Proto-Bantu language

Proto-Bantu (also Common Bantu) is the reconstructed common ancestor of most Bantu languages.[1] It is thought to have originally been spoken in West/Central Africa in the area of what is now Cameroon.[2] Approximately 3000–4000 years ago, it split off from other Niger–Congo languages when the Bantu expansion began to the south and east.[3]

Like other proto-languages, there is no record of Proto-Bantu. Its words and pronunciation have been reconstructed by linguists.


Proto-Bantu is generally reconstructed with a relatively small set of sounds, consisting of 11 consonants and 7 vowels.[4]


Labial Coronal Palatal Velar
Nasal *m *n (*ŋ)
Voiceless *p *t *c *k
Voiced *b *d *j *g

These phonemes exhibited considerable allophony, and the exact realisation of many of the phonemes is unclear.

Consonants could not occur at the end of a syllable, only at the beginning, so the syllable structure was generally V or CV and all syllables were open.[4] Consonant clusters did not occur, except for the "pre-nasalised" consonants.

The so-called "pre-nasalised" consonants were sequences of a nasal and a following obstruent.[5] These could occur anywhere a single consonant was permitted, including word-initially. Pre-nasalised voiceless consonants were rare, most were voiced. The nasal's articulation adapted to the articulation of the following consonant, so the nasal can be considered a single unspecified nasal phoneme (indicated as *N) which had four possible allophones. Conventionally, the labial pre-nasal is written *m while the others are written *n.

The earlier velar nasal phoneme /ŋ/, which was present in the Bantoid languages, had been lost in Proto-Bantu.[5] It still occurred phonetically in pre-nasalised consonants, but not as a phoneme.


Front Back
Close *i *u
Open-mid *e *o
Open *a

The representation of the vowels may differ in particular with respect to the two "middle" levels of closedness. Most linguists write the "less closed" set as *ɪ and *ʊ. However, some prefer to denote them as *e and *o, with the more open set represented as *ɛ and *ɔ. Regardless of the representation, the third level (*e and *o in the table) was open-mid [ɛ] and [ɔ].

Syllables always ended in a vowel, but could also begin with one. Vowels could also occasionally appear in a sequence, but did not form diphthongs; two adjacent vowels were separate syllables. If two of the same vowel occurred together, this created a long vowel, although this was rare.


Proto-Bantu distinguished two tones, low and high. Each syllable had either a low or a high tone. A high tone is conventionally indicated with an acute accent (´) while a low tone is either indicated with a grave accent (`) or not marked at all.


Noun classes

Proto-Bantu, like its descendants, had an elaborate system of noun classes. Noun stems were prefixed with a noun prefix which specified its meaning. Other words that related or referred to that noun, such as adjectives and verbs, also received a prefix that matched the class of the noun ("agreement" or "concord").

The following table gives a reconstruction of the system of nominal classes. The spellings have been normalised to use the ɪ and ʊ notations.

Number Meeussen
Typical meaning(s)
1 *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- Humans, animate
2 *ba- *va- *va- *ba- Plural of class 1
3 *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- Plants, inanimate
4 *mɪ- *mɪ- *mɪ- *mɪ- Plural of class 3
5 *i- *lɪ- *lɪ- *di- Various
6 *ma- *ma- *ma- *ma- Plural of class 5, liquids (mass nouns)
7 *kɪ- *kɪ- *kɪ- *kɪ- Various, diminutives, manner/way/language
8 *bi- *ʋi-, *li- ("8x") *ʋi-, *di- *bi- Plural of class 7
9 *n- *nɪ- *n- *n- Animals, inanimate
10 *n- *li-nɪ- *di-n- *n- Plural of class 9 and 11
11 *dʊ- *lʊ- *lʊ- *dʊ- Abstract nouns
12 *ka- *ka- *ka- *ka- Diminutives
13 *tʊ- *tʊ- *tʊ- *tʊ- Plural of class 12
14 *bʊ- *ʋʊ- *ʋʊ- *bʊ- Abstract nouns
15 *kʊ- *kʊ- *kʊ- *kʊ- Infinitives
16 *pa- *pa- *pa- *pa- Locatives (proximal, exact)
17 *kʊ- *kʊ- *kʊ- *kʊ- Locatives (distal, approximate)
18 *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- *mʊ- Locatives (interior)
19 *pi- *pi- *pi- *pi- Diminutives


  1. Erhet & Posnansky, eds. (1982), Newman (1995)
  2. Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations, (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169.
  3. Newman (1995), Shillington (2005)
  4. 1 2
  5. 1 2 3 The Bantu Languages - Derek Nurse, Gérard Philippson
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