There is no mistaking a Bantu language, which perhaps is what renders the study of this group so interesting and encouraging. The homogeneity of this family is so striking, as compared with the inexplicable confusion of tongues which reigns in Africa north of the Bantu borderland, that the close relationships of these dialects have perhaps been a little exaggerated by earlier writers.
The phonology of the Western group (d) is akin to that of the Negro languages of Western and West-Central Africa. A small portion of (b) the South-Central group (Zulu) has picked up clicks, perhaps borrowed from the Hottentots and Bushmen. Otherwise, the three groups (a), (b) and (c) are closely related in phonology, and never, except here and there on the borders of the Western group, adopt the peculiar West African combinations of kp and gb, which are so characteristic of African speech between the Upper Nile and the Guinea coast.
The following propositions may be laid down to define the special or peculiar features of the Bantu languages: -
(1) They are agglutinative in their construction, the syntax being formed by adding prefixes principally and also suffixes to the root, but no infixes (that is to say, no mutable syllable incorporated into the middle of the root-word). (2) The root excepting its terminal vowel is practically unchanging, though its first or penultimate vowel or consonant may be modified in pronunciation by the preceding prefix, or the last vowel in the same way by the succeeding suffix.
(3) The vowels of the Bantu languages are always of the Italian type, and no true Bantu language includes obscure sounds like ö and ü. Each word must end in a vowel (though in some modern dialects in Eastern Equatorial, West and South Africa the terminal vowel may be elided in rapid pronunciation, or be dropped, or absorbed in the terminal consonant, generally a nasal). No two consonants can come together without an intervening vowel, except in the case of a nasal, labial or sibilant. No consonant is doubled. Apparent exceptions occur to this last rule where two nasals, two r's or two d's come together through the elision of a vowel or a labial.
(4) Substantives are divided into classes or genders, indicated by the pronominal particle prefixed to the root. These prefixes are used either in a singular or in a plural sense. With the exception of the "abstract" prefix Bu (No. 14), no singular prefix can be used as a plural nor vice versa. There is a certain degree of correspondence between the singular and plural prefixes (thus No. 2 prefix serves almost invariably as a plural to No. 3; No. 8 corresponds as a plural to No. 7). The number of prefixes common to the whole group is perhaps sixteen. The pronominal particle or prefix of the noun is attached as a prefix to the roots of the adjectives, pronouns, prepositions and verbs of the sentence which are connected with the governing noun; and though in course of time these particles may differ in form from the prefix of the substantive, they were akin in origin. (This system is the "concord" of Dr Bleek.) The pronominal particles, whether in nominative or accusative case, must always precede the nominal, pronominal, adjectival and verbal roots, though they often follow the auxiliary prefix-participles used in conjugating verbs, and the roots of some prepositions.
(5) The root of the verb is the second person singular of the imperative.
(6) No sexual gender is recognized in the pronouns and concord. Sexual gender may be indicated by a male "prefix" of varying form, often identical with a word meaning "father," while there is a feminine prefix, na or nya, connected with the root meaning "mother," or a suffix ka or kazi, indicating "wife," "female." The 1st and 2nd prefixes invariably indicate living beings and are Usually restricted to humanity.
The sixteen original prefixes of the Bantu languages are given below in the most archaic forms to be found at the present day. The still older types of these prefixes met with in one or two languages, and deduced generally by the other forms of the particle used in the syntax, are given in brackets. It is possible that some of these prefixes resulted from the combination of a demonstrative pronoun and a prefix indicating quality or number.
Old Bantu Prefixes.
1. Umu- (ñgu-mu-).
2. Aba (Mba-ba or ñga-ba).
3. Umu- (ñgu-mu-).
4. Imi- (ñgi-mi-).
5. Idi (Ndi-di-).
6. Ama- (ñga-ma-).
7. Iki- (ñki-ki-).
8. Ibi- (Mbi-bi-).
9. I-n- or I-ni- (?Ngi-ni-).
10. Iti-, Izi-, Iti-n-, Izi-n- (?ñgi-ti-).
11. Ulu (Ndu-du-).
12. Utu (?Ntu-tu-); often diminutive in sense.
13. Aka (?Nka-ka-); usually diminutive, sometimes honorific.
14. Ubu- (?Mbu-bu-); sometimes used in a plural sense;
15. Uku (?ñku-ku-); identical with the preposition "to,"
16. Apa (Mpa-pa-); locative; applied to nouns and other
To these sixteen prefixes, the use of which is practically common to all members of the family, might perhaps be added No. 17, Fi- or Vi-, a prefix in the singular number, having a diminutive sense, which is found in some of the western and north-western Bantu tongues, chiefly in the northern half of the Congo basin and Cameroon. It is represented as far east (in the form of I-) as the Manyema language on the Upper Congo, near Tanganyika. This prefix cannot be traced to derivation from any others among the sixteen, certainly not to No. 8, as it is always used in the singular. Its corresponding plural prefix is No. 12 (Tu-). Prefix No. 18 is Ogu-, which has, as a plural prefix, No. 19, Aga-. These are both used in an augmentative sense, and their use seems to be confined to the Luganda and Masaba dialects, and perhaps some branches of the Unyoro language. These, like No. 17, are regular prefixes, since they are supplied with the concord (-gu- and -ga-). Lastly, there is the 20th prefix, Mu-, which is really a preposition meaning "in" or "into," often combined in meaning with another particle, -ni, used always as a suffix. The 20th prefix, Mu-, however, does not seem to have a complete concord, as it is only used adjectivally or as a preposition and has no pronominal accusative.
The concord may be explained thus: - Let us for a moment reconstruct the original Bantu mother-tongue (as attempts are sometimes made to deduce the ancient Aryan from a comparison of the most archaic of its daughters) and propound sentences to illustrate the repetition of pronominal particles known as the concord.