Bantu Languages

The Bantu languages, technically the Narrow Bantu languages, constitute a traditional sub-branch of the Niger–Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility, though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and Ethnologue counts 535 languages. Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of the present day country of Cameroon; i.e., in the regions commonly known as Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa. Parts of the Bantu area include languages from other language families (see map).

The Bantu language with the largest total number of speakers is Swahili; however, nearly all speakers know it as a second language. According to Ethnologue, there are over 40 million L2 speakers, but only about 800,000 native speakers.

According to Ethnologue, Shona is the most widely spoken as a first language, with 10.8 million speakers, followed closely by Zulu, with 10.3 million. Ethnologue also lists Manyika and Ndau as separate languages, though Shona speakers consider them to be two of the five main dialects of Shona. If the 3.4 million Manyika and Ndau speakers are included among the Shona, then Shona totals 14.2 million first-language speakers

Ethnologue separates Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, which are largely mutually intelligible and hence often considered dialects of a single Rwanda-Rundi language. These two, grouped together, have 12.4 million speakers according to Ethnologue. (Other estimates may be significantly larger or smaller. Estimates of number of speakers of most languages vary widely, due both to the lack of accurate statistics in most third-world countries and the difficulty in defining exactly where the boundaries of a language lie, particularly in the presence of a dialect continuum.)

Bantu languages are believed to have originated in what is now Cameroon in West Africa. An estimated 2500–3000 years ago, speakers of the proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.

The technical term Bantu, simply meaning "people", was first used by Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek (1827–1875), as this is reflected in many of the languages of this group. A common characteristic of Bantu languages is that they use words such as muntu or mutu for "person", and the plural prefix for human nouns starting with mu- (class 1) in most languages is ba- (class 2), thus giving bantu for "people". Bleek, and later Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive studies comparing the grammatical structures of Bantu languages.

Read more about Bantu Languages:  Classification, Language Structure, Notable Bantu Languages, Geographic Areas, Bantu Words Popularised in Western Cultures

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