Bantu Languages

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Bantu Languages, or Narrow Bantu languages, are a family of 522 Niger-Congo languages in Sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

"According to the most recent estimate (Grimes 2000) the world has 6,809 languages, of which 2,058, approximately 30%, are spoken in Africa (an additional 44 are described as “extinct”). Africa is home to the world’s largest language phylum, Niger-Congo, with 1,489 languages (the next largest being Austronesian, with a mere 1,262). If we accept the figure of 750 million as Africa’s population size today, then some 400 million Africans speak Niger-Congo languages, of whom about 240 million have a Bantu language as their first language (the figure includes Grassfields). That is, nearly a third of all Africans speak a Bantu language as their native language."[2]

Geographic Range

"Bantu-speaking communities live in Africa south of a line from Nigeria in the west, across the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC: formerly Zaire), Uganda, and Kenya, to southern Somalia in the east. Most language communities between that line and the southern tip of Africa are Bantu. The exceptions are pockets: in the south, some small and fast dwindling Khoisan communities; in Tanzania one, maybe two, Khoisan outliers; in the northeast of the area, larger communities speaking Cushitic (part of Afro-Asiatic); and along and inside the northern border many communities speaking Nilo-Saharan languages and Adamawa-Ubangian (Niger-Congo but non-Bantu) languages. Communities speaking Bantu languages are indigenous to twenty-seven African countries: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, CAR, Comoros, Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mayotte, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages are spoken north and mainly west of Bantu. Starting in the north of the DRC, they stretch west across the CAR, Cameroon, Nigeria, and right across all west Africa as far as Senegal."[3]

The Bantu Expansion

The Niger-Congo family of languages arose in West Africa, with the Bantu branch of it originating at the eastern edge of the range, in modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria.[4] Speakers of these languages domesticated a package of crops suitable to West Africa's wet climate. These included the African yam, the kola nut, and the African oil palm.

Jared Diamond explains the spread of Bantu languages through Sub-Saharan Africa as follows:

"As for how the Bantu came to replace those northern Khoisan, archaeological and linguistic evidence suggest that the expansion of ancestral Bantu farmers from West Africa's inland savanna south into its wetter coastal forest may have begun as early as 3000 B.C. Words still widespread in all Bantu languages show that, already then, the Bantu had cattle and wet-climate crops such as yams, but that they lacked metal and were still engaged in much fishing, hunting, and gathering. They even lost their cattle to disease borne by tsetse flies in the forest. As they spread into the Congo Basin's equatorial forest zone, cleared gardens, and increased in numbers, they began to engulf the Pygmy hunter-gatherers and compress them into the forest itself.
"By soon after 1000 B.C. the Bantu had emerged from the eastern side of the forest into the more open country of East Africa's Rift Valley and Great Lakes. Here they encountered a melting pt of Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan farmers growing millet and sorghum and raising livestock in drier areas, along with Khoisan hunter-gatherers. Thanks to their wet-climate crops inherited from their West African homeland, the Bantu were able to farm in wet areas of East Africa unsuitable for all those previous occupants. By the last centuries B.C. the advancing Bantu had reached the East African coast.
"In East Africa the Bantu began to acquire millet and sorghum (along with the Nilo-Saharan names for those crops), and to reacquire cattle, from their Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic neighbors. They also acquired iron, which had just begun to be smelted in Africa's Sahel zone...
"With the addition of iron tools to their wet-climate crops, the Bantu had finally put together a military-industrial package that was unstoppable in the subequatorial Africa of the time. In East Africa they still had to compete against numerous Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic Iron Age farmers. But to the south lay 2,000 miles of country thinly occupied by Khoisan hunter-gatheres, lacking iron and crops. Within a few centuries, in one of the swiftest colonizing advances of recent prehistory, Bantu farmers had swept all the way to Natal, on the east coast of what is now South Africa."[5]

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. [Language Family Trees, Accessed December 6, 2011.
  2. Derek Nurse, "A Survey Report for the Bantu Languages,", SIL International, 2001, Accessed December 6, 2011.
  3. Derek Nurse, "A Survey Report for the Bantu Languages,", SIL International, 2001, Accessed December 6, 2011.
  4. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, p. 385.
  5. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, p. 394-396.

External Resources

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