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, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/Niger-Congo_map.png

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.

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