Niger–Congo languages constitute one of the world's major
language families and Africa's largest in terms of geographical area,
number of speakers and number of distinct languages. It is
generally considered to constitute the world's largest language family
in terms of distinct languages, although this is complicated by
the ambiguity about what constitutes a distinct language.
It is the third largest language family in the world by number of
native speakers. One of the characteristics common to most
Niger–Congo languages is the use of a noun class system. The most
Niger–Congo languages by number of native speakers are
Yoruba, Igbo, Fula and Shona. The most widely spoken by number of
speakers is Swahili.
2 Classification history
2.1 Early classifications
2.2 Westermann, Greenberg and beyond
2.3 Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan
3 Common features
3.2.1 Noun classification
3.2.2 Verbal extensions
3.2.3 Word order
4 Major clades
6 Further reading
7 External links
Main article: Niger–Congo homeland
Niger–Congo as it is known today was only gradually recognized as a
linguistic unit. In early classifications of the languages of Africa,
one of the principal criteria used to distinguish different groupings
was the languages' use of prefixes to classify nouns, or the lack
thereof. A major advance came with the work of Sigismund Wilhelm
Koelle, who in his 1854
Polyglotta Africana attempted a careful
classification, the groupings of which in quite a number of cases
correspond to modern groupings. An early sketch of the extent of
Niger–Congo as one language family can be found in Koelle's
observation, echoed in Bleek (1856), that the
Atlantic languages used
prefixes just like many Southern African languages. Subsequent work of
Bleek, and some decades later the comparative work of Meinhof, solidly
established Bantu as a linguistic unit.
In many cases, wider classifications employed a blend of typological
and racial criteria. Thus, Friedrich Müller, in his ambitious
classification (1876–88), separated the 'Negro' and Bantu languages.
Likewise, the Africanist
Karl Richard Lepsius
Karl Richard Lepsius considered Bantu to be
of African origin, and many 'Mixed Negro languages' as products of an
encounter between Bantu and intruding Asiatic languages.
In this period a relation between Bantu and languages with Bantu-like
(but less complete) noun class systems began to emerge. Some authors
saw the latter as languages which had not yet completely evolved to
full Bantu status, whereas others regarded them as languages which had
partly lost original features still found in Bantu. The Bantuist
Meinhof made a major distinction between Bantu and a 'Semi-Bantu'
group which according to him was originally of the unrelated Sudanic
Westermann, Greenberg and beyond
Westermann's 1911 Die Sudansprachen. Eine sprachvergleichende Studie
laid much of the basis for the understanding of Niger–Congo.
Westermann, a pupil of Meinhof, set out to establish the internal
classification of the then Sudanic languages. In a 1911 work he
established a basic division between 'East' and 'West'. A historical
reconstruction of West Sudanic was published in 1927, and in his 1935
'Charakter und Einteilung der Sudansprachen' he conclusively
established the relationship between Bantu and West Sudanic.
Joseph Greenberg took Westermann's work as a starting-point for his
own classification. In a series of articles published between 1949 and
1954, he argued that Westermann's 'West Sudanic' and Bantu formed a
single genetic family, which he named Niger–Congo; that Bantu
constituted a subgroup of the Benue–Congo branch; that
Adamawa–Eastern, previously not considered to be related, was
another member of this family; and that Fula belonged to the West
Atlantic languages. Just before these articles were collected in final
book form (The Languages of Africa) in 1963, he amended his
classification by adding
Kordofanian as a branch co-ordinate with
Niger–Congo as a whole; consequently, he renamed the family
Congo–Kordofanian, later Niger–Kordofanian. Greenberg's work on
African languages, though initially greeted with scepticism, became
the prevailing view among scholars.
Bennet and Sterk (1977) presented an internal reclassification based
on lexicostatistics that laid the foundation for the regrouping in
Kordofanian was presented as one of several
primary branches rather than being coordinate to the family as a
whole, prompting re-introduction of the term Niger–Congo, which is
in current use among linguists. Many classifications continue to place
Kordofanian as the most distant branch, but mainly due to negative
evidence (fewer lexical correspondences), rather than positive
evidence that the other languages form a valid genealogical group.
