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The Bantu languages (English: , Proto-Bantu: *bantʊ̀) are a large spoken by the of , , and Africa. They form the largest branch of the Southern Bantoid languages.

The total number of Bantu languages ranges in the hundreds, depending on the definition of "language" versus "dialect", and is estimated at between 440 and 680 distinct languages."Guthrie (1967-71) names some 440 Bantu 'varieties', Grimes (2000) has 501 (minus a few 'extinct' or 'almost extinct'), Bastin et al. (1999) have 542, Maho (this volume) has some 660, and Mann et al. (1987) have c. 680." Derek Nurse, 2006, "Bantu Languages", in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, p. 2. :Ethnologue report for Southern Bantoid" lists a total of 535 languages. The count includes 13 , which are not always included under "Narrow Bantu". For Bantuic, Part 2, Transafrican phylosector, phylozone 99 has 260 outer languages (which are equivalent to languages, inner languages being dialects). said, using a comparison of 16 languages from Bangi-Moi, Bangi-Ntamba, Koyo-Mboshi, Likwala-Sangha, Ngondi-Ngiri and Northern Mozambiquean, mostly from Guthrie Zone C, that many varieties are mutually intelligible.McWhorter, J. 2001. The Power of Babel (pp. 81-82). New York: Freeman-Times-Henry Holt.

The total number of Bantu speakers is in the hundreds of millions, estimated around 350 million in the mid-2010s (roughly 30% of the total population of Africa or roughly 5% of ).Total population cannot be established with any accuracy due to the unavailability of precise census data from Sub-Saharan Africa. A number just above 200 million was cited in the early 2000s (see for a 2007 compilation of data from , citing 210 million). Population estimates for West-Central Africa were recognized as significantly too low by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2015 (). Population growth in Central-West Africa as of 2015 is estimated at between 2.5% and 2.8% p.a., for an annual increase of the Bantu population by about 8 to 10 million. Bantu languages are largely spoken southeast of , throughout , and . About one-sixth of Bantu speakers, and about one-third of Bantu languages, are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone (c. 60 million speakers as of 2015). See list of Bantu peoples.

The Bantu language with the largest total number of speakers is ; however, for the majority of its speakers it is a (: c. 16 million, L2: 80 million, as of 2015). "Swahili" , Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015): "47,000,000 in Tanzania, all users. L1 users: 15,000,000 (2012), increasing. L2 users: 32,000,000 (2015 D. Nurse). Total users in all countries: 98,310,110 (as L1: 16,010,110; as L2: 82,300,000)."

Other major Bantu languages include Xhosa with 13 million speakers ( and ), with 12 million and with less than 10 million speakers (if and are included); Zimbabwe has Kalanga, Matebele, Nambiya and Xhosa speakers. separates the largely mutually intelligible and , which together have 20 million speakers.

The similarity among dispersed Bantu languages had been observed as early as the 17th century.R. Blench, Archaeology, Language, and the African Past (2006), p. 119. . The term Bantu as a name for the group was coined (as Bâ-ntu) by in 1857 or 1858, and popularised in his Comparative Grammar of 1862. He coined the term to represent the word for "people" in loosely reconstructed , from the plural prefix categorizing "people", and the root *ntʊ̀- "some (entity), any" (e.g. Zulu umuntu "person", abantu "people").

There is no indigenous term for the group, as Bantu-speaking populations refer to themselves by their , but did not have a concept for the larger ethno-linguistic phylum. Bleek's coinage was inspired by the anthropological observation of groups frequently self-identifying as "people" or "the true people" (as is the case, for example, with the term , but this is a kare "praise address" and not an ethnic name).R. K. Herbert and R. Bailey in Rajend Mesthrie (ed.), Language in South Africa (2002), p. 50. .

The term narrow Bantu, excluding those languages classified as by Guthrie (1948), was introduced in the 1960s. Studies in African Linguistics: Supplement, Issues 3–4, Department of Linguistics and the African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles (1969), p. 7.

The prefix ba- specifically refers to people. Endonymically, the term for cultural objects, including language, is formed with the (Nguni ), as in KiSwahili (Swahili language and culture), IsiZulu (Zulu language and culture) and KiGanda (Ganda religion and culture).

In the 1980s, South African linguists suggested referring to these languages as KiNtu. The word kintu exists in some places, but it means "thing", with no relation to the concept of "language".Joshua Wantate Sempebwa, The Ontological and Normative Structure in the Social Reality of a Bantu Society: A Systematic Study of Ganda Ontology and Ethics, 1978, p. 71. In addition, delegates at the African Languages Association of Southern Africa conference in 1984 reported that, in some places, the term Kintu has a derogatory significance. This is because kintu refers to "things" and is used as a dehumanizing term for people who have lost their dignity.Molefi Kete Asante, Ama Mazama, Encyclopedia of African Religion (2009), p. 173. .

In addition, is a figure in some mythologies.David William Cohen, The Historical Tradition of Busoga, Mukama and Kintu (1972). Joseph B. R. Gaie, Sana Mmolai, The Concept of Botho and HIV/AIDS in Botswana (2007), p. 2. .

In the 1990s, the term Kintu was still occasionally used by South African in Noverino N. Canonici, A Manual of Comparative Kintu Studies, Zulu Language and Literature, University of Natal (1994). But in contemporary decolonial South African linguistics, the term Ntu languages is used.

The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now in .Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations, (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169. An estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (1000 BC to 500 BC), speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where now constitute nearly the entire population.Toyin Falola, Aribidesi Adisa Usman, Movements, borders, and identities in Africa, (University Rochester Press: 2009), p.4. Some other sources estimate the Bantu Expansion started closer to 3000 BC.Gemma Berniell-Lee et al, "Genetic and Demographic Implications of the Bantu Expansion: Insights from Human Paternal Lineages" , Oxford Journals

The technical term Bantu, meaning "human beings" or simply "people", was first used by (1827–1875), as the concept is reflected in many of the languages of this group. A common characteristic of Bantu languages is that they use words such as muntu or mutu for "human being" or in simplistic terms "person", and the plural prefix for human nouns starting with mu- (class 1) in most languages is ba- (class 2), thus giving bantu for "people". Bleek, and later , pursued extensive studies comparing the grammatical structures of Bantu languages.

The most widely used classification is an alphanumeric coding system developed by in his 1948 classification of the Bantu languages. It is mainly geographic. The term "narrow Bantu" was coined by the Benue–Congo Working Group to distinguish Bantu as recognized by Guthrie, from the Bantoid languages not recognized as Bantu by Guthrie.

In recent times, the distinctiveness of Narrow Bantu as opposed to the other Southern Bantoid languages has been called into doubt (cf. Piron 1995, Williamson & Blench 2000, Blench 2011), but the term is still widely used.

There is no true genealogical classification of the (Narrow) Bantu languages. Until recently most attempted classifications only considered languages that happen to fall within traditional Narrow Bantu, but there seems to be a continuum with the related languages of South Bantoid.

At a broader level, the family is commonly split in two depending on the reflexes of proto-Bantu tone patterns: Many Bantuists group together parts of zones A through D (the extent depending on the author) as Northwest Bantu or Forest Bantu, and the remainder as Central Bantu or Savanna Bantu. The two groups have been described as having mirror-image tone systems: where Northwest Bantu has a high tone in a cognate, Central Bantu languages generally have a low tone, and vice versa.

Northwest Bantu is more divergent internally than Central Bantu, and perhaps less conservative due to contact with non-Bantu Niger–Congo languages; Central Bantu is likely the innovative line cladistically. Northwest Bantu is clearly not a coherent family, but even for Central Bantu the evidence is lexical, with little evidence that it is a historically valid group.

Another attempt at a detailed genetic classification to replace the Guthrie system is the 1999 "Tervuren" proposal of Bastin, Coupez, and Mann.The Guthrie, Tervuren, and SIL lists are compared side by side in Maho 2002. However, it relies on , which, because of its reliance on overall similarity rather than , may predict spurious groups of . Meanwhile, has added languages to the Guthrie classification which Guthrie overlooked, while removing the (much of zone A), and shifting some languages between groups (much of zones D and E to a new zone J, for example, and part of zone L to K, and part of M to F) in an apparent effort at a semi-genetic, or at least semi-areal, classification. This has been criticized for sowing confusion in one of the few unambiguous ways to distinguish Bantu languages. Nurse & Philippson (2006) evaluate many proposals for low-level groups of Bantu languages, but the result is not a complete portrayal of the family. has incorporated many of these into their classification.

