African Encyclomedia

Bantu languages

The Bantu languages technically the Narrow Bantu languages, as opposed to “Wide Bantu”, a loosely defined categorization which includes other “Bantoid” languages, are a large family of languages spoken by the Bantu peoples throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
As part of the Southern 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” vs. “dialect” estimated at between 440 and 680 distinct languages. The total number of Bantu speakers is in the hundreds of millions, estimated around 350 million in the mid-2010s (roughly 30% of the total population of Africa, or roughly 5% of world population). Bantu languages are largely spoken east and south of present-day Cameroon, throughout Central Africa, Southeast Africa and Southern Africa.
Estimates of the number of speakers of most languages vary widely, due to the lack of accurate statistics in most sub-Saharan countries. The number of Bantu speakers accounts for roughly half of all speakers of Niger-Congo languages, or more than a quarter of the entire population of Africa, roughly 350 million people in the mid-2010s. About one-sixth of the Bantu speakers and about one-third of Bantu languages are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone (c. 60 million speakers as of 2015). (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 (L1: c. 16 million, L2: 80 million, as of 2015)
Other major Bantu languages include Zulu, with 27 million speakers (15.7 million L2), and Shona, with about 11 million speakers (if Manyika and Ndau are included). Ethnologue separates the largely mutually intelligible Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, which, if grouped together, have 12.4 million speakers.


The similarity between dispersed Bantu languages had been observed as early as in the 17th century. The term “Bantu” as a name or the group was coined (as Bâ-ntu) by Wilhelm Bleek in 1857 or 1858 and was popularised in his Comparative Grammar of 1862. The name was coined to represent the word for “people” in loosely reconstructed Proto-Bantu, from the plural noun class prefix ba- categorizing “people”, and the root root ntʊ̀ – “some (entity), any” (e.g. Zulu muntu “person”, abantu “people”). There is no native term for the group, as Bantu populations refer to themselves by their tribal endonyms but did not have a concept for the larger ethnolinguistic phylum. Bleek’s coinage was inspired by the anthropological observation of groups self-identifying as “people” or “the true people” (as is indeed the case, for example, with the Khoikhoi of South Africa).
The term “narrow Bantu”, excluding those languages classified as Bantoid by Guthrie (1948), was introduced in the 1960s.
The prefix ba- in Bantu specifically refers to people, not language. In Bantu itself, the term for languages is formed with the ki- noun class(Nguni ísi-), as in Kiswahili “coast-language” and isiZulu “Zulu language”. Apparently inspired by this pattern, there was a suggestion in South Africa to refer to Bantu languages as “Kintu” in the 1980s. The suggestion was immediately abandoned. Not only does the word kintu exist, meaning “thing” with no relation to the concept of “language”, it was also reported by delegates at the African Languages Association of Southern Africa conference in 1984 that in some Bantu languages, the term ‘Kintu’ has a derogatory significance, that is, kintu refers to “things” and is used as a dehumanizing term of people who have lost their dignity. In addition, Kintu is a figure in some Bantu mythologies. The term “Kintu” apparently still saw occasional use in the 1990s in South Africa.


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 (1000 BC to 500 BC), although other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC, 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.
The technical term Bantu, meaning “human beings” or simply “people”, was first used by Wilhelm 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 “human being” or in simplistic terms “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 around the Great Lakes. The Jarawan languages are spoken in Nigeria.

The most widely used classification is an alphanumeric coding system developed by Malcolm Guthrie in his 1948 classification of the Bantu languages. 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 (cf. Piron 1995, Williamson & Blench 2000, Blench 2011), but the term is still widely used. A coherent classification of Narrow Bantu will likely need to exclude many of the Zone A and perhaps Zone B languages.
There is no true genealogical classification of the (Narrow) 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 groups together parts of zones A through D (the extent depending on the author) 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 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 (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. This has been criticized for sowing confusion in one of the few unambiguous ways to distinguish Bantu languages. Nurse & Philippson (2006) 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. (2013) and Grollemund, et al. (2015).

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 (with various conflations and a puzzlingly diverse nomenclature) can be found in The Bantu Languages of Africa, 1959.
Most languages are best known in English without the class prefix (SwahiliTswanaNdebele), but are sometimes seen with the (language-specific) prefix (KiswahiliSetswanaSindebele). In a few cases, prefixes are used to distinguish languages from the same root in their name, such as Tshiluba and Kiluba (both Luba), Umbundu and Kimbundu (both Mbundu). The bare (prefixless) 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 is the Baganda (sg. Muganda), whose language is Luganda.

Bantu words popularised in western cultures

  • Bomba
  • Bongos
  • Bwana
  • Candombe
  • Chimpanzee
  • Gumbo
  • Hakuna matata
  • Impala
  • Indaba
  • Jenga
  • Jumbo
  • Kalimba
  • Kwanzaa
  • Mamba
  • Mambo
  • Mbira
  • Marimba
  • Rumba
  • Safari
  • Samba
  • Simba
  • Ubuntu

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