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Review of  Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages

Reviewer: Steve Nicolle
Book Title: Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages
Book Author: Alice Werner
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Herero
Language Family(ies): Narrow Bantu
Issue Number: 22.3912

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AUTHOR: Alice Werner
TITLE: Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages
YEAR: 2011

Steve Nicolle, Department of Translation Studies and Linguistics, Africa
International University, Kenya


This book is a facsimile re-edition of a work originally published 1919, written
by Alice Werner, who was Reader in Swahili at the School of Oriental Studies
(now SOAS) in London. It was designed as an introduction to the Bantu languages
for students with little or no prior exposure to Bantu languages, and aimed to
complement the more detailed descriptions available at the time, notably Bleek
(1862, 1869), Meinhof (1906, 1910) and Torrend (1891).

After an introduction, the following topics are dealt with: The Alliterative
Concord (that is, noun class agreement), Noun-Classes (two chapters), Locatives,
Pronouns, Copulas and the Verb 'To Be', Adjectives, Numerals, Verbs (two
chapters), Moods and Tenses, Adverbs and Particles, Word Building (basically
nominalization), and Phonetic Laws. The book concludes with a 75-page appendix
consisting of narrative texts in Zulu, Herero, Ila, Nyanja, Swahili (both Kiamu,
the Lamu variety, and Kimvita, the Mombasa variety), Ganda and a letter in Zulu,
and a bibliography of works dealing with the Bantu languages which had been
studied at that time.

The languages which are discussed most often are (in approximate order of
frequency from most to least frequently mentioned): Zulu (S42), Swahili (G42d),
Nyanja (N31), Tswana (S31, which Werner calls “Chwana”), Ganda (EJ15), Herero
(R31), Xhosa (S41), Yao (P21), Kongo (H10), Gisu (EJ31a), Venda (S21), Ila
(M63), Duala (A24) and Kikuyu (E51). (The letter and number following each name
indicates Maho’s (2003) updated version of Guthrie’s classification of the Bantu


It is not right, when reviewing a re-edition of a book first published in 1919,
to evaluate it by the standards of the 21st century. Equally, I am not qualified
to say how well it would have achieved its stated aims when first published.
What follows, therefore, are the personal reflections of a modern reader.

Some things change very little. In the preface (v), Werner mentions Meinhof’s
works in German (1906, 1910), and then comments: “experience has taught me that
they are of very little use to at least three-quarters of the students, whom it
has been my lot to induct into one or other of the Bantu languages. For one
thing, there is as yet no English edition of either, and -- in spite of recent
improvements in this respect -- the number of English people who can study a
subject by means of a French, German or Italian book (which is a different thing
from gathering the drift of a novel or newspaper article) is still deplorably
small.” Plus ça change.

In other ways, however, the intellectual climate has changed a great deal since
1919. Werner found it necessary to mention and reject Bleek’s claim “that people
whose speech has no grammatical gender were not merely at present incapable of
personifying nature, but that they could never in the future advance beyond a
certain limited range of ideas.” (9-10) However, she herself talks of “the Bantu
mind” and “the still more primitive mind” (161).

Whilst insisting that Bantu languages should be studied on their own terms,
Werner nonetheless uses the classical languages as a reference point in many
cases. For example, she introduces the chapter on the “Alliterative Concord”
(that is, noun class agreement with different parts of speech within a clause)
by showing how in Latin suffixes on the noun and adjective indicate declension,
gender, case and number, whereas in Bantu languages prefixes on the noun and
adjective indicate noun class (which subsumes number). For Werner, the principal
characteristics of Bantu languages are “the absence of grammatical gender, the
system of prefixes, and the Alliterative Concord”. The choice of the first two
characteristics is motivated largely by the fact that the classical
(Indo-European) languages have grammatical gender and a system of inflectional
suffixes. This tendency to refer to classical languages results in Werner
treating possessives and locatives as “cases”; she feels obliged to treat the
locative suffix -ni as a case marker on the grounds that it is an “inflexion of
the noun-stem” (71).

