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Bantu Languages


BANTU LANGUAGES. The greater part of Africa south of the equator possesses but one linguistic family so far as its native inhabitants are concerned. This clearly-marked division of human speech has been entitled the Bantu, a name invented by Dr. W. H. I. Bleek, and it is, on the whole, the fittest general term with which to designate the most remarkable group of African languages. Bantu (literally Ba-ntu) is the most archaic and most widely spread term for "men," "mankind," "people," in these languages. It also indicates aptly the leading feature of this group of tongues, which is the governing of the unchangeable root by prefixes. The syllable -ntu is nowhere found now standing alone, but it originally meant "object," or possibly "person." It is also occasionally used as a relative pronoun—"that," "that which," "he who." Combined with different prefixes it has differ ent meanings. Thus (in the purer forms of Bantu languages) tnuntu means "a man," bantu means "men," kintu means "a thing," bintu "things," kantu means "a little thing," tuntu "little things," and so on. This term Bantu has been often criticized, but no one has supplied a better, simpler designation for this sec tion of Negro languages, and the name has now been definitely consecrated by usage.

Though there is a certain physical resemblance among those tribes who speak clearly-marked Bantu dialects (the Babangi of the upper Congo, the people of the Great Lakes, the Ova-herero, the Ba-tonga, Zulu-Kafirs, Awemba and some of the East Coast tribes), there is nevertheless a great diversity in outward appear ance, shape of head and other physical characteristics, among the negroes who inhabit Bantu Africa. Some tribes speaking Bantu languages are dwarfs or dwarfish, and belong to the group of Forest Pygmies. Others betray relationship to the Hottentots; others again cannot be distinguished from the most exaggerated types of the black West African negro. Others again, especially on the north, are of Gala (Galla) or Nilotic origin. We have no clue at present to the exact birth-place of the Bantu, nor to the par ticular group of dialects or languages from which it sprang. Per haps in grammatical construction (suffixes taking the place of prefixes), Fulani shows suggestive resemblance.

In the north-west of the Bantu field, in the region between Cameroon and the north-western basin of the Congo, the Cross river and the Benue, there is an area of great extent occupied by languages of a "semi-Bantu" character. The resemblances to the Bantu in certain word-roots are of an obvious nature; and prefixes in a very simple form are generally used for singular and plural, but the rest of the concord is very doubtful. Here, how ever, we have the nearest relations of the Bantu, so far as etymol ogy of word-roots is concerned. Further evidence of slight etymo logical and even grammatical relationships may be traced as far west as the lower Niger and northern and western Gold Coast languages (and, in some word-roots, the Mandingo group).

The legends and traditions of the Bantu peoples themselves in variably point to a northern origin, and a period, not wholly re moved from their racial remembrance, when they were strangers in their present lands. The areas in which are spoken Bantu languages of typical structure and archaic form are somewhat widely spread. Perhaps on the whole the most archaic dialects at the present day are those of Mount Elgon, Ruwenzori, Unyoro, Uganda, the north coast of Tanganyika and of the Bemba country to the south-west of Tanganyika ; also those in the vicinity of Lake Bangweulu, and the Nkonde and Kese dialects of the north and north-east coasts of Lake Nyasa; also (markedly) the Subiya speech of the western Zambezi. The Zulu-Kafir language, de spite marked changes and deviations in vocabulary and phonetics (both probably of recent date), preserves a few characteristics of the hypothetical mother-tongue.


On a geographical basis I r distinct groups are recognized : ( i) Northern or Ganda ; Ruanda, North eastern Tanganyika; (3) North-eastern or Kilimanjaro; (4) Eastern, including Swahili; (5) East African group; (6) South eastern group; (7) Zulu group; (8) Central group; (9) Western group; (io) Congo group, and (r I) North-west group. Sir Harry Johnston proposed a more elaborate classification on linguistic data, and other authorities have put forward schemes based on philological principles. Much of the difficulty is due to imperfect knowledge and to deficiency of material—especially in regard to the phonetic variations (see SANDAWE). The discovery that tones are used in Bantu languages points to the need for an exhaustive investigation by modern methods of the phonology of this great language family.


