Bantu languages are spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world, including up to 30% of the population of Africa. In fact, you probably even know some Bantu words without realising it – like ‘safari’ from Swahili, or ‘banana’ from Wolof.
So we’re really pleased that, when we added Kirundi to the uTalk app, not only were we adding our 146th overall language, but also our 12th Bantu language!
In this post, learn more about the Bantu language family, including its history, what languages in this family have in common, and some facts about specific Bantu languages.
The Bantu language family
The Bantu language family is a large family of languages spoken by the Bantu peoples in the southern half of Africa. The total number of languages in this family ranges in the hundreds. There are estimated to be between 440-680 distinct languages, but this can depend on the definition of a language versus a dialect for the people who are doing the counting.
Hundreds of millions of people speak Bantu languages. In the mid-2010s, the estimate was around 350 million people, which was around 30% of the population of the African continent and 5% of the overall global population. Around one-sixth of Bantu speakers and one-third of all Bantu languages are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.
As well as being called Bantu languages, they can be referred to as Ntu languages. This is because the prefix ba- specifically refers to people. Usually, the language prefix ki- would be used, making the term KiNtu, but there is some controversy around this term and it is not often used in modern linguistics. In contemporary decolonial South African linguistics, the term Ntu languages is often used.
History of the Bantu Languages
The Bantu languages spoken today descended from a common Proto-Bantu language. Linguists believe this was spoken in what is now Cameroon, in Central Africa.
Around 2,500 – 3,000 years ago, it is believed that speakers of this Proto-Bantu language began to migrate eastward and southward. They took their knowledge of agriculture with them and settled in different places. This led to the development of the different Bantu languages that are spoken today.
What do Bantu languages have in common?
Due to their common ancestor, there are some specific features that most, if not all, Bantu languages have in common.
Bantu languages tend to heavily rely on the use of affixes. An affix is a set of letters generally added to the beginning or end of a base word to change its meaning. (For example, in English, if we add the prefix im- to possible, we get the word impossible.)
An example of a word using an affix is the word Bantu itself. In many Bantu languages, muntu or mutu means ‘human being’ or ‘person’. The plural prefix for nouns related to humans that begin with mu- in most languages is ba-, as mentioned above. So, we get the word Bantu, which means ‘human beings’ or ‘people’.
In Bantu languages, nouns are divided into classes, which are particular categories. There are different reasons nouns can be divided up this way. Sometimes nouns are assigned a class because of their meaning – they are put together with other words of similar meanings. Sometimes they are assigned a class because of their structure. In this case, the meaning is less important.
According to Carl Meinhof, one of the first linguists to study African languages, the Bantu languages have a total of 22 noun classes, though no single language features all of them.
Although some linguists consider noun gender (as used, for example, in French, Spanish, and German) and noun classes to be similar constructs, specialists in Bantu languages emphasise that there is a different between gender and noun classes in this language family.
Examples of Noun Classes in Swahili
|m-, mw-, mu-
|singular – persons
|plural – persons (plural of class 1)
|m-, mw-, mu-
|singular – plants
|plural – plans (plural of class 3)
|ji-, j-, Ø-
|singular – fruits
|plural – fruits (plural of class 5, 9, 11; sometimes 1)
|singular – things
|plural – things (plural of class 7)
|n-, ny-, m-, Ø-
|singular – animals, things
|n-, ny-, m-, Ø-
|plural – animals, things (plural of class 9 and 11)
|u-, w-, uw-
|singular – no clear semantics
|locative meaning – close to something
|indefinite locative or directive meaning
|locative meaning – inside something
All Bantu languages are agglutinative. This is where words are made up of a sequence of distinct morphemes (the smallest unit of language). Each morpheme represents a component of meaning.
For example, take a look at these Swahili sentences:
- Mtoto alifika. (m-toto a-li-fika) – The child arrived.
- Mtoto atafika. (m-toto a-ta-fika) – The child will arrive.
