African languages: Niger-Kordofanian

The Niger-Kordofanian family has two branches, Niger-Congo and Kordofanian. The Kordofanian tongues are spoken in Sudan and form five small groups (Koalib, Tegali, Talodi, Tumtum, and Katla). Niger-Congo is an enormous branch whose languages are found throughout S and central Africa and in most of W Africa below the Sahara. It is generally subdivided into six groups: West Atlantic; Mande; Gur, or Voltaic; Kwa; Benue-Congo; and Adamawa-Eastern.

The West Atlantic branch includes many languages, among them Wolof (in Senegal), Temne (in Sierra Leone), and Fulani, the tongue of several million people inhabiting an area from Senegal to a region E of Lake Chad. The Mande group consists of languages prevalent in the Niger valley, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, such as Mende in Liberia and Malinke in Mali. Gur, or Voltaic, is made up of several language groups and includes Mossi, the dominant tongue of Burkina Faso, as well as the Dagomba and Mamprusi of N Ghana. The Kwa languages, spoken chiefly in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, and Liberia, include Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Nupe, Bini, Ashanti, and possibly Ijo (which is sometimes considered a separate branch). Benue-Congo includes the huge Bantu group of hundreds of tongues found throughout central and S Africa (see Bantu languages ), as well as such non-Bantu languages as Tiv, Jukun, and Efik, which are spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon. The Adamawa-Eastern branch, to which Banda, Zande, and Sango belong, is composed of a number of languages spoken in Nigeria, Cameroon, and an area north of the Bantu territory to Sudan.

A characteristic feature of most of the Niger-Congo languages is the use of tones. Case inflection is entirely lacking, and gender marking is almost unknown in the Niger-Congo family. The verb root tends to remain unchanged; moods and tenses are denoted either by particles or by auxiliary verbs. For example, in a number of languages the infinitival is the auxiliary designating the future. Typical of the Niger-Kordofanian stock as a whole is the division of nouns, which has been compared to the gender system of the Indo-European tongues. However, Indo-European features only three classifications (masculine, feminine, and neuter), whereas some of the Niger-Kordofanian languages have as many as 20 noun classes. One class, for example, designates human beings, another is used for liquids, and a third class is used for animals. Each class has its own pair of affixes to indicate the singular and the plural.

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

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Language and Linguistics