The Journal of African History

Research Article

Linguistic evidence regarding Bantu origins

Joseph H. Greenberga1

a1 Stanford University

This article has two related purposes. The first is to attempt a clarification of certain points raised by Professor Oliver in his article, ‘The Problem of the Bantu Expansion’, published in an earlier issue of this Journal, insofar as it concerns his discussion of the alternative theories of Professor Guthrie and the present writer regarding Bantu origins. The second and more general aim is to survey the basic assumptions of Guthrie's work on Bantu insofar as it relates to the same problem. In the course of the exposition, three types of evidence are considered: the internal Bantu linguistic evidence; the linguistic evidence external to Bantu, chiefly from West African languages; and the non-linguistic, chiefly geographic evidence.

It is argued that Guthrie's assumption which underlies his theory of a central ‘nuclear’ area as the point of origin, namely that the linguistically most conservative area reveals the place of origin, is contrary to empirical evidence. It is rather the area of greatest internal divergence, in this case the north-western area, which points to the earliest differentiation and hence point of origin.