Clues to the Past in the Bantu Language Family

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language — Language Families - Clues to the Past

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

There are many language families in the world, and they are a constant subject of study for linguists. But it is not just linguistics that can be understood with the use of language families. The evolution and movement of languages and their families can provide a lot of clues into other historical information about places and cultures. 

Stylized definition of the word 'Swahili' in the dictionary.
The Bantu language family is a large language family which is prominently used in the south of Africa and comprises about 500 member families, many of which are very similar to each other. (Image: Feng Yu/Shutterstock)

Patterns and movements of language can provide us with invaluable information about the associated culture and people. The Bantu language family of Africa is a good example of this phenomenon.

The Bantu Languages

The Bantu languages are spoken in Africa, and they cover a significant part of the south of the continent. They are technically not a language family, but rather, a subfamily within a large family called Niger-Congo language family.

Map portraying language families in the African subcontinent, including the Bantu languages.
Bantu languages are very commonly spoken all across the African continent.
(Image: Mark Dingemanse / CC BY 2.5 / Public domain)

The most well-known member of the Bantu subfamily is Swahili, which is often taught in other countries as a foreign language as well. It is, in fact, used as a lingua franca, not all across Africa as is sometimes assumed, but in certain countries in East Africa. Some other examples of Bantu languages are Zulu and Xhosa.

All in all, there are about 500 Bantu languages. A commonly heard hyperbole about these languages is that knowing one of them is sufficient to know the rest of them as well. While this is definitely not the case, the languages are, indeed, quite similar to each other, perhaps to a similar degree as the Romance languages, or the Slavic languages. Despite the seeming similarity, there do exist about 500 of these languages, which are spoken in the area south of the Sahara. Within the area encompassed by this language subfamily, the area of greatest diversity is in Cameroon and eastern Nigeria. 

While most of the languages in the Bantu ecosystem are extremely similar to each other, to the extent that most of the grammatical rules are pretty standard, just variations on a theme, this is not the case for Cameroon and eastern Nigeria. The diversity of language is such here that there exist some very varied language structures. This in itself is an indication, through the movements of language in the area, though they have not been documented in writing, and are only documented archeologically, that the language must have begun here. The archeological evidence suggests that migration did begin there in 3000 BC, which would explain why Swahili, Xhosa, Zulu, Kikuyu, Setswana, Sotho, Kikongo, and other Bantu languages are so similar.

Further evidence of this kind of pattern can be seen with another group of African languages, the Khoi-San languages.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Khoi-San Languages

The Khoi-San languages are distributed in regions of southwest Africa. They are what are often called the click languages. 

The interesting thing about these languages is their confinement in a particular area. One reason for this might be that they grew in that area, and then something stopped them from propagating outwards. However, groups of language do generally expand, which makes a curious case for the click languages, which are spoken in a particular Southwestern region of Africa. There are also a few click languages spoken in Tanzania, which is completely separated from the main region where they are spoken. Why are these languages spoken there?

The most common idea is perhaps that of a group of people migrating all the way to Tanzania? But there seems to be no plausible reason for which just two subgroups would go all that far, and then go ahead and stay there. Had they been chased out, there would have been a lot of different people, who would be scattered all over the area. Instead, however, there is an enormous chunk of speakers in Africa, and then a tinier one up in Tanzania. 

Another possible explanation is that maybe these people are the original speakers, who came down to Africa to dominate, exterminate and negate the existence of the people in the original state, and what we see today are just remnants of what was once a much broader distribution of these people.

Learn more about how culture may drive language change.

Relation Between Bantu and Khoi-San Languages

Suppose what happened was that the Bantu migration that started from Cameroon to eastern Nigeria came down and gradually overtook the southern part of Africa that was originally covered to a large extent with the Khoi-San speakers. This seems to be the most precise explanation, of which there are various clues. The Khoi-San people were easily identifiable by certain characteristics of their skulls, which have been found, as well as by their small physical statures.

Even more significantly, some of the Bantu languages which are spoken in regions which are close to the regions where click languages are spoken, include elements of click languages themselves. Think back to Miriam Makeba in the 1970s, who used to sing with clicks. These clicks existed because she was a Bantu language speaker. 

Languages such as Zulu and Hosa have clicked in them, though most Bantu languages do not have clicks, and clicks do not arise spontaneously in language. They are a very, very peculiar feature of the click languages, which are not found anywhere else, except some of the Bantu languages that happened to be around them. This suggests that Bantu languages did not originally have these clicks, but as time went by, Bantu language speakers met people that spoke these click languages, and there was a sort of intermixture. 

So, one of the most plausible situations, out of many, is where one group is overrun by another. The story that begins with the diversity of the Bantu languages goes on to take into account the odd distribution of the Khoi-San languages.

The Tanzanian group of speakers is almost like the chance few who happened to not have been overrun outside of the main region, which seems to be the most widely accepted explanation of the situation. 

Another curious case of language systems like Bantu is that of the Basque language, which straddles France and Spain. It is a language that has no known relatives in the world. In fact, it is one of the various languages in the world. It is not even remotely linked to Indo-European, which encompasses all its surrounding languages. 

Many reasons point to the idea that languages related to Basque were probably spoken over a large part of Europe. The migration of Indo-European speakers into Europe then largely overran them, except for the current tiny group of speakers.

The overthrowing of original language systems and the adoption of newer ones seem to be the way language groups all around the world have spread. Originally, there could have been many more language families, but technology, cultural revolutions, or conquering and taking over of areas has meant that some groups have spread, largely at the expense of others. 

The pattern of Khoi-San language dots, surrounded by larger bodies, or of the Basques, is very common in the world, and it speaks as a testimony to the general tendency of humans to migrate. 

Learn more about Indo-European language family.

Common Questions about the Bantu Language Family

Q: What are the Bantu languages?

The Bantu language subfamily is a subgroup under the Niger-Congo language family. It includes languages such as Swahili and Zulu.

Q: Do Bantu languages use clicks?

Despite the fact that Bantu languages are not clicked languages, sometimes languages such as Zulu use clicks, which are probably an indication of an intermixing of Bantu and Khoi-San language cultures.

Q: How do languages propagate across the world?

One of the most common ways in which language families spread over the world is by overthrowing the original language of an area after arriving there. This is most likely how Bantu languages took over a large part of Khoi-San speaking areas, and how Basque exists alone in Europe today.

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