Languages of Africa

The languages of Africa are divided into six major language families:

There are several other small families and language isolates, as well as languages that have yet to be classified. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates (see below).

The total number of languages natively spoken in Africa is variously estimated (depending on the delineation of language vs. dialect) at between 1,250 and 2,100, and by some counts at “over 3,000”. Nigeria alone has over 500 languages (according to the count of SIL Ethnologue), one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. However, “One of the notable differences between Africa and most other linguistic areas is its relative uniformity. With few exceptions, all of Africa’s languages have been gathered into four major phyla.”

Around a hundred languages are widely used for inter-ethnic communication. ArabicSomaliBerberAmharicOromoIgboSwahiliHausaMandingFulani and Yoruba are spoken by tens of millions of people. Twelve dialect clusters (which may group up to a hundred linguistic varieties) are spoken by 75 percent, and fifteen by 85 percent, of Africans as a first or additional language. 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. The African Union declared 2006 the “Year of African Languages”.

Language groups

Clickable map showing the traditional language families, subfamilies and major languages spoken in Africa

Map showing the traditional language families, subfamilies and major languages spoken in Africa

Most languages spoken in Africa belong to one of three large language familiesAfroasiaticNilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo. Another hundred belong to small families such as Ubangian (sometimes grouped within Niger-Congo) and the various families called Khoisan, or the Indo-European and Austronesian language families mainly spoken outside Africa; the presence of the latter two dates to 2,600 and 1,500 years ago, respectively. In addition, the languages of Africa languages include several unclassified languages and sign languages.

The earliest Afroasiatic languages are associated with the Capsian culture, the Nilo-Saharan languages are linked with the Khartoum Mesolithic/Neolithic, the Niger-Congo languages are correlated with the west and central African hoe-based farming traditions and the Khoisan languages are matched with the south and southeastern Wilton industries. More broadly, the Afroasiatic family is tentatively grouped within the Nostratic superfamily, and the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo phyla form the Niger-Saharan macrophylum.

Afroasiatic languages

Afroasiatic languages are spoken throughout North Africa, the Horn of AfricaWestern Asia and parts of the Sahel. There are approximately 375 Afroasiatic languages spoken by over 400 million people. The main subfamilies of Afroasiatic are BerberChadicCushiticEgyptian and Semitic. The Afroasiatic Urheimat is uncertain. However, the family’s most extensive branch, the Semitic languages (including ArabicAmharic and Hebrew among others), seems to have developed in the Arabian peninsula. The Semitic languages are now the only branch of Afroasiatic that is spoken outside Africa.

Some of the most widely spoken Afroasiatic languages include Arabic (a Semitic language, and a recent arrival from West Asia), Somali(Cushitic), Berber (Berber), Hausa (Chadic), Amharic (Semitic) and Oromo (Cushitic). Of the world’s surviving language families, Afroasiatic has the longest written history, as both the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egyptian are members.

Nilo-Saharan languages

Nilo-Saharan languages consist of a hundred diverse languages. The family has a speech area that stretches from the Nile Valley 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. Genetic linkage between these languages has not been conclusively demonstrated, and among linguists, support for the proposal is sparse. 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. The inclusion of the Songhay languages is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the KomanGumuz and Kadu branches.

Some of the better known Nilo-Saharan languages are KanuriFurSonghayNobiin and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes the LuoDinka and Maasai. The Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.

Niger–Congo languages

The Niger–Congo languages constitute the largest language family spoken in West Africa and perhaps the world in terms of the number of languages. One of its salient features is an elaborate noun class system with grammatical concord. A large majority of languages of this family are tonal such as Yoruba and IgboAshanti and Ewe language. A major branch of Niger-Congo languages is the Bantu phylum, which has a wider speech area than the rest of the family (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 the 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. Mande has been claimed to be equally or more divergent. Niger–Congo is generally accepted by linguists, though a few question the inclusion of Mande and Dogon, and there is no conclusive evidence for the inclusion of Ubangian.

Other language families

Several languages spoken in Africa belong to language families concentrated or originating outside the African continent.

Austronesian

Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian languages and is the westernmost branch of the family. It is the national and co-official language of Madagascar and one of the Malagasy dialects called Bushi is also spoken in Mayotte.

The ancestors of the Malagasy people migrated to Madagascar around 1,500 years ago from Southeast Asia, more specifically the island of Borneo. The origins of how they arrived to Madagascar remains a mystery, however, the Austronesians are known for their seafaring culture. Despite the geographical isolation, Malagasy still has a strong resemblance to Barito languages especially the Ma’anyan language of southern Borneo.

