Kinyarwanda and Kirundi: On Colonial Divisions, Discourses of National Belonging, and Language Boundaries

  • Nico Nassenstein Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany


The development of the Bantu languages Kinyarwanda and Kirundi is entangled within the colonial histories of Rwanda and Burundi, first under German and then Belgian rule. From the turn of the twentieth century on, missionaries compiled grammars and dictionaries of the two mutually intelligible languages, contributing to the development and instrumentalisation of two prestigious varieties out of a larger dialect continuum. In this contribution, I trace the missionary and colonial activities of corpus planning and textualisation and summarise how Kinyarwanda and Kirundi turned into official languages with distinct linguistic boundaries. The central research question is how speakers of Kinyarwanda and Kirundi thereafter came to be identified as “Rwandans” or as “Burundians,” with each language indexing a specific national categorisation. Tentatively, I contrast these developments with contemporary fluid practices in multilingual neighbourhoods.

Author Biography

Nico Nassenstein, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany

Nico Nassenstein is junior professor of African languages and linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany. He holds a PhD from the University of Cologne and works mainly in the fields of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. His research interests include variation in Kiswahili, youth language and urban/rural language practices in Africa, language and identity, and the linguistic aspects of violent conflict. He has recently developed an interest in postcolonial linguistics and the sociolinguistics of tourism. E-mail:

How to Cite
NASSENSTEIN, Nico. Kinyarwanda and Kirundi: On Colonial Divisions, Discourses of National Belonging, and Language Boundaries. Modern Africa: Politics, History and Society, [S.l.], v. 7, n. 1, p. 11-40, july 2019. ISSN 2570-7558. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 15 aug. 2020. doi: