genealogical tree

Bantu languages

The Bantu languages (technically Narrow Bantu languages) constitute a grouping belonging to the Niger-Congo family. This grouping is deep down in the genealogical tree of the Bantoid grouping, which in turn is deep down in the Niger-Congo tree. By one estimate, there are 513 languages in the Bantu grouping, 681 languages in Bantoid, and 1,514 in Niger-Congo. Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of the present day nation of Nigeria; i.e., in the regions commonly known as central Africa, east Africa, and southern Africa. Parts of this Bantu chunk of Africa also have languages from outside the Niger-Congo family (see map).

The word Bantu was first used by Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (1827-1875) with the meaning 'people', as this is reflected in many of the languages of this group. A common characteristic of Bantu languages is that they use a stem form such as -ntu or -tu for 'person', and the plural prefix for people in many languages is ba-, together giving ba-ntu "people". Bleek, and later Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive comparative studies of Bantu language grammars.

Classification of the Bantu languages

The classification of the Bantu languages is still in an incipient state. There still is no well founded genetic classification. The most widely used system, the alphanumeric coding system developed by Malcolm Guthrie, is mainly areal. In recent decades, there have been at least two proposals for a genetic classification system to replace the Guthrie system. The "Tervuren" proposal of Bastin, Coupez, and Mann suffers from inferior methodology (its reliance on the "lexicostatistic" method) and the SIL proposal suffers from failure of its creators to publish their methodology. The Guthrie system needs to be updated, e.g., by the addition of languages previously overlooked. A classification system for a grouping of languages must be genetic to be scientifically valid; but for the time being, the development of a rigorous genetic classification of many subdivisions of Niger-Congo is hampered by insufficient data. Progress in this field depends on the production of extensive dictionaries for many more member languages.

The Guthrie, Tervuren, and SIL lists are compared side by side in Maho 2002

Language structure

The phoneme inventory of Proto-Bantu and its core vocabulary were reconstructed by Guthrie.

The most prominent grammatical characteristic of Bantu languages is the extensive use of affixes (see Sesotho grammar and Luganda language for detailed discussions of these affixes). Each noun belongs to a class, and each language may have several numbered classes, somewhat like genders in European languages. The class is indicated by a prefix on the noun, as well as on verbs and qualificative roots agreeing with it. Plural is indicated by a change of prefix.

The verb has a number of prefixes. In Swahili, for example, Mtoto mdogo amekisoma means 'The small child has read it [a book]'. Mtoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix m- and the verb subject prefix a-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book'. Pluralizing to 'children' gives Watoto wadogo wamekisoma, and pluralizing to 'books' (vitabu) gives it Watoto wadogo wamevisoma.

Bantu words are typically made up of open syllables of the type CV (consonant-vowel) with most languages having syllables exclusively of this type. The morphological shape of Bantu words is typically CV, VCV, CVCV, VCVCV, etc; that is, any combination of CV (with possibly a V- syllable at the start). In other words, a strong claim for this language family is that almost all words end in a vowel, precisely because closed syllables (CVC) are not permissible. This tendency to avoid consonant clusters is important when words are imported from English or other non-Bantu languages. An example from Chichewa: the word "school", borrowed from English, and then transformed to fit the sound patterns of this language, is sukulu. That is, sk- has been broken up by inserting an epenthetic -u-; -u has also been added at the end of the word. Another example is buledi for "bread". Similar effects are seen in loanwords for other non-African CV languages like Japanese.

The Bantu language with the largest number of speakers is Swahili (G 40), while the Bantu languages with the most native speakers are Shona and Zulu. Judging from the history of Swahili, some linguists believe that Bantu languages are on a continuum from purely tonal languages to languages with no tone at all.


Reduplication is a common morphological phenomenon in Bantu languages and is usually used to indicate frequency or intensity of the action signalled by the (unreduplicated) verb stem

  • Example: in Swahili piga means "strike", pigapiga means "strike repeatedly".

Well-known names that have reduplication include

Repetition emphasizes the repeated word in the context that it is used. For instance, "Mwenda pole hajikwai," while, "Pole pole ndio mwendo," has two to emphasize the consistency of slowness of the pace. The meaning of the former in translation is, "He who goes slowly doesn't trip," and that of the latter is, "A slow but steady pace wins the race." Haraka haraka would mean hurrying just for the sake of hurrying, reckless hurry, as in njoo! Haraka haraka [come here! Hurry, hurry].

A list of common Bantu languages

The following is a short list of Bantu languages that may be relatively well known:

Most are known in English without the class prefix (Swahili, Tswana, Ndebele), but are sometimes used with the (language-specific) prefix (Kiswahili, Setswana, Sindebele). The bare (prefixless) form typically does not occur in the language itself. So, in the country of Botswana the people are the Batswana, 'one person' is a 'Motswana', and the language is 'Setswana'.

Today most Bantu linguists would regard the southwards migration, or Bantu expansion, that started about 2000 years before present as originating in the region of eastern Nigeria or Cameroon.

Bantu words popularised in western cultures

Some words from various Bantu languages have been borrowed into western languages. These include:

Other relevant links


  • Guthrie, Malcolm. 1948. The classification of the Bantu languages. London: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.
  • Guthrie, Malcolm. 1971. Comparative Bantu, Vol 2. Farnborough: Gregg International.
  • Heine, Bernd. 1973. Zur genetische Gliederung der Bantu-Sprachen. Afrika und Übersee, 56: 164–185.
  • Maho, Jouni F. 2001. The Bantu area: (towards clearing up) a mess. Africa & Asia, 1:40–49
  • Maho, Jouni F. 2002. Bantu lineup: comparative overview of three Bantu classifications Göteborg University: Department of Oriental and African Languages.
  • Piron, Pascale. 1995. Identification lexicostatistique des groupes Bantoïdes stables. Journal of West African Languages, 25(2): 3–39.


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