African Languages

African Languages

African Languages


African Languages, languages indigenous to the African continent. More than 2,000 different languages are spoken in Africa. Apart from Arabic, which is not confined to Africa, the most widely spoken African tongues are Swahili (35 million speakers) and Hausa (39 million), both of which are used over wide areas as lingua francas. Several languages (often inaccurately termed dialects simply because they have few users or are under-researched) are spoken by only a few thousand people. Although very few African languages have written literature, the majority have long-standing traditions of oral literature.

African Languages


According to the most recent and widely accepted scholarly practice, the languages of Africa are grouped into four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Khoisan, and Niger-Congo. A language family is a group of related languages presumably derived from a common origin; a family is often subdivided into branches composed of more closely related languages. At least some of the African linguistic families are believed to have a history of more than 5,000 years. African languages that belong to different families are as little alike as English, Turkish, Chinese, and Navajo, although the disparate tongues may be spoken in the same locality. Even within a single family, African languages may be as different in sound and structure as English, Italian, Russian, and Hindi, all of which are members of the Indo-European language family. Within a given branch of one family, however, languages may often be as closely related as German, Dutch, and Swedish.

Not all the African languages have writing systems, and in certain tongues, the only written literature is a translation of some portion of the New Testament. Except for Arabic and certain languages of Ethiopia, the alphabets of most African languages are based on adaptations of the Roman alphabet and were introduced by missionaries. A few tribes, notably the Vai in Liberia and the Bamum in Cameroon, have developed their own syllabic writing systems.

The first European students of African languages were usually missionaries who, more than other groups, were interested in learning to speak with native populations and preparing literature for them. Much of the available information on African languages still comes from missionary sources. A major early work on African languages is the Polyglotta Africana, by the 19th-century missionary-teacher Sigismund W. Koelle; it contains a list of some 300 words and phrases in 156 different African languages. Koelle’s information came from freed slaves living in the British West African protectorate of Sierra Leone. Twentieth-century scholars, such as the German linguists Carl Meinhof and Diedrich Westermann, the South African linguist Clement Martyn Doke, and such British linguists as Ida Caroline Ward and Malcolm Guthrie, have made substantial contributions to the knowledge of African languages and the relationships of these languages to one another. The American linguist and anthropologist Joseph H. Greenberg significantly revised earlier notions of the groupings of African languages, although some modifications and refinements of his 1963 classification can be expected from the increasing number of scholars in the field.

It has been suggested that the indigenous languages of Africa will eventually give way to internationally important European languages, or at least to a few of the major languages native to Africa. However, despite the huge increase in contacts between Africa and the West during the 20th century, especially during the latter half of the century, most African languages show no signs of dying out. This is because, except in the remotest areas, Africans have traditionally spoken not only their birth tongue but also a local or regional lingua franca, such as Hausa, Swahili, or Arabic, associated with the trade. During the 20th century, as access to education, and radio and television increased, European languages also became understood and spoken by an increasing number of Africans. The most widely spoken are English, French, and Portuguese, the languages of the main former colonial powers; in some African countries they have been formally encouraged as a lingua franca, or have become incorporated into pidgin or creole languages developed as local lingua francas, such as Fanagolo in the southern African mines. The post-colonial period has also been characterized by a resurgence of interest and pride in the indigenous languages of Africa in many parts of the continent.


The almost 400 Afro-Asiatic languages (formerly known as Hamito-Semitic) constitute the most important group of languages spoken in northern Africa. The Semitic branch of the family includes languages spoken in Asia as well as in Africa, hence the revised name. The many Arabic languages, the leading members of this branch, are the major languages of North Africa and of the Republic of Sudan. Amharic (see Semitic Languages), which is spoken by around 21 million people, is the official language of Ethiopia. The national book of Ethiopia, Kebra nagast (The Glory of the Kings), is written in ancient Ethiopic, or Ge’ez, now no longer spoken. Ge’ez literature also includes several books of the Apocrypha not preserved in any other language. Other Semitic languages spoken in North Africa include Tigrigna and Tigre in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Languages of the Berber branch of the Afro-Asiatic family are spoken by a substantial portion of the population in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; by scattered groups elsewhere in North Africa; and along the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert in western Africa. The Cushitic branch, confined to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania, includes such major languages as Oromo and Somali. The ancient Egyptian language, which has no living descendant, forms another branch of the Afro-Asiatic family on its own (see The Coptic Language).

A number of languages spoken largely in northern Nigeria form another Afro-Asiatic grouping, known as the Chadic branch. By far the most important Chadic language is Hausa, one of the two most common languages of sub-Saharan Africa. Hausa is widely used in education and trade, even in regions far beyond its original borders. A number of Hausa newspapers are published and there is a considerable body of Hausa literature.


The around 200 Nilo-Saharan languages are found in a broken chain from the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa to Ethiopia, throughout most of the upper Nile valley, and in parts of Uganda and Kenya. The westernmost branch of this family is Songhai, an important language group with no close relatives, spoken along much of the upper Niger River in Mali and Niger. The Saharan branch of this family includes languages spoken in north-eastern Nigeria, through the Republic of Chad to the east, and into the oasis settlements of Libya to the north.

