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An update of Guthrie's referential Bantu classification

Participant Jouni Maho

During the twentieth century, several classifications of the Bantu languages have been published. Following Sir Harry Johnston, there have been various more or less authoritative statements on how to classify these languages by Desmond Doke, Malcolm Guthrie, Anthony Cope, Bern Heine et al., Yvonne Bastin et al., the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and others, some of who have focused on sections of the Bantu area only.

Most classifications have employed some kind of coding system reflecting the classification as such. For instance, Sir Harry Johnston not only classified the languages, but he also referred to the various entities in his classification with a coding system consisting of letters and digits signifying linguistic groupings as well as individual languages. The most well-known classification and coding system is undoubtedly that of Malcolm Guthrie.

However, many people have noted that, while his coding system has become widely used as a referential tool when talking of individual languages, as a linguistic-genetic statement it was not so successful. For the latter reason, post-Guthrie classifications have sought to revise or replace it. Some of these have done so while retaining Guthrie's original coding system, though in a modified version. The unfortunate consequence of this is that there now exists a veritable mess when referring to individual languages as well as larger linguistic groupings, since (1) different codes are used for identical languages and groupings, and (2) the same codes are used for different languages and groupings.

This project intends to show that the only decent thing we can do is to stick to Guthrie's original classification or, rather, his referential coding system. But since that classification has serious omissions, an update is nonetheless necessary. However, we can and should add new languages to Guthrie's original classification without making a mess of the old codings. This mean, of course, that we can and should use GuthrieÕs coding system only as a referential tool, and as such it is sufficient.

The ultimate success of any classification is much dependent on the quantity and quality of available material on individual languages. Unfortunately, however, the Bantu area is still much un-researched. Many languages lack adequate descriptions, and for those languages for which there exist descriptive material the quantity is, with a handful of exceptions, usually very small, meaning that our view of the individual languages are one-sided, fragmentary and biased in favour of the subjective perspectives of individual scholars and schools. Thus any proposed classification depends to some degree on guess-work, or at least more so than (ideally) would be the case if more descriptive material was available. This is, perhaps somewhat simplistically, evident from the fact that all proposed classifications disagree on how to subclassify the Bantu languages in areas were little material exist, while they generally tend to agree in areas were more material does exist. One consequence of all this is that any classification aiming at being linguistic-genetically valid is bound to be revised in the future. The advantage of a referential update is that there are less likely to be any re-shufflings and re-codings of languages. New languages can be added into the classification without making a mess of old codings.
Publications, papers and reports

Jouni Maho. 2001. The Bantu area: (towards clearing up) a mess. In: Africa & Asia (Göteborg working papers on Asian and African languages and literatures), no 1, pp 40-49.

Jouni Maho. 2002. Bantu line-up: comparative overview of three Bantu classifications. Department of Oriental and African Languages, Göteborg University. 2002. Pp 59.
PDF download (164 kb)

Jouni Maho. 2003. A classification of the Bantu languages: an update of Guthrie's referential system. In: The Bantu languages, pp 639-651. Edited by Derek Nurse & Gérard Philippson. London: Curzon Press.

Jouni Maho. Forthcoming. Indices to Bantu languages. Department of Oriental and African Languages, Göteborg University. Pp 150-ish.

Sidansvarig: Fredrik Fällman|Sidan uppdaterades: 2010-09-27

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