WS1: Nasal noun class prefixes in Bantu

Workshop 1: Nasal noun class prefixes in Bantu: Innovated or inherited?


Larry M. Hyman (University of California, Berkeley)

Gudrun Miehe (Universität Bayreuth)


The purpose of this workshop is to re-focus attention on a long-standing problem in Bantu and Niger-Congo (N-C) linguistics: Whereas Narrow Bantu languages have nasal consonants in the noun prefixes in classes 1, 3, 4, 6(a), 9 and 10, found also in certain Wide Bantu/Bantoid languages, these nasals are either missing or only in part present in other Bantoid, Benue-Congo and further outlying subbranches of Niger-Congo. Since Greenberg (1963) and Crabb (1965) it has been assumed that the nasals were an innovation at the Proto-Bantu (PB) stage, hence the reconstructed L tone classes 1, 3 *mU-, class 4 *mI-, class 6(a) *ma-, and classes 9, 10 *`N-. Besides the absence of a labial or homorganic nasal (de Wolf 1971), Benue-Congo languages outside Narrow Bantu often have H tone prefixes except classes 1 and 9, the same as the pronominal concords found within Narrow Bantu (Meeussen 1967). One of the major discoveries of the Grassfields Bantu Working Group was that that the distinction between L tone nasal and H tone non-nasal (henceforth, oral) prefixes correlated with the East vs. West branches of the family, respectively (see for example the various papers in Hyman & Voorhoeve 1980 and Hyman 1980a), thereby raising the question of how such closely related languages could exhibit such a striking morphological difference. This and related questions occupied the GBWG over a number of years, ultimately summarized in the overview chapter by the first co-organizer (Hyman 1980b). Several years later the second co-organizer studied the question in much greater breadth in her Habilitation dissertation. In this and her subsequently published book, Miehe (1991) argues that there are reasonable nasal cognate prefixes and cognate relics for several noun class markers throughout N-C. Although a few short reviews or book notices appeared (e.g. Janssens 1992, Hedinger 1993, Heath 1994), there has been very little reaction to Miehe’s proposal that the Bantu nasal prefixes were inherited from Proto-N-C. Having informally asked other scholars their opinion on the Greenberg-Crabb vs. Miehe positions, we can safely affirm that the issue is far from settled. The purpose of the proposed workshop is thus to take advantage of the presence of Bantu and extra-Bantu scholars to address questions such as the following:

  1. How strong is the evidence for pre-PB nasal noun class prefixes?

  2. If reconstructable, which prefixes had these nasals? All of the above classes? Some?

  3. If not reconstructable, how did Bantu get the bilabial nasal in classes 1, 3, 4 and 6(a) and the homorganic nasal in classes 9 and 10? (cf. above references and Hombert 1981)

  4. Why is there a corresponding tone difference between nasal vs. oral prefixes, as indicated above?

  5. How do scholars view Williamson’s (1993) proposals, the possible relevance of the PB augment, and the fact that the Western Grassfields Bantu languages have H oral prefixes except after the connective (Hombert 1976, Hyman 2005).

  6. How does the fact that some languages have noun class suffixes fit into the nasal vs. oral story?

In the present conception we have of the workshop (although open to other suggestions!), Hyman would begin with a summary overview of the (Narrow and Wide) Bantu facts and the Crabb-Greenberg position, followed by Miehe’s presentation of her evidence of nasal prefixes from other parts of N-C, including her recent work on Gur (Miehe & Winkelmann 2007). This would be followed by papers of various sorts, which, drawing from Bantu or other N-C, could present either of the following:

  1. An argued position with evidence on the above or other related issues.

  2. A description of an interesting/relevant case from a language or group to show the genesis or loss of prefixal nasals

  3. Issues we’ve overlooked, suggestions for further research etc.


Crabb, David W. 1965. Ekoid Bantu languages of Ogoja. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

de Wolf, Paul Polydoor. 1971. The noun class system of Proto-Benue-Congo. The Hague: Mouton.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. The languages of Africa. International Journal of American Linguistics 29, Part II, No. 1. The Hague: Mouton (1966).

Heath, Jeffrey. 1994. Review of Miehe (1991). Language 70. 862-3.

Hedinger, Robert. 1993. Review of Miehe (1991). Afrika und Übersee 76. 145-147.

Hombert, Jean-Marie. 1976. Noun classes and tone in Ngie. In Larry M. Hyman (ed.), Studies in Bantu tonology, 1-21. Southern California Occasional Papers in Linguistics 3. Los Angeles: University of Southern California. (

Hombert, Jean-Marie. 1981. From Proto-Benue-Congo to Proto-Bantu noun classes. Précis from the Twelfth Conference on African Linguistics, Stanford, April 10-12, 1981, pp. 55-58. Studies in African Linguistics, Supplement 8.

Hyman, Larry M. (ed.). 1980a. Noun classes in the Grassfields Bantu borderland. Southern California Occasional Papers in Linguistics 8. Los Angeles: University of Southern California. (

Hyman, Larry M. 1980b. Reflections on the nasal classes in Bantu. In Hyman (1980a), 179-210.

Hyman, Larry M. 2005. Initial vowel and prefix tone in Kom: Related to the Bantu augment? In Koen Bostoen & Jacky Maniacky (eds.), Studies in African comparative linguistics with special focus on Bantu and Mande: Essays in honour of Y. Bastin and C. Grégoire, 313-341. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Hyman, Larry M. & Jan Voorhoeve (eds.). 1980. Noun classes in Grassfields Bantu. Vol. 1 of Actes du Colloque “Expansion Bantu”. Paris: SELAF.

Janssens, Baudouin. 1992. Review of Miehe (1991). Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 30. 175-181.

Miehe, Gudrun. 1991. Die Präfixnasale im Benue-Congo und im Kwa. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Miehe, Gudrun & Kerstin Winkelmann (eds.). Noun class systems in Gur languages. Vol. 1: Southwestern Gur languages (without Gurunsi). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Williamson, Kay. 1993. The noun prefixes of Benue-Congo. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 14. 29-45.
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