Similarities between the Japanese and Bantu languages

By Jodie Kaberia

When I first started learning Japanese, I was very excited to hear the similarities when listening to spoken Japanese to how my dad talks on the phone to his family. Because of him, I’ve learned some Kiswahili, possibly with Meru influence, because his family is Meru. When taking heard Japanese onto writing in the Roman alphabet, spelling was quite easy because Bantu languages and Japanese can be very phonetically similar. Even with sounds that are less common in Japanese, like the “L” sound, similarities are still there in my mother’s heritage of Chilenge and Zambia’s Chichewa.

Pronunciation and Spelling

Immediately the similarities between the two can be seen in people’s names, how the names are spelled and how they’re pronounced. For example, my last name, Kaberia, the way my name is said is based off Meru language rules, that are very close to Kiswahili language rules, because my Dad is Kenyan. A lot of English speakers tend to struggle with saying it right, usually on the letter “e.” In English the letter “e” is mostly silent or pronounced as /ee/ like “each.” Also the letter “a” isn’t read by many as “ah,” but rather “uh” in American-English. So, a lot of people end up saying “Ka(bee)riuh” instead of “Kah-beh-ri-ah” how it’s supposed to be pronounced. In Swahili, the majority of the time vowels are consistent, A=ah E=eh I=ee O=oh U=oo(uu), rather than having many different pronunciations. With Japanese katakana the consistency is there and the pronunciations are similar, ア=ah エ=eh イ=ee オ=oh ウ=oo(uu), which also remains the same when you add a consonant before them.

Now with my mother’s last name, she has stories of people saying they thought she was Japanese based off her name. Her name is Zambian(Chilenge), Lusaka, which does follow the Chichewa/Nyanja rules for vowel pronunciation, that are the exact same as the ones for Swahili and Japanese katakana. When I learned to write my name in katakana it was very simple because the spelling and pronunciation of my last names lined up with the katakana.


Reduplication refers to words formed through repetition of sounds or entire words. Examples in English include okey-dokey, flim-flam, and pitter-patter. In Japanese the word “tsugi/つぎ” means next, and “tsugi-tsugi/つぎつぎ” means in succession. The word is repeated to mean an extension of that original word in this case. This can be compared to two different examples in Chichewa and Swahili. “Piga” meaning to strike, becomes “Pigapiga” to strike repeatedly in Swahili. In Chichewa “tambalalá” means to stretch one’s legs, “tambalalá- tambalalá” means to stretch one’s legs repeatedly.


Both Japanese and many Bantu languages share phonetic and grammatical similarities. The languages may not be directly related but they do share these similarities.

Images above from Wikipedia


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