The Info List - African Languages

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

Afroasiatic languages
Afroasiatic languages
are spread throughout Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa
Horn of Africa
and parts of the Sahel. Austronesian languages
Austronesian languages
are spoken in Madagascar. Indo-European languages
Indo-European languages
are spoken in South Africa
South Africa
and Namibia (Afrikaans, English, German) and are used as lingua francas in the former colonies of Britain (English), former colonies of France and of Belgium (French), former colonies of Portugal and remaining Afro-Portuguese islands (Portuguese), former colonies of Spain (Spanish) and the current Spanish territories of Ceuta, Melilla
and the Canary Islands
Canary Islands
(Spanish). Khoe languages are concentrated in the Kalahari Desert
Kalahari Desert
of Namibia
and Botswana. Niger–Congo languages
Niger–Congo languages
(Bantu and non-Bantu) cover West, Central, Southeast and Southern Africa. Nilo-Saharan languages
Nilo-Saharan languages
(unity debated) are spoken from Tanzania
to Sudan
and from Chad
to Mali.

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,[1] and by some counts at "over 3,000",[2] Nigeria
alone has over 500 languages (according to the count of SIL Ethnologue),[3] 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."[4] Around a hundred languages are widely used for inter-ethnic communication. Arabic, Somali, Berber, Amharic, Oromo, Igbo, Swahili, Hausa, Manding, Fulani 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.[5] 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
African Union
declared 2006 the "Year of African Languages".[6]


1 Language

1.1 Afroasiatic languages 1.2 Nilo-Saharan languages 1.3 Niger–Congo languages 1.4 Other language families

1.4.1 Austronesian 1.4.2 Indo-European 1.4.3 Small families 1.4.4 Creole languages 1.4.5 Unclassified languages 1.4.6 Sign languages

2 Language
in Africa

2.1 Official Languages 2.2 Cross-border languages 2.3 Language
change and planning 2.4 Demographics

3 Linguistic features

3.1 Phonological 3.2 Syntactic 3.3 Semantic

4 Number of speakers 5 See also

5.1 General 5.2 Works 5.3 Classifiers

6 Notes 7 References 8 External links


Clickable 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 families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-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
Afroasiatic languages
are associated with the Capsian culture, the Nilo-Saharan languages
Nilo-Saharan languages
are linked with the Khartoum Mesolithic/Neolithic, the Niger-Congo languages
Niger-Congo languages
are correlated with the west and central African hoe-based farming traditions and the Khoisan languages
Khoisan languages
are matched with the south and southeastern Wilton industries.[7] 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.[8] Afroasiatic languages[edit] Main article: Afroasiatic languages Afroasiatic languages
Afroasiatic languages
are spoken throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia
Western Asia
and parts of the Sahel. There are approximately 375 Afroasiatic languages
Afroasiatic languages
spoken by over 350 million people. The main subfamilies of Afroasiatic are Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian and Semitic. The Afroasiatic Urheimat
Afroasiatic Urheimat
is uncertain. However, the family's most extensive branch, the Semitic languages
Semitic languages
(including Arabic, Amharic
and Hebrew
among others), seems to have developed in the Arabian peninsula. The Semitic languages
Semitic languages
are now the only branch of Afroasiatic that is spoken outside Africa.[9] Some of the most widely spoken Afroasiatic languages
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[edit] Main article: Nilo-Saharan languages Nilo-Saharan languages
Nilo-Saharan languages
consist of a hundred diverse languages. The family has a speech area that stretches from the Nile Valley
Nile Valley
to northern Tanzania
and into Nigeria
and DR Congo, with the Songhay languages along the middle reaches of the Niger River
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.[10][11] 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
Songhay languages
is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the Koman, Gumuz and Kadu branches. Some of the better known Nilo-Saharan languages
Nilo-Saharan languages
are Kanuri, Fur, Songhay, Nobiin and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes the Luo, Dinka and Maasai. The Nilo-Saharan languages
Nilo-Saharan languages
are tonal. Niger–Congo languages[edit] Main article: Niger–Congo languages The Niger–Congo languages
Niger–Congo languages
constitute the largest language family spoken in 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 Igbo, Ashanti and Ewe language. A major branch of Niger–Congo languages
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
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[edit] Several languages spoken in Africa
belong to language families concentrated or originating outside the African continent. Austronesian[edit] Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian family. It is the national language of Madagascar. Indo-European[edit] 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
South Holland
(Hollandic dialect)[14][15] 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.[16] 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
Indo-European languages
such as Afrikaans, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish have held official status in many countries, and are widely spoken, generally as lingua francas. (See African French
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
North Africa
and Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa. Small families[edit] 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
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