Likewise, Mande is often assumed to be the second-most distant branch
based on its lack of the noun-class system prototypical of the
Niger–Congo family. Other branches lacking any trace of the
noun-class system are Dogon and Ijaw, whereas the Talodi branch of
Kordofanian does have cognate noun classes, suggesting that
Kordofanian is also not a unitary group.
Glottolog (2013) accepts the core with noun-class systems, the
Atlantic–Congo languages, apart from the recent inclusion of some of
Kordofanian groups, but not Niger–Congo as a whole. They list
the following as separate families:
Atlantic–Congo, Mande, Dogon, Ijoid, Lafofa, Katla–Tima, Heiban,
Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan
Over the years, several linguists have suggested a link between
Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan, probably starting with Westermann's
comparative work on the 'Sudanic' family in which 'Eastern Sudanic'
(now classified as Nilo-Saharan) and 'Western Sudanic' (now classified
as Niger–Congo) were united. Gregersen (1972) proposed that
Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan be united into a larger phylum, which
he termed Kongo–Saharan. His evidence was mainly based on the
uncertainty in the classification of Songhay, morphological
resemblances, and lexical similarities. A more recent proponent was
Roger Blench (1995), who puts forward phonological, morphological and
lexical evidence for uniting Niger–Congo and Nilo-Saharan in a
Niger–Saharan phylum, with special affinity between Niger–Congo
and Central Sudanic. However, fifteen years later his views had
changed, with Blench (2011) proposing instead that the noun-classifier
system of Central Sudanic, commonly reflected in a tripartite
general–singulative–plurative number system, triggered the
development or elaboration of the noun-class system of the
Atlantic–Congo languages, with tripartite number marking surviving
in the Plateau and
Gur languages of Niger–Congo, and the lexical
similarities being due to loans.
Niger–Congo languages have a clear preference for open syllables of
the type CV (Consonant Vowel). The typical word structure of
Proto-Niger-Congo is thought to have been CVCV, a structure still
attested in, for example, Bantu, Mande and Ijoid – in many other
branches this structure has been reduced through phonological change.
Verbs are composed of a root followed by one or more extensional
suffixes. Nouns consist of a root originally preceded by a noun class
prefix of (C)V- shape which is often eroded by phonological change.
Reconstructions of the consonant set of several branches of
Niger–Congo (Stewart for proto-Volta–Congo, Mukarovsky for his
proto-West-Nigritic, roughly corresponding to Atlantic–Congo) have
posited independently a regular phonological contrast between two
classes of consonants. Pending more clarity as to the precise nature
of this contrast it is commonly characterized as a contrast between
fortis and lenis consonants. Five places of articulation are
postulated for the consonant inventory of proto-Niger–Congo: labial,
alveolar, palatal, velar, and labial-velar.
Many Niger–Congo languages' vowel harmony is based on the [ATR]
(advanced tongue root) feature. In this type of vowel harmony, the
position of the root of the tongue in regards to backness is the
phonetic basis for the distinction between two harmonizing sets of
vowels. In its fullest form, this type involves two classes, each of
The roots are then divided into [+ATR] and [−ATR] categories. This
feature is lexically assigned to the roots because there is no
determiner within a normal root that causes the [ATR] value.
There are two types of [ATR] vowel harmony controllers in
Niger–Congo. The first controller is the root. When a root contains
a [+ATR] or [−ATR] vowel, then that value is applied to the rest of
the word, which involves crossing morpheme boundaries. For example,
suffixes in Wolof assimilate to the [ATR] value of the root to which
they attach. Some examples of these suffixes that alternate depending
on the root are:
Furthermore, the directionality of assimilation in [ATR]
root-controlled vowel harmony need not be specified. The root features
[+ATR] and [−ATR] spread left and/or right as needed, so that no
vowel would lack a specification and be ill-formed.