With more than 20 million speakers, Malagasy is one of the most widely spoken of the Austronesian languages.

Indo-European

Afrikaans is Indo-European, as is most of the vocabulary of most African creole languages. Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch vernacular[12][13] of South Holland (Hollandic dialect) spoken by the mainly Dutch settlers of what is now South Africa, where it gradually began to develop distinguishing characteristics in the course of the 18th century. Most Afrikaans speakers live in South Africa. In Namibia it is the lingua franca and in Botswana and Zimbabwe, it is a minority language of roughly several ten thousand people. Overall 15 to 20 million people are estimated to speak Afrikaans.

Since the colonial era, Indo-European languages such as AfrikaansEnglishFrenchItalianPortuguese and Spanish have held official status in many countries, and are widely spoken, generally as lingua francas. (See African French and African Portuguese.) German was once used in Germany’s colonies there from the late 1800s until World War I, when Britain and France took over and revoked German’s official status. Despite this, German is still spoken in Namibia, mostly among the white population. Although it lost its official status in the 1990s, it has been redesignated as a national language. Indian languages such as Gujarati 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 and Vandalic in North Africa and Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa.

Small families

The three small Khoisan families of southern Africa have not been shown to be closely related to any other major language family. In addition, there are various other families that have not been demonstrated to belong to one of these families. (The questionable branches of Nilo-Saharan were covered above, and are not repeated here.)

  • Mande, some 70 languages, including the major languages of Mali and Guinea. These are generally thought to be divergent Niger–Congo, but debate persists.
  • Ubangian, some 70 languages, centered on the languages of the Central African Republic; may be Niger–Congo
  • Khoe, around 10 languages, the primary family of Khoisan languages of Namibia and Botswana
  • Sandawe, an isolate of Tanzania, possibly related to Khoe
  • Kx’a, a language of Southern Africa
  • Tuu, or Taa-ǃKwi, two surviving languages
  • Hadza, an isolate of Tanzania
  • Bangime, a likely isolate of Mali
  • Jalaa, a likely isolate of Nigeria
  • Laal, a possible isolate of Chad

Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by around 300,000–400,000 people. There are five Khoisan families that have not been shown to be related to each other: KhoeTuu and Kx’a, which are found mainly in Namibia and Botswana, as well as Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, which are language isolates. A striking feature of Khoisan languages, and the reason they are often grouped together, 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 also tonal.

Creole languages[edit]

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 Indo-European languages (e.g. Krio from English in Sierra Leone and the very similar Pidgin in NigeriaGhana and parts of CameroonCape Verdean Creole in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau Creole in Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, all from Portuguese; Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles and Mauritian Creole in Mauritius, both from French); 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); while in Cameroon a creole based on French, English and local African languages known as Camfranglais has started to become popular.

Unclassified languages[edit]

A fair number of unclassified languages are reported in Africa. Many remain unclassified simply for lack of data; among the better-investigated ones that continue to resist easy classification are:

Of these, Jalaa is perhaps the most likely to be an isolate.

Less-well investigated languages include IrimbaLuoMawaRer Bare (possibly Bantu), Bete (evidently Jukunoid), Bung (unclear), Kujarge (evidently Chadic), Lufu (Jukunoid), Meroitic (possibly Afroasiatic), Oropom (possibly spurious) and Weyto (evidently Cushitic). Several of these are extinct, and adequate comparative data is thus unlikely to be forthcoming. Hombert & Philippson (2009) list a number of African languages that have been classified as language isolates at one point or another. Many of these are simply unclassified, but Hombert & Philippson believe Africa has about twenty language families, including isolates. Beside the possibilities listed above, there are:

Roger Blench notes a couple additional possibilities:

Sign languages[edit]

Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign LanguageTunisian Sign LanguageEthiopian Sign Language. 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

Sign language systems extant in Africa include the Paget Gorman Sign System used in Namibia and Angola, the Sudanese Sign languages used in Sudan and South Sudan, the Arab Signlanguages used across the Arab Mideast, the Francosign languages used in Francophone Africa and other areas such as Ghana and Tunisia, and the Tanzanian Sign languages used in Tanzania.

