Languages of Africa

Languages of Africa

There are an estimated 2000 languages spoken in Africa. [ [ Major Languages of Africa] ] About a hundred of these are widely used for inter-ethnic communication. They fall into four major linguistic families: Afro-Asiatic stretches from North Africa to the Horn of Africa and Southwest Asia; Nilo-Saharan is centered on Sudan and Chad; Niger-Congo covers West, Central, and Southeast Africa; and Khoe is concentrated in the deserts of Namibia and Botswana. There are also a few additional small families and minor languages that have yet to be classified. Individual languages such as Arabic, Swahili, Hausa, Amharic, and Yoruba are spoken by tens of millions of people. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates. Several African languages are whistled to communicate over long distances.

The high linguistic diversity of many African countries (Nigeria alone has 250 languages, one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world) has made language policy a vital issue in the post-colonial era. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance. Language policies being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism. For example, all African languages are considered official languages of the African Union (AU). 2006 was declared by AU as the "Year of African Languages". [ [ African Union Summit 2006] Khartoum, Sudan. SARPN] However, although many mid-sized languages are used on the radio, in newspapers, and in primary-school education, and some of the larger ones are considered national languages, only a few are official at the national level.

Language groups

Most languages spoken in Africa belong to one of four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. A handful of languages associated with the continent belong to the Indo-European and Austronesian language families; however, the presence of the latter languages dates to less than 500 and 1,000 years ago, respectively. In addition, African languages include several unclassified languages and sign languages.

Afro-Asiatic languages

Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken across North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia. There are approximately 375 Afro-Asiatic languages spoken by 300 million people. The main subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic are the Semitic languages, the Cushitic languages, Berber, and the Chadic languages. The Semitic languages are the only branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages that is spoken outside of Africa.

Some of the most widely spoken Afro-Asiatic languages include Arabic (Semitic), Amharic (Semitic), Somali (Cushitic), Oromo (Cushitic), Tamazight (Berber), and Hausa (Chadic). Of the world's surviving language families, Afro-Asiatic has the longest written history, as both Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian are members.

Nilo-Saharan languages

Nilo-Saharan is extremely diverse and thus a somewhat controversial grouping uniting over a hundred languages from southern Egypt to northern Tanzania and into Nigeria and DR Congo, with the Songhay languages along the middle reaches of the Niger River as a geographic outlier. The languages share some unusual morphology, but if they are related, most of the branches must have undergone major restructuring since diverging from their common ancestor.

Some of the more better known Nilo-Saharan languages are Kanuri, Songhay, Nubian, and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes Luo, Dinka, and Maasai. The Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.

Niger-Congo languages

The Niger-Congo language family is the largest group of Africa (and probably of the world) in terms of the number of languages. One of its salient features is an elaborate noun class system with grammatical concord. The vast majority of languages of this family are tonal such as Yoruba and Igbo. A major branch of Niger-Congo languages is the Bantu family, which covers a greater geographic area than the rest of the family put together (see Niger-Congo B (Bantu) in the map above).

The Niger-Kordofanian language family, joining Niger-Congo with the Kordofanian languages of south-central Sudan, was proposed in 1950s by Joseph Greenberg. Today, linguists often use "Niger-Congo" to refer to this entire family, including Kordofanian as a subfamily. One reason for this is that it is not clear whether Kordofanian was the first branch to diverge from rest of Niger-Congo. Mandé has been claimed to be equally or more divergent. Niger-Congo is generally accepted by linguists, though a few question the inclusion of Kordofanian or Mandé.

Khoisan languages

Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by about 300,000 people. There are five Khoisan families which have not been shown to be related to each other. They are found mainly in Namibia and Botswana. Two geographic outliers are Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania.

A striking and unusual feature of Khoisan languages is their use of click consonants. Some neighbouring Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) have clicks as well, but these were adopted from Khoisan languages. The Khoisan languages are tonal.

Non-African language families

Several languages spoken in Africa belong to language families concentrated or originating outside of the African continent: Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, is an Austronesian language. Afrikaans is Indo-European, as are the lexifiers of most African creoles (Afrikaans is the only Indo-European language developed in Africa from the colonial era).