Unlike in the root-controlled harmony system, where the two [ATR]
values behave symmetrically, a large number of Niger–Congo languages
exhibit a pattern where the [+ATR] value is more active or dominant
than the [−ATR] value. This results in the second vowel harmony
controller being the [+ATR] value. If there is even one vowel that is
[+ATR] in the whole word, then the rest of the vowels harmonize with
that feature. However, if there is no vowel that is [+ATR], the vowels
appear in their underlying form. This form of vowel harmony control
is best exhibited in West African languages. For example, in Nawuri,
the diminutive suffix /-bi/ will cause the underlying [−ATR] vowels
in a word to become phonetically [+ATR].
There are two types of vowels which affect the harmony process. These
are known as neutral or opaque vowels. Neutral vowels do not harmonize
to the [ATR] value of the word, and instead maintain their own [ATR]
value. The vowels that follow them, however, will receive the [ATR]
value of the root. Opaque vowels maintain their own [ATR] value as
well, but they affect the harmony process behind them. All of the
vowels following an opaque vowel will harmonize with the [ATR] value
of the opaque vowel instead of the [ATR] vowel of the root.
The vowel inventory listed above is a ten-vowel language. This is a
language in which all of the vowels of the language participate in the
harmony system, producing five harmonic pairs. Vowel inventories of
this type are still found in some branches of Niger-Congo, for example
Togo Mountain languages. However, this is the rarer
inventory as oftentimes there are one or more vowels that are not part
of a harmonic pair. This has resulted in seven-and nine-vowel systems
being the more popular systems. The majority of languages with [ATR]
controlled vowel harmony have either seven- or nine-vowel phonemes,
with the most common non-participatory vowel being /a/. It has been
asserted that this is because vowel quality differences in the
mid-central region where /ə/, the counterpart of /a/, is found, are
difficult to perceive. Another possible reason for the
non-participatory status of /a/ is that there is articulatory
difficulty in advancing the tongue root when the tongue body is low in
order to produce a low [+ATR] vowel. Therefore, the vowel
inventory for nine-vowel languages is generally:
And seven-vowel languages have one of two inventories:
Note that in the nine-vowel language, the missing vowel is, in fact,
[ə], [a]'s counterpart, as would be expected.
The fact that ten vowels have been reconstructed for proto-Atlantic,
proto-Ijoid and possibly proto-
Volta–Congo has led to the hypothesis
that the original vowel inventory of Niger–Congo was a full
ten-vowel system. On the other hand, Stewart, in recent
comparative work, reconstructs a seven-vowel system for his
Several scholars have documented a contrast between oral and nasal
vowels in Niger–Congo. In his reconstruction of
proto-Volta–Congo, Steward (1976) postulates that nasal consonants
have originated under the influence of nasal vowels; this hypothesis
is supported by the fact that there are several Niger–Congo
languages that have been analysed as lacking nasal consonants
altogether. Languages like this have nasal vowels accompanied with
complementary distribution between oral and nasal consonants before
oral and nasal vowels. Subsequent loss of the nasal/oral contrast in
vowels may result in nasal consonants becoming part of the phoneme
inventory. In all cases reported to date, the bilabial /m/ is the
first nasal consonant to be phonologized. Niger–Congo thus
invalidates two common assumptions about nasals: that all
languages have at least one primary nasal consonant, and that if a
language has only one primary nasal consonant it is /n/.
Niger–Congo languages commonly show fewer nasalized than oral
vowels. Kasem, a language with a ten-vowel system employing ATR vowel
harmony, has seven nasalized vowels. Similarly, Yoruba has seven oral
vowels and only five nasal ones. However, the recently discovered
language of Zialo has nasal equivalent for each of its seven vowels.
The large majority of present-day
Niger–Congo languages are tonal. A
typical Niger–Congo tone system involves two or three contrastive
level tones. Four level systems are less widespread, and five level
systems are rare. Only a few
Niger–Congo languages are non-tonal;
Swahili is perhaps the best known, but within the Atlantic branch some
others are found. Proto-Niger–Congo is thought to have been a tone
language with two contrastive levels. Synchronic and
comparative-historical studies of tone systems show that such a basic
system can easily develop more tonal contrasts under the influence of
depressor consonants or through the introduction of a
downstep. Languages which have more tonal levels tend
to use tone more for lexical and less for grammatical contrasts.