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, in which Bantu-speaking peoples expanded over most of Sub-Equatorial Africa, displacing Khoi-San speaking peoples from much of Southeast Africaand Southern Africa and other peoples from Central Africa. Another example is the Arab expansion in the 7th century, which led to the extension of Arabic from its homeland in Asia, into much of North Africa and the Horn of 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 (lingua franca). Of particular importance in this respect are Berber (North and West Africa), Jula (western West Africa), Fulfulde (West Africa), Hausa (West Africa), Lingala (Congo), Swahili (Southeast Africa), Somali (Horn of Africa) and Arabic (North Africa and 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. However, in recent years, African countries have become increasingly supportive of maintaining linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.

Official Languages

Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, the following languages are official at the national level in Africa (non-exhaustive list):

Afroasiatic
Austronesian
Indo-European
Niger-Congo

Cross-border languages

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885 divided a great many ethnic groups and African language speaking communities. In a sense, “cross-border languages” is a misnomer—the speakers did not divide themselves. 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 notable cross-border languages include Berber (which stretches across much of North Africa and some parts of West Africa), Somali (stretches across most of the Horn of Africa), Swahili (spoken in the African Great Lakes region), Fula(in the Sahel and West Africa) and Luo languages (in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan).

Some prominent Africans such as former Malian president and former Chairman of the African CommissionAlpha Oumar Konaré, have referred to cross-border languages as a factor that can promote African unity.

Language change and planning

Language is not static in Africa any more than on other continents. In addition to the (likely modest) impact of borders, there are also cases of dialect levelling (such as in Igbo and probably many others), koinés (such as N’Ko and possibly Runyakitara) and the 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.

Demographics

Of the 1 billion Africans (in 2009), about 17 percent speak an Arabic dialect. About 10 percent speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeast Africa; about 5 percent speak a Berber dialect; and about 5 percent speak Hausa, which serves as a lingua franca in much of the Sahel. Other important West African languages are YorubaIgbo and Fula. Major Horn of Africa languages are AmharicOromo and Somali. Important South African languages are ZuluXhosa and Afrikaans.

English, French and Portuguese are important languages in Africa. About 130 million, 115 million and 30 million Africans, respectively, speak them as either native or secondary languages. Portuguese has become the national language of Angola, and Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique. The economies of Angola and Mozambique are quickly becoming economic powerhouses in Africa. Through (among other factors) sheer demographic weight, Africans are increasingly taking ownership of these three world languages as they are having an ever-greater influence on the research, economic growth and development in the African countries where English, French and Portuguese are spoken.

Linguistic features

Some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in Africa, whereas others are 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.

Phonological

Some widespread phonetic features include:

  • certain types of consonants, such as implosives (/ɓa/), ejectives (/kʼa/), the labiodental flap and in southern Africa, clicks (/ǂa//ᵑǃa/). True implosives are rare outside Africa, and clicks and the flap almost unheard of.
  • doubly articulated labial-velar stops like /k͡pa/ and /ɡ͡ba/ are found in places south of the Sahara.
  • prenasalized consonants, like /mpa/ and /ŋɡa/, are widespread in Africa but not common outside it.
  • sequences of stops and fricatives at the beginnings of words, such as /fsa//pta/ and /dt͡sk͡xʼa/.
  • nasal stops which only occur with nasal vowels, such as [ba] vs. [mã] (but both [pa] and [pã]), especially in West Africa.
  • vowels contrasting an advanced or retracted tongue, commonly called “tense” and “lax”.
  • simple tone systems which are used for grammatical purposes.

Sounds that are relatively uncommon in African languages include uvular consonantsdiphthongs and front rounded vowels

Tonal languages are found throughout the world but are predominantly used in Africa. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The large majority of the Niger-Congo languages are also tonal. Tonal languages are also found in the Omotic, Chadic and South & East Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic. 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, downstep and downdrift are common in African languages.

Syntactic

Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb ‘to surpass’. The Niger–Congo languages have large numbers of genders (noun classes) which cause agreement in verbs and other words. Casetense and other categories may be distinguished only by tone.

Semantic

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.

