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Proto-Bantu (also Common Bantu) is the reconstructed common ancestor of most Bantu languages. It is thought to have originally been spoken in West/Central Africa in the area of what is now Cameroon. Approximately 3000–4000 years ago, it split off from other Niger-Congo languages when the Bantu people began their migration to the south and east.
Proto-Bantu was spoken before the introduction of writing and is therefore not attested in any texts. Its words and pronunciation have been reconstructed by linguists.
Proto-Bantu is generally reconstructed with a relatively small set of sounds, consisting of 11 consonants and 7 vowels.
These phonemes exhibited considerable allophony, and the exact realisation of many of the phonemes is unclear.
- The voiceless consonants *p, *t, *k were almost certainly articulated as simple plosives [p], [t], [k].
- The voiced consonants *b and *g may also have been fricatives [β] (or [v]) and [ɣ] in some environments.
- *d was a plosive [d] before a high vowel (*i, *u), and a lateral [l] before other vowels.
- *c and *j may have been plosives [c] and [ɟ], affricates [tʃ] and [dʒ], or even sibilants [s] and [z]. [j] is also possible for *j.
Consonants could not occur at the end of a syllable, only at the beginning, so the syllable structure was generally V or CV and all syllables were open. Consonant clusters did not occur, except for the "pre-nasalised" consonants.
The so-called "pre-nasalised" consonants were sequences of a nasal and a following obstruent. These could occur anywhere a single consonant was permitted, including word-initially. Pre-nasalised voiceless consonants were rare, most were voiced. The nasal's articulation adapted to the articulation of the following consonant, so the nasal can be considered a single unspecified nasal phoneme (indicated as *N) which had four possible allophones. Conventionally, the labial pre-nasal is written *m while the others are written *n.
- *mb, *mp; phonemically *Nb, *Np
- *nd, *nt; phonemically *Nd, *Nt
- *nj, *nc; phonemically *Nj, *Nc (actually pronounced as *ɲj, *ɲc)
- *ng, *nk; phonemically *Ng, *Nk (actually pronounced as *ŋg, *ŋk)
The representation of the vowels may differ in particular with respect to the two "middle" levels of closedness. Most linguists write the more "closed" set as near-close *ɪ and *ʊ (or *i̧ and *u̧, with a cedilla). However, some prefer to denote them as *e and *o, with the more open set represented as *ɛ and *ɔ. Regardless of the representation, the third level (*e and *o in the table) was open-mid [ɛ] and [ɔ].
Syllables always ended in a vowel, but could also begin with one. Vowels could also occasionally appear in a sequence, but did not form diphthongs; two adjacent vowels were separate syllables. If two of the same vowel occurred together, this created a long vowel, although this was rare.
Proto-Bantu distinguished two tones, low and high. Each syllable had either a low or a high tone. A high tone is conventionally indicated with an acute accent (´) while a low tone is either indicated with a grave accent (`) or not marked at all.
Proto-Bantu, like its descendants, had an elaborate system of noun classes. Noun stems were prefixed with a noun prefix which specified its meaning. Other words that related or referred to that noun, such as adjectives and verbs, also received a prefix that matched the class of the noun ("agreement" or "concord").
- Erhet & Posnansky, eds. (1982), Newman (1995)
- Philip J. Adler, Randall L. Pouwels, World Civilizations: To 1700 Volume 1 of World Civilizations, (Cengage Learning: 2007), p.169.
- Newman (1995), Shillington (2005)
- The Bantu Languages - Derek Nurse, Gérard Philippson