Bantu languages

Bantu languages
Subsaharan Africa, mostly Southern Hemisphere
Linguistic classification: Niger–Congo
  • Atlantic–Congo
    • Benue–Congo
      • Bantoid
        • Southern Bantoid
          • Bantu
Zones A–S (geographic)
Northeast Bantu
Kavango – Southwest
Southern Bantu
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: bnt
African language families en.svg
Map showing the approximate distribution of Bantu vs. other Niger–Congo languages.

The Bantu languages (technically Narrow Bantu languages) constitute a traditional sub-branch of the Niger–Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility,[1] though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and Ethnologue counts 535 languages.[2] Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of the present day country of Cameroon; i.e., in the regions commonly known as central Africa, east Africa, and southern Africa. Parts of the Bantu area include languages from other language families (see map).

According to Ethnologue, several Bantu languages are among the most widely-spoken languages in Africa, including Shona, and Zulu.[3] The Bantu language with the largest total number of speakers is Swahili. It has over 80 million speakers across eight countries and this number is growing. Shona alone has an estimated 10.8 million speakers in Zimbabwe. Zulu comes second with 10.3 million speakers.[4] Ethnologue lists Manyika and Ndau as separate languages, though Shona speakers consider them to be two of the five main dialects of Shona. If the 3.4 million Manyika and Ndau speakers are included among the Shona, then Shona totals 14.2 million first-language speakers.

Bantu languages are believed to have originated in the general Nigeria and Cameroon area of West Africa.[5] Between 2500–3000 years ago, speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group began a millennia-long series of migrations eastward and southward. This agricultural Bantu expansion is suggested to have played a significant role in populating the Sub-Saharan region, an area where Bantu peoples now constitute a dominant population element.[5][6]

The technical term Bantu, simply meaning "people", was first used by Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (1827–1875), as this 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 "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 Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive studies comparing the grammatical structures of Bantu languages.



The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J. The Jarawan languages are spoken in Nigeria.

The term 'narrow Bantu' was coined by the Benue–Congo Working Group to distinguish Bantu as recognized by Malcolm Guthrie in his seminal 1948 classification of the Bantu languages from Bantoid languages not recognized as Bantu by Guthrie (1948). In recent times, the distinctness of Narrow Bantu as opposed to the other Southern Bantoid groups has been called into doubt (cf. Piron 1995, Williamson & Blench 2000, Blench 2011), but the term is still widely used. A coherent classification of Narrow Bantu will likely need to exclude many of the Zone A and perhaps Zone B languages.

There is no genealogical classification of the (Narrow) Bantu languages. The most widely used system, the alphanumeric coding system developed by Guthrie, is mainly geographic. However, based on reflexes of proto-Bantu tone patterns, zones A–C and part of D are grouped together as Northwest Bantu (or Forest Bantu), and zones D–S as Central Bantu (or Savanna Bantu). Northwest Bantu is more divergent internally than Central Bantu, and perhaps less conservative due to contact with non-Bantu Niger–Congo languages; however, Central Bantu is likely the innovative line cladistically, with Northwest being the non-Central languages, not a family in their own right. Most attempted classifications are problematic as they consider only languages which happen to fall within traditional Narrow Bantu, rather than South Bantoid, which has been established, as a whole.

The only attempt at a detailed genetic classification to replace the Guthrie system is the 1999 "Tervuren" proposal of Bastin, Coupez, and Mann.[7] However, it relies on lexicostatistics, which, because it relies on similarity, rather than shared innovations, can lead to grouping together conservative languages which are not closely related. Meanwhile, Ethnologue has added languages to the Guthrie classification that Guthrie overlooked, while removing the Mbam languages (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. However, zone S (Southern Bantu) does appear to be a coherent group. The languages which share Dahl's Law may also form a valid group, Northeast Bantu. The development of a rigorous genealogical classification of many subdivisions of Niger–Congo, not just Bantu, is hampered by insufficient data. Production of publications on all African languages has been spasmodic and many have never been documented at all, although no doubt used, valued, and celebrated as a mark of identity by those who speak them.

