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Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa

The structure of Bantu languages

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year
The course offers a comprehensive introduction to the structure of the Bantu languages. Bantu languages, spoken by an estimated 240 million speakers in 27 African countries, are one of the most important language groups in Africa in terms of geographical and demographic spread. In this course we are looking in more detail at the most salient structural properties of Bantu languages, such as the noun class system, the structure of verbs, and topics in the phonology and the syntax of Bantu. In addition, the course addresses topics related to the historical and social contexts in which Bantu languages are spoken, e.g. multilingualism, language contact, and historical linguistics.


Knowledge of a Bantu language is helpful but it is not a pre-requisite. However, familiarity with key concepts in Bantu grammar or general linguistics (e.g. Language in Africa) would be useful.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of the course, students will have a good understanding of the major structural properties of Bantu languages, including the noun class system, verbal morphology, and aspects of phonology and syntax. They will also be familiar with the main topics in the history, sociology, geography and demography of the Bantu languages. The course encourages students to apply concepts discussed in class and in the relevant literature to new data, and at the end of the course students’ experience with, and confidence in, developing their own analyses for novel language data will have increased. Through individual work on aspects of a or several Bantu languages, students gain experience in searching for, locating and assessing information from different sources, and in presenting this information orally and in writing.


Total of 22 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week.

Scope and syllabus

The course is built around the topics below. In addition, students adopt a pet language and work with that language throughout the year, reporting back to the group what they have found out based on resources available in SOAS library and elsewhere.

  • Geography, demography, history
  • Noun classes
  • Nominal morphology and agreement
  • Verbal morphology
  • Phonetics and phonology
  • Syntax
  • Information structure
  • Historical linguistics

Method of assessment

1 commentary and critical evaluation report (500-1,000 word) to be submitted day 1, after reading week, term 1 (5%); 1 essay (2,000 words) to be submitted day 1, after reading week, term 1 (20%); 1 essay (2,000 words) to be submitted day 1, week 1, term 2 (25%); 1 essay (5,000 words) to be submitted day 1, week 1, term 3 (50%).

Suggested reading

In addition to the references listed below, references to the specialist literature will be made available throughout the course.

  • Bresnan, J. and S. A. Mchombo. 1987. Topic, pronoun, and agreement in Chichewa. Language 63: 741-782.
  • Demuth, K. 2000. Bantu noun class systems: loanword and acquisition evidence for semantic productivity. In G. Senft, ed. Systems of Nominal Classification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 270-292.
  • Guthrie, Malcolm, 1967-71. Comparative Bantu. 4 vols. Farnborough: Gregg.
  • Maho, Jouni, 1999, A Comparative Study of Bantu Noun Classes, Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis.
  • Marten, Lutz, 2006a. Bantu classification, Bantu trees and phylogenetic methods. In Peter Foster and Colin Renfrew, eds., Phylogenetic Methods and the Prehistory of Languages, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 43-55.
  • Mchombo, Sam A., 2004. The Syntax of Chichewa, Cambirdge: CUP.
  • Meeussen, A. E., 1967. Bantu grammatical reconstruction. Africana Linguistica 3: 81–121.
  • Meinhof, Carl, 1932. Introduction to the phonology of the Bantu languages. Transl. by N. van Warmelo. Berlin: Reimer.
  • Meinhof, Carl, 1948, Grundzüge einer vergleichenden Grammatik der Bantusprachen, 2nd ed., Berlin: Reimer.
  • Miti, Lazarus. 2006. Comparative Bantu Phonology and Morphology. Cape Town: CASAS.
  • Nurse, Derek and Gérard Philippson, eds. (2003). The Bantu Languages. London: Routledge.