Bantu is a language group that belongs to the Niger-Congo group.
Bantu languages are spoken in South Cameroon, in Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.
The word Bantu was first used by W. H. I. Bleek (1827-75) with the meaning people as this is reflected in many of the languages of this group. He and later Carl Meinhof did comparative studies of the Bantu language grammars.
The language family has hundreds of members. They have been classified by Guthrie in 1948 into groups according to geographical zones - A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, K, L, M, N, P, R and S and then numbered within the group. (List of Bantu Language Names with synonyms ordered by Guthrie number). Guthrie as well reconstructed Proto-Bantu as the Proto-language of this language family.
The most prominent grammatical characteristic of Bantu languages is the extensive use of prefixes. Each noun belongs to a class, and each language may have about ten classes all together, somewhat like genders in European languages. The class is indicated by a prefix on the noun, as well as on adjectives and verbs agreeing with it. Plural is indicated by a change of prefix.
The verb has a number of prefixes. In Swahili for example Mtoto mdogo amekisoma means 'The small child has read it [a book]'. Mtoto 'child' governs the adjective prefix m- and the verb subject prefix a-. Then comes perfect tense -me- and an object marker -ki- agreeing with implicit kitabu 'book'. Pluralizing to children makes it Watoto wadogo wamekisoma, and pluralizing to books (vitabu) makes it Watoto wadogo wamevisoma.
The Bantu language with the largest number of speakers is Swahili (G 40). Judging from the history of Swahili, some linguists believe that Bantu languages are on a continuum from purely tonal languages to languages with no tone at all.
Other important Bantu languages include Lingala, Luganda, Kikongo, and Chichewa in Central and Eastern Africa, and Shona, Sindebele, Setswana, Sesotho, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, and Swazi in Southern Africa.
Some are usually known in English without the class prefix (Swahili for Kiswahili, Zulu for isiZulu, etc.), and some others vary (Setswana or Tswana, Sindebele or Ndebele, etc.). But the bare form typically does not occur in the language: in the country of Botswana the people are the Batswana, one person is a Motswana, and the language is Setswana.