African Languages: The Bantu

The Bantu family consists of over four hundred languages all deriving from the same ancestral language known as ‘proto-Bantu’. This is a fact that has been established beyond doubt on the basis of lexical, phonetic, morphological (grammatical) and syntactic resemblances which cannot be accounted for by mere chance or by borrowings. A common parentage must be assumed.

Take, for instance, the word meaning ‘people’ in the following languages:

Duala: bato Bushong: baat Tio: baaru
Fang: bot Luba: bantu Rwanda: abantu
Kongo: bantu Shona: vanhu Mongo: banto
Herero: abandu

All these words follow the same pattern. It can be seen that they all derive from the form made up of the root *-ntu and the prefix *ba-, denoting the plural. In addition, the differences between languages are regular, as may be gathered from other comparisons. For instance, a -/- in the second position of the root invariably becomes -r- in Tio. This rules out the possibility of fortuitous similarities and borrowings. A proto-Bantu glossary has been drawn up for over five hundred roots,1 all following regular phonetic patterns.

But vocabulary is only one aspect of language. Analogies, even in points of detail, are also to be found in the morphological (grammatical) system of the Bantu languages. In the above example, the prefix governs the grammatical agreements (concordances) and belongs itself to a specific class of prefixes. The corresponding singular prefix is *mu- which, combined with the root, forms the word meaning ‘person’. The system of agreements, the formation of adjectives, all kinds of pronouns, the breakdown of the verb
into prefix, marker, infix, stem, extension and ending and the way these elements function, the invariants, the deverbative formation of nouns are all as alike in the Bantu languages as is the grammatical structure of the Romance languages deriving from Latin.

A common grammar of Bantu has in fact been produced. What has been said of the morphology applies equally to the syntax and phonological system. All the evidence, therefore, bears out the fact that more than four hundred languages spread over one third
of the great landmass of Africa have their origins in a single ancestral language. The historical implications of such a vast phenomenon are evident.

S. Lwango-Lunyiigo (Uganda); Specialist in early African history, particularly the African Iron Age; author of numerous works on the subject.

J. Vansina (Belgium); Specialist in African history; author of numerous works and articles on pre-colonial history of Africa; Professor of History, the University of Wisconsin, Madison (U.S.A.).

Source: General History of Africa Vol.III. [Editor: M. El Fasi, Assistant Editor: I. Hrbek] Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. Chapter 6. The Bantu-speaking peoples and their expansion.


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