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The Niger–Congo languages are the world's third largest language family in terms of number of speakers and Africa's largest in terms of geographical area, number of speakers, and number of distinct languages.[1] It is generally considered to be the world's largest language family in terms of number of distinct languages,[2][3] just ahead of Austronesian, although this is complicated by the ambiguity about what constitutes a distinct language; the number of named Niger–Congo languages listed by Ethnologue is 1,540.[4]

It is the third-largest language family in the world by a number of native speakers, comprising around 700 million people as of 2015. Within Niger–Congo, the Bantu languages alone account for 350 million people (2015), or half the total Niger–Congo speaking population. The most widely spoken Niger–Congo languages by number of native speakers are Yoruba, Igbo, Fula and Zulu. The most widely spoken by the total number of speakers is Swahili, which is used as a lingua franca in parts of eastern and southeastern Africa.[1]

While the ultimate genetic unity of the core of Niger–Congo (called Atlantic–Congo) is widely accepted, the internal cladistic structure is not well established. Other primary branches may include Dogon, Mande, Ijo, Katla and Rashad. The connection of the Mande languages especially has never been demonstrated, and without them, the validity of Niger–Congo family as a whole (as opposed to Atlantic–Congo or a similar subfamily) has not been established.

One of the most distinctive characteristics common to Atlantic–Congo languages is the use of a noun-class system, which is essentially a gender system with multiple genders.[5]

Origin

The language family most likely originated in or near the area where these languages were spoken prior to Bantu expansion (i.e. West Africa or Central Africa). Its expansion may have been associated with the expansion of Sahel agriculture in the African Neolithic period, following the desiccation of the Sahara in c. 3500 BCE.[6][7]

According to Roger Blench (2004), all specialists in Niger–Congo languages believe the languages to have a common origin, rather than merely constituting a typological classification, for reasons including their shared noun-class system, shared verbal extensions and shared basic lexicon.[8] Similar classifications to Niger–Congo have been made ever since Diedrich Westermann in 1922.[9] Joseph Greenberg continued that tradition, making it the starting point for modern linguistic classification in Africa, with some of his most notable publications going to press starting in the 1960s.[10] However, there has been active debate for many decades over the appropriate subclassifications of the languages in this language family, which is a key tool used in localising a language's place of origin.[11] No definitive "Proto-Niger–Congo" lexicon or grammar has been developed for the language family as a whole.

An important unresolved issue in determining the time and place where the Niger–Congo languages originated and their range prior to recorded history is this language family's relationship to the Kordofanian languages, now spoken in the Nuba

It is the third-largest language family in the world by a number of native speakers, comprising around 700 million people as of 2015. Within Niger–Congo, the Bantu languages alone account for 350 million people (2015), or half the total Niger–Congo speaking population. The most widely spoken Niger–Congo languages by number of native speakers are Yoruba, Igbo, Fula and Zulu. The most widely spoken by the total number of speakers is Swahili, which is used as a lingua franca in parts of eastern and southeastern Africa.[1]

While the ultimate genetic unity of the core of Niger–Congo (called Atlantic–Congo) is widely accepted, the internal cladistic structure is not well established. Other primary branches may include Dogon, Mande, Ijo, Katla and Rashad. The connection of the Mande languages especially has never been demonstrated, and without them, the validity of Niger–Congo family as a whole (as opposed to Atlantic–Congo or a similar subfamily) has not been established.

One of the most distinctive characteristics common to Atlantic–Congo languages is the use of a noun-class system, which is essentially a gender system with multiple genders.[5]

The language family most likely originated in or near the area where these languages were spoken prior to Bantu expansion (i.e. West Africa or Central Africa). Its expansion may have been associated with the expansion of Sahel agriculture in the African Neolithic period, following the desiccation of the Sahara in c. 3500 BCE.[6][7]

According to Roger Blench (2004), all specialists in Niger–Congo languages believe the languages to have a common origin, rather than merely constituting a typological classification, for reasons including their shared noun-class system, shared verbal extensions and shared basic lexicon.[8] Similar classifications to Niger–Congo have been made ever since Diedrich Westermann in 1922.[9] Joseph Greenberg continued that tradition, making it the starting point for modern linguistic classification in Africa, with some of his most notable publications going to press starting in the 1960s.[10] However, there has been active debate for many decades over the appropriate subclassifications of the languages in this language family, which is a key tool used in localising a language's place of origin.[11] No definitive "Proto-Niger–Congo" lexicon or grammar has been developed for the language family as a whole.

An important unresolved issue in determining the time and place where the Niger–Congo languages originated and their range prior to recorded history is this language family's relationship to the Kordofanian languages, now spoken in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, which is not contiguous with the remainder of the Niger–Congo-language-speaking region and is at the northeasternmost extent of the current Niger–Congo linguistic region. The current prevailing linguistic view is that Kordofanian languages are part of the Niger–Congo language family and that these may be the first of the many languages still spoken in that region to have been spoken in the region.[12] The evidence is insufficient to determine if this outlier group of Niger–Congo language speakers represent a prehistoric range of a Niger–Congo linguistic region that has since contracted as other languages have intruded, or if instead, this represents a group of Niger–Congo language speakers who migrated to the area at some point in prehistory where they were an isolated linguistic community from the beginning.