Contrastive levels of tone in some Niger–Congo languages
Dyula–Bambara, Maninka, Temne, Dogon, Dagbani, Gbaya, Efik, Lingala
H, M, L
Yakuba, Nafaanra, Kasem, Banda, Yoruba, Jukun, Dangme, Yukuben, Akan,
Anyi, Ewe, Igbo
T, H, M, L
Gban, Wobe, Munzombo, Igede, Mambila, Fon
T, H, M, L, B
Ashuku (Benue–Congo), Dan-Santa (Mande)
Mandinka (Senegambia), Fula, Wolof, Kimwani
Abbreviations used: T top, H high, M mid, L low, B bottom, PA/S
pitch-accent or stress
Adapted from Williamson 1989:27
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June
Niger–Congo languages are known for their system of noun
classification, traces of which can be found in every branch of the
family but Mande, Ijoid, Dogon, and the Katla and Rashad branches of
Kordofanian. These noun-classification systems are somewhat analogous
to grammatical gender in other languages, but there are often a fairly
large number of classes (often 10 or more), and the classes may be
male human/female human/animate/inanimate, or even completely
gender-unrelated categories such as places, plants, abstracts, and
groups of objects. For example, in Bantu, the
Swahili language is
called Kiswahili, while the Swahili people are Waswahili. Likewise, in
Ubangian, the Zande language is called Pazande, while the Zande people
are called Azande.
In the Bantu languages, where noun classification is particularly
elaborate, it typically appears as prefixes, with verbs and adjectives
marked according to the class of the noun they refer to. For example,
in Swahili, watu wazuri wataenda is 'good (zuri) people (tu) will go
Atlantic–Congo languages which have noun classes also have
a set of verb applicatives and other verbal extensions, such as the
reciprocal suffix -na (Swahili penda 'to love', pendana 'to love each
other'; also applicative pendea 'to love for' and causative pendeza
A subject–verb–object word order is quite widespread among today's
Niger–Congo languages, but SOV is found in branches as divergent as
Mande, Ijoid and Dogon. As a result, there has been quite some debate
as to the basic word order of Niger–Congo.
Whereas Claudi (1993) argues for SVO on the basis of existing SVO >
SOV grammaticalization paths, Gensler (1997) points out that the
notion of 'basic word order' is problematic as it excludes structures
with, for example, auxiliaries. However, the structure SC-OC-VbStem
(Subject concord, Object concord, Verb stem) found in the "verbal
complex" of the SVO
Bantu languages suggests an earlier SOV pattern
(where the subject and object were at least represented by pronouns).
Noun phrases in most
Niger–Congo languages are characteristically
noun-initial, with adjectives, numerals, demonstratives and genitives
all coming after the noun. The major exceptions are found in the
western areas where verb-final word order predominates and
genitives precede nouns, though other modifiers still come afterwards.
Degree words almost always follow adjectives, and except in verb-final
languages adpositions are prepositional.
The verb-final languages of the Mende region have two quite unusual
word order characteristics. Although verbs follow their direct
objects, oblique adpositional phrases (like "in the house", "with
timber") typically come after the verb, creating a SOVX word
order. Also noteworthy in these languages is the prevalence of
internally headed and correlative relative clauses, in both of which
the head occurs inside the relative clause rather than the main
The traditional branches and major languages of the Niger–Congo
Kordofanian languages: spoken in southern central Sudan, around the
Nuba Mountains (not a single family).
Atlantic languages: includes Wolof, spoken in Senegal, and Fula,
spoken across the Sahel. The validity of Atlantic as a genetic
grouping is controversial.
Kru languages: spoken in West Africa; includes Bété, Nyabwa, and
Senufo languages: spoken in
Ivory Coast and Mali, with a geographical
outlier in Ghana; includes Senari and Supyire.
Gur languages: includes More in Burkina Faso.
Adamawa languages: includes
Chamba Leko in Cameroon.
Kwa languages: includes Akan, spoken in Ghana.