The languages that share Dahl's law may also form a valid group, Northeast Bantu. The infobox at right lists these together with various low-level groups that are fairly uncontroversial, though they continue to be revised. The development of a rigorous genealogical classification of many branches of Niger–Congo, not just Bantu, is hampered by insufficient data.Bryan, M.A.(compiled by), The Bantu Languages of Africa. Published for the International African Institute, Oxford University Press, 1959.

Computational phylogenetic classifications
Simplified phylogeny of northwestern branches of Bantu by Grollemund (2012):Grollemund, Rebecca. 2012. Nouvelles approches en classification : Application aux langues bantu du Nord-Ouest . Ph.D Dissertation, Université Lumière Lyon 2, Lyon, 550 pp.

Other computational phylogenetic analyses of Bantu include Currie et al. (2013),Currie, Thomas E., Andrew Meade, Myrtille Guillon, Ruth Mace (2013). "Cultural phylogeography of the Bantu Languages of sub-Saharan Africa". . Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2013, Volume 280, issue 1762 Grollemund et al. (2015),Grollemund, Rebecca Simon Branford, Koen Bostoen, Andrew Meade, Chris Venditti, and Mark Pagel (2015). "Bantu expansion shows that habitat alters the route and pace of human dispersals". . PNAS October 27, 2015. 112 (43), 13296–13301. Rexova et al. 2006,Rexová, K., Bastin, Y., Frynta, D. 2006. "Cladistic analysis of Bantu languages: a new tree based on combined lexical and grammatical data". Naturwissenschaften 93, 189–194. Holden et al., 2016,Holden, C., Meade, A., Pagel, M. 2016. "Comparison of MP and Bayesian Bantu Trees" (Chp. 4). In: The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: a Phylogenetic Approach, Ruth Mace, Clare Holden, Stephen Shennan (eds.)(Amazon Look Inside)(in Britain 1st published by UCL Press, 2005). and Whiteley et al. 2018.Whiteley, P.M., Ming Xue, Wheeler, W.C. 2018. Revising the Bantu tree. Cladistics, 1-20 (

Glottolog classification
( 2021) does not consider the older geographic classification by Guthrie relevant for its ongoing classification based on more recent linguistic studies, and Divides Bantu into four main branches (Bantu A-B10-B20-B30, Central-Western Bantu, and Mbam-Bube-Jarawan).

Language structure
Guthrie reconstructed both the phonemic inventory and the vocabulary of Proto-Bantu.

The most prominent characteristic of Bantu languages is the extensive use of (see and Ganda noun classes for detailed discussions of these affixes). Each noun belongs to a , and each language may have several numbered classes, somewhat like grammatical gender in European languages. The class is indicated by a prefix that is part of the noun, as well as agreement markers on verb and qualificative roots connected with the noun. Plural is indicated by a change of class, with a resulting change of prefix. All Bantu languages are .

The verb has a number of prefixes, though in the western languages these are often treated as independent words.Derek Nurse, 2008. Tense and aspect in Bantu, p 70 (fn). In many of the Zone A, including , the verbs are clearly analytic. In , for example, Kitoto kidogo kimekisoma (for comparison, Kamwana kadoko karikuverenga in ) means 'The small child has read it a'. Kitoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix ki- (representing the diminutive form of the word) and the verb subject prefix ki-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book' (from Arabic kitab). Pluralizing to 'children' gives Vitoto vidogo vimekisoma ( Vana vadoko varikuverenga in Shona), and to 'books' ( vitabu) gives Vitoto vidogo vimevisoma.

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 recorded by , however, has final consonants,Vansina, J. Esquisse de Grammaire Bushong. Commission de Linguistique Africaine, Tervuren, Belgique, 1959. while slurring of the final syllable (though written) is reported as common among the Tonga of Malawi.Turner, Rev. Wm. Y., Tumbuka–Tonga$1–$2 $3ictionEnglish Dictionary Hetherwick Press, Blantyre, Malawi 1952. pages i–ii. 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 in most of the documented languages, as far as is understood.

