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About African Languages

There are an estimated 2,000 languages spoken in Africa.The American linguist Joseph Greenberg argued that they fall into six major linguistic families:

There are also a few additional small families and minor languages that have yet to be classified.

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.

Individual languages such as BerberArabicIgboSwahiliHausaAmharic, and Yoruba are spoken by tens of millions of people.

About a hundred of the languages of Africa are widely used for inter-ethnic communication.

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 the African Union as the “Year of African Languages”.[2] 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 familiesAfroasiaticNilo-SaharanNiger-Congo, and Khoisan. A handful of languages associated with the continent belong to the Indo-European and Austronesian language families; the presence of the latter languages dates to 2,600 and 1,000 years ago, respectively. In addition, African languages include several unclassified languages and sign languages.

Afroasiatic languages

Afroasiatic languages are spoken across North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia. There are approximately 375 Afroasiatic languages spoken by 300 million people. The main subfamilies of Afroasiatic are the Semitic languages, the Cushitic languagesBerber, 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 Afroasiatic languages include Arabic (Semitic), Amharic (Semitic), Somali (Cushitic), Oromo (Cushitic), Tamazight (Berber), and Hausa (Chadic). Of the world’s surviving language families, Afroasiatic 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. The inclusion of the Songhai languages is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the KomanGumuz, and Kadu branches.

Some of the more better known Nilo-Saharan languages are KanuriSonghayNubian, and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes LuoDinka, 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. 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, Dogon, and Ubangian.

Khoisan languages

Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by about 300,000 – 400,000 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, which are language isolates.

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.

Other language families

Austronesian and Indo-European

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, Indo-European languages such as AfrikaansEnglishFrench and Portuguese have held official status in many countries, and are widely spoken, generally as lingua francas. (See African French and African Portuguese.) 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 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 NigeriaCape 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:

Less well investigated ones include BeteBungKujargeLufuMpreOropom, and Weyto. Several of these are extinct, and adequate comparative data is thus unlikely to be forthcoming.

 Sign languages

Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign LanguageTunisian Sign LanguageEthiopian 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, in which Bantu-speaking peoples expanded over most of Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby displacing Khoi-San speaking peoples in much of East Africa. Another example is the Islamic expansion in the 7th century AD, which led to the extension of Arabic to much of North 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

Official languages – in many African countries there are several official languages.

Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, only a few languages are official at the national level. These are:

 Cross-border languages

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884-5 divided a great many ethnic groups 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 CommissionAlpha Oumar Konaré, have referred to cross-border languages as a factor that can promote African unity.[5]

 Language change and 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), koinés (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 17% speak an Arabic dialect. About 10% speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeastern Africa, about 5% speak a Berber dialect, and about 5% speak Hausa, a West African lingua franca. Other important West African languages are YorubaIgbo and Fula. Major Northeast African languages are Oromo and Somali. Important South African languages are Zulu and Afrikaans (related to Dutch). English, French and Portuguese are important languages: 130, 115 and 20 million speak them as secondary in general.

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

Arabic (North Africa, Horn of Africa) 100 native + 30 secondary
Berber (North Africa) 40 native + 4 secondary
Swahili (East Africa) 5 native + 80 secondary
Hausa (West Africa) 24 native + 15 secondary
Oromo (Northeast Africa) 25
Zulu (South Africa) 9 native + 16 secondary
Somali (Horn of Africa) 18-21
Yoruba (West Africa) 19 native + 2 secondary
Igbo (West Africa) 18 native + 1 secondary
Amharic (Northeast Africa) 14 native + 3 secondary
Shona 15 native + 2 secondary
Bambara (West Africa) 3 native + 10 secondary
Twi 8 native + 2 secondary
Ibibio Language (Ibibio/Annang/Efik, Nigeria) 8-12
Fula (West Africa) 10-16
Malagasy (Madacascar) 17
Afrikaans (South Africa) 6-7 native + 6-7 secondary
Lingala (Democratic Republic of the Congo) 2 native + 10 secondary
Chichewa (Southeast Africa) 10
Xhosa (South Africa) 7
Kinyarwanda (Rwanda) 7
Kongo 7
Tigrinya 7
Gbe 7
Tshiluba (Democratic Republic of the Congo) 6
Wolof 3 native + 3 secondary
Gikuyu (Kenya) 5
More (West Africa) 5
Kirundi (Central Africa) 5
Sotho (South Africa) 5
Luhya 4
Tswana (Southern Africa) 4
Kanuri (West Africa) 4
Umbundu (Angola) 4
Northern Sotho (South Africa) 4

Linguistic features

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.


Some phonetic features include:

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

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 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, and downstep and downdrift are common in African languages.


Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb ‘to surpass’.


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.