SOAS University of London

African Languages, Cultures and Literatures Section

The Structure of Bantu Languages (PG)

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

This 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, and are encouraged to relate their understanding of Bantu languages to wider theoretical, thematic or regional aspects of their study.


This module is aimed at students with some background in linguistic analysis and an interest in African languages. Students with an interest in African studies can combine a linguistic understanding of Bantu languages with wider interests in African literatures and cultures, history, and societies. Students studying linguistics can apply theoretical concepts to Bantu languages.

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
  • Be able 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
  • 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


Total of 10 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour seminar.

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 assignment (1000 words) on the noun class system of a selected Bantu language to be submitted on day 5, week 7, in the term in which the course is taught (30%)
  • One essay (2000 words) on an approved topic of the students own choice to be submitted on day 5, week 1, in the term after which the course is taught (70%).  

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