The Bantu languages (technically Narrow Bantu languages) constitute a traditional sub-branch of the Niger-Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility, though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and Ethnologue counts 535 languages. Bantu languages are spoken largely east and south of the present day country of Cameroon; i.e., in the regions commonly known as central Africa, east 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. It has over 80 million speakers across 8 countries and this number is growing.
According to Ethnologue  the Bantu language with the largest number of speakers as a first language is Shona with 10.8 million speakers in Zimbabwe. Zulu comes second with 10.3 million speakers. Ethnologue lists Manyika and Ndau as separate languages, though Shona speakers consider them to be two of the five main dialects of Shona. If the 3 million Manyika and Ndau speakers are included among the Shona, then Shona totals 13.8 million first-language speakers.
The Bantu languages originated in the region of eastern Nigeria or Cameroon. About 2000 years ago the Bantu people spread southwards and eastwards, introducing agriculture and iron working and colonizing much of the continent in the Bantu expansion.
The technical term Bantu, simply meaning "people", was first used by Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel 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 "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.
The term 'narrow Bantu' was coined by the Benue-Congo Working Group to distinguish Bantu as recognized by Malcolm Guthrie in his seminal 1948 classification of the Bantu languages from Bantoid languages not recognized as Bantu by Guthrie (1948). In recent times, the distinctness of Narrow Bantu as opposed to the other Southern Bantoid groups has been called into doubt (cf. Piron 1995, Williamson & Blench 2000), but the term is still widely used as the true situation has not been established.
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