The presence of a large number of diverse languages in any
area is considered a sign that people and cultures have developed
over a long period without frequent invasions and migrations.
Is Africa the origin of the human race? African languages alone
cannot tell us. New
Guinea is another area where many diverse languages exist.
In both cases there were cultural areas separated by difficult
to cross natural barriers.
This is an area of very diverse languages, including several
language families. Yoruba from southern Nigeria and Benin is
a major language, also found among the African populations of
the Americas. The Bantu language family seems to have emerged
from Cameroon and eastern Nigeria.
History of the Bantu speakers.
This area is a mixture of language families. The Bantu languages
have reached the area from the west by two routes: one via the
route north of the Lake Victoria; the other to the south. Nilo-Saharan
(Nilotic, Maasai etc.) and Afro-Asiatic languages have links
to the north, including Ethiopia and Sudan. The Bantu languages
in Kenya tend to be on the higher lands, whereas the Nilo-Saharan
are in the drier Rift Valley because they are spoken by cattle
herders rather than farmers. In Uganda the Nilotic languages
are north of Lake Kioga and the Bantu to the south.
Ethiopia has a number of Semitic languages and in neighboring
Somalia there is another Afro-Asiatic language. From Ethiopia
have spread other languages and customs in southern Sudan, Uganda
The western area of eastern Nigeria and Cameroon seems to be
the dispersal point of the Bantu peoples who have spread to southern
and central Africa. It has been speculated that their spread
began some 2000 years ago when they learned iron working. But
to the west of this area there are many other language families
whose relationships are only now being studied. The academic
classification of African languages has undergone radical change
in the last three decades. This process may not be finished yet.
Is there a classical, semi-secret Bantu language? There are some
indications that there may have been a ritual ur-Bantu used by
traditional shamans to maintain cultural unity. Does it still
Bantu languages have spread over the whole area. However, there
are remnant populations of the pre-Bantu languages, representing
the peoples who lived there before the great migrations occurred.
In Namibia, Botswana and South Africa there are speakers of the
San languages, with their characteristic click sounds. The east
coast Bantu languages have absorbed some of the click sounds
from the pre-Bantu languages.
Madagascar is unique in having
a dominant family of languages derived from Borneo of the Malayo-Polynesian family, predominant
in southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. There are also speakers
of Swahili, a Bantu language.
The Afro-Asiatic languages north of the Sahara, including ancient
Egyptian, are another area of study. These languages overlap
with Asia. In the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya)
there are populations of Berbers - speakers of an Afro-Asiatic
language with links to ancient Egyptian - minorities within populations
speaking varieties of Arabic. Related languages in the Sahara
are spoken by the Tuareg nomadic peoples.
Regional and Trade languages
Swahili arose out of the contact between Arabic and Bantu. Its
structure is based on the Bantu languages (without the tonal
features) and its vocabulary partly from Arabic. It has spread
over much of eastern Africa as a second language. Its literary
form on the coast shows that it may still have a literary future.
The author has heard it spoken as far south as Beira in Mozambique.
In the Sahel Hausa performs a similar role, being known outside
the core area of Nigeria and Niger. On the west African coast
a synthesis of English and other languages is developing to perform
the same role, though its literary possibilities seem much less.
This is an example of a Creole or new language - the result of
contact between several languages. Swahili was once such a language
- and indeed French and English were formed this way.
In Ethiopia south Semitic languages
have entered from the nearby Asian lands. Ge'ez was the language
when Christianity began in the third century, and is still used
in the Monophysite Church for ritual purposes (much as Old Slavonic
is the ritual language of the Russian Orthodox church). Amharic
and Tigrinya are both widespread in what is in fact a multi-lingual
empire, with Amharic the main official language.
In South Africa another language has arisen in the mines to
allow the formerly European (English and Afrikaans speaking)
supervisors to control the African laborers, coming from many
countries all over southern Africa. It tends to be confined to
the special purposes of the mines.
English, French, Portuguese, German, Italian and Spanish came
to Africa with the colonial administrations. Afrikaans is a development
of Dutch in South Africa - sufficiently different to be distinguished
from European Dutch as a new language, derived partly from contact
with African and Malayan languages and partly from a period of
separation from Literary Dutch (Nederlands).
In all the independent states of Africa one or more of the
colonial languages usually continues to be the language of government.
One exception is Tanzania where the
founding president, Julius Nyerere, insisted on Swahili being
the official language. Another is Somalia. Mastery of the colonial
language confers status and the opportunity to make money. In
several countries language is an underlying factor of political
conflict. Algeria is a good example
where the elite was educated in French and the masses use Arabic
and Berber. In Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, and probably
some other countries, local languages can be used in Parliament
but most of the administration continues in the Colonial language.
Some smaller languages show signs of dying out. In southern Africa
most of the San languages are in danger of vanishing as the remaining
speakers dwindle in numbers and don't pass them on to the young
and have been driven off their ancestral lands. However, many
of the larger languages, such as Swahili, Lingala, Yoruba and
Every day language use
In many areas of Africa people have to be expert users of several
languages. Thus they may learn the mother tongue in the family
and village but also the languages of neighbours for trade purposes.
In addition most people learn at least a little of the government
Some African languages have spread outside the continent.
Yoruba for example has remained as a ritual language in such
countries as Haiti, Cuba and Brazil within the varieties of African
religion. (A Yoruba from Nigeria understood the language of Cuban
ritual, heard in a tv programme.)