezo be represented by two different symbols, cy- and ke-? Would using the same symbol for both do any harm?

Basing on this principle, similar sounds are written with the same symbols.

Another principle is that of economy of signs. You don’t want to burden users of any language with numerous symbols representing a variety of sounds. To reduce confusion and make it easier to remember, only significant spoken sounds are represented.

A third one is that of consistency.

Broadly speaking, this recognises that the primary units of a language are not merely the grammatical and structural features, but categories of functional and communicative meaning as exemplified in discourse.

The majority of the critics of the improved Kinyarwanda orthography seem to be unaware of these principles and what they aim to do: to make it easier for people to communicate in writing. They appear to belong to a school of thought which equates complexity with excellence and simplicity with mediocrity.

In reality the reverse is often true, and conscious complexity is only an excuse for excluding ordinary people who use language for uncomplicated communication.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last that efforts at standardising Kinyarwanda orthography have been made. There have been other efforts in the past. But obviously some issues, as we have seen, remain. Even the present one has not answered all the questions. As the language grows and new developments take place, the need to standardise will always arise.

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