Language structure

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

The most prominent grammatical characteristic of Bantu languages is the extensive use of affixes (see Sotho grammar and Ganda noun classes 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 that's 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.

The verb has a number of prefixes, though in the western languages these are often treated as independent words.[8] In Swahili, for example, Mtoto mdogo amekisoma, (also Kamwana kadoko kariverenga in Shona language) 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 (Vana vadoko variverenga in Shona), and pluralizing to 'books' (vitabu) gives 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 Bushong language recorded by Vansina, however, has final consonants,[9] while slurring of the final syllable (though written) is reported as common among the Tonga of Malawi.[10] 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 we are aware. This tendency to avoid consonant clusters is some positions 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. However, a clustering of sounds at the beginning of a syllable can be readily observed in such languages as Shona,[11] and the Makhuwa variants.[12]


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 [2]

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

Well-known words and names that have reduplication include

  • Bafana Bafana
  • Chipolopolo
  • Eric Djemba-Djemba
  • Lualua
  • Ngorongoro
  • Polepole (Swahili for slowly, or slowly-slowly). – In swahili pole means sorry, to express sympathy.
  • Haraka-haraka (Swahili for quickly, or quickly-quickly, compare with vite-vite in French, that has the approximate meaning to 'fast-fast' in English).

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].

On the contrary to the above definition, 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 isiZulu and SiSwati hamba means "go", hambahamba means "go-go meaning go a little bit, but not much".
  • Example 2: in both of the above languages shaya means "strike", shayashaya means "strike-strike, meaning strike a few more times lightly, but not heavy strikes and not too many times"

Notable Bantu languages

Following are the principal Bantu languages of each country.[13] 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 best known 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), Umbundu and Kimbundu (both Mbundu). The bare (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 Botswana the people are the Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language is Setswana; and in Uganda, centred on the kingdom of Buganda, the dominant ethnicity are the Baganda (sg. Muganda), whose language is Luganda.

Lingua franca

  • Swahili (Kiswahili) (350,000; tens of millions as L2)


  • South Mbundu (Umbundu) (4 million)
  • North Mbundu (Kimbundu) (3 million)
  • Ovambo (Ambo) (Oshiwambo) (500,000)
  • Luvale (Chiluvale) (500,000)
  • Chokwe (Chichokwe) (500,000)


  • Tswana (Setswana) (1 million)
  • Kalanga (Ikalanga) (150,000)



Central African Republic

Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa)

  • Lingala (Ngala) (2 million; 7 million with L2 speakers)
  • Luba-Kasai (Tshiluba) (6.5 million)
  • Kituba (4.5 million), a Bantu creole
  • Kongo (Kikongo) (3.5 million)
  • Luba-Katanga (Kiluba) (1.5+ million)
  • Songe (Lusonge) (1+ million)
  • Nande (Orundandi) (1 million)
  • Tetela (Otetela) (800,000)
  • Yaka (Iyaka) (700,000+)
  • Shi (700,000)
  • Yombe (Kiyombe) (670,000)

Equatorial Guinea


  • Gikuyu (7 million)
  • Luhya (5.4 million)
  • Kamba (4 million)
  • Meru (Kimeru) (2.7 million)
  • Gusii (2 million)


  • Sotho (Sesotho) (1.8 million)
  • Zulu (Isizulu) (300,000)




Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)

  • Kituba (1.2+ million) [a Bantu creole]
  • Kongo (Kikongo) (1.0 million)
  • Teke languages (500,000)
  • Yombe (350,000)
  • Suundi (120,000)
  • Mbosi (110,000)
  • Lingala (100,000; ? L2 speakers)


South Africa

  • Zulu (Isizulu) (10 million)
  • Xhosa (Isixhosa) (8 million)
  • Sotho (Sesotho) (4 million)
  • Pedi (Sepedi) (4 million)
  • Tswana (Setswana) (3.5 million)
  • Tsonga (Xitsonga) (2 million)
  • Swazi (Siswati) (1 million)
  • Venda (Tshivenda) (1 million)