Volta–Niger languages (West Benue–Congo languages): includes the
Gbe languages, spoken in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, of which Ewe
is best known, and the Yoruba and Igbo languages, spoken in Nigeria.
Benue–Congo languages (East Benue–Congo languages): includes the
very large Bantu family, with Swahili, Fang, Kongo, Zulu, and many
other languages of central and southern Africa.
Some linguists consider the twenty or so
Kordofanian languages to form
part of the Niger–Congo family, whereas others consider them and
Niger–Congo to form two separate branches of a Niger–Kordofanian
language family, and yet others do not accept
Kordofanian as a single
group. Senufo has been placed traditionally within Gur, but is now
usually considered an early offshoot from Atlantic–Congo.
Roger Blench believes that Adamawa, Ubangian, Kwa, Bantoid,
and Bantu are not coherent groups.
The Laal, Mpre, and Jalaa languages are often linked with
Niger–Congo, but have yet to be conclusively classified.
Localization of the Niger–Congo languages
This article has an unclear citation style. The references used may be
made clearer with a different or consistent style of citation and
footnoting. (March 2014) (Learn how and when to remove this template
^ a b Irene Thompson, “Niger-Congo Language Family”,
”aboutworldlanguages”, March 2015
^ Heine, Bernd; Nurse, Derek (2000-08-03). African Languages: An
Introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 11.
^ Ammon, Ulrich (2006). Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of
the Science of Language and Society. Walter de Gruyter. p. 2036.
^ “Niger-Congo Languages”, ”The Language Gulper”, March 2015
^ Williamson, Kay; Blench, Roger (2000). "Niger-Congo". In Bernd
Heine; Derek Nurse. African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge
University Press. pp. 11–12.
^ a b c d e f Morton, Deborah. [ATR] Harmony in an Eleven Vowel
Language. Ohio State University, 2012:70–71.
^ a b c d e Unseth, Carla. Vowel Harmony in Wolof. Graduate Institute
of Applied Linguistics, 2009:2–3.
^ a b Bakovic, Eric. Harmony, Dominance and Control. Diss. Rutgers,
The State University of New Jersey, 2000:ii.
^ "Clements, G. N. 1981. Akan vowel harmony: A non-linear analysis.
Harvard Studies in
^ a b Casali, Roderic F. "Nawuri ATR Harmony in Typological
Perspective." Summer Institute of Linguistics, 2002:29. Journal of
West African Languages 29.1 (2002).
^ "Anderson, C.G. 1999. ATR vowel harmony in Akposso. Studies in
African Linguistics, 28(2):185–214."
^ "Archangeli, Diana, & Douglas Pulleyblank. 1994. Grounded
Phonology (Current Studies in Linguistics, 25.) Cambridge: MIT Press."
^ Casali, Roderic F. "ATR Harmony in African Languages." Language and
Linguistics Compass 2.3 (2008): 469–549.
^ Doneux, Jean L. 1975. Hypothèses pour la comparative des langues
atlantiques. Africana Linguistica 6.41–129. Tervuren: Musée Royal
de l’Afrique Centrale. (Re: proto-Atlantic), Williamson, Kay. 2000.
Towards reconstructing Proto-Niger-Congo. Proceedings of the 2nd World
Congress of African Linguistics, Leipzig 1997, ed. H. E. Wolff and O.
Gensler, 49–70. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe. (Re: proto-Ijoid), Stewart,
John M. Towards Volta-Congo Reconstruction: Rede. Leiden:
Universitaire Pers Leiden, 1976., Casali, Roderic F. "On the Reduction
of Vowel Systems in Volta-Congo."
African Languages and Cultures 8.2
(1995: 109–121) (Re: proto-Volta-Conga)
^ Stewart, John M., 2002. The potential of Proto-Potou-Akanic-Bantu as
a pilot Proto-Niger- Congo, and the reconstructions updated. Journal
of African Languages and Linguistics 23: 197–224.
^ le Saout (1973) for an early overview, Stewart (1976) for a
Volta–Congo wide analysis, Capo (1981) for a synchronic
analysis of nasality in Gbe (see Gbe languages: nasality), and
Bole-Richard (1984, 1985) as cited in Williamson (1989) for similar
reports on several Mande, Gur, Kru, Kwa, and Ubangi languages.)
