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Bantu Languages and Peoples:
Sorting Popular and Technical Terms of Reference

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

I notice the term "Bantu" in reference to languages.  But a black South African colleague of mine pointed out that we don't use the word "Bantu" any more.  It is much preferred to use the word Black (or White) South Africans.  My understanding is that this is due to the previous apartheid government's use of the term as a derogatory racial designation for all black people.

The term Bantu has been used in a unique way here in South Africa, that indeed does have a negative connotation.  Otherwise the term is a classification term for languages.  In some other African countries the term "black" as an ethnic category, used in South Africa and North America, has been considered derogatory.  I have, however, noticed a recent growing positive use of the term on a wider scale.

Your colleague may be unaware that this term is a standard term for linguistic classification, not an ethnic or racial term.  Elsewhere in Africa, speakers of Bantu languages and their related cultures do commonly use the term themselves as a descriptive reference.  I recall years ago Kikuyu friend and I were talking with a group of people, as we were exploring various ethnic descriptive terms for peoples in East Africa.  My friend said he prefers to refer to himself as a Bantu.

Terms of reference or popular terms of classification vary by country and are often social and political designations unique to that country or the surrounding region.  Ethnicity is also a general term and sometimes "ethnic" distinctions and designations are solely political in nature.

Ethnicity and Appearance
Technical categories and characteristics of human societies referred to as "ethnic" are not based on outward physical appearance but on cultural, social and linguistic factors.  Lineage, however, and thus genetic relationship and heritage are also entailed in the consideration of ethnicity and group identity.  (In contrast, ideas of "race" are always contextual and vague, and vary with cultural and political exigencies in each country or geographical region.)

African Language Families
South Africa is virtually unique in that almost the only African languages spoken here are in the Bantu family.  In others countries of Central and Eastern Africa, it is necessary to distinguish between Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic language.  In Kenya, for instance there about 85 languages from all these three families of African languages.

Comparative Linguists have evaluated languages and classified them according to the degree of their similarity.  Of course, research continues to go on all the time, so refinements and reorganization of the supposed family relationships of languages of the world is going on all the time.

One of the services I provide is to evaluate social situations and research findings to assist in determining designations of language and culture groupings.  I am called upon by various sectors for this expertise, such as other researchers, ethnologists and linguists, Bible translators and other cross-cultural communicators.

Anthropologists also reference the linguistic classifications of historical and comparative linguists in regard to their cultural investigations.  In this context the term "Bantu" is a common term used in various academic and world disciplines to refer objectively to groups of languages commonly considered to be in the Bantu family of languages and the related cultures.  Thus a people might in certain contexts be referred to as a "Bantu people," when they speak a language in the Bantu language group.

Other common groups of language families are Cushitic, Nilotic, Sudanic, Atlantic, Niger-Kordofanian, etc.  Like the term Semitic for a large group of languages (like Amharic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Arabic, Aramaic, etc) spoken in Africa and Asia, the term Bantu is a technical term for a specific grouping of related languages spoken over much of the African continent.

Bantu Languages
The Bantu languages are a sub-grouping of the Benue-Congo, or Niger Kongo family (depending on how completely various languages groups are combined) in the Afro-Asiatic Phylum of world languages.  The context of usage is important, so without knowing which reference your colleagues took exception to, I cannot address the matter.

In the southern African context there is a valid distinction, however, between Bantu and Khoisan language groups and their associated cultures.

Bantu Experience
The term Bantu occurs frequently in my writing since much of my research involves African languages and cultures.  I worked primarily in Swahili for over 25 years, with some work in English.  I was also intensively involved in the use of Kikuyu, another Bantu language, in central Kenya.

Additionally, over my 25 years of residence in Kenya, I had ongoing involvement with Luo, a Nilotic language spoken by several million people in Kenya and Uganda.  I also gained some facility in several other Bantu languages of Eastern Africa, and have lived or travelled among many Bantu-speaking peoples in several countries of Africa.

Also related
Naming African Languages in English
Who are the "Somali Bantu"?


First written in an email exchange 22 November 2007
Finalized as an article for Thoughts and Resources 12 April 2008
Last revised 20 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  researchguy@iname.com
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