SOAS University of London

African Languages, Cultures and Literatures Section

The structure of Bantu languages

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 of 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 2

The module offers a comprehensive introduction to the structure of the Bantu languages. Bantu languages such as Swahili, Zulu, Chichewa or Bemba are spoken by an estimated 240 million speakers in 27 African countries, and are one of the most important language groups in Africa in terms of geographical and demographic distribution. We will be looking in detail at the most salient structural properties of Bantu languages, such as the noun class system, the structure of verbs, and topics in phonology and syntax. The main approach of the module is comparative-typological, and we will also look at language change and language contact in Bantu. Throughout the module, students collect their own data from published sources and share their findings with the class.


The module is aimed at second or final year students of African Studies, African Language and Culture, or Linguistics. Knowledge of a Bantu language is helpful, but is not a pre-requisite for this module. However, familiarity with key concepts in Bantu grammar or general linguistics (e.g. from Language in Africa) would be useful.  More important is an interest in studying language from an academic perspective and the willingness to engage with sometimes quite technical topics.

Language in Africa: 155900867

General Linguistics: 152900069

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student 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
  • Be familiar with the main topics in the history, sociology, and geography of the Bantu languages
  • Have gained experience with, and confidence in, developing their own analyses for novel language data
  • Have gained experience in searching for, locating and assessing information from different sources, and in presenting this information orally and in writing


This module will be taught over 10 weeks with a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

  • Week 1 Introduction and overview
  • Week 2 Noun classes
  • Week 3 Noun classes and agreement
  • Week 4 Verbal morphology: Derivation/extensions
  • Week 5 Verbal morphology: Tense, aspect, and negation
  • Week 6 Reading Week
  • Week 7 Phonetics and Phonology
  • Week 8 Syntax: Applicatives
  • Week 9 Syntax: Object marking
  • Week 10 Lexical variation
  • Week 11 Morphosyntactic variation and language contact

Method of assessment

  • One (500 word) critical reflection of sources and methodology to be submitted on day 5, week 7, in the term in which the module is taught (20%)
  • One  assignment (1000 words) on noun classes of a selected language to be submitted on day 5, week 11, in the term in which the module is taught (30%)
  • One assignment (1500 words) on a selected approved topic to be submitted on day 5, week 1, in the term after which the module is taught (50%).

Suggested reading

  • Bastin, Yvonne, André Coupez and Michael Mann, 1999. Continuity and Divergence in the Bantu Languages: perspectives from a lexicostatistic study. Tervuren: Musée royal d’Afrique Centrale.
  • 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.
  • Downing, Laura, Lutz Marten and Sabine Zerbian, eds. 2006. Papers in Bantu Grammar and Description, ZAS Papers in Linguistics 43. Berlin: ZAS.
  • 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, Nancy C. Kula and Nhlanhla Thwala. 2007. Parameters of morphosyntactic variation in Bantu. Transactions of the Philological Society 105: 253-338.
  • 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.
  • Miti, Lazarus. 2006. Comparative Bantu Phonology and Morphology. Cape Town: CASAS.
  • Nurse, Derek and Gérard Philippson, eds. (2003). The Bantu Languages. London: Routledge.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules