The Bantu languages (English: /ˈbæntuː/, Proto-Bantu: *bantʊ̀) technically the Narrow Bantu languages, as opposed to "Wide Bantu", a loosely defined categorization which includes other "Bantoid" languages, are a large family of languages spoken by the Bantu peoples throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
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. 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 world population). Bantu languages are largely spoken east and south of Cameroon, throughout Central Africa, Southeast Africa and Southern Africa. About one sixth of the Bantu speakers, and about one third of Bantu languages, are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone (c. 60 million speakers as of 2015). See list of Bantu peoples.
Other major Bantu languages include Zulu, with 27 million speakers (15.7 million L2), and Shona, with about 11 million speakers (if Manyika and Ndau are included). Ethnologue separates the largely mutually intelligible Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, which, if grouped together, have 12.4 million speakers.
|Africa, mostly Southern Hemisphere|
|ISO 639-2 / 5||bnt|
Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.
The similarity between dispersed Bantu languages had been observed as early as in the 17th century. The term "Bantu" as a name or the group was coined (as Bâ-ntu) by Wilhelm Bleek in 1857 or 1858, and popularised in his Comparative Grammar of 1862. The name was coined to represent the word for "people" in loosely reconstructed Proto-Bantu, from the plural noun class prefix *ba- categorizing "people", and the root *ntʊ̀ - "some (entity), any" (e.g. Zulu umuntu "person", abantu "people"). There is no native term for the group, as Bantu populations refer to themselves by their tribal endonyms but did not have a concept for the larger ethno-linguistic phylum. Bleek's coinage was inspired by the anthropological observation of groups self-identifying as "people" or "the true people" (as is indeed the case, for example, with the Khoikhoi of South Africa).
The prefix ba- in Bantu specifically refers to people, not language. In Bantu itself, the term for languages is formed with the ki- noun class (Nguni ísi-), as in Kiswahili "coast-language" and isiZulu "Zulu language". Apparently inspired by this pattern, there was a suggestion in South Africa to refer to Bantu languages as "Kintu" in the 1980s. The suggestion was immediately abandoned. Not only does the word kintu exist, meaning "thing" with no relation to the concept of "language", it was also reported by delegates at the African Languages Association of Southern Africa conference in 1984 that in some Bantu languages, the term 'Kintu' has a derogatory significance, that is, kintu refers to "things" and is used as a dehumanizing term of people who have lost their dignity. In addition, Kintu is a figure in some Bantu mythologies. The term "Kintu" apparently still saw occasional use in the 1990s in South Africa.
The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now Cameroon in Central Africa. An estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (1000 BC to 500 BC), although other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC, speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.
The technical term Bantu, meaning "human beings" or simply "people", was first used by Wilhelm 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 "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 Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive studies comparing the grammatical structures of Bantu languages.
The most widely used classification is an alphanumeric coding system developed by Malcolm Guthrie 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. A coherent classification of Narrow Bantu will likely need to exclude many of the Zone A and perhaps Zone B languages.
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. However, it relies on lexicostatistics, which, because of its reliance on similarity rather than shared innovations, may predict spurious groups of conservative languages that are not closely related. Meanwhile, Ethnologue has added languages to the Guthrie classification which 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. 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. Glottolog 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.
Guthrie reconstructed both the phonemic inventory and the 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 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.
The verb has a number of prefixes, though in the western languages these are often treated as independent words. In Swahili, for example, Kitoto kidogo amekisoma (for comparison, Kamwana kadoko karikuverenga in Shona language) means 'The small child has read it [a book]'. Kitoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix ki-('ki' being a prefix representing the diminutive form of the word) and the verb subject prefix a-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book' (from Arabic kitab). Pluralizing to 'children' gives Watoto wadogo wamekisoma (Vana vadoko varikuverenga 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, while slurring of the final syllable (though written) is reported as common among the Tonga of Malawi. 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 English or other non-Bantu languages. An example from Chewa: 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, and the Makua languages.
Well-known words and 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].
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.
The following is a list of nominal classes in Bantu Languages:
|Singular classes||Plural classes||Typical meaning(s)|
|5||*dɪ-||6||*ma-||Various; class 6 for liquids (mass nouns)|
|7||*ki-||8||*bɪ-||Various, diminutives, manner/way/language|
|16||*pa-||Locatives (proximal, exact)|
|17||*ku-||Locatives (distal, approximate)|
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. An attempt at a full list of Bantu languages (with various conflations and a puzzlingly diverse nomenclature) can be found in The Bantu Languages of Africa, 1959.
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.
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville)
Map 1 shows Bantu languages in Africa and map 2 a magnification of the Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon area, as of July 2017.
Localization of the Niger–Congo languages
Some words from various Bantu languages have been borrowed into western languages. These include:
“Here we go looby-loo; here we go looby-la (or looby-light) / Here we go looby-loo; all on a Saturday night!” Both of these Luba words, lubilu (quickly, in a hurry), and lubila (a shout) are words still in common usage in the Republic of Zaïre.
