This is my first post that is not about art, but anyone who knows me can tell you that art is only a fraction of my interests. This post is about linguistics.
We went to church in Kigali today, and they sang a song titled Yahweh. It got me to thinking about the Hebrew word Yahweh, and the Kinyarwanda word Yawe. Both of these words are pronounced the same, and together they pack a ton of meaning. So, I want to share a brief explanation of these two words.
Yahweh is a word that is often used in churches, but its meaning is a lot deeper than most people realize because it is not possible to translate directly into English. In English bibles it is translated as I am, but that definition does not do justice to the name of God. Yahweh in Hebrew is spelled YHVH. Some pronounce it Jahovah, and many say YAH-weh, but most likely the correct pronunciation is yeh-VAH. If you ask a Hebrew expert how to say it, they will tell you that you don’t. In Jewish tradition this word is too sacred to be spoken or even written.
Almost all Hebrew words have a root of three letters, which then have prefixes and suffixes that give more information about the root. The root of YHVH is HVH, which is the verb To be. Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that the first thing you learn is to conjugate to be. In English you learn I am, in French you learn Je suis, and in Kinyarwanda you learn Ndi. The Y in YHVH is a prefix that makes it personal. That is why it is often translated as I am. However, the word is not complete. YHVH is missing a prefix to give it gender, plurality, or tense. For example, VYHVH means I (singular male) am (present tense). Without the missing prefix, Yahweh directly translates to I/we (masculine or feminine) was/were/am/are/will be. It is singular, plural, masculine, feminine, past, present, and future.
A better definition for the word Yahweh is Existence. So, when God says “I am YHVH, that is my name.” He is really saying, “I am Existence, that is my name.”
Here is an etching that I made a few years ago to represent the Kabbalic tree of life. At the top is the Hebrew YHVH. I would need a separate post to explain this image and what it means.
Now, the Kinyarwanda word yawe is also pronounced YAH-weh. It is a possessive pronoun which means it is yours. In Kinyarwanda, the word for God is Imana. This word implies that God is a thing, not a person. Many Rwandan names reference God as an it. For example: Ndayishimiye = I am happy about it. Saying it without specifying what noun it is referring to implies that you are talking about God. Saying only the word yawe is to say God is yours.
Together, the phrase Yahweh yawe, combines Hebrew and Kinyarwanda to mean Existence which is yours.