Bantu languages

The Bantu languages are a large family of languages spoken by the Bantu peoples throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
As part of the Bantoid group, they are part of the Benue–Congo language family, which in turn is part of the large Niger–Congo phylum.
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. For Bantuic, Linguasphere has 260 outer languages. McWhorter points out, using a comparison of 16 languages from Bangi-Moi, Bangi-Ntamba, Koyo-Mboshi, Likwala-Sangha, Ngondi-Ngiri and Northern Mozambiqean, mostly from Guthrie Zone C, that many varieties are intercomprehensible.
The total number of Bantu speakers is in the hundreds of millions, estimated around 350 million in the mid-2010s.
Bantu languages are largely spoken southeast 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. See list of Bantu peoples.
The Bantu language with the largest total number of speakers is Swahili; however, the majority of its speakers use it as a second language.
Other major Bantu languages include Zulu, with 27 million speakers and Shona, with about 11 million speakers. Ethnologue separates the largely mutually intelligible Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, which, if grouped together, have 20 million speakers.


The similarity among dispersed Bantu languages had been observed as early as the 17th century.
The term Bantu as a name for the group was coined by Wilhelm Bleek 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 Proto-Bantu, from the plural noun class prefix :wikt:Appendix:Swahili noun classes#M-wa class|*ba- categorizing 'people', and the root *ntʊ̀- 'some, any'.
There is no indigenous term for the group, as Bantu-speaking populations refer to themselves by their endonyms, 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'.
The term narrow Bantu, excluding those languages classified as Bantoid by Guthrie, was introduced in the 1960s.
The prefix ba- specifically refers to people. Endonymically, the term for cultural objects, including language, is formed with the :wikt:Appendix:Swahili noun classes#Ki-vi class|ki- noun class, as in Kiswahili, 'coast language and culture,' and isiZulu, 'Zulu language 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'. 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.
In addition, Kintu is a figure in some mythologies.
In the 1990s, the term Kintu was still occasionally used by South African linguists. 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 Cameroon in Central Africa. An estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago, 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. Some other sources estimate the Bantu Expansion started closer to 3000 BC.
The technical term Bantu, meaning "human beings" or simply "people", was first used by Wilhelm Bleek, 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- in most languages is ba-, 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, but the term is still widely used.
There is no true genealogical classification of the 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 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 overall 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, and shifting some languages between groups 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 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.
Computational phylogenetic analyses of Bantu include Currie et al., Grollemund et al., Rexova et al. 2006, Holden et al., 2016, and Whiteley et al. 2018.

Grollemund (2012)

Simplified phylogeny of northwestern branches of Bantu by Grollemund :

Language structure

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. 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 kimekisoma means 'The small child has read it '. Kitoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix ki- 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 Vitoto vidogo vimekisoma, and pluralizing to 'books' gives Watoto wadogo wamevisoma.
Bantu words are typically made up of open syllables of the type CV 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 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. In other words, a strong claim for this language family is that almost all words end in a vowel, precisely because closed syllables 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.
With few exceptions, notably Swahili, 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 verb stem.
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" .
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:

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.
An attempt at a full list of Bantu languages can be found in The Bantu Languages of Africa, 1959.
Most languages are best known in English without the class prefix, but are sometimes seen with the prefix. In a few cases prefixes are used to distinguish languages with the same root in their name, such as Tshiluba and Kiluba, Umbundu and Kimbundu. The bare 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, whose language is Luganda.
Lingua franca
Central African Republic
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Equatorial Guinea
Republic of the Congo
South Africa
According to the South African National Census of 2011
TOTAL Nguni: 22,406,O49
TOTAL Sotho-Tswana: 13,744,775
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 Luba varieties – in the USA.
Some words from various Bantu languages have been borrowed into western languages. These include:

Writing systems

Along with the Latin script and Arabic script orthographies, there are also some modern indigenous writing systems used for Bantu languages: