The Bantu languages (),〔"Bantu". ''Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary''.〕 technically the Narrow Bantu languages, constitute a traditional branch of the Niger–Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility,〔Derek Nurse, 2006, "Bantu Languages", in the ''Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics''〕 though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and ''Ethnologue'' counts 535 languages.〔(Ethnologue report for Southern Bantoid ). The figure of 535 includes the 13 Mbam languages considered Bantu in Guthrie's classification and thus counted by Nurse (2006)〕 Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of present-day Cameroon; i.e. in the regions commonly known as Central Africa, Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa. Parts of the Bantu area include languages from other language families (see map).
The Bantu language with the largest total number of speakers is Swahili; however, the majority of its speakers know it as a second language. According to Ethnologue, there are over 180 million L2 (second-language) speakers, but only about 45 million native speakers.
According to Ethnologue, Shona is the most widely spoken as a first language, with 10.8 million speakers (or 14.2 million if Manyika and Ndau are included), followed closely by Zulu, with 10.3 million. Ethnologue separates the largely mutually intelligible Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, but, if grouped together, they have 12.4 million speakers.
Estimates of number of speakers of most languages vary widely, due both to the lack of accurate statistics in most developing countries and the difficulty in defining exactly where the boundaries of a language lie, particularly in the presence of a dialect continuum.
The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now Cameroon in West Africa.〔Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, ''World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations'', (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169.〕 An estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (500 BC to 1000 BC), although other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC,〔Genetic and Demographic Implications of the Bantu Expansion: Insights from Human Paternal Lineages (Gemma Berniell-Lee et al. )〕 speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.〔〔Toyin Falola, Aribidesi Adisa Usman, ''Movements, borders, and identities in Africa'', (University Rochester Press: 2009), p.4.〕
The technical term Bantu, meaning "human beings" or simply "people", was first used by Wilhelm Bleek (1827–1875), as this is reflected in many of the languages of this group. A common characteristic of Bantu languages is that they use words such as ''muntu'' or ''mutu'' for "human being" or in simplistic terms "person", and the plural prefix for human nouns starting with ''mu-'' (class 1) in most languages is ''ba-'' (class 2), thus giving ''bantu'' for "people". Bleek, and later Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive studies comparing the grammatical structures of Bantu languages.
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