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: Khoe, Tuu 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
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
Indo-European languages
(e.g. Krio from English in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone
and the very similar Pidgin in Nigeria
and parts of Cameroon; Cape Verdean Creole
Cape Verdean Creole
in Cape Verde
Cape Verde
and Guinea-Bissau
Creole in Guinea-Bissau
and Senegal, both from Portuguese; Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles
and Mauritian Creole
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] Further information: Category: Unclassified languages of Africa 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:

possibly Afroasiatic: Ongota, Gomba possibly Nilo-Saharan: Shabo possibly Niger–Congo: Jalaa, Mbre, Bayot possibly Khoe: Kwadi unknown: Laal, Mpre

Of these, Jalaa is perhaps the most likely to be an isolate. Less-well investigated languages include Irimba, Luo, Mawa, Rer 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)[17] 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:

Aasax or Aramanik (Tanzania) (South Cushitic? contains non-Cushitic lexicon) Imeraguen (Mauritania) - Hassaniyya
restructured on an Azêr (Soninke) base Kara (Fer?) (Central African Republic) Oblo (Cameroon) (Adamawa? Extinct?)

Roger Blench notes a couple additional possibilities:

Defaka (Nigeria) Dompo (Ghana)

Sign languages[edit] See also: List of sign languages § Africa Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, Ethiopian 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
Sign language
systems extant in Africa
include the Paget Gorman Sign System used in Namibia
and Angola, the Sudanese Sign languages
Sign languages
used in Sudan
and South Sudan, the Arab Sign languages
Sign languages
used across the Arab Mideast, the Francosign languages used in Francophone Africa
Francophone Africa
and other areas such as Ghana
and Tunisia, and the Tanzanian Sign languages
Sign languages
used in Tanzania. Language
in Africa[edit] 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 Africa
Southeast Africa
and Southern Africa
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
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
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[edit]

Official languages in Africa:








  other 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):


in Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Mauritania,[18] Somalia,[19] Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya
and Morocco Berber in Morocco
and Algeria Amharic
in Ethiopia Somali in Somalia Tigrinya in Eritrea


Malagasy in Madagascar




Chewa in Malawi
and Zimbabwe Comorian in the Comoros Kinyarwanda in Rwanda Kirundi in Burundi Sesotho in Lesotho, South Africa
South Africa
and Zimbabwe Setswana/Tswana in Botswana
and South Africa Shona, Sindebele in Zimbabwe Sepedi
in South Africa Ndebele in South Africa[20] Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda
and Uganda Swati in Swaziland
and South Africa Tsonga in South Africa Venda in South Africa Xhosa in South Africa Zulu in South Africa


Mauritian Creole
Mauritian Creole
in Mauritius Sango in the Central African Republic Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles

Cross-border languages[edit] 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[citation needed]—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
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 Commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré, have referred to cross-border languages as a factor that can promote African unity.[21] Language
change and planning[edit] 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 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[edit] Further information: Demographics of Africa Of the 1 billion Africans (in 2009), about 17 percent speak an Arabic dialect[citation needed]. About 10 percent speak Swahili[citation needed], the lingua franca of Southeast Africa; about 5 percent speak a Berber dialect[citation needed]; and about 5 percent speak Hausa, which serves as a lingua franca in much of the Sahel. Other important West African languages are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Horn of Africa languages are Amharic, Oromo and Somali. Important South African languages are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans.[22] 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.[23] Through (among other factors) sheer demographic weight, Africans are increasingly taking ownership[citation needed] of these three world languages and having an ever-greater influence on their development and growth. Linguistic features[edit] 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[edit] 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 consonants, diphthongs 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
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
Tonal sandhi
processes like tone spread, tone shift, downstep and downdrift are common in African languages. Syntactic[edit] 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
Niger–Congo languages
have large numbers of genders (noun classes) which cause agreement in verbs and other words. Case, tense and other categories may be distinguished only by tone. Semantic[edit] 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. Number of speakers[edit] The following is a table displaying the number of speakers of given languages within Africa:

Language Family Native speakers (L1) Official status per country

Afrikaans Indo-European 7,200,000[24]  Namibia,  South Africa

Akan Niger–Congo 11,000,000[25] None. Government sponsored language of  Ghana

Amharic Afroasiatic 21,800,000[26]  Ethiopia

Arabic Afroasiatic 150,000,000[27] but with separate mutually unintelligible varieties  Algeria,  Chad,  Comoros,  Djibouti,  Egypt,  Eritrea,  Libya,  Mauritania,  Morocco,  Somalia,  Sudan,  Tunisia

Berber Afroasiatic 56,000,000[28] (estimated) (including separate unintelligible varieties)  Morocco,  Algeria

Chewa Niger–Congo 9,700,000[29]  Malawi,  Zimbabwe

English Indo-European 6,500,000[30] (estimated) see List of territorial entities where English is an official language

French Indo-European 700,330[31][32] (estimated) see List of territorial entities where French is an official language

Fulani Niger–Congo 25,000,000[25]

German Indo-European

national language of  Namibia

Gikuyu Niger–Congo 6,600,000[33]

Hausa Afroasiatic 34,000,000[34]  Nigeria,  Niger

Igbo Niger–Congo 18,000,000[35]

Kinyarwanda Niger–Congo 9,800,000[25]  Rwanda

Kirundi Niger–Congo 8,800,000[25]  Burundi

Kongo Niger–Congo 5,600,000[36] recognised national language of  Angola

Lingala Niger–Congo 5,500,000[25] national language of  Democratic Republic of the Congo

Luganda Niger-Congo 4,130,000[37] native language of  Uganda

Luo Nilo-Saharan (probable) 4,200,000[38]

Malagasy Austronesian 18,000,000[39]  Madagascar

Mauritian Creole Indo-European 1,135,000[40] native language of  Mauritius

Mossi Niger–Congo 7,600,000[25] Recognised regional language in  Burkina Faso

Ndebele Niger–Congo 1,090,000[41] Statutory national language in  South Africa

Northern Sotho Niger–Congo 4,600,000[42]  South Africa

Oromo Afroasiatic 26,000,000[25]  Ethiopia

Portuguese Indo-European 13,700,000[43] (estimated)  Angola,  Cape Verde,  Guinea-Bissau,  Equatorial Guinea,  Mozambique,  São Tomé and Príncipe

Sesotho Niger–Congo 5,600,000[44]  Lesotho,  South Africa,  Zimbabwe

Shona Niger–Congo 14,200,000 incl. Manyika, Ndau (2000–2006)[45]  Zimbabwe

Somali Afroasiatic 16,600,000[46]  Somalia

Spanish Indo-European 4,101,590[47]  Equatorial Guinea,  Morocco,  Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic

Swahili Niger–Congo 15,000,000[48] official in  Tanzania,  Kenya,  Uganda,  Rwanda national language of  Democratic Republic of Congo

Tigrinya Afroasiatic 7,000,000[49]  Eritrea

Tshiluba Niger–Congo 6,300,000[50] (1991) national language of  Democratic Republic of the Congo

Tswana Niger–Congo 5,800,000[51]  South Africa,  Botswana

Umbundu Niger–Congo 6,000,000[52] recognised national language of  Angola

Xhosa Niger–Congo 7,600,000[25]  South Africa,  Zimbabwe

Yoruba Niger–Congo 28,000,000[25]  Nigeria,  Benin

Zulu Niger–Congo 10,400,000[25]  South Africa

See also[edit]

portal Language


Languages of the African Union Writing systems of Africa Journal of West African Languages


Polyglotta Africana The Languages of Africa


Karl Lepsius Wilhelm Bleek Carl Meinhof Diedrich Westermann Joseph Greenberg


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