- Watoto walifika. (wa-toto wa-li-fika) – The children arrived.
- Watoto watafika. (wa-toto wa-ta-fika) – The children will arrived.
We can see that m-/wa- indicate singular and plural. It looks, too, that -li-/-ta- determine tense. This is the way most Bantu languages build up words and sentences.
Bantu words are typically made up of CV (consonant-vowel) syllables. Another language that generally conforms to this CV syllable structure is Japanese.
However, there are some Bantu languages, like the Bushong language, that have final consonants, so this is not the same across the entire language family.
Some common patterns for Bantu words are CV, VCV, CVCV, VCVCV, etc. This can cause some issues when words are borrowed from other non-Bantu languages. For example, the word ‘school’ was borrowed from English into Chewa. Once it was changed to fit the sound patterns of Chewa, it has become the word sukulu.
Although Chinese and other languages out of South East Asia are commonly known to have tones, so do the majority of the Bantu languages. Generally, there are two to four tones, though some Bantu languages, like Swahili, have no tones at all.
Tones in the Bantu languages can be complex. One easy way to learn is by using the uTalk app – if you copy the audio from our native speakers, then your tones will come out sounding great!
What are some widely spoken Bantu languages?
There are 12 Bantu languages you can learn on the uTalk app, all of which have at least two million speakers:
|71.4 million speakers
|16 million L1 speakers; 55.3 million L2 speakers
|40.3 million speakers
|20.3 million L1 speakers; 20 million L2 speakers
|27.8 million speakers
|12.1 million L1 speakers; 15.7 L2 speakers
|19.2 million speakers
|8.2 million L1 speakers; 11 million L2 speakers
|14.4 million speakers
|13.7 million speakers
|5.9 million L1 speakers; 7.9 million L2 speakers
|13.1 million speakers
|11.3 million speakers
|11 million speakers
|5.6 million L1 speakers; 5.4 million L2 speakers
|10.9 million speakers
|7.4 million L1 speakers; 3.5 million L2 speakers
|4.1 million speakers
|2.3 million speakers
L1 = first language (usually a person’s native language)
L2 = second language (a language someone has learnt after learning their first language)
The word Swahili originates from the Arabic word سَوَاحِلِىّ (sawāḥilī) meaning ‘of the coast’ because the language evolved from the contact of Arabian traders with the inhabitants of the east coast of Africa.
Of the estimated 71.4 million speakers of Swahili, the vast majority (approx. 77%) do not speak it as their first language. This is because Swahili is a lingua franca across the African Great Lakes region, as well as other parts of East and Southern Africa.
Approximately 16-20% of Swahili vocabulary is borrowed from Arabic, including the name of the language itself. These date back to when Swahili emerged as a lingua franca. Arabic traders made contact with Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa, causing words to be borrowed into Swahili. Around 5% of loanwords in Swahili come from English.
Swahili is a national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is also an official language of the East African Community. This is an organisation of six countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Burundi.
While Swahili is now written using the Latin alphabet, this was not always the case. Swahili used to be written in the Ajami script, which is an Arabic script. There is no standard system of using Ajami and it has also been used to write other African languages, including Hausa, Yoruba, and Pulaar.
Lingala borrows heavily from French, as well as Portuguese, English, and Spanish.
Lingala has around 40 million speakers and around half of these do not speak it as their first language.
The language arose from Bobangi, an important trade language near the Congo river before 1880. When the first Europeans came to this area, they started to learn it but did not generally acquire a good level in the language. This led to a new, restructured variety of Bobangi that was called ‘Bobangi-pidgin’, ‘the trade language’ and other such names.
In 1884, the Europeans and their troops introduced this new variety of Bobangi in the important state post Bangala Station. This was so they could communigate with the local Congolese, as they had some second-language knowledge of the original Bobangi. The language was soon renamed ‘Bangala’, a name that is still used in northeastern Congo.
Lingala is a Bantu-based creole and borrows from many different languages. This includes Swahili, Kikongo varieties, French, Portuguese, and English.
|girlfriend; comes from ‘ma mie’ in Old French, meaning ‘my dear’
|mermaid; literally ‘mammy/water’
|rain; comes from ‘mvua’
The word Zulu means ’sky’ or ‘heaven’.
Zulu has around 28 million speakers, making it the most widely spoken home language in South Africa. It is spoken there by 24% of the population and is understood by over 50% of the population. Zulu became one of South Africa’s 11 official languages in 1994.
The language possesses several click sounds that are typical of Southern African languages but aren’t generally found in the rest of Africa. That is because click consonants in Bantu languages are borrowed from the Khoisan languages, whether directly or indirectly.
Zulu is also a tonal language. There are three main tones – high, low, and falling. Although Zulu is written without any indcation of tone, it can be quite distinctive and is important to learn.
If you speak South African English, then you may use some Zulu words without realising it! Some Zulu words have found their way into the language:
|muti (from umuthi)
|conference (lit. ‘an item of news’)
Nelson Mandela’s mother was a Xhosa speaker and at birth gave him the forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning troublemaker.
An official language of South Africa and Zimbabwe, Xhosa has around 19 million speakers.
Of all the Bantu languages, Xhosa has probably the heaviest functional load of click consonants, with one count finding that 10% of basic vocabulary items contained a click. It is somewhat mutually intelligible with Zulu, another language with clicked consonants, as well as Northern Ndebele and other Nguni languages.
In total, Xhosa has 18 click consontants. Six of them are dental (involve your teeth) and these are represented by the letter <c>. Six are alveolar clicks and usually involve your tongue being in a concave shape and then pulling down. They are represented by the letter <q>. The final six are alveolar lateral clicks and are represented by the letter <x>. An example of a lateral click that is not a speech sound is the one equestrians use to urge on their horses.
Click consontants aren’t the only thing Xhosa borrowed from Khoisan languages. An estimated 15% of Xhosa vocabulary is said be of Khoisan origin.
Like Zulu, Xhosa is a tonal language, but it only has two tones – high and low. These tones are rarely marked in written language, so the best way to learn them is by listening!
In Malawi, the language is called ‘the language of the Chewa people’ and in Zambia it is known as ‘the language of the lake’.
Chichewa is not only an official language of Malawi and Zamiba, but also a recognised minority language in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It has around 14.4 million speakers.
Usually, it is called Chichewa – the noun class prefix chi- or ki- refers to languages – or Chinyanja, but in Malawi, the name was official changed from Chinyanja to Chichewa in 1968. This was at the insistence of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who was of the Chewa people himself.
It is conventionally said that Chichewa has high and low tones. Some linguists have argued, though, that it is more accurate to think of the language as having high-toned syllables versus toneless ones.
‘Eating without sharing is like swearing with your mouth’ is a Tswana proverb.
With almost 14 million speakers, Tswana is an official language and lingua franca in Botswana and South Africa. It is also an official language of Zimbabwe and a recognised minority language in Namibia.
It is closely related to the Northern Sotho and Southern Sotho languages, as well as the Kgalagadi language and Lozi language.
Tswana has three click consonants – a dental click <c>, lateral click <x>, and a palatal click <q>. They are mainly used in interjections and by the older generation, and so are beginning to fall out of use.
The language also has two tones, high and low, and the low tone is used more often than the high tone.
The Kinyarwanda word ‘ejo’ can mean ‘tomorrow’ or ‘yesterday’.
Mutually intelligible with Kirundi, there are around 13 million speakers of Kinyarwanda, which is an official language of Rwanda. It is one of the country’s four official languages, the others being English, French, and Swahili. Kinyarwanda is spoken by almost all the native population of Rwanda.
Kinyarwanda is also spoken in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as parts of southern Uganda, where it is known as Rufumbira.
There are two tones in Kinyarwanda – high and low tones. There are a complex set of rules behind tones in the language, as is common in Bantu languages.