Since the colonial era, other colonial Indo-European languages like Portuguese, English, and French have been the official languages in many countries, and are widely spoken (see African French and African Portuguese), as are Indian languages such as Gujarati, which are spoken by South Asian expatriates exclusively. In earlier historical times, other Indo-European languages could be found in various parts of the continent, such as Old Persian and Greek in Egypt, Latin in North Africa, and Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa.

Creole languages

Due partly to its multilingualism and its colonial past, a substantial proportion of the world's creole languages are to be found in Africa. Some are based on European languages (e.g. Krio from English in Sierra Leone and the very similar Pidgin in Cameroon and Nigeria, Cape Verdean Creole in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau Creole in Guinea-Bissau and Senegal both from Portuguese, Seychellois Creole from French in the Seychelles, or Mauritian Creole in Mauritius); some are based on Arabic (e.g., Juba Arabic in the southern Sudan, or Nubi in parts of Uganda and Kenya); some are based on local languages (e.g., Sango, the main language of the Central African Republic.)

Unclassified languages

A fair number of unclassified languages are reported in Africa; many remain unclassified simply for lack of data, but among the better-investigated ones may be listed:

* possibly Afro-Asiatic: Ongota
* possibly Nilo-Saharan: Shabo
* possibly Niger-Congo: Bangi-me, Laal, and Jalaa.
* possibly Khoe: Kwadi

Less well investigated ones include Bete, Bung, Kujarge, Lufu, Mpre, Oropom, and Weyto. Several of these are extinct, and adequate comparative data is thus unlikely to be forthcoming.

In addition, the placement of Kadu, Omotic, Kordofanian, Dogon, Hadza, and Sandawe - among others - is controversial.

Sign languages

Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, Ethiopian Sign Language, while other sign languages are restricted to small areas or single villages, such as Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana. Tanzania has seven, one for each of its schools for the Deaf, all of which are discouraged. Not much is known since little has been published on these languages.

Language in Africa

Throughout the long multilingual history of the African continent, African languages have been subject to phenomena like language contact, language expansion, language shift, and language death. A case in point is the "Bantu expansion", the process of Bantu-speaking peoples expanding over most of the Sub-Saharan part of Africa, thereby displacing Khoi-San speaking peoples in much of East-Africa. Another example is the Islamic expansion in the 7th century AD, marking the start of a period of profound Arabic influence in North Africa.

With so many totally unrelated families represented over wide areas, the image of the African linguistic situation is that of a veritable "Babel", although it is true that a certain number of languages categorized as distinct are in fact mutually intelligible dialects to some degree - eg. the Nguni languages of Southern Africa or the Manding languages of West Africa.

Trade languages are another age-old phenomenon in the African linguistic landscape. Cultural and linguistic innovations spread along trade routes and languages of peoples dominant in trade developed into languages of wider communication (linguae francae). Of particular importance in this respect are Jula (western West Africa), Fulfulde (West Africa, mainly across the Sahel), Hausa (eastern West Africa), Lingala (Congo), Swahili (East Africa) and Arabic (North Africa and the Horn of Africa).

After gaining independence, many African countries, in the search for national unity, selected one language (generally the former colonial language) to be used in government and education. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the importance of linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.

Official languages

Besides the colonial languages English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Afrikaans, only a few languages are official at the national level. These are:
*Arabic, in Algeria, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, [ [ CIA - The World Factbook] ] Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia
*Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda
*Amharic in Ethiopia
*Somali in Somalia
*Tigrinya in Eritrea (technically a working language)
*Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and the closely related Kirundi in Burundi
*Sango in the CAR
*Yoruba in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin
*Igbo or Ibo in Nigeria and Cameroon
*Swazi in Swaziland and South Africa
*Malagasy in Madagascar
*Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles
*South Africa, the only multilingual country with widespread official status for its indigenous languages, has Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga (

Cross-border languages

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884-5 divided a great many ethnicities and African language speaking communities. In a sense, then, "cross-border languages" is a misnomer. Nevertheless it describes the reality of many African languages, which has implications for divergence of language on either side of a border (especially when the official languages are different), standards for writing the language, etc.

Some prominent Africans such as former Malian president and current Chairman of the African Commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré, have referred to cross-border languages as a factor that can promote African unity. [ [ African languages for Africa's development] ACALAN (French & English)]

Language change & planning

Language is not static in Africa any more than in other world regions. In addition to the (probably modest) impact of borders, there are also cases of dialect levelling (such as in Igbo and probably many others), "koines" (such as N'Ko and possibly Runyakitara), and emergence of new dialects (such as Sheng). In some countries there are official efforts to develop standardized language versions.