Along the River Nile near the southern border of Egypt and in scattered areas to the south-west are the Nubian languages, Chari-Nile languages are spoken by about 1 million people. The Nubian alphabet was derived from that of the Coptic language. Nubian religious documents dating from the 8th to the 14th century form the only literature of a living African language that was written before the modern period (see Nubia). In southern Sudan and in northern Uganda and Kenya a group of languages known as Nilotic belongs to this branch; important representatives are Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, and Acholi (or Luo). Languages spoken further to the south-east, including Maasai in Kenya, have long been called Nilo-Hamitic; recent investigations, however, appear to prove that these tongues have no direct relationship to languages of the Afro-Asiatic family, but are most closely related to the Nilotic languages.

In many Nilo-Saharan languages, a system of noun suffixes indicates grammatical relationships; this system somewhat resembles the case system of Latin but is quite unlike that of any other family of languages in Africa.


The Khoisan (or Click) languages comprise the smallest language family in Africa, with only around 200,000 speakers of the 30 or so languages altogether. Most of these languages are spoken by the Khoikhoi and San peoples of southern Africa; the largest of them is Nama. Far to the north-east in Tanzania are two other representatives of this family: Sandawe and the much smaller Hadza (800 speakers). The Khoisan languages are best known for the unusual click consonants characteristic of most of them; in some Khoisan languages, nearly every word begins with a click. The production of these sounds involves a sucking action of the tongue; by the positioning of the tongue and the way air is released into the mouth, distinctive kinds of clicks are produced. When these languages are written, the clicks are represented either by otherwise unused letters such as C, Q, X, or by special symbols such as /, //, !, “, and [, as can be seen in the name of the language =/kx’au//’ein, spoken in Namibia and Botswana. Some of the Khoisan languages have a system of grammatical gender, which is found elsewhere in Africa only in the Afro-Asiatic family.


The largest African languages family comprising over 1,400 languages, this family includes several subfamilies, including Kordofanian, Mande, and Atlantic-Congo, which is further subcategorized into subfamilies including Benue-Congo, Atlantic, Gur, Kwa, and Ijoid. Of these, the Kordofanian languages number only 31, all with small populations; they are found in a small area of the Nuba Hills in southern Sudan, surrounded by languages of the Nilo-Saharan family and by Arabic. The Atlantic-Congo linguistic area, on the other hand, comprises almost all of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert. Although migrations presumably separated certain branches of this subfamily more than 5,000 years ago, languages in each of the branches have similar words for many common objects and actions; the still more distantly related Kordofanian languages have a few such similar words and show some striking resemblances to the Atlantic-Congo languages in grammatical structure.

In the Benue-Congo subfamily, a relationship exists among most of the languages of southern and central Africa that have been recognized for more than a century. These languages have become widely known as Bantu (a word meaning “the people” in many languages of the group). Some of the more important Bantu languages are Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa; Makua in Mozambique; Nyanja in Malawi; Shona in Zimbabwe; Bemba in Zambia; Kimbundu and Umbundu in Angola; Swahili and Sukuma in Tanzania; Kikuyu in Kenya; Ganda in Uganda; Rwanda in Rwanda; Rundi in Burundi; Ngala and Kongo in the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Fang and Bulu in Cameroon. Bantu-speaking authors have developed a vibrant literary tradition in their indigenous languages over the past 50 years.

The Bantu languages do not constitute a separate family, but should logically be grouped with certain languages of Nigeria, such as Tiv and Birom. All these languages together are part of the Benue-Congo subfamily. Also from this branch are important languages such as Yoruba (22 million speakers), Igbo (18 million), and Efik (2.4 million) in Nigeria.

North of the Bantu language area, in the north of the Republic of the Congo and adjacent territory, is a branch of the Volta-Congo subfamily, the North branch. Its largest branches are Zande and Ngbandi languages; a Ngbandi-based creole known as Sango is widely used as a lingua franca in the Central African Republic and is growing in importance. Extending from western Nigeria into much of Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, are the languages of the Gur branch, including Mòoré in Burkina Faso, with about 5 million speakers.

In a strip along the west coast from south-eastern Nigeria to Liberia are found the languages of the Kwa branch. This branch includes such important languages as Ewe in Togo and Ghana; Akan in Ghana; and Anyin in Côte d’Ivoire. Some of these languages are used in schools, and a small but growing body of published literature exists.

Along the Atlantic coast, from Liberia to the desert north of Dakar, are several languages of the Atlantic branch. These include Themne in Sierra Leone, Wolof in the vicinity of Dakar, and Fulani, a group of nine closely related languages, by far the most widely spoken. The three large concentrations of Fulani-speaking people are in Guinea (Jalon Fuuta), eastern Nigeria (Nigerian Fulfulde), and Senegal (Pulaar). Between these widely separated areas, Fulani-speaking people live in small groups; traditionally they are semi-nomadic pastoralists, living in numerous camps in which they raise their cattle and sell meat, milk, and butter to neighbouring peoples. Fulani is not, as has sometimes been thought, from the Afro-Asiatic language family.

