Bantu languages, group of African languages forming a subdivision of the Benue-Niger division of the Niger-Congo branch of the Niger-Kordofanian language family (see African languages). Bantu contains hundreds of languages that are spoken by 120 million Africans in the Congo Basin, Angola, the Republic of South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. The word Bantu means "the people" and is made up of the stem -ntu ("person") and the plural prefix ba -.
The total number of Bantu languages is uncertain. The most important is Swahili (see Swahili language), spoken as a first language by more than 30 million people, chiefly in Kenya, Tanzania, Congo (Kinshasa), and Uganda. As the chief trade language of E Africa, it is understood by perhaps an additional 20 million. Other significant Bantu languages include Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Setswana, which are spoken respectively by 9 million, 7 million, 5 million, and 4 million persons, all living in South Africa, Lesotho, and Botswana; Makua and Thonga, the languages respectively of 4 million and 3 million people, chiefly in Mozambique; Bemba, the language of over 3 million in Zambia and Congo (Kinshasa); Shona, with 8 million speakers in Zimbabwe and Mozambique; Kikuyu, native to 6 million in Kenya; Ganda, the language of 4 million in Uganda; Ruanda, spoken by 8 million in Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo (Kinshasa); Rundi, the language of 6 million in Burundi and Congo (Kinshasa); Mbundu, native to 6 million in Angola; Luba, with 7 million speakers in Congo (Kinshasa); Kongo, the language of 4 million in Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), and Angola; and Lingala, spoken by 6 million in Congo (Kinshasa).
All of the Bantu languages are tonal, except perhaps Swahili. Tones are used to indicate differences in meaning. Grammatically, nouns belong to a number of classes, each of which has its pair of prefixes, one to denote the singular and the other the plural. Linguists have not yet discovered a logical basis for most of the many different noun classes. Although they are not based on sex, these classes have been compared to the genders of Indo-European tongues. The class prefix of a noun is attached to every word that is connected grammatically with this noun, whether adjective, verb, or other part of speech. The following example from Swahili illustrates the nature of such agreement: m-thu m-zuri, "handsome man," but wu-thu wu-zuri, "handsome men." The Bantu verb consists of a stem to which are added one or more prefixes (with the exception of the imperative) and also one or more suffixes. The verbal suffixes relate to person, number, negation, tense, voice, and mood. Suffixes added to certain stems can form nouns and verbs, especially of a derivational nature.
See M. A. Bryan, ed., The Bantu Languages of Africa (1959); M. Guthrie, The Classification of the Bantu Languages (1948, repr. 1967) and Comparative Bantu (4 vol., 1967–71).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.