The phonology of the Western group is akin to that of the Negro languages of Western and West-Central Af rica. Zulu has picked up clicks, perhaps borrowed from the Hot tentots and Bushmen. Here and there on the borders of the Western group, the peculiar West African combinations of kp and gb, so characteristic of African speech between the Upper Nile and the Guinea coast, have been adopted.

The special features of the Bantu languages are: Syntax.—(i) The syntax is formed by adding prefixes prin cipally and also suffixes to the root, but no infixes (that is to say, no mutable syllable incorporated into the middle of the root word).

(2) The root excepting its terminal vowel is practically un changing, though its first or penultimate vowel or consonant may be modified in pronunciation by the preceding prefix, or the last vowel in the same way by the succeeding suffix.

(3) The vowels of the Bantu languages are always of the Italian type, and no true Bantu language includes obscure sounds like o and u. Each word must end in a vowel (though in some mod ern dialects in Eastern Equatorial, West and South Africa the ter minal vowel may be elided in rapid pronunciation, or be dropped, or absorbed in the terminal consonant, generally a nasal). No two consonants can come together without an intervening vowel, ex cept in the case of a nasal, labial or sibilant. This does not pre clude the aspiration of consonants, or the occasional local change of a palatal into a guttural. No consonant is doubled. Apparent exceptions occur to this last rule where two nasals, two is or two d's come together through the elision of a vowel or a labial.

(4) Substantives are divided into classes or genders, indicated by the pronominal particle prefixed to the root. These prefixes are used either in a singular or in a plural sense. With the ex ception of the "abstract" prefix Bit, no singular prefix can be used as a plural nor vice versa. There is a certain degree of correspond ence between the singular and plural prefixes. The number of prefixes common to the whole group is perhaps 16. The pronom inal particle or prefix of the noun is attached as a prefix to the roots of the adjectives, pronouns, prepositions and verbs of the sentence which are connected with the governing noun ; and though in course of time these particles may differ in form from the pre fix of the substantive, they were akin in origin. The pronominal particles, whether in nominative or accusative case, must always precede the nominal, pronominal, adjectival and verbal roots, though they often follow the auxiliary prefix-participles used in conjugating verbs, and the roots of some prepositions.

(5) The root of the verb is the second person singular of the imperative.

(6) No sexual gender is recognized in the pronouns and con cord. Sexual gender may be indicated by a male "prefix" of vary ing form, often identical with a word meaning "father," while there is a feminine prefix, na or nya, connected with the root meaning "mother," or a suffix ka or kazi, indicating "wife," "fe male." The first and second prefixes invariably indicate living beings and are usually restricted to humanity. • The i6 original prefixes of the Bantu languages are given on p. 8i in the most archaic forms to be found at the present day. The still older types of these prefixes met with in one or two languages, and deduced generally by the other forms of the particle used in the syntax, are given in brackets. It is possible that some of these prefixes resulted from the combination of a demonstrative pro noun and a prefix indicating quality or number.

To these 16 prefixes, the use of which is practically common to all members of the family, might perhaps be added No. 17, Fi or Vi-, a prefix in the singular number, having a diminutive sense, which is found in some of the western and north-western Bantu tongues, chiefly in the northern half of the Congo basin and Cam eroon. It is represented as far east (in the form of I-) as the Man yema language on the Upper Congo, near Tanganyika. Prefix No. 18 is Ogu-, which has, as a plural prefix, No. 59, Aga-. These are both used in an augmentative sense, and their use seems to be confined to the Luganda and Masaba dialects, and perhaps some branches of the Unyoro language. The loth prefix, Mu-, is really a preposition meaning "in" or "into," often combined in meaning with another particle, -ni, used always as a suffix. The loth pre fix, Mu-, however, does not have a complete concord, it is used adjectively or as a preposition and has no pronom. accusative.

