Bantu is a major language family of Africa, covering central and eastern Africa and everywhere south, except only for the unrelated Khoisan group of southern Africa.

Bantu is part of the larger Benue-Congo group, which is one of the main branches of the Niger-Congo superfamily. The internal branching of Bantu looks sufficiently complex to me that I don't think I'll attempt to sketch it. The Ethnologue site gives up on names and uses letters A, B, C... . They list some 600 to 700 members.

A great many of the Bantu languages are in Cameroon, one of the world's most language-rich regions, and neighbouring Nigeria and northern Congo (Kinshasa). This is the original homeland of them, near the other branches of the Niger-Congo family. In historically close times, the last couple of thousand years, Bantu speakers moved out east and south from here. It appears they displaced or reduced in area the earlier populations: Pygmies (who now all speak the Bantu languages of their neighbours) and the Khoi people (so-called Bushmen and Hottentots). The languages of the latter, called the Khoisan or Khoe group, are found mainly in South Africa and Namibia, but two, Sandawe and Hadza, exist in Tanzania, suggesting they are the last remnant of a much wider range now overrun by incoming Bantu-speakers. (I'm afraid I don't know any of the archaeology that confirms this expansion, so I leave it out.)

This more recent expansion includes all the main national languages of many of the countries in Africa: Swahili across East Africa, Luganda in Uganda, Kikongo and Lingala of Congo, Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa, Setswana of Botswana, Shona and Ndebele in Zimbabwe, and so on. Because they (relatively) recently separated, they are somewhat similar for such widely-spread languages, so the Bantu group gives the impression of being quite uniform: if you know the grammar of one, you've got a handle on that of any other. I don't know whether this impression would remain true if you looked at the multifarious languages of the Cameroon heartland, but I've never studied any of those, so I can't say.

Phonetically, there are three prominent characteristics of most Bantu languages.

  1. All the syllables have distinctive tones: though Swahili, the best-known, does not. (Swahili is a lingua franca and is a bit simpler than the others.)
  2. The syllables are generally open, i.e. end in vowels. Familiar examples are Robert Mu-ga-be, Julius Nye-re-re, Ha-ra-re, Lu-sa-ka, and Ma-pu-to.
  3. They have consonants consisting of a nasal in front of a stop, such as mb nd ng nj. These usually count as single consonants, so names such as Zi-mba-bwe, Nelson Ma-nde-la, and Rwa-nda follow the open syllable rule too. Initially, they are not usually separate syllables: Ndo-la is two syllables, not three *N-do-la, and Thabo Mbeki is two Mbe-ki, not three *M-be-ki.
Grammatically the most striking thing about them is class prefixes. Each noun belongs to one of some ten to twenty classes, and adjectives and verbs agree with them. In many European languages there are two or three classes (genders) and adjectives agree using a suffix. In Bantu the system is totally pervasive. In my write-ups on Swahili, Shona, and Xhosa I give examples of the grammar, which will illustrate this a bit more deeply, so this is only a recap. I use Swahili as an example here.

The word for 'person' is mtu, plural watu 'people'. 'Good' is -zuri, so mtu mzuri 'a good person', watu wazuri 'good people'. The prefix goes on the numbers too: mtu mmoja 'one person', watu watano 'five people'. It goes on the verb too: watu wazuri watano walisoma 'five good people were reading'.

In Swahili people go in the m class in the singular, the wa class in the plural. Other Bantu languages may use mu or mo singular and ba plural. (The word 'Bantu' itself is a South African equivalent of watu.) So one person from Lesotho is a Mosotho, and more than one are Basotho. Likewise one Motswana, many Batswana live in Botswana.

Countries have a different class prefix: Swahili's is u as in Uganda, but others are bu and bo (Botswana), and other languages use entirely different (i.e. not phonetically related) prefixes, such as the le in Lesotho. Languages have another prefix: Kiswahili, Kikongo, and the ki becomes chi in Zambia and Mozambique, and si and se in South Africa (Sesotho, siSwati = Swazi).

On ordinary nouns, Swahili ki has plural vi: so kikombe kizuri kimoja 'one good cup', vikombe vizuri vitano 'five good cups'. And so on through numerous other classes with different prefixes.

Other Bantu languages have a somewhat more complicated system. In Swahili the classes always come in pairs, one singular and one plural, e.g. ki is always singular. But in other languages, it might be the singular of one class but the plural of another class. Furthermore, many languages have multiple prefixes: so the language of Rwanda is called Kinyarwanda, and the native names for Zulu and Xhosa are isiZulu and isiXhosa.

In Swahili diminutives are created by moving the noun into the ki, and augmentatives into the ji class (plural ma). But other languages have distinct diminutive and augmentative classes.

The classes containing humans, abstract nouns, languages, and infinitives of verbs are clearly recognizable. Ordinary nouns are distributed among others without too much predictability, but it is possible the original meanings of the markers were classifiers: the n class (plural same) tends to be animals; the ji class tends to contain round things like eggs, teeth, and eyes; its plural the ma class also contains liquids and mass substances; and the mu class with plural mi contains long things like trees, ropes, and tails.

Ban"tu (?), n.

A member of one of the great family of Negroid tribes occupying equatorial and southern Africa. These tribes include, as important divisions, the Kafirs, Damaras, Bechuanas, and many tribes whose names begin with Aba- , Ama-, Ba-, Ma-, Wa-, variants of the Bantu plural personal prefix Aba-, as in Ba-ntu, or Aba-ntu, itself a combination of this prefix with the syllable -ntu, a person. -- Ban"tu, a.


© Webster 1913.

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