The Noun Class System of the Bantu Languages: Part II

As this was my final semester of my undergraduate studies, I completed the capstone for the Linguistics major. For my capstone paper, I chose to undertake a data-based analysis of noun class semantics in Bantu languages. This post and the previous one summarize my research on this topic.

After completing my literature review of relevant research on Bantu noun classes, my next step was to design a methodology for my own data analysis. There are 556 documented Bantu languages divided into 7 subgroups of varying sizes. However, most analysis of Bantu noun class semantics thus far has been conducted on a very narrow sample of these languages, primarily focusing on widely-spoken languages like Swahili. In pursuit of a more representative analysis, I chose 1-2 languages from each subgroup for a total of 12 languages.. In the map below, the Bantu language region is shown in light brown; the dots on the map, which are separate from the legend, indicate the locations in which each of the languages in my sample are spoken. Same-color dots represent languages in the same subgroup.

Edited. Map source: Wikipedia,

After noting and comparing the semantic themes that appeared in the noun classes and singular/plural noun class pairings in each of the sample languages, here are the ones that were most common:

Class pairing/ monoclass Semantic themes
1/2 Humans, animates
1a/2 Animates, miscellaneous
3/4 Plants, trees, body parts, small animals, nature terms
5/6 Natural sets, body parts, nature terms, nouns derived from verbs, descriptors, miscellaneous
7/8 Small things, body parts, miscellaneous
9/6 Miscellaneous
9/10 Animates, plants, miscellaneous
11/10 Long/thin things, miscellaneous
12/13 Diminutive
2 Animates
6 Liquids, uncountables, bulk items/collections
9 Diseases, abstract nouns
14 Abstract nouns
15 Nouns derived from verbs
16 Locatives
17 Locatives
18 Locatives

After determining this possible semantic scheme for the noun class system of Proto-Bantu, I used my research from the literature review and my background linguistic knowledge to speculate as to the probable reasons for the development of this system in modern Bantu languages. The four reasons I defined were:

  1. Influence from other languages: Many Bantu languages are influenced by each other, by other African languages, and/or by colonial European languages, such as French.
  2. Collapsed semantic categories: When speakers lose a strong semantic distinction between two things, one of those things can move into the other’s noun class. A noun class shift for grammatical reasons could also incite semantic change. For example, in the language Pagibete, animals have moved into the human noun class, indicating that the distinction between animate and inanimate is more important than that between animal and human.
  3. Connotative manipulation: In some Bantu languages, nouns can be moved between categories to adjust their meaning. Nearly every language in my sample had a noun class to inflect a pejorative meaning, for example.
  4. Arbitrary nature of language: Sometimes, language changes without semantic, grammatical, or cultural reason. This could well be the case for Bantu noun classes.

I had never done linguistic data analysis on this scale before, and it was fascinating to learn the ins and outs of so many languages and look for patterns. Furthermore, I enjoyed the tidbits of cultural information I learned in studying these languages’ vocabularies, language samples, and semantics. While I am convinced that a Bantu language would be incredibly difficult for a native English speaker to learn, I now am more motivated to try!

The Noun Class System of the Bantu Languages: Part I

As this was my final semester of my undergraduate studies, I completed the capstone for the Linguistics major. For my capstone paper, I chose to undertake a data-based analysis of noun class semantics in Bantu languages. This post and the following one will summarize my research on this topic.

The Bantu languages, spoken across the southern half of Africa, comprise a subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family. The area in which Bantu languages are spoken is shown in beige on the map below.

Image source: Wikipedia,

Bantu languages are hypothesized to have descended from one mother language, Proto-Bantu. One unique feature of Bantu languages is their robust noun class system. You are probably familiar with the feminine/masculine gender system in Romance languages. The concept of noun classes is similar, except while Romance languages have 2-3 genders, Bantu languages can have up to 23 noun classes! Further, these noun classes are not only expressed on nouns and adjectives, but also on verbs, prepositions, and more. 