This tendency to avoid consonant clusters in some positions is important when words are imported from or other non-Bantu languages. An example from : 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 -u-; -u has also been added at the end of the word. Another example is buledi for "bread". Similar effects are seen in for other non-African CV languages like Japanese. However, a clustering of sounds at the beginning of a syllable can be readily observed in such languages as Shona,Doke, Clement M., A Comparative Study in Shona Phonetics University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 1931. and the . Relatório do I Seminário sobre a Padronização da Ortografia de Línguas Moçambicanas NELIMO, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. 1989.

With few exceptions, such as and , Bantu languages are tonal and have two to four register tones.

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.Abdulaziz Lodhi, " Verbal extensions in Bantu (the case of Swahili and Nyamwezi)". Africa & Asia, 2002, 2:4–26, Göteborg University

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

Well-known words and names that have reduplication include:

  • Bafana Bafana, a football team
  • Chipolopolo, a football team
  • Eric Djemba-Djemba, a footballer
  • , a footballer
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.

In contrast, there are some words in some of the languages in which reduplication has the opposite meaning. It usually denotes short durations, and or lower intensity of the action and also means a few repetitions or a little bit more.

  • Example 1: In Xi and , famba means "walk" while famba-famba means "walk around".
  • Example 2: in and Si hamba means "go", hambahamba means "go a little bit, but not much".
  • Example 3: in both of the above languages shaya means "strike", shayashaya means "strike a few more times lightly, but not heavy strikes and not too many times".
  • Example 4: In means "scratch", Kwenyakwenya means "scratch excessively or a lot".

Noun class
The following is a list of nominal classes in Bantu languages:
*mʊ-*ba-Humans, animate
*mu-*mi-Plants, inanimate
*dɪ-*ma-Various; class 6 for liquids ()
*ki-*bɪ-Various, diminutives, manner/way/language
*n-*n-Animals, inanimate
*du- Abstract nouns
*bu- Abstract nouns
*pa-Locatives (proximal, exact)
*ku-Locatives (distal, approximate)
*mu-Locatives (interior)

Virtually all Bantu languages have a Subject–verb–object word order with some exceptions such as the Nen language which has a Subject-Object-Verb word order.
(2008). 9780199239290 .

By country
Following is an incomplete list of the principal Bantu languages of each country. Included are those languages that constitute at least 1% of the population and have at least 10% the number of speakers of the largest Bantu language in the country.

Most languages are referred to in English without the class prefix ( Swahili, Tswana, Ndebele), but are sometimes seen with the (language-specific) prefix ( Kiswahili, Setswana, Sindebele). In a few cases prefixes are used to distinguish languages with the same root in their name, such as Tshiluba and Kiluba (both Luba), and (both Mbundu). The prefixless form typically does not occur in the language itself, but is the basis for other words based on the ethnicity. So, in the country of the people are the , one person is a Motswana, and the language is ; and in , centred on the kingdom of , the dominant ethnicity are the (singular Muganda), whose language is .




Swahili is recognized national language


Central African Republic

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Swahili is recognized national language

Equatorial Guinea

Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)



Swahili and English are national languages




Swahili is recognized national language



Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)


Swahili, Kinyarwanda, English and French are official languages


South Africa According to the South African National Census of 2011South African National Census of 2011


Swahili is the national language


Swahili and English are official languages



Geographic areas
Map 1 shows Bantu languages in Africa and map 2 a magnification of the Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon area, as of July 2017.

Bantu words popularised in western cultures
A case has been made out for borrowings of many place-names and even misremembered rhymes – chiefly from one of the varieties – in the USA.
(1979). 9780934934015, Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California. .

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

Writing systems
Along with the and orthographies, there are also some modern indigenous writing systems used for Bantu languages:
  • The Mwangwego alphabet is an created in 1979 that is sometimes used to write the and other languages of .
  • The is an that is used to write the Bantu languages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mainly by the movement.
  • The Isibheqe Sohlamvu or Ditema tsa Dinoko script is a featural syllabary used to write the siNtu or Southern Bantu languages.

See also


Further reading
  • .
  • KNAPPERT, JAN. “The Bantu Languages: An Appraisal”. In: European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv Für Soziologie, vol. 28, no. 2, 1987, pp. 177–91. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Nov. 2022.

External links

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