Reconstructing proto-Bantu grammar

Start - End 
2018 - 2018 (completed)
Department of Languages and Cultures
Other institution(s) 
DDL, Lyon
Gothenburg University
Humboldt University of Berlin
Kay Williamson Educational Foundation
Leiden University
Lubumbashi University
Osaka University
RMCA, Tervuren
School of Oriental and African Studies, London
SIL International
Université pédagogique nationale, Kinshasa
University at Buffalo
University of California, Berkeley
University of Dar es Salaam
University of Essex
University of Helsinki
University of Rwanda
University of Missouri
University of Toronto
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Research Region 
Research Language 
Research Methodology 
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International conference on reconstructing proto-Bantu grammar, organized by the UGent Centre for Bantu Studies (BantUGent) and the RMCA Service of Culture & Society (Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren), and funded by the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO), the UGent Faculty of Arts and Philosophy and RMCA.

  • Dates: November 19-23, 2018
  • Venue: Ghent University, Campus Boekentoren/Book Tower
  • Contact: If you would like to contact any of the presenters, click on their name below.





Venue: Jozef Plateauzaal (Jozef Plateaustraat 22)


08.30: Welcome + Registration

09.15: Opening address by the organizing committee (Koen Bostoen)


Chair: Koen Bostoen

09.30: Thilo Schadeberg (Leiden University) Reconstructing Proto-Bantu Grammar Half a Century after Meeussen (1967)

10.15: Rebecca Grollemund (University of Missouri) and Lutz Marten (SOAS) Reconstructing Proto-Bantu in the Light of the Latest Insights into Bantu Phylogeny


11.00: Coffee break

Proto-Bantu Phonology

Chair: Rozenn Guérois

11.30: Nancy Kula (University of Essex) Proto-Bantu Segmental Phonology


12.15: Gérard Philippson (DDL, Lyon) ‘Double Reflexes’ Revisited: Implications for the Proto-Bantu Consonant System


13.00: Lunch break

14.00: Lotta Aunio (University of Helsinki) & Jacky Maniacky (RMCA, Tervuren) Proto-Bantu Nominal Tone

14.45: Michael Marlo (University of Missouri) Proto-Bantu Verbal Tone


15.30: Larry Hyman (University of California, Berkeley) Causative and Passive H tone: Spurious or Proto?


16.15: Coffee break

16.45: Round table discussion (Council Room Faculty Arts & Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 1st floor)

18.00: Closure



Venue: Jozef Plateauzaal (Jozef Plateaustraat 22)

Chair: Gilles-Maurice de Schryver

Proto-Bantu Verbal Form

09.30: Jeff Good (University at Buffalo) & Tom Güldemann (Humboldt University of Berlin) Proto-Bantu Verbal Form 


Proto-Bantu Verbal Derivation

10.15: Roger Blench (Kay Williamson Educational Foundation) Proto-Bantu Verbal Extensions from a Bantoid Perspective


11.00: Coffee break

11.30: Sara Pacchiarotti (Ghent University) On the reconstructable main clause functions of Proto-Bantu applicative suffix *-ɪd


12.15: Rozenn Guérois (Ghent University) Proto-Bantu Passive Constructions


13.00: Lunch Break

14.00: Sebastian Dom (Ghent University) & Leonid Kulikov (Ghent University) Proto-Bantu Middle Voice: From Meeussen to Schadeberg and Beyond


14.45: Koen Bostoen (Ghent University) Non-Compositional Complex Verbal Derivation Suffixes and the Semantic Reconstruction of *-an in Proto-Bantu


15.30: Coffee Break

16.00: Round table discussion (Council Room Faculty Arts & Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 1st floor)

17.15: Proto-Bantu QUIZ (Sara Pacchiarotti & Koen Bostoen)

18.00: Closure



Excursion to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren

Venue: CODA building, room 333, Leuvensesteenweg 17, 3080 Tervuren

08.15: Departure to Tervuren by bus (in front of main entrance Plateau building, Jozef Plateaustraat 22)


10.15: Welcome address at the RMCA

Chair: Sebastian Dom

10.30: Maud Devos (RMCA, Tervuren) Recent Research on the Biography of Achiel Emiel Meeussen in Relation to Bantu Grammatical Reconstructions (1967)

11.15: Coffee break

Proto-Bantu Tense, Aspect and Polarity

11.30: Derek Nurse (Independent Scholar) Proto-Bantu Tense and Aspect


12.15: John Watters (SIL International) Proto-Bantu Tense from a Benue-Congo Perspective


13.00: Lunch break

14.00: Thera Crane (University of Helsinki) & Bastian Persohn (University of Hamburg) Proto-Bantu Lexical Aspect

14.45:  Coffee break

15.00: Round table discussion

16:15: Guided pre-view and visit of the renovated Royal Museum for Central Africa

18.15: Back to Ghent



Venue: Council Room Faculty Arts & Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 1st floor

Proto-Bantu Verbal Morphosyntax

Chair: Sara Pacchiarotti

09.00: Mark Van de Velde (LLACAN, Paris) Proto-Bantu Relative Clauses

09.45: Hannah Gibson (University of Essex) Proto-Bantu Auxiliary Constructions

10.30: Coffee break

11.00: Rasmus Bernander (University of Helsinki) & Maud Devos (RMCA, Tervuren): Proto-Bantu Existentials 

Proto-Bantu Clausal Syntax and Information Structure

Chair: Hilde Gunnink

11.45: Benji Wald (University of California, Berkeley) Some Problems in the Information Structure of Proto-Bantu (& its descendants)

12.30: Lunch break

13.30: Fatima Hamlaoui (University of Toronto) Proto-Bantu Word Order


14.15: Yukiko Morimoto (Humboldt University of Berlin) & Nobuko Yoneda (Osaka University) Proto-Bantu Subject and Topic

15.00: Jenneke van der Wal (Leiden University) Proto-Bantu Focus Constructions

15.45: Coffee break

16.15: Round table discussion

17.30: Closure

19.00: Conference Dinner (La Cave, Emile Braunplein 15)



Venue: Council Room Faculty Arts & Philosophy, Blandijnberg 2, 1st floor

Chair: Jacky Maniacky

Proto-Bantu Clausal Syntax and Information Structure (Continued)

09.00: Laura Downing (Gothenburg University) Prosodic Phrasing in Proto-Bantu

09.45: Tom Güldemann (Humboldt University of Berlin) Meeussen's (1967) 'advance verb construction' - what to reconstruct?

10.30: Dmitry Idiatov (LLACAN, Paris) Proto-Bantu Question Words

11.15: Coffee break

Proto-Bantu Nominal Morphosyntax

Chair: Maud Devos

11.45: Josephat M. Rugemalira (University of Dar es Salaam) Proto-Bantu Noun Phrase Structure

12.30: Lunch break

13.30: Jean Paul Ngoboka (University of Rwanda) Proto-Bantu Locatives

14.15: Jean-Georges Kamba Muzenga (Lubumbashi University) Proto-Bantu Substitutives and Possessives

15.00: Coffee break


15.30: Gilles-Maurice de Schryver (Ghent University) Bibliometrics in Bantu Lexical and Grammatical Reconstructions: A.E. Meeussen and Beyond

16.15: Round table discussion + round-up (proceedings, future meetings, online platform, etc.)

17.30: Closing words (Koen Bostoen)


The birth of Bantu linguistics as a scientific discipline is commonly attributed to Wilhelm Heinrich Bleek (1827-1875), who established Bantu as a family and gave it the name it still has today. Carl Meinhof (1857-1944) defined Bantu as a genealogical unity, i.e. a family of languages that descend from a common ancestor, which can be reconstructed through the establishment of regular sound correspondences among modern-day languages. He laid the foundations for the reconstruction of Ur-Bantu, known today as Proto-Bantu (PB), the putative common ancestor (Meinhof 1899). Benefiting from a classical training in comparative Indo-European philology, Meinhof primarily relied on the Comparative Method, as did his successors in Bantu reconstruction studies, such as Meeussen (1967, 1980), Guthrie (1967, 1970a, b, 1971), Coupez et al. (1998), and Bastin et al. (2002). Proto-Bantu with its estimated time depth of 4000 to 5000 years (Vansina 1995, Blench 2006) has been reconstructed from language data that are younger than 150 years. The most recent reference works in Bantu lexical and grammatical reconstruction are 15 years (Bastin et al. 2002) and 50 years old (Meeussen 1967) respectively. Over the past decades, cumulative descriptive research has added to the documentation of variation among Bantu languages and allows for even more effective applications of the Comparative Method. A systematic update of research in both Bantu lexical and grammatical reconstruction is urgently needed. Last year, Bantu Grammatical Reconstructions (1967) of the Belgian linguist A.E. Meeussen celebrated its 50th anniversary. In order to mark this important milestone in the history of Bantu linguistics and to start with an update of Proto-Bantu grammar reconstruction, we will organize a five-day international conference on “Reconstructing Proto-Bantu Grammar” in Belgium (Gent + Tervuren) from November 19 to November 23, 2018.



