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What are the Bantu Languages?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sunnySkys — On Mar 12, 2012

@KaBoom - Reading about the Bantu languages reminded me of Romance languages also! I know it's a lot easier to learn another Romance languages after you know one. I wonder if Bantu languages are the same way?

Anyway, I'm always fascinated by how different languages can be from one another. I bet a linguistic analysis of English and Bantu would probably show that Bantu languages use a lot more vowels than English does. In English, vowels aren't always broken up by consonants, but it sounds like in Bantu they usually are.

By KaBoom — On Mar 11, 2012

It's interesting that the languages in the Bantu language family all use the same word to refer to people. I suppose it makes sense, because the languages evolved in the same geographic area. And it does make sense to use that word to classify the languages together!

If I understand correctly, I imagine Bantu languages are similar to the Romance languages (French, Italian, and Spanish.) They probably share similar words and linguistic structure, but people who speak different Romance languages don't automatically understand each other. It sounds like the same thing is true of the Bantu languages.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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