Rating in Speakers

The following is a table displaying the number of speakers of given languages within Africa:

Language Family Native speakers (L1) Official status per country
Abron Niger-Congo  Ghana
Afrikaans Indo-European 7,200,000 National language in  Namibia, co-official in  South Africa
Akan Niger–Congo 11,000,000 None. Government sponsored language of  Ghana
Amharic Afroasiatic 21,800,000  Ethiopia
Arabic Afroasiatic 150,000,000 but with separate mutually unintelligible varieties  Algeria Chad Comoros Djibouti Egypt Eritrea Libya Mauritania Morocco Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic Somalia Sudan Tanzania (Zanzibar),  Tunisia
Berber Afroasiatic 16,000,000 (estimated) (including separate mutually unintelligible varieties)  Morocco Algeria
Cape Verdean Creole Portugeuese Creole National language in  Cape Verde
Chewa Niger–Congo 9,700,000  Malawi Zimbabwe
Dangme Niger-Congo  Ghana
English Indo-European 6,500,000 (estimated) See List of territorial entities where English is an official language
Fon Niger-Congo  Benin
French Indo-European 120,000,000 (estimated) see List of territorial entities where French is an official language and African French
Fulani Niger-Congo 25,000,000 national language of  Senegal
Ga Niger-Congo  Ghana
German Indo-European national language of  Namibia, special status in  South Africa
Gikuyu Niger-Congo 6,600,000
Hausa Afroasiatic 34,000,000 recognized in  Nigeria Ghana Niger
Igbo Niger–Congo 27,000,000 native in  Nigeria
Italian Indo-European recognized in  Libya Eritrea Somalia
Khoekhoe Khoe 300,000 national language of  Namibia
Kimbundu Niger–Congo  Angola
Kinyarwanda Niger–Congo 9,800,000  Rwanda
Kirundi Niger–Congo 8,800,000  Burundi
Kituba Kongo-based creole  Democratic Republic of Congo Republic of Congo
Kongo Niger–Congo 5,600,000  Angola, recognised national language of  Republic of Congo and  Democratic Republic of Congo
Lingala Niger–Congo 5,500,000 National language of  Democratic Republic of the Congo Republic of Congo
Luganda Niger-Congo 4,100,000 Native language of  Uganda
Luo Nilo-Saharan (probable) 4,200,000
Malagasy Austronesian 18,000,000  Madagascar
Mauritian Creole French Creole 1,100,000 Native language of  Mauritius
Mossi Niger–Congo 7,600,000 Recognised regional language in  Burkina Faso
Nambya Niger–Congo  Zimbabwe
Ndau Niger–Congo  Zimbabwe
Ndebele Niger–Congo 1,100,000 Statutory national language in  South Africa
Noon Niger–Congo  Senegal
Northern Ndebele Niger–Congo  Zimbabwe
Northern Sotho Niger–Congo 4,600,000  South Africa
Oromo Afroasiatic 26,000,000  Ethiopia
Portuguese Indo-European 13,700,000 (estimated)  Angola Cape Verde Guinea-Bissau Equatorial Guinea Mozambique São Tomé and Príncipe
Sena Niger-Congo  Zimbabwe
Sepedi Niger–Congo  South Africa
Sesotho Niger–Congo 5,600,000  Lesotho South Africa Zimbabwe
Seychellois Creole French Creole  Seychelles
Shona Niger–Congo 7,200,000  Zimbabwe
Somali Afroasiatic 16,600,000  Somalia Djibouti
Spanish Indo-European 1,100,000  Equatorial Guinea, still marginally spoken in  Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, recognized in  Morocco
Southern Ndebele Niger–Congo  South Africa
Swahili Niger–Congo 15,000,000 Official in  Tanzania Kenya Uganda Rwanda Democratic Republic of the Congo
Swazi Niger-Congo Official in  South Africa Swaziland
Tigrinya Afroasiatic 7,000,000  Eritrea,a regional language in  Ethiopia
Tonga Niger-Congo  Zimbabwe
Tsoa Khoe  Zimbabwe
Tsonga Niger–Congo  Zimbabwe
Twi Niger-Congo Regional language in  Ghana
Tshiluba Niger–Congo 6,300,000 (1991) National language of  Democratic Republic of the Congo
Tsonga Niger–Congo 5,000,000  South Africa Zimbabwe (as ‘as Shangani’),  Mozambique
Tshivenda Niger–Congo  South Africa Zimbabwe
Tswana Niger–Congo 5,800,000  Botswana South Africa Zimbabwe
Umbundu Niger–Congo 6,000,000  Angola
Venda Niger–Congo  South Africa Zimbabwe
Wolof Niger–Congo Lingua franca in  Senegal
Xhosa Niger–Congo 7,600,000  South Africa Zimbabwe
Yoruba Niger–Congo 28,000,000  Nigeria Benin Togo
Zulu Niger–Congo 10,400,000  South Africa

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