Friends often say goodbye with the words ‘turi kumwe’ – we are together – to express a feeling of unity even when they are physically apart
Being mutually intelligible with Kinyarwanda, it has a system of tones. Its syllables are usually CV (consonant-vowel), just like many other Bantu languages.
The name of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, means ‘hills of the impala’.
Like Kirundi, Luganda has around 11 million speakers, around half of whom have learnt it as a second language. It is one of the major languages of Uganda but is not one of the country’s official languages. Still, it is the most widely spoken Ugandan language and is considered to be the de facto language of national identity.
Luganda generally features an SVO (subject verb object, like English!) word order. It also features three tones – high, low, and falling. There are no words in Luganda with a rising tone (low to high), as these automatically become two high tones.
Spelling in Luganda has been standardised since 1947. The Latin alphabet is used to write the language, but it has been slightly modified, with the additional letter ŋ and the digraph ny.
A Shona proverb says, ‘it’s a marvel to see a leopard playing with a goat’ – manenji kuona kamba ichitamba nembudzi – which suggests that something suspicious is going on!
There are almost 11 million Shona speakers around the world. It is an official language of Zimbabwe and Standard Shona is based on the central dialects of the Shona region.
Shona languages form a dialect continuum from the Kalahari desert in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east. This continuum also exists between the Zambezi river in the north and the Limpopo river in the south.
The languages that make up this continuum have evolved and separated over the last 1,000 years, so they are not always mutually intelligible. For example, speakers of Central Shona may have trouble understanding speakers of Kalanga (spoken mainly in Botswana and Western Zimbabwe) even though they share up to 80% of their vocabulary.
Shona doesn’t have click consonants, but it does have some whistling sounds. These are called whistled sibilants and are sv, zv, tsv, and dzv. As well as these whistled sibilants, Shona also has a high and a low tone, neither of which are indicated in spelling.
Bemba is a tonal language with only two tones but learners must be careful to distinguish ‘ulúpwá’, meaning ‘family’, from ‘úlupwá’ meaning ‘aubergine’!
There are just over four million Bemba speakers, a language which is mainly spoken in north-eastern Zambia. It is the language of the Bemba people, but is also used as a lingua franca by around 18 related ethnic groups.
A variety of Bemba known as Town Bemba is spoken among migrant populations in central Zambia. This variety developed in the mines and mining towns in the Copperbelt, a region known for its copper mining. Town Bemba has slightly altered grammar when compared to Bemba. It also incorporates a lot of loanwords from English and Swahili.
Bemba has two tones – high and low – and nine noun classes.
To express a negative, you simply add the words ‘chala’ or ‘yayi’ to the end of a sentence.
Native to Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia, there are just over two million speakers of Tumbuka. Most of these speakers live in Malawi.
The variety of Tumbuka spoken in urban areas of Malawi borrows some words from Swahili and Chewa, and is different to the variety spoken in villages. There is also a dialect – the Mzimba dialect – which has been strongly influenced by Zulu, to the point where there are clicks in certain words.
Tumbuka suffered under the one-nation, one-language policy that existed in Malawi from 1968-1994. Tumbuka was not taught in schools and was not used on national radio or in print media.
Things changed in 1994 and Tumbuka programmes were started again on the radio. Sadly, the number of books and other publications in the language remains low.
Despite being similar to Chewa, Tumbuka has no distinctions of tone between one word and another. It does have a tonal accent and there are tonal patterns when it comes to expressive words (onomatopoeia etc.).
Tumbuka has 18 noun classes.
Of course, there are hundreds of Bantu languages we don’t have room to cover in this post, but we hope you’ve learnt something new. Let us know which Bantu language you’re most interested in, or which one you’d like to learn one day.
All the Bantu languages featured in this article can be found on the uTalk app. Our app is a great place to learn tonal languages, as each language features two native speakers you can compare your speaking to. Play games, score points, and you’ll find yourself learning without even realising it.
Happy language learning!