The Bantu languages are a large family of languages spoken primarily in the Southern part of Africa. Over 500 languages are classified in this family, including Swahili, Xhosa, and Zulu. Students of Bantu languages have a great deal of material to work with, since the family is so large and speakers are widely scattered across Africa. Numerous studies of these languages have been published since 1948, when Malcolm Guthrie carried out an exhaustive survey of this language family.
The “Bantu” in Bantu languages refers to a common linguistic trend which can be found in many of the languages in this family. The prefix “ba” is a plural form of people, and “-ntu” or “-tu” is a suffix which also means “people.” Many of these languages use the word “Bantu” to refer to people, and this commonality is recognized in the naming of this language group.
These languages are part of a larger linguistic group classified as Bantoid languages; Bantoid languages are, in turn, in the Niger-Congo group of African languages, which are spoken widely in much of Africa. Some people may distinguish between Bantu languages and narrow Bantu languages; the narrow Bantu languages are those defined and discussed by Guthrie in his study. Some linguists have pointed out that many languages were overlooked or unknown during Guthrie's time, and that his classification should probably be updated to reflect this.
Many Bantu languages use duplication to stress a point, as is the case with the Swahili word piga, meaning “strike,” which can be used to twice to indicate that something was struck multiple times. Bantu languages also do not usually have strings of consonants; each consonant is broken up by a vowel, and words often end in vowels. Many of these traits are also used in loan words, which may be adopted to fit the Bantu language schematic, as in sukulu for “school.” There are, of course, exceptions to these rules, as is the case with any language.
As is the case with many language families, there are many similarities in Bantu languages which allow linguists to trace historical shifts. These languages also reveal a great deal about the cultures that they are spoken in, since people preserve their history and beliefs in their spoken language. Visitors to Africa may struggle with the Bantu languages, since there are so many of them and there are also many dialects, making communication at times challenging. In many regions, a language such as pidgin, Swahili, or English is used as a lingua franca.