There is more agreement regarding the place of origin of Benue–Congo, the largest subfamily of the group. Within Benue–Congo, the place of origin of the Bantu languages as well as time at which it started to expand is known with great specificity. Blench (2004), relying particularly on prior work by Kay Williamson and P. De Wolf, argued that Benue–Congo probably originated at the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers in central Nigeria.[8][13][14][15][16][17] These estimates of the place of origin of the Benue-Congo language family do not fix a date for the start of that expansion, other than that it must have been sufficiently prior to the Bantu expansion to allow for the diversification of the languages within this language family that includes Bantu.

The classification of the relatively divergent family of the Ubangian languages, centred in the Roger Blench (2004), all specialists in Niger–Congo languages believe the languages to have a common origin, rather than merely constituting a typological classification, for reasons including their shared noun-class system, shared verbal extensions and shared basic lexicon.[8] Similar classifications to Niger–Congo have been made ever since Diedrich Westermann in 1922.[9] Joseph Greenberg continued that tradition, making it the starting point for modern linguistic classification in Africa, with some of his most notable publications going to press starting in the 1960s.[10] However, there has been active debate for many decades over the appropriate subclassifications of the languages in this language family, which is a key tool used in localising a language's place of origin.[11] No definitive "Proto-Niger–Congo" lexicon or grammar has been developed for the language family as a whole.

An important unresolved issue in determining the time and place where the Niger–Congo languages originated and their range prior to recorded history is this language family's relationship to the Kordofanian languages, now spoken in the Nuba mountains of Sudan, which is not contiguous with the remainder of the Niger–Congo-language-speaking region and is at the northeasternmost extent of the current Niger–Congo linguistic region. The current prevailing linguistic view is that Kordofanian languages are part of the Niger–Congo language family and that these may be the first of the many languages still spoken in that region to have been spoken in the region.[12] The evidence is insufficient to determine if this outlier group of Niger–Congo language speakers represent a prehistoric range of a Niger–Congo linguistic region that has since contracted as other languages have intruded, or if instead, this represents a group of Niger–Congo language speakers who migrated to the area at some point in prehistory where they were an isolated linguistic community from the beginning.

There is more agreement regarding the place of origin of Benue–Congo, the largest subfamily of the group. Within Benue–Congo, the place of origin of the Bantu languages as well as time at which it started to expand is known with great specificity. Blench (2004), relying particularly on prior work by Kay Williamson and P. De Wolf, argued that Benue–Congo probably originated at the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers in central Nigeria.[8][13][14][15][16][17] These estimates of the place of origin of the Benue-Congo language family do not fix a date for the start of that expansion, other than that it must have been sufficiently prior to the Bantu expansion to allow for the diversification of the languages within this language family that includes Bantu.

The classification of the relatively divergent family of the Ubangian languages, centred in the Central African Republic, as part of the Niger–Congo language family is disputed. Ubangian was grouped with Niger–Congo by Greenberg (1963), and later authorities concurred,[18] but it was questioned by Dimmendaal (2008).[19]

The Bantu expansion, beginning around 1000 BC, swept across much of Central and Southern Africa, leading to the extinction of much of the indigenous Pygmy and Bushmen (Khoisan) populations there.[20]

The following is an overview of the language groups usually included in Niger–Congo. The genetic relationship of some branches is not universally accepted, and the cladistic connection between those who are accepted as related may also be unclear.

The core phylum of the Niger–Congo group are the Atlantic–Congo languages. The non-Atlantic–Congo languages within Niger–Congo are grouped as Dogon, Mande, Dogon, Mande, Ijo (sometimes with Defaka as Ijoid), Katla and Rashad.

Atlantic–Congo combines the Atlantic languages, which do not form one branch, and Volta–Congo. It comprises more than 80% of the Niger–Congo speaking population, or close to 600 million people (2015).

The proposed Savannas group combines Adamawa, Ubangian and Gur. Outside of the Savannas group, Volta–Congo comprises Kru, Kwa (or "West Kwa"), Volta–Niger (also "East Kwa" or "West Benue–Congo") and Savannas group combines Adamawa, Ubangian and Gur. Outside of the Savannas group, Volta–Congo comprises Kru, Kwa (or "West Kwa"), Volta–Niger (also "East Kwa" or "West Benue–Congo") and Benue–Congo (or "East Benue–Congo"). Volta–Niger includes the two largest languages of Nigeria, Yoruba and Igbo. Benue–Congo includes the Southern Bantoid group, which is dominated by the Bantu languages, which account for 350 million people (2015), or half the total Niger–Congo speaking population.

The strict genetic unity of any of these subgroups may themselves be under dispute. For example, Roger Blench (2012) argued that Adamawa, Ubangian, Kwa, Bantoid, and Bantu are not coherent groups.[21]

Glottolog 3.4 (2019)[22] does not accept that the Kordofanian branches (Lafofa, Talodi and Heiban) or the difficult-to-classify Laal language have been demonstrated to be Atlantic–Congo languages. It otherwise accepts the family but not its inclusion within a broader Niger–Congo. Glottolog also considers Ijoid, Mande, and Dogon to be independent language phyla that have not been demonstrated to be related to each other.

The Atlantic–Congo group is characterised by the noun class systems of its languages. Atlantic–Congo largely corresponds to Mukarovsky's "Western Nigritic" phylum.[23]

The polyphyletic Atlantic group accounts for about 35 million speakers as of 2016, mostly accounted for by Fula and Wolof speakers. Atlantic is not considered to constitute a valid group.