Reconstructing West-Coastal Bantu Vocabulary as Evidence for Early Banana Cultivation in Central Africa


  • Sifra Van Acker Ghent University: BantUGent - UGent Centre for Bantu Studies
  • Sara Pacchiarotti
  • Edmond De Langhe
  • Koen Bostoen



Lexical data has been key in attempts to reconstruct the early history of the banana (Musa sp.) in Africa. Previous language-based approaches to the introduction and dispersal of this staple crop of Asian origin have suffered from the absence of well-established genealogical classifications and inadequate historical-linguistic analysis. We therefore focus in this article on West-Coastal Bantu (WCB), one specific branch within the Bantu family whose genealogy and diachronic phonology are well established. We reconstruct three distinct banana terms to Proto-West-Coastal Bantu (PWCB), i.e. *dɪ̀‑ŋkòndò/*mà‑ŋkòndò ‘plantain’, *dɪ̀‑ŋkò/*mà‑ŋkò ‘plantain’ and *kɪ̀‑túká/*bì‑túká ‘bunch of bananas’. From this new historical-linguistic evidence we infer that AAB Plantains, one of Africa’s two major cultivar subgroups, already played a key role in the subsistence economy of the first Bantu speakers who assumedly migrated south of the rainforest around 2500 years ago. We furthermore analyze four innovations that emerged after WCB started to spread from its interior homeland in the Kasai-Kamtsha region of Congo-Kinshasa towards the Atlantic coast, i.e. dɪ̀‑kòndè ‘plantain’, kɪ̀‑tébè ‘starchy banana’, banga ‘False Horn plantain’, and dɪ̀‑tòtò ‘sweet banana’. Finally, we assess the historical implications of these lexical retentions and innovations both within and beyond WCB and sketch some perspectives for future lexicon-based banana research.

Note: Changes were made to the title of this article after publication, on 9/20/2021.


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2021-09-18 — Updated on 2021-09-19