The Full Wiki

Bantu languages: Map


Wikipedia article:

Map showing all locations mentioned on Wikipedia article:

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 country 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 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 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), but the term is still widely used.

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, and zones D–S as Central 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.

The only 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, an inferior methodology. 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.

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 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. 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 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 Sesotho,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 [336]

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

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].

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"

A list of common Bantu languages

Bantu languages in Central and Eastern Africa ordered according to country where spoken. 48 languages are listed, many of which are spoken in more than one country:

Lingua Franca





Central African Republic

Democratic Republic of Congo

Equatorial Guinea






People's Republic of Congo


South Africa






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 Botswanamarker 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 Nigeriamarker or Cameroonmarker.

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.


  1. Ethnologue report for Bantoid
  2. The Guthrie, Tervuren, and SIL lists are compared side by side in Maho 2002.
  3. According to Ethnologue [1]

External links

Embed code:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address