African languages

From Academic Kids

The term African languages refers to the approximately 1800 languages spoken in Africa. Some African languages, such as Swahili, Hausa, and Yoruba, are spoken by millions of people. Others, such as Laal, Shabo, and Dahalo, are spoken by a few hundred or fewer. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of whose genetic classification has yet to be worked out. Several African languages are also whistled for special purposes.

The abundant linguistic diversity of many African countries has made language policy an extremely important issue in the neo-colonial era. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism. For example, all African languages are considered official languages of the African Union.


Language families

Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages.
Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages.

The African languages are generally divided into four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. In addition, they include several unclassified languages, and of course sign languages.


Main article: Afro-Asiatic languages

Formerly known as Hamito-Semitic languages, Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken in large parts of North Africa, East Africa, and Southwest Asia. The Afro-Asiatic language family comprises approximately 240 languages spoken by 285 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 Afro-Asiatic based outside of Africa. The Semitic, Berber and Egyptian branches are predominantly (though by no means exclusively) spoken by Caucasoid people, while Cushitic, Chadic, and Omotic are spoken by black Africans.

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


Main article: Nilo-Saharan languages

The Nilo-Saharan languages are a group of languages mainly spoken in Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and northern Tanzania. The family consists of more than a hundred languages spoken by 30 million people. Some of the better known Nilo-Saharan languages include Turkana (Kenya), Maasai (Kenya and Tanzania), Kanuri (Nigeria) and Songhay (Mali). Most Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.

Nilo-Saharan is an extremely diverse and quite controversial family. The Kadu languages were formerly grouped with the Kordofanian languages, but are nowadays often considered part of the Nilo-Saharan family. The Nilotic languages, having expanded substantially with the Nilotic peoples in recent centuries, are a geographically widespread language family and have a large population.


Main article: Niger-Congo languages

The Niger-Congo language family is the largest group of Africa (and probably of the world) in terms of different languages. One of its salient features, still shared by most of the Niger-Congo languages, is the noun class system. The vast majority of languages of this family is tonal. The Bantu family comprises a major branch of Niger-Congo, as visualized by the distinction between Niger-Congo A and B (Bantu) on 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. It is common today for linguists to 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.


Main article: Khoi-San languages

The Khoi-San languages number about 50 and spoken by about 120 000 people. They are found mainly in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola. Two distant languages usually considered Khoi-San are Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania. Many linguists regard the Khoi-San phylum as a yet unproven hypothesis.

A striking — and nearly unique — characteristic of the Khoi-San languages is their use of click consonants. Some neighbouring Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) have borrowed click sounds from the Khoi-San languages, as has the Cushitic language Dahalo; but only a single language, the Australian ritual language Damin, is reported to use clicks without them being a result of Khoi-San influence. All of the Khoi-San langauges are tonal.

Non-African families

The above are families indigenous to Africa. Several African languages belong to non-African families: Malagasy is an Austronesian language, and Afrikaans is Indo-European, as is the lexifier of most African creoles. Since the colonial era, European languages like Portuguese, English and French (African French) are also found on the African continent, as are Indian languages such as Gujarati.

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 (eg Krio from English in Sierra Leone, Kriol from Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau, Kreol from French in the Seychelles, or Mauritian Creole in Mauritius); some are based on Arabic (eg Juba Arabic in the southern Sudan, or Nubi in parts of Uganda and Kenya); some are based on local languages (eg 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 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, Kordofanian, Hadza, and Sandawe - among others - is controversial, as discussed above.

Sign languages

Main article: African 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, eg Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana. Little has been published on most of these languages.

Language in Africa

Missing image
Official languages

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.

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 francae). Of particular importance in this respect are Fulfulde (West Africa), Hausa (Nigeria, Niger), Lingala (Congo), Swahili (East Africa) and Arabic (North Africa).

After gaining independence, many African countries, in the search for national unity, elected one 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.

Linguistic features

The one thing African languages have in common is the fact that they are spoken in Africa. Africa does not represent some sort of natural linguistic area. Nevertheless, some linguistic features are cross-linguistically particularly common to languages spoken in Africa, whereas other features seem to be more uncommon. The hypothesis that shared traits like this would point to a common origin of African languages is highly dubious. Language contact (resulting in borrowing) and, with regard to specific idioms and phrases, a similar cultural background have been put forward to account for some of the similarities.

Among common pan-African linguistic features are the following: certain phoneme types, such as implosives; labial-velar stops like and (i.e. simultaneously pronounced k plus p, etc.); initial nasal consonant clusters; clicks; and the lower high (or 'near close') vowels and . Phoneme types that are relatively uncommon in African languages include uvular consonants, diphthongs, and front rounded vowels. Quite frequently, only one term is used for both animal and meat; additionally, 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, notably in Asia, Africa, Austronesia, the indigenous languages of America, and South-America (Mexico and Brazil). In Africa, tonal languages are especially numerous. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The majority of the Niger-Congo languages is also tonal. Tonal languages are furthermore 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.

See also


African languages

  • 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.

Language policies in Africa

  • 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 Sprachen

Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools