The languages of
Africa are divided into six major language families:
Afroasiatic languages are spread throughout Western Asia, North
Horn of Africa
Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel.
Austronesian languages are spoken in Madagascar.
Indo-European languages are spoken in
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,
Canary Islands (Spanish).
Khoe languages are concentrated in the
Kalahari Desert of
Niger–Congo languages (Bantu and non-Bantu) cover West, Central,
Southeast and Southern Africa.
Nilo-Saharan languages (unity debated) are spoken from
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
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
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. 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. 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".
1.1 Afroasiatic languages
1.2 Nilo-Saharan languages
1.3 Niger–Congo languages
1.4 Other language families
1.4.3 Small families
1.4.4 Creole languages
1.4.5 Unclassified languages
1.4.6 Sign languages
Language in Africa
2.1 Official Languages
2.2 Cross-border languages
Language change and planning
3 Linguistic features
4 Number of speakers
5 See also
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
include several unclassified languages and sign languages.
Afroasiatic languages are associated with the Capsian
Nilo-Saharan languages are linked with the Khartoum
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.
Main article: Afroasiatic languages
Afroasiatic languages are spoken throughout North Africa, the Horn of
Western Asia and parts of the Sahel. There are approximately
Afroasiatic languages spoken by over 350 million people. The main
subfamilies of Afroasiatic are Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian and
Afroasiatic Urheimat is uncertain. However, the family's
most extensive branch, the
Semitic languages (including Arabic,
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
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.
Main article: 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
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 Koman, Gumuz and Kadu branches.
Some of the better known
Nilo-Saharan languages are Kanuri, Fur,
Songhay, Nobiin and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes the
Luo, Dinka and Maasai. The
Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.
Main article: Niger–Congo languages
Niger–Congo languages constitute the largest language family
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 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
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
Other language families
Several languages spoken in
Africa belong to language families
concentrated or originating outside the African continent.
Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian family. It is the national
language of Madagascar.
Afrikaans is Indo-European, as is most of the vocabulary of most
African creole languages.
Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch
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
Namibia it is the lingua franca and in
Zimbabwe it is a minority language of roughly several ten thousand
people. Overall 15 to 20 million people are estimated to speak
Since the colonial era,
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
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,
North Africa and
Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa.
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
Mande, some 70 languages, including the major languages of
Guinea. These are generally thought to be divergent Niger–Congo, but
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: 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
Khoisan languages. The
Khoisan languages are also tonal.
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
Nigeria and parts of
Cape Verdean Creole
Cape Verdean Creole in
Cape Verde and
Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, both from Portuguese; Seychellois 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
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
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) 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,
Aasax or Aramanik (Tanzania) (South Cushitic? contains non-Cushitic
Imeraguen (Mauritania) -
Arabic restructured on an Azêr
Kara (Fer?) (Central African Republic)
Oblo (Cameroon) (Adamawa? Extinct?)
Roger Blench notes a couple additional possibilities:
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 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
Sign languages 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
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 Africa and
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
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)
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 in Africa:
Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese
and Spanish, the following languages are official at the national
Africa (non-exhaustive list):
Arabic in Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Mauritania,
Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria,
Libya and Morocco
Morocco and Algeria
Amharic in Ethiopia
Somali in Somalia
Tigrinya in Eritrea
Malagasy in Madagascar
Malawi and Zimbabwe
Comorian in the Comoros
Kinyarwanda in Rwanda
Kirundi in Burundi
Sesotho in Lesotho,
South Africa and Zimbabwe
Botswana and South Africa
Shona, Sindebele in Zimbabwe
Sepedi in South Africa
Ndebele in South Africa
Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya,
Rwanda and Uganda
Swaziland and South Africa
Tsonga in South Africa
Venda in South Africa
Xhosa in South Africa
Zulu in South Africa
Mauritian Creole in Mauritius
Sango in the Central African Republic
Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles
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,
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
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 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.
Further information: Demographics of Africa
Of the 1 billion Africans (in 2009), about 17 percent speak an Arabic
dialect. About 10 percent speak Swahili[citation
needed], 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 Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Horn of Africa
languages are Amharic, Oromo and Somali. Important South African
languages are Zulu, Xhosa 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. Through (among other
factors) sheer demographic weight, Africans are increasingly taking
ownership of these three world languages and having
an ever-greater influence on their development and growth.
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
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 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
Tonal sandhi processes like tone spread, tone shift, 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
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.
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
The following is a table displaying the number of speakers of given
languages within Africa:
Native speakers (L1)
Official status per country
Namibia, South Africa
None. Government sponsored language of Ghana
150,000,000 but with separate mutually unintelligible varieties
Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt,
Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco,
Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia
56,000,000 (estimated) (including separate unintelligible
see List of territorial entities where English is an official language
see List of territorial entities where French is an official language
national language of Namibia
recognised national language of Angola
national language of Democratic Republic of the Congo
native language of Uganda
native language of Mauritius
Recognised regional language in Burkina Faso
Statutory national language in South Africa
Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial
Guinea, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe
Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe
14,200,000 incl. Manyika, Ndau (2000–2006)
Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Sahrawi Arab Democratic
official in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda
national language of Democratic Republic of Congo
national language of Democratic Republic of the Congo
South Africa, Botswana
recognised national language of Angola
South Africa, Zimbabwe
Languages of the African Union
Writing systems of Africa
Journal of West African Languages
The Languages of Africa
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^ Epstein, Edmund L.; Kole, Robert, eds. (1998). The
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Africa is incredibly
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^ According to article 7 of The Transitional Federal Charter of the
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and Maxaatiri) and Arabic. The second languages of the Transitional
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^ "The languages of South Africa". southafrica.info.
^ African languages for Africa's development ACALAN (French &
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^ Ethnologue (2009) cites 18,5 million L1 and 15 million L2 speakers
Nigeria in 1991; 5.5 million L1 speakers and half that many L2
Niger in 2006, 0.8 million in
Benin in 2006, and just over
1 million in other countries.
^ "Ibo -
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African language resources for children
Web resources for African languages
Linguistic maps of
Africa from Muturzikin.com
Online Dictionaries, e-books and other online fulltexts in or on
Links to related articles
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