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!

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