There is far more attention paid to matters of etymology than is usual nowadays,
and more attention is paid to surface forms as opposed to underlying structural
features. For example, Werner observes that the negative form ku-to-penda (‘not
to love’ - INF-NEG-love) in Swahili is derived from ku-toa ku-penda (‘to take
away loving’ - INF-remove INF-love). This suggests that the form ku-sa-mendza
(‘not to love’ - INF-NEG-love) in Digo (E73) may similarly be derived from
ku-usa ku-mendza (INF-remove INF-love), the forms in the two languages having
the same semantic etymology. This kind of insight is not often found in modern
linguistic introductions. Even so, certain historical facts are overlooked, as
when Werner comments that there are usually three demonstrative forms (97): near
the speaker (often ending in -u), further away and sometimes previously referred
to (often ending in -o), and at a distance (often ending in -le or -la).
However, the table on p. 98 indicates that the near demonstratives in Ganda and
Gisu (and the plural form in Tswana) end in -no, and in fact two of the eight
languages sampled -- Tswana and Nyanja -- have four demonstrative forms. This
reflects the supposed original situation in which forms ending in -u (or a copy
vowel) and -no indicated proximity and very close proximity to the speaker
respectively. In most of the languages with three demonstrative forms, one of
these two proximal demonstratives has been lost, leaving just a single form to
express proximity to the speaker.

Much of the discussion of verbs focuses on ways of forming the negative and on
the perfective suffix -ile. Werner reserves the term “tense” for the verb
prefixes and uses “mood” to refer to a disparate set of forms such as the
perfective, “continuative” (-ga) and relative, and also to the infinitive even
though this is formed with the prefix ku-. The discussion of the verb was
probably the least satisfying part of the book for this reader. Werner states
that the simple (i.e. non-compound) tenses are “few and well marked” (170),
which contradicts what is now known about the complexity of TAM marking in Bantu
languages (see especially Nurse 2008).

Very little attention is paid to what is now called tone, which Werner refers to
as “intonation, or pitch” (16). The study of tonal phenomena in Bantu languages
is one of the areas in which most progress has been made in the 92 years since
“Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages” was first published (see for
example Hyman & Kisseberth 1998; Volk 2011). On the other hand, there is an
extensive discussion of ideophones (which Werner calls “Vocal Images”) which are
sometimes neglected in more recent grammatical descriptions (Van Otterloo 2011
being a notable exception).

On the whole, Werner's breadth and depth of familiarity with Bantu languages is
impressive. This is especially so when we consider that at that time, there were
very few speakers of African languages studying at European universities who
could act as language consultants, and travelling to Africa to conduct field
research was not a matter of some hours on a plane but of some weeks on a
steamer. The book also includes glossed texts with extensive notes and free
translations (making up almost a quarter of the book). Many more recent
grammatical descriptions have failed to include text data, but thankfully this
is a practice that seems to be coming back into fashion (see Devos 2008; Van
Otterloo 2011).

“Introductory Sketch of the Bantu Languages” has obviously been superseded in
many respects, but it is still interesting to read from both a historical and a
descriptive perspective. Lincom are to be thanked for re-issuing this volume.


Bleek, W. H. J. (1862) Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages. Part
I: Phonology. London: Trübner and Co.

Bleek, W. H. J. (1869) Comparative Grammar of the South African Languages. Part
II: The Concord. Section I: The noun. (No more published.) London: Trübner and Co.

Devos, M. (2008) A Grammar of Makwe. München/Newcastle: Lincom Europa.

Hyman, L. M. & C. W. Kisseberth (eds.) (1998). Theoretical Aspects of Bantu
Tone. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Maho, J. (2003) ‘A classification of the Bantu languages: An update of Guthrie’s
referential system’. In D. Nurse & G. Philippson (eds.), The Bantu Languages,
639-651. London/New York: Routledge.

Meinhof, C. (1906) Grundzüge einer vergleichenden Grammatik der Bantusprachen.
Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Meinhof, C. (1910) Grundriss einer Lautlehre der Bantusprachen (second edition).
Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Nurse, D. (2008) Tense and Aspect in Bantu. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torrend, J. (1891) A Comparative Grammar of the South African Bantu Languages.
London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.

Van Otterloo, R. (2011) The Kifuliiru Language, Vol.2: A descriptive grammar.
Dallas: SIL International.

Volk, E. (2011) Mijikenda Tonology. PhD thesis, Tel Aviv University.

Steve Nicolle has lived in Kenya since 1999, during which time he has published on grammaticalization, pragmatics, translation, Bantu languages, tense/aspect, and ethnobotany. He has worked as advisor to the Digo language project on the south coast of Kenya and as SIL's linguistics coordinator for Africa (, and now teaches linguistics and translation at Africa International University (Nairobi) and at universities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. He is currently investigating the development of demonstrative systems in Bantu languages.