  • Swazi (Siswati) (1 million)


Swahili is the national language
  • Sukuma (5.5 million)
  • Gogo (1.5 million)
  • Haya (Kihaya) (1.3 million)
  • Chaga (Kichaga) (1.2+ million : 600,000 Mochi, 300,000+ Machame, 300,000+ Vunjo)
  • Nyamwezi (1.0 million)
  • Makonde (1.0 million)
  • Ha (1.0 million)
  • Nyakyusa (800,000)
  • Hehe (800,000)
  • Luguru (700,000)
  • Bena (600,000)
  • Shambala (650,000)
  • Nyaturu (600,000)


  • Ganda (Luganda) (7.5 million)
  • Nkore-Kiga (3.5 million : 2.3 million Nyankore, 1.2 million Kiga (Chiga))
  • Soga (Lusoga) (2 million)
  • Masaba (Lumasaba) (1.1 million)
  • Nyoro-Tooro (1.1 million)
  • Kinyarwanda (Kinyarwanda) (750,000)
  • Konjo (600,000)
  • Gwere (400,000)



This list is incomplete; an attempt at a full list of Bantu languages (with various conflations and a puzzlingly diverse nomenclature) was found in The Bantu Languages of Africa, 1959.[14]

Bantu words popularised in western cultures

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

A case has been made out for borrowings of many place-names and even misremembered rhymes such as "Here we go looby-loo ... " – chiefly from one of the Luba varieties – in the USA.[15]


The subclassification of Bantu is not well established. Following are the groups that are generally accepted. See Guthrie classification of Bantu languages for details.

  • Luban
  • Lunda
  • Rukwa
  • Sabi–Botatwe
  • Nyasa
  • Rufiji–Ruvuma
  • Umbundu
  • Kavango – Southwest Bantu
  • Yeyi
  • Shona
  • Southern Bantu
  • (unclassified): Guru, Ngbinda, Kare, Nyanga-li, Bwela, Ngbee, Lwalu

See also


  • Biddulph, Joseph, Bantu Byways Pontypridd 2001. ISBN 978-1-897999-30-1.
  • 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.


  1. ^ Derek Nurse, 2006, "Bantu Languages", in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics
  2. ^ Ethnologue report for Southern Bantoid. The figure of 535 includes the 13 Mbam languages considered Bantu in Guthrie's classification and thus counted by Nurse (2006)
  3. ^ Derived from Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries: by Language Size
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ a b Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations, (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169.
  6. ^ Toyin Falola, Aribidesi Adisa Usman, Movements, borders, and identities in Africa, (University Rochester Press: 2009), p.4.
  7. ^ The Guthrie, Tervuren, and SIL lists are compared side by side in Maho 2002.
  8. ^ Derek Nurse, 2008. Tense and aspect in Bantu, p 70 (fn). In many of the Zone A, including Mbam, the verbs are clearly analytic.
  9. ^ Vansina, J. Esquisse de Grammaire Bushong. Commission de Linguistique Africaine, Tervuren, Belgique, 1959.
  10. ^ Turner, Rev. Wm. Y., Tumbuka–Tonga$1–$2 $3ictionEnglish Dictionary Hetherwick Press, Blantyre, Malawi 1952. pages i–ii.
  11. ^ Doke, Clement M., A Comparative Study in Shona Phonetics University of Witwatersrand, Johannesberg, 1931.
  12. ^ Relatório do I Seminário sobre a Padronização da Ortografia de Línguas Moçambicanas NELIMO, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. 1989.
  13. ^ According to Ethnologue
  14. ^ Bryan, M.A. (compiled by), The Bantu Languages of Africa. Published for the International African Institute by the Oxford University Press, 1959.
  15. ^ Vass, Winifred Kellersberger, The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California Los Angeles, 1979.

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