Bantoid is a putative major division of the Benue–Congo branch of the Niger–Congo language family. It consists of the Mambiloid languages (including two outlying languages sometimes not included in Mambiloid, Ndoro and Fam), the Dakoid languages and the Tikar language, all in Nigeria and Cameroon, and the Southern Bantoid languages, a major division which also includes the Bantu languages spoken across most of Sub-Saharan Africa.Bantu peoples
Bantu people are the speakers of Bantu languages, comprising several hundred indigenous ethnic groups in sub-Saharan Africa, spread over a vast area from Central Africa across the African Great Lakes to Southern Africa.
Linguistically, Bantu languages belong to the Southern Bantoid branch of Benue–Congo, one of the language families grouped within the Niger–Congo phylum.
The total number of Bantu languages ranges in the hundreds, depending on the definition of "language" or "dialect" estimated at between 440 and 680 distinct languages.
The total number of Bantu speakers is in the hundreds of millions, ranging at roughly 350 million in the mid-2010s (roughly 30% of the total population of Africa, or roughly 5% of world population).
About 60 million Bantu speakers (2015), divided into some 200 ethnic or tribal groups, are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.
The larger of the individual Bantu groups have populations of several million, e.g.
the Shona of Zimbabwe (12 million as of 2000),
the Zulu of South Africa (12 million as of 2005)
the Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (7 million as of 2010),
the Sukuma of Tanzania (9 million as of 2016),
or the Kikuyu of Kenya (7 million as of 2010).Grassfields languages
The Grassfields languages (or Wide Grassfields languages) are a branch of Benue–Congo spoken in the Western High Plateau of Cameroon and a sister group to the Bantu languages. Better known Grassfields languages include the Eastern Grassfields languages Bamun, Yamba and Bamileke and the Ring language Kom. The languages are closely related, sharing approximately half of their vocabulary.Great Lakes Bantu languages
The Great Lakes Bantu languages, also known as Lacustrine Bantu and Bantu zone J, are a group of Bantu languages of East Africa. They were recognized as a group by the Tervuren team, who posited them as an additional zone (zone J) to Guthrie's largely geographic classification of Bantu.Guthrie classification of Bantu languages
The 250 or so "Narrow Bantu languages" are conventionally divided up into geographic zones first proposed by Malcolm Guthrie (1967–1971). These were assigned letters A–S and divided into decades (groups A10, A20, etc.); individual languages were assigned unit numbers (A11, A12, etc.), and dialects further subdivided (A11a, A11b, etc.). This coding system has become the standard for identifying Bantu languages; it was the only practical way to distinguish many ambiguously named languages before the introduction of ISO 639-3 coding, and it continues to be widely used. Only Guthrie's Zone S is (sometimes) considered to be a genealogical group. Since Guthrie's time a Zone J (made of languages formerly classified in groups D and E) has been set up as another possible genealogical group bordering the Great Lakes.
The list is first summarized, with links to articles on accepted groups of Bantu languages (bold decade headings). Following that is the complete 1948 list, as updated by Guthrie in 1971 and by J. F. Maho in 2009.Isanzu language
Isanzu is a Bantu language of spoken by the Isanzu people south of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania.
The position of Isanzu within the Bantu family is uncertain. It is rather distinct in certain features from other Bantu languages of the area, such as Nyaturu, but is quite close in others. One easily recognizable feature is /h/ in words where neighboring languages have /s/ or /tʃ/, as in the name Isanzu ~ Ihanzu, a feature it shares with Iramba, and a reason it is commonly classified with Iramba.Jita language
Jita is a Bantu language of Tanzania. Jita–Kara–Kwaya are close to being dialects.
Like most Bantu languages, Jita is tonal. A detailed analysis of Jita tone has been made by Downing (1990), (1996), and (2014).Kavango – Southwest Bantu languages
The Kavango – Southwest Bantu languages are a group of Bantu languages established by Anita Pfouts (2003). The Southwest Bantu languages constitute most of Guthrie's Zone R. The languages, or clusters, along with their Guthrie identifications, are:
? Mashi, Simaa, Mbowe, Shanjo, Kwangwa
Ovambo (R20): Kwanyama, Ndonga, Kwambi, Ngandyera, Mbalanhu
Khumbi (Ngumbi, R10)
Ngambwe (ex-Nyaneka dialect)
Hakaona (ex-Herero dialect)
Herero (R30): Herero, ZembaThough not explicitly classified, Ndombe (R10) is presumably SW Bantu, and Mashi, Simaa (K30) Kavango. Maho (2009) adds Mbowe, Shanjo, and Kwangwa, as well as splitting off several varieties of these as distinct languages, such as Kuvale (R30 > R10). However, Mbukushu, Luyana, and Yeyi, sometimes included with these languages, appear to be more divergent lineages of Bantu.Previous, and more extensive, versions (Nurse 2003) included K10 Chokwe–Luchazi, L10 Pende, L50 Lunda, L60 Nkoya, H21 Kimbundu, the rest of R (Umbundu, Yeyi), and perhaps L21 Kete, L22 Lwalu, H13b Suundi.