^ As noted by Williamson (1989:24). The assumptions are from
Ferguson's (1963) 'Assumptions about nasals' in Greenberg (ed.)
Universals of Language, pp 50–60 as cited in Williamson art.cit.
^ a b Haspelmath, Martin; Dryer, Matthew S.; Gil, David and Comrie,
Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures; pp 346–385.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-925591-1
^ Williamson & Blench (2000)
^ "Niger-Congo: an alternative view" (PDF). Rogerblench.info.
Retrieved 2012-12-29. "Roger Blench: Niger-Congo
reconstruction". Rogerblench.info. Retrieved 2012-12-29.
Vic Webb (2001) African Voices: An Introduction to the Languages and
Linguistics of Africa
Bendor-Samuel, John & Rhonda L. Hartell (eds.) (1989) The
Niger–Congo Languages – A classification and description of
Africa's largest language family. Lanham, Maryland: University Press
Bennett, Patrick R. & Sterk, Jan P. (1977) 'South Central
Niger–Congo: A reclassification'. Studies in African Linguistics, 8,
Blench, Roger (1995) 'Is Niger–Congo simply a branch of
Nilo-Saharan?' In Proceedings: Fifth Nilo-Saharan Linguistics
Colloquium, Nice, 1992, ed. R. Nicolai and F. Rottland, 83–130.
Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
—— (2011) "Can Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic help us understand
the evolution of Niger–Congo noun classes?", CALL 41, Leiden
—— (2011) "Should
Kordofanian be split up?", Nuba Hills
Capo, Hounkpati B.C. (1981) 'Nasality in Gbe: A Synchronic
Interpretation' Studies in African Linguistics, 12, 1, 1–43.
Casali, Roderic F. (1995) 'On the Reduction of Vowel Systems in
Volta–Congo', African Languages and Cultures, 8, 2, December,
Dimmendaal, Gerrit (2008). "Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity
on the African Continent". Language and Linguistics Compass. 2 (5):
Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963) The Languages of Africa. Indiana
Gregersen, Edgar A. (1972) 'Kongo-Saharan'. Journal of African
Languages, 4, 46–56.
Nurse, D., Rose, S. & Hewson, J. (2016) Tense and Aspect in
Niger-Congo, Documents on Social Sciences and Humanities, Royal Museum
for Central Africa
Olson, Kenneth S. (2006) 'On Niger–Congo classification'. In The
Bill question, ed. H. Aronson, D. Dyer, V. Friedman, D. Hristova and
J. Sadock, 153–190. Bloomington, IN: Slavica.
Saout, J. le (1973) 'Languages sans consonnes nasales', Annales de l
Université d'Abidjan, H, 6, 1, 179–205.
Stewart, John M. (1976) Towards
Volta–Congo reconstruction: a
comparative study of some languages of Black-Africa. (Inaugural
speech, Leiden University) Leiden: Universitaire Pers Leiden.
Stewart, John M. (2002) 'The potential of Proto-Potou-Akanic-Bantu as
a pilot Proto-Niger–Congo, and the reconstructions updated', in
Journal of African Languages and Linguistics, 23, 197–224.
Williamson, Kay (1989) 'Niger–Congo overview', in Bendor-Samuel
& Hartell (eds.) The Niger–Congo Languages, 3–45.
Williamson, Kay & Blench, Roger (2000) 'Niger–Congo', in Heine,
Bernd and Nurse, Derek (eds) African Languages – An Introduction.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 11–42.
An Evaluation of Niger–Congo Classification, Kenneth Olson
International Niger–Congo Reconstruction Project
Tense and Aspect in Niger-Congo, Derek Nurse, Sarah Rose & John
List of primary language families
East Geelvink Bay
Northeast New Guinea?
Hawai'i Sign Language
Plains Sign Talk
Plains Sign Talk
(extant in 2000)
Maku-Auari of Roraima
List of sign languages
Families with more than 30 languages are in bold. Families in italics
have no living members.