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Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa

The structure of Bantu languages (Masters)

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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. The course focuses on 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. Students with a background in, or studying African languages as part of their MA can combine their language study with research in linguistic aspects of Bantu languages. Students studying linguistics can apply theoretical concepts to Bantu languages.

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. This will allow students to reflect on the structural and socio-historical properties of language in an African context, and to develop an academic perspective on language and language studies. 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 and joint 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. The course encourages students to apply technical concepts from discipline courses they are taking to the description and analysis of Bantu languages

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
Information structure
Historical linguistics

Method of assessment

One 2,000 word essay on the noun class system of a selected Bantu language (20%), one 2,000 word essay on the verbal morphology of a selected Bantu language (20%), and one 5,000-6,000 word essay on an approved topic of choice (60%).

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.