Maho (2009) differentiates Herero proper, R.31, from North-West Herero (Kaokoland Herero, including Zemba and presumably Hakaona), R.311, and Botswana Herero (including Mahalapye Herero), R.312. Kuvale is moved to zone R.10 as R.101.Kikuyu language
Kikuyu or Gikuyu (Gikuyu: Gĩkũyũ [ɣēkōjó]) is a language of the Bantu family spoken primarily by the Kikuyu people (Agĩkũyũ) of Kenya. Numbering about 7 million (22% of Kenya's population), they are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Kikuyu is spoken in the area between Nyeri and Nairobi. Kikuyu is one of the five languages of the Thagichu subgroup of the Bantu languages, which stretches from Kenya to Tanzania. The Kikuyu people usually identify their lands by the surrounding mountain ranges in Central Kenya which they call Kĩrĩnyaga.Kuria language
Kuria is spoken by the Kuria peoples of Northern Tanzania, with some speakers also residing in Kenya.
Maho (2009) treats the Simbiti, Hacha, Surwa, and Sweta varieties as distinct languages.Mbukushu language
Mbukushu or Thimbukushu is a Bantu language spoken by 45,000 people along the Okavango River in Namibia, where it is a national language and in Botswana, Angola and Zambia.
Mbukushu is one of several Bantu languages of the Okavango which have click consonants. Mbukushu has three: tenuis c, voiced gc, and nasalized nc, as well as prenasalized ngc, which vary between speakers as dental, palatal, and postalveolar (The Bantu Languages, 2003:37). It also has a nasal glottal approximant.Northeast Bantu languages
The Northeast Bantu languages are a group of Bantu languages spoken in East Africa. In Guthrie's geographic classification, they fall within Bantu zones E50 plus E46 (Sonjo), E60 plus E74a (Taita), F21–22, J, G60, plus Northeast Coast Bantu (of zones E & G). Some of these languages (F21, most of E50, and some of J) share a phonological innovation called Dahl's law that is unlikely to be borrowed as a productive process, though individual words reflecting Dahl's law have been borrowed into neighboring languages.
The languages, or clusters, are:
Kikuyu–Kamba AKA Thagiicu (primarily E50):
Meru (incl. Tharaka, Mwimbi-Muthambi)
Taita (Dawida; E70) – Sagalla
Chaga languages (E60)
Northeast Coast Bantu (G10-G40): Swahili (E70), etc.
Takama: Sukuma–Nyamwezi, Kimbu (F20), Iramba–Isanzu, Nyaturu (Rimi) (F30), ?Holoholo–Tumbwe–Lumbwe (D20)
Great Lakes Bantu (zone J): Rwanda-Rundi, Ganda, etc.
Bena–Kinga (G60): Sangu, Hehe, Bena, Pangwa, Kinga, Wanji, Kisi, ?Manda (N10)Northeast Coast Bantu languages
The Northeast Coast Bantu languages are the Bantu languages spoken along the coast of Tanzania and Kenya, and including inland Tanzania as far as Dodoma. In Guthrie's geographic classification, they fall within Bantu zones G and E.
The languages, or clusters, are:
Pare (G20+E70): Pare (Asu), Taveta
Sabaki (G40+E70): Swahili, Nyika, Comorian etc.
Seuta (G20+G30): Shambala, Bondei, Zigula (Mushungulu), Ngulu
Ruvu (G30+G10): Gogo, Sagara, Vidunda, Kaguru, Luguru, Kutu, Kami, Zaramo, Kwere, DoeThe Ruvu languages are 60–70% similar lexically.
Mbugu (Ma'a) is a mixed language based largely on Pare.Pongo language
Pongo is a dialect of the Duala language, spoken on the coast of Cameroon, in the district of Dibombari, by the Pongo tribe. It belongs to the Bantu languages, Code A26 according to Guthrie classification.Southern Bantu languages
The Southern Bantu languages are a large group of Bantu languages, largely validated in Janson (1991/92). They are nearly synonymous with Guthrie's Bantu zone S, apart from the exclusion of Shona and the inclusion of Makhuwa. They include all of the important Bantu languages of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique, with outliers such as Lozi in Zambia and Namibia, and Ngoni in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi.Subi language
Subi is a minor Bantu language of Tanzania, spoken on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. It is not listed in most sources, including Linguasphere. It has at times been confused with Shubi, though the two are not especially closely related.Tongwe language
Tongwe (Sitongwe) and Bende (Sibende) constitute a clade of Bantu languages coded Zone F.10 in Guthrie's classification. According to Nurse & Philippson (2003), they form a valid node. Indeed, at 90% lexical similarity they may be dialects of a single language.Ukhwejo language
Ukhwejo (Benkonjo) is one of a handful of Bantu languages spoken in the Central African Republic.Vidunda language
Vidunda (Chividunda) is a Bantu language spoken along the north bank of the Ruaha River in Tanzania. It belongs to the Ruvu branch of Northeast Coast Bantu.
Narrow Bantu languages (by Guthrie classification)
Note: The Guthrie classification is geographic and its groupings do not imply a relationship between the languages within them.