Tone contrasts

There are two tone levels: high and low. Either can occur on a syllable with a short vowel. High tone is indicated with an acute accent (e.g. [á]), while low tone is unmarked. A syllable with high tone is higher in pitch than a comparable syllable with low tone. Tone is not marked in the orthography.

The following items have low tone throughout.

umuntu [umu:nɦuʰ] "person"
kumirana  [kumiɾanaʰ] "to swallow each other"

These items have high tone on the penultimate syllable:

ururimi  [uɾuɾímiʰ] "language"
inyana [iɲánaʰ] "calf/calves"
munini [muníniʰ] "big"

A long vowel can have low tone throughout (as in umuntu above), or have high on either mora. A high tone on the first mora yields a high-low falling tone sequence on the vowel, as on the penultimate syllable of the following items:

umwana  [umŋâ:naʰ] "child"
umunyu [umû:ɲuʰ] "salt"
bararara [βaɾaɾâ:ɾaʰ] "they will spend the night"

High tone on the second mora of a long vowel yields a low-high rising tone sequence on the syllable, as in the penultimate syllable of the following items:

umwami [umŋǎ:miʰ] "king"
umunani [umunǎ:niʰ] "eight"
umwanya  [umŋǎ:ɲaʰ] "seat, time"

A high tone can only occupy one mora in Kinyarwanda, so there are no long vowels with high tone on both moras.

On the phonetics of the tone contrast, see Myers (2003).

Myers, S. (2003). F0 timing in Kinyarwanda. Phonetica 60. 71-97.