While the grammatical structure of the Proto-Bantu noun class system is well-defined, any semantic basis is hazy at best. There are two main theories regarding the development of noun class systems: one, proposed by Malcolm Guthrie in 1967, argues for semantically arbitrary noun classes determined only by grammatical and morphological criteria. The other, proposed by Denny and Creider in 1976, presents a possible semantic hierarchy for Bantu noun classes.

Why is this important? For one thing, understanding the noun class system of Proto-Bantu can give us clues to how Bantu languages, and their associated ethnic groups, have migrated, merged, and diverged over time. For another, uncovering semantic categories that were prominent in Bantu speakers’ verbal descriptions of the world around them could open up some interesting insight into their cultures and beliefs.

While I don’t address this social analysis in my research, it would be a fascinating follow-up to my work for an anthropologist to undertake. In my next post, I will explain how I looked at modern Bantu languages to develop hypotheses about Proto-Bantu noun class semantics.


In my morphology class this semester, I did a project on Amharic, a language I’ve wanted to learn more about for a long time.

Amharic is a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia; it is a primary language in the off-white area of Ethiopia on the map to the left. This language is notoriously complex in terms of its morphology and grammar, as each word has a root that can appear to change significantly in different grammatical situations.

Image source: The Language Gulper

In my project, I investigated the relationship between case-marking (which indicates whether a noun is a subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.) and valence-modifying operations (things like causative – ‘I make you eat potatoes’, passive – ‘potatoes were eaten by you’, etc.). Amharic has a nominative-accusative case-marking system, like English – meaning it distinguishes between subject and object. However, it has a marker that goes directly on the noun to indicate nominative or accusative case, which English does not have.

It took me eleven pages of data and discussion to complete my analysis, but the essence of my conclusion is this: only nouns functioning as an accusative argument are marked in causative and passive operations, and only one of these may be marked in a sentence. When a decision has to be made about which accusative argument to mark, Amharic prefers to mark nouns indicating the goal or source of a verb to those indicating the theme of the verb.

It was very interesting to investigate these operations in a morphological and grammatical system that much more complex than English’s is. However, my favorite thing I learned was a related crumb of information I stumbled upon. In Amharic, the causative can be layered onto the passive (which is not possible in English, but would take the translated form, rather inelegantly, of something like: ‘I made the potatoes be eaten by you’). The following examples show how these layered operations in Amharic result in logical and beautiful shifts in meaning:

(a) awwək-ə
      ‘disturb’ (Leslau 1995:503)
(b) t-awwək-ə
      ‘be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)
(c) as-t-awwək-ə
      ‘cause to be disturbed’ (Leslau 1995:503)

Amharic language source:
Leslau, W., & Thomas Leiper Kane Collection (Library of Congress. Hebraic           Section). (1995). Reference grammar of Amharic. Wiesbaden, Germany:           Harrassowitz.

Remembering China

This June will mark two years since I returned from my study abroad semester in China. Although it feels like another lifetime now, there are still memories that arise suddenly and strongly, making me miss the place I called home for five months. The photo on the right is the view from my dorm window in Beijing.

The smell of cucumbers reminds me of when I hiked Mount Hua on a scorching Shaanxi day and I ate the most refreshing cucumber I’ve ever had.

Atop Mount Hua

Seeing bike- and scooter-sharing programs around OU’s campus reminds me of biking all around Beijing to see all of its cool historical and cultural landmarks.

Avery and me at Beihai Park

When eggplant is on sale, I buy some and attempt to recreate one of my favorite dishes from China, savory qiezi.

Another of my favorite meals – roasted chicken, rice, fried egg, and sauteed Chinese cabbage with an Asian pear on the side.

I am grateful for these moments that bring up memories of an amazing time in my life. I plan to relive them for real someday – the sooner I can get back to China, the better!