Speakers of languages of the Mande branch inhabit most of the remaining portion of West Africa. One Mande language, known as Bambara, is spoken by up to 3 million people from Senegal through much of Mali and northern Guinea and into northern Côte d’Ivoire. Other important Mande languages are Mende in Sierra Leone and Kpelle in Liberia. Small islands of Mande-language speakers are also scattered through areas farther east, as far as western Nigeria. The Mande languages are believed to be the oldest offshoots of the parent Niger-Congo language spoken more than 5,000 years ago.


The Bantu languages, now recognized as part of one branch of the Benue-Congo subfamily, have a system of noun classification that was formerly considered unique. In Swahili, a Bantu tongue, one group of nouns has a prefix m to indicate the singular and a prefix wa to indicate the plural; for example, mtoto (“a child”), watoto (“children”). Another group of nouns has a singular prefix ki and a plural prefix vi; for example, kikapu (“a basket”), vikapu (“baskets”). Words modifying a noun require corresponding prefixes; for example, mtu mzuri (“a good person”), watu wazuri (“good people”), kikapu kizuri (“a good basket”), vikapu vizuri (“good baskets”). Corresponding prefixes for some modifiers, and corresponding pronouns meaning “he”, “she”, “it”, or “they”, are not identical with the noun prefixes in all cases. Each set of prefixes and pronouns, whether singular or plural or neutral (such as the prefix u in Uhuru, “freedom”), defines a class of nouns and its grammatical concords. A typical Bantu language may have from 12 to more than 20 noun classes.

This type of classification system was presumably present in the parent Niger-Congo language thousands of years ago, as many subfamilies of the Niger-Congo phylum have these characteristics. Some languages of the Gur branch indicate the noun class by both prefix and suffix, and others by suffix only, but all have separate pronouns for each class, as do the Bantu languages. Many of the Kwa languages have noun prefixes, but no other characteristics of a class system.

Although grammatical structure among the Niger-Congo languages varies considerably, in general, these tongues emphasize the kind of action referred to (grammatical aspect), or the attitude towards the action (mode), rather than the time of the action (tense). Different constructions may indicate customary action (“He laughs all the time”), potential action (“He is likely to get sick”), experiential action (“He has met the chief”), hortative attitude (“He should go”), desiderative attitude (“If only he would come”), and so on. In many languages, the only construction referring primarily to time is one for the past tense. Such constructions, for which English often uses long phrases, are distinguished in Niger-Congo languages by a single prefix, suffix, or particle, or even by a slight modification of a pronoun or verb form. On the other hand, passive constructions are rare or non-existent in the non-Bantu languages of this family. Prepositions are also rare; ideas of motion (“to, from, up”) are typically incorporated in verbs, while ideas of location (“under, beside, in”) are typically incorporated in nouns.


With few exceptions, the languages of the Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan families, as well as the Chadic languages and a few of the Cushitic languages in the Afro-Asiatic family, are tone languages—that is, distinctions in the pitch of a single syllable may differentiate completely different words or different grammatical functions of a word or of a prefix or suffix (this is in contrast to stress languages). For example, in Yoruba, a Nigerian language, the word Ogun has nine different meanings according to the tone that is used. Ogun with a low to lower pitch means “he/she climbed”, with a low rising to high pitch means “war”, with an intermediate pitch means “medicine”, with an intermediate rising pitch means “twenty” or “inheritance”, with intermediate to high (sustained) pitch means “long”, and with a high to low pitch means “he/she stabbed”. In scores of Niger-Congo languages, certain words may differ in pitch alone. Distinctions in pitch or tone have generally been ignored in writing, although they are often crucial to understanding what the writer intended to say; the tone is indicated by accent marks or other devices in only a relatively few modern grammars and dictionaries of African languages.

Some African languages (mainly tonal ones) make use of whistle speech, where each phoneme (the smallest units of sound that carry meaning) can be whistled according to the pitch variation patterns of the language, thus meaning is conveyed. Whistle speech enables speakers to communicate across long distances and can also be used for secrecy. The tonal languages of some African peoples are also represented by talking drums, used in music and for distance communication. Alterations in the pitch of the drum beats correspond to those in tonal languages such as Yoruba.


Two other language families, Indo-European and Austronesian, are represented to some degree in Africa. Malagasy, the language of the island of Madagascar, is a member of the Austronesian group. The Indo-European group includes Afrikaans and English, both native to many people in the Republic of South Africa and Zimbabwe. English is also indigenous to Liberia, having been introduced there by repatriated American blacks in the 19th century. While indigenous languages are spoken across Africa, many African countries have European languages (relics of colonialism) as their official language, used in business, education, governmental institutions, and other official domains.

Before 1959, academic involvement in African language studies was confined to very few universities in England and Europe. Since then, a number of American universities, as well as the Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State, have begun teaching and research programmes focused on African languages. In London, England, The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has the largest group of scholars in Europe dedicated to the study of African languages and culture. With less emphasis on the implications of scientific linguistics for teaching and research, a number of other universities and colleges around the world offer practical instruction in a single African language, often Swahili.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.

African Languages