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African languages

Introduction

African languages, geographic rather than linguistic classification of languages spoken on the African continent. Historically the term refers to the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, which do not belong to a single family, but are divided among several distinct linguistic stocks. It is estimated that more than 800 languages are spoken in Africa; however, they belong to comparatively few language families. Some 50 African languages have more than half a million speakers each, but many others are spoken by relatively few people. Tonality is a common feature of indigenous African languages. There are usually two or three tones (based on pitch levels rather than the rising and falling in inflections of Chinese tones) used to indicate semantic or grammatical distinction.

In the last few decades great strides have been made in the study and classification of the African languages, although the results are still far from definitive. The principal linguistic families of Africa are now generally said to be Afroasiatic; Niger-Kordofanian (including Niger-Congo); Nilo-Saharan; and Khoisan, or Click; two other stocks, Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian, are also represented. Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan are two large families of languages spoken exclusively in Africa. These languages are spoken in all parts of the continent, from the extreme south up to the territory of the Afroasiatic languages of N Africa. The Afroasiatic family is also spoken in the Middle East. Some authorities believe that the languages spoken in the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan families are sufficiently similar to suggest that both stocks had the same ancestor language.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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