The Bantu verb consists of a practically unchangeable root which is employed as the second person singular of the imperative. To this root are prefixed and suffixed various particles. These are worn-down verbs which have become auxiliaries or they are re duced adverbs or prepositions. A method of forming the preterite tense seems to be shared by a great number of widely-spread Bantu languages. Thus the Zulu tanda, love, changes to tandile, have loved, did love. This -ile or -ili may become in other forms -idi, didi, -ire, -ine, but is always referable back to some form like -ili or ile, which is probably connected with the root li or di (ndi or ni), which means "to be" or "exist." The initial i in the particle -ile often affects the last or penultimate syllable of the verbal root, thereby causing one of the very rare changes which take place in this vocable. In many Bantu dialects the root pa (which means to give) becomes pele in the preterite (no doubt from an original pa-ile). Likewise the Zulu tandile is a contraction of tanda-ile.

Two other frequent changes of the terminal vowel of the com mon root are those from a (which is almost invariably the terminal vowel of Bantu verbs), (I) into e to form the subjunctive tense, (2) into i to give a negative sense in certain tenses. With these exceptions the vowel a almost invariably terminates verbal roots. By changing the terminal vowel of the verbal root and possibly adding a personal prefix, one can make nouns from verbs. Thus in Luganda senyua is the verbal root for "to pardon." "A pardon" or "forgiveness" is ki-senyuo. "A pardoner" might be mu-senyui. In Swahili patanifa would be the verbal root for "conciliate"; mpatanafi is a "conciliator," and upatanifo is "conciliation." Bantu verbs modify the sense of the original verbal root by suf fixes, the affixion of which modifies the terminal vowel and some times the preceding consonant of the root.

Thus an original Bantu root, tanda, to love, may become The suffix -aka or ailga sometimes appears and gives a sense of con tinuance to the verbal root. Thus tanda may become tandaka in the sense of "to continue loving." Although tanda is a common verb in Zulu, it has not in Zulu all these variations, and in some other language where it may by chance exhibit all the variations its own form is changed to londa or randa.

The negative verbal particle in the Bantu languages may be traced back to an original ka, ta or sa, ki, ti or si in the Bantu mother-tongue. These alternative forms resemble those in some West African Negro languages. In the vast majority of the Bantu dialects at the present day, the negative particle in the verb (which nearly always coalesces with the pronominal particle) is descended from this ka, ta or sa, ki, ti or si, assuming the forms of ka, ga, nga, sa, ta, ha, a, ti, si, lii, etc. Sometimes in the modern languages the negative particle (such as ti or si) is used without any vestige of a pronoun being attached to it and is applied indifferently to all the persons. Occasionally this particle has fallen out of use, and the negative is expressed (I) by stress or accent ; (2) by suffix (traceable to a root -pe or -ko) answering to the French pas, and having the same sense; and (3) by the separate employment of an adverb. In some languages, the verb used in a negative sense changes its terminal -a to -i. The subjunctive is very frequently formed by changing the terminal -a to -e : thus, tanda = love; tande = may love.


Bleek, A Comparative Grammar of South Bibliography.-Dr. W. I. Bleek, A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages (in two parts, left unfinished) (London, 1869) ; Father J. Torrend, Comparative Grammar of the South African Bantu Languages (1894, incomplete) ; Dr. L. Krapf, The Swahili English Dictionary (London, 1882) ; Rev. D. C. Scott, An Ency clopaedic Dictionary of the Mananja (Mang'anja) Language of British Central Africa (1891) ; Rev. Holman Bentley, Dictionary of the Congo Language (1891) ; Dr. Heli Chatelain, Grammar of Kimbundu; Rev. Alexander Hetherwick, Introductory Handbook of the Yao Language; Rev. W. H. Stapleton, Comparative Handbook of Congo Languages; Rev. John Whitehead, Grammar and Dictionary of the Bobangi Language (London, 1899) ; Henri Junod, Grammaire Ronga (Lausanne, 1896) . Bishop Smyth and John Mathews have published a vocabulary and short grammar of the Xilenge (Shilenge) language of Inhambane (S.P.C.R., 1902). Sir H. H. Johnston, Comparative Study of the Bantu and Semi-Bantu Languages (1919) ; C. Meinhof, Grundriss enier Lautlehre der Bantu sprachen (191o) ; A. Werner, The Bantu Languages (1919) ; L. Hamburger, "Les Langues Bantou" in Les Langues du Monde (1924, bibl.) ; W. Schmidt, Die Sprach familien der Erde (1927, bibl.) .

root, prefix, prefixes, vowel and language