Languages of Africa



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.

West Africa
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.

East Africa
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 and Kenya.

Central Africa
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 exist?

Southern Africa
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.

North Africa
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 Pidgin, 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.

Colonial languages
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 Hausa flourish.

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 language.

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.)

Daniel Nettle - Linguistic Diversity

Linguistic Diversity (Oxford Linguistics)

Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages

Ces langues, ces voix qui

For varieties of Nigerian English see the books by Amos Tutuola on the Nigeria page

Google on languages

Bantu languages

Useful site on classification

European languages



World Info


Last revised 11/12/11

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