Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 4 Bantu languages

Bantu Languages and their Origins

Collins, Problems in African History, pp. 57-113.

- we have talked a bit about African languages, but we want to delve a little deeper; especially, we want to look more closely at the Bantu language group.

- the Khoikhoi and the San have distinct languages which, as we have already noted, were distinctive for the click sounds. Although some of the clicks were adopted into the Xhosa dialect of Nguni languages (Zulu is also in this group), these languages are distinct from the Bantu languages.

- except for the Nilote language group and a few others in northern east Africa (as well as the West Africa language group), all other peoples in central and southern Africa speak a Bantu language.

- where did the Bantu speakers come from and when did they have their origins? These questions have been a great puzzle for scholars.

Bantu Languages

- while most linguists agree that the Bantu languages are related to the West African language group, there is a great deal of debate about how closely they are related and about when the Bantu languages separated. In other words, the differences are quite large and the separation must have been a long time ago with almost complete separation ever since.

- the Bantu languages are fairly closely related and have a unique feature in the harmonic concord. Indo-European languages (and others too) usually show gender differences, singular/plural, and agreement by means of suffixes. Bantu languages use prefixes and the harmonic concord.

- in almost all these languages, the root word for person or people is ‘ntu’;
- e.g., in Xhosa — a person is umntu ..... persons or people is abantu
- this provides the label that is used for the entire group of languages.

- there is a fairly high degree of similarity in the languages, including the grammar and structure, but also a substantial sharing of root words, especially if one takes account of simple sound shifts. This suggests that origins & diffusion is fairly recent. We have a means of comparison in the Romance languages of Europe; they give some indication of the speed with which Latin diverged into Italian, French and Spanish over the last almost 2,000 years.

- most scholars are agreed that the first people speaking proto-Bantu emerged south of the rain forest in the Congo River area, probably not too long before the beginning of the Christian era and they spread out from there. This is supported by comparative linguistics which shows that as one moves from this assumed heartland, the degree of difference between the languages tends to increase.

- there are 2 main problems for scholars:

  1. Where did the original Bantu speakers come from and how did they get to the heartland?
  2. How were Bantu speakers able to spread over such vast areas so quickly and so completely?

- there are 3 main hypotheses (all highly speculative) to answer the 1st question:

- 2 hypotheses posit that the origins of Bantu speakers were in west Africa; somehow, in the process of migrating from west Africa, they acquired or developed proto-Bantu. The main reason for looking to west Africa at all is the rather distant relationship of the Bantu language group with the west African language group.

- the 3rd hypothesis dispenses with any idea of a migration from west Africa. It argues that proto-Bantu originated among people in the heartland who had spoken a west African related language.

- in regard to the second question about how the Bantu speaking peoples spread so quickly and became so dominant over about a third of Africa, theories are also highly speculative and there is a great deal of debate. Two factors are usually cited:

  1. about the beginning of the Christian era or a bit earlier, iron working and iron-age technology spread to Africa and Bantu-speakers are always associated with iron.
  2. most Bantu speakers practice agriculture although a high proportion also keep cattle and other livestock. A number of commentators also argue that the acquisition of Malaysian crops (sorghum and millet) allowed better, more productive agriculture.

    - these technological advances gave Bantu speakers great advantages for military and for population growth; however, it seems likely that the spread and growth took place by absorption of pre-Bantu peoples as well as natural increase. As already noted, this process of absorption was being pursued by the Xhosa in the 18th and early 19th Cs.

Contacts with the outside world prior to the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa.

[The Portuguese began to explore southwards along the Atlantic coast of Africa in the 15th C, reaching and rounding the Cape of Good Hope first in 1487 (Bartholomew Dias) and then Vasco de Gama’s expedition into the Indian Ocean in 1497.]

Trans Saharan contacts

- as previously noted, trade and contacts from the north and the Mediterranean world, either via the Nile or across the Sahara, took place for long periods of time. After the spread of Islam across north Africa, Islam too was carried south into Africa. Along the Nile, Islam did not penetrate beyond the northern Sudan. In fact, except for a small trade in slaves which only became significant in the second half of the 19th C, there was virtually no contact or penetration with the southern Sudan or beyond. However, farther west there was almost more or less continuous trade and contact across the Sahara—gold and slaves going northward and salt especially going in the opposite direction. Islam too spread along the sudanic areas south of the Sahara. It was the gold that was the initial spur for Portuguese exploration southwards along the Atlantic coast in hopes of being able to get to the source and bypass the Islamic middlemen in north Africa.


- there was also a period of contact and trade in east/central Africa by Islamic Indonesian traders. The main evidence of their contact are some trade goods that have been found by archeologists in the Zambesi River basin and perhaps some plants. It was relatively short and not sustained.

Arab East African

- of more significance was the arrival and settling down of Arab traders along the coast during Europe’s medieval period. They established a series of towns along the coast from Kenya stretching down to the Zambesi in Mozambique. They brought Islam and established the Swahili culture. Swahili is an interesting language; its grammar and structure is Bantu but many of its words have Arabic roots. It became the lingua franca of east Africa. Most of these towns were conquered and the trade they had engaged in across the Indian Ocean were taken over by the Portuguese in the 16th C and the Portuguese in turn lost most of it to the Dutch and British in the 17th C. The Arabs intermarried a great deal with the local people, but Islam and the renewed contacts with the Arab world (Oman especially) under British patronage enabled them to maintain a separate identity. These are the Arabs referred to by histories of the 19th C.

 Return to

 Return to

 Mills home page

 History 316 lecture list