The international conference intends to gather today’s junior and senior scholars with the most relevant expertise in comparative Bantu studies in order to reflect together on how to realize a state-of-the-art update of Bantu Grammatical Reconstructions by Meeussen (1967). Given the large amount of Bantu language data that have become available since 1967, the vastness of the Bantu language family and the wide array of grammatical topics to be addressed, such an update can no longer be a one-man-project in 2018. It necessarily is a collaborative project building on the expertise of several scholars. Given the way in which the field developed over the past 50 years and the variability of approaches and theoretical frameworks it entails, such an update cannot simply be resumed where it was left by Meeussen in 1967. Underlying assumptions, principles and methods need to be discussed and established, which is one of the objectives of this international conference, along with assessing the implications of the huge mass of newly available data for reconstructing different aspects of Proto-Bantu grammar.



Bantu, which is part of the larger Niger-Congo language phylum, is Africa’s main language family. Bantu languages are spoken between Cameroon’s South-West region (4°8’N and 9°14’E) in the North-West, southern Somalia’s Barawe area (1°6’N and 44°1’E) in the North-East and Cape Agulhas (34°48’S and 20°E), the continent’s southernmost tip in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Their distribution area spans twenty-three countries on the African mainland. As for the number of Bantu speakers, Patin et al. (2017) estimate them at around 310 million, i.e. about one African in four. Consequently, reconstructing Proto-Bantu is not only a major contribution to the field of Bantu linguistics, but potentially also to the cultural history of a large portion of present-day Africans both in Africa and the diaspora.



Our workshop wishes to further first and foremost the reconstruction of grammatical features of Proto-Bantu, the putative most recent common ancestor of the (Narrow) Bantu languages. So even if you are not used to adopt this specific historical-linguistic approach in your comparative Bantu research, we ask you to do so for your contribution to our workshop. We invite you to revisit the comparative evidence on which you have worked or on which you will work with the special aim of identifying shared retentions that have a current-day distribution across the family's subgroups which is significant enough to allow for reconstruction into Proto-Bantu. In this quest, following Meeussen (1967) himself, one should attempt to establish, as much as possible, specific associations of form and function/meaning that are likely to go back to Proto-Bantu. Those of you who would wish to familiarize themselves more with Meeussen's reconstruction methodology could consult his 1973 article on "Comparative Bantu - Test cases for method". Be aware though that his understanding of the internal classification of Bantu was not necessarily the same as ours today.

With regard to the most recent phylogenetic classification by Grollemund et al. (2015) (see Fig. 1), we tend to situate Proto-Bantu at the level of either node 1 (excluding the Grassfields Bantu languages) or node 0 (including the Grassfields Bantu languages). For the time being, we leave this question open to your personal preference, though be conscious that we do not really aim at reconstructions at any lower nodes in the tree. In this regard, a feature occurring in North-Western and Eastern Bantu, for instance, has more relevance for Proto-Bantu reconstruction than one only attested in West-Western and South-Western Bantu or even in South-Western and Eastern Bantu. If we agree that Eastern Bantu is indeed the latest offshoot in the Bantu family tree (to be discussed), a feature attested in North-Western Bantu and one or more of the other Western subgroups but not in Eastern Bantu could also be considered for reconstruction into Proto-Bantu. One could also look sideways at related phenomena in wider Niger-Congo as Bantu-external cognates tend to be good evidence for retention.



The scientific committee consists of Maud Devos (RMCA, Tervuren), Larry Hyman (University of California, Berkeley), Jacky Maniacky (RMCA, Tervuren), Derek Nurse (Memorial University of Newfoundland; emeritus), Gérard Philippson (DDL, Lyon; emeritus), Thilo Schadeberg (Leiden University; emeritus), Jenneke van der Wal (Leiden University), Mark Van de Velde (LLACAN, Paris) and Koen Bostoen (Ghent University).



The organizing committee consists of Gilles-Maurice de Schryver (BantUGent), Maud Devos (RMCA/BantUGent), Sebastian Dom (BantUGent), Rozenn Guérois (BantUGent), Hilde Gunnink (BantUGent), Jacky Maniacky (RMCA), Sara Pacchiarotti (BantUGent) and Koen Bostoen (BantUGent).

This international conference is a collaborative project between the Culture & Society Section of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which used to host the “Lolemi” research program in comparative Bantu studies led by A.E. Meeussen, and the UGent Centre for Bantu Studies (BantUGent), founded in 2016 to promote a transdisciplinary approach to the past and present of Bantu languages, Bantu speech communities and their material worlds. This UGent-RMCA collaboration is firmly rooted in a shared history and existing partnerships within the field of Bantu linguistics.