There are also many less-widely spoken languages that may be considered endangered languages.


Of the 890 million Africans (as of 2005), about 20% speak an Arabic dialect (the vast majority of North Africans). About 10% speak Swahili, the "lingua franca" of Southeastern Africa, and about 5% speak Hausa, a West African "lingua franca". Other important West African languages are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Northeast African languages are Oromo and Somali. Important South African languages are Zulu and Afrikaans.

List of major African languages (by total number of speakers in million):

Linguistic features

Although Africa is not a natural linguistic, some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in Africa, whereas others seem less common. Such shared traits probably are not due to a common origin of all African languages. Instead, some may be due to language contact (resulting in borrowing) and specific idioms and phrases may be due to a similar cultural background.

Common pan-African phonetic features include (Greenberg 1983):
* certain phoneme types, such as implosives;
* doubly articulated labial-velar stops like IPA|/kp/ and IPA|/gb/;
* prenasalized consonants;
* clicks;
* and the lower high (or 'near close') vowels IPA|/ʊ/ and IPA|/ɪ/.

Phoneme types that are relatively uncommon in African languages include uvular consonants, diphthongs, and front rounded vowels.

Quite often, only one term is used for both animal and meat; the word "nama" or "nyama" for animal/meat is particularly widespread in otherwise widely divergent African languages. Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb "to surpass".

Tonal languages are found throughout the world but are especially numerous in Africa. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The large majority of the Niger-Congo languages is also tonal. Tonal languages are also found in the Omotic, Chadic, and South & East Cushitic branches of Afro-Asiatic. The most common type of tonal system opposes two tone levels, High (H) and Low (L). Contour tones do occur, and can often be analysed as two or more tones in succession on a single syllable. "Tone melodies" play an important role, meaning that it is often possible to state significant generalizations by separating tone sequences ('melodies') from the segments that bear them. Tonal sandhi processes like tone spread, tone shift, and downstep and downdrift are common in African languages.

ee also

* "Polyglotta Africana"
* "The Languages of Africa"
* Joseph Greenberg
* Diedrich Hermann Westermann
* Malcolm Guthrie
* Wilhelm Bleek
* Karl Lepsius
* Carl Meinhof
* Languages of the African Union
* Writing systems of Africa
* List of African languages



African languages

*Childs, G. Tucker (2003) "An Introduction to African Languages". Amsterdam: John Benjamin.
*Elugbe, Ben (1998) "Cross-border and Major Languages of Africa." In K. Legère, ed. "Cross-border languages : reports and studies, Regional Workshop on Cross-Border Languages, National Institute for Educational Development (NIED), Okahandja, 23-27 September 1996". Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan
*Heine, Bernd & Derek Nurse (eds.) (2000) "African languages: an introduction." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
*Webb, Vic and Kembo-Sure (eds.) (1998) "African Voices. An introduction to the languages and linguistics of Africa." Cape Town: Oxford University Press Southern Africa.
*Greenberg, Joseph H. (1983) 'Some areal characteristics of African languages', in Dihoff, Ivan R. (ed.) "Current Approaches to African Linguistics (vol. 1)" (Publications in African Languages and Linguistics vol. 1). Dordrecht: Foris, 3-21.
*Wedekind, Klaus (1985) 'Thoughts when drawing a map of tone languages' "Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere" 1, 105-24.
* Ellis, Stephen (ed.) (1996) "Africa Now. People - Policies - Institutions." The Hague: Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS).
* Chimhundu, Herbert (2002) "Language Policies in Africa." (Final report of the Intergovernmental conference on language policies in Africa) Revised version. UNESCO.
*Cust, Robert Needham (1883) "Modern Languages of Africa".
*Greenberg, Joseph H. (1966) "The Languages of Africa" (2nd ed. with additions and corrections). [Originally published as International journal of American linguistics, 29, 1, part 2 (1963)] . Bloomington: Indiana University.
* Westermann, Diedrich H. (1952). "The languages of West Africa". Oxford: Oxford University Press.
*'s [ Africa] : A listing of African languages and language families.

External links

* [ Web resources for African languages]
* [ Linguistic maps of Africa from]

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