The Languages of Africa

Updated September 9, 2022 | Colin Rugg

What do people speak in Africa?

Lagos is the capital of Nigeria, a country with over 500 native languages.

European languages are official in most African countries, due to their colonial history. When characters are shown speaking native African languages in Western media, it is almost always Swahili or a clicking language (like Xhosa). But, there are hundreds of languages that are commonly spoken in Africa to this day. Here is the breakdown of some of them:

African Language Families

The modern understanding of African languages is based on Joseph H. Greenberg's methodological classification system. This hypothesis grouped the major languages of Africa into four phyla, which were based exclusively on linguistic similarities. This system disregarded culture groups, claiming they were insignificant in the identification of language families. The four phyla identified in Greenberg's mass survey were the Afroasiatic Languages, the Niger-Congo Languages, the Nilo-Saharan Languages, and the Khoisan Languages.

Though there has been some debate in the linguistic community about the validity of these categories, they remain an important point of reference for the study of African Languages.


1. Afroasiatic Languages

The Afroasiatic languages are spoken by over 350 million people in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in language communities throughout the Caucasus, Europe, and the United States. This language phylum is composed of six language families: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Semitic, as well as two extinct languages of Pharaonic Egypt.

Many of these languages were already identified as closely related by 1876, when Austrian linguist Friedrich Müller proposed a connection between the Semitic, Cushitic, Egyptian, and Berber languages, which he grouped into a proposed Hamito-Semitic language family. In 1950, Joseph Greenberg identified similarities between the Hamito-Semitic languages and Chadic languages like Oromo and Somali and grouped them together to form the larger Afroasiatic language phylum.

The Semitic Language Family

The Semitic branch is the most influential African language family outside of its native continent, having produced the Hebrew and Arabic languages, both of which are widely spoken as the liturgical languages of Judaism and Islam, respectively. The ancestor of the Semitic languages is also notable for the development of a writing system that served as the ancestor of the Latin Alphabet used in English and at least 100 other languages as well as the writing systems of Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Arabic was carried throughout much of Africa by the spread of Islam and is now widely spoken as an official language throughout North Africa in the states of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, as well as in Mauritania, Sudan, and Somalia. According to the CIA World Factbook, Arabic is tied with French as the fifth most spoken language in the world, used as a native language by 3.6% of the world's population. However, the widest diversity of Semitic languages is found on the Horn of Africa, including the Tigrinya, Amharic, Gurage, and Ge'ez languages spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Chadic Language Family

The Chadic languages make up the largest branch of the Afroasiatic language phylum, and are spoken in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and The Republic of Chad. The Chadic languages are extremely diverse, with more than 150 languages spoken throughout the region, many with unique grammatical and typological features. Many of these languages are endangered and infrequently studied, though the largest member of the language family, Hausa, is spoken by more than 20 million people in Northern Nigeria and has been well documented by linguists.


2. Niger-Congo

The Niger-Congo language phylum is one of the largest and most diverse language families in the world, spanning over 5,000 kilometers of desert, rainforest, and grassland from the Sahara in northern Senegal to the southern tip of South Africa. This broad distribution put many members of this language family in direct contact with other language groups, producing the Niger-Congo language family's wide linguistic diversity. These languages are so diverse, in fact, that many linguists disagree about which languages belong in the Niger-Congo group and which have merely been influenced by their presence across the continent. Nevertheless, there are several core features and language groups that are generally accepted as exemplary of this language family.

Most Niger-Congo languages are tonal, meaning the pitch of each syllable is as significant to the meaning of the word as its vowels and consonants. In addition, these languages feature a rich system of grammatical classification, which treats nouns differently depending on their characteristics. Language families within the Niger-Congo phylum include the Benue-Congo languages of southern Nigeria, the Bantu languages of southern Africa, and the Atlantic Group found throughout the northwest of sub-Saharan Africa. Examples of influential Atlantic Niger-Congo languages include the Fula and Igbo languages spoken widely throughout West Africa, the Ewe language of Togo and Ghana, and Yoruba, widely used in Nigeria and Benin and as a liturgical language for the African diaspora in the Caribbean.

The Bantu Languages and Swahili

While it is difficult to trace a history of the entire Niger-Congo language phylum, the Bantu languages have a widely accepted history based largely on linguistic evidence. This theory suggests a widespread southward migration of Neolithic Niger-Congo speakers to the modern range of the Bantu languages across twenty-seven countries from Cameroon to South Africa. The migration of these languages mirror the spread of the earliest farming traditions, which spread southward before settling down with little movement since the Early Iron Age.

The most influential member of the Bantu language family is Swahili, which spread across the Swahili coast of East Africa as a mercantile language. The development of Swahili as a lingua franca allowed the communities of East Africa to join the trade networks across the Indian Ocean as active participants, instead of relying on seafaring Arab merchants. Over time, these communities became deeply influenced by the Arabian and Persian traders who would would trade with, immigrate to, or conquer the trade capitals of East Africa.

This cultural influence extended to the Swahili language, which used Arabic script for much of its history and adopted a large number of Arabic loanwords, including the word "Swahili," derived from the Arabic word for coast: sahil. Through its interaction with Arabic-speaking populations, Swahili lost the use of tones common to most Bantu and Niger-Congo languages but unseen in Arabic.

Swahili remains influential today as an official language in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, and is a recognized minority language in Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique. In addition, it is recognized as a lingua franca by the East African Community, a regional intergovernmental organization.

Other Bantu Languages include the Xhosa and Zulu languages, two languages famous for their large number of click consonants developed through their extended interaction with the Khoisan languages of Southern Africa. Both Xhosa and Zulu are an official languages in South Africa and Lesotho. The Shona and Ndebele languages of Zimbabwe and Kikuyu in Kenya are are also members of the Bantu family.


3. Nilo-Saharan Languages

The Nilo-Saharan Language is the most controversial of Greenberg's four hypothesized language phyla, since there had been no academic literature to support the grouping of these languages prior to Greenberg's analysis in 1955. Nevertheless, subsequent linguistic reviews in the late 1990s have supported a genetic relationship between the languages in this group.

The Nilo-Saharan languages are difficult to place because of their geographic fragmentation and relatively isolated development in pockets across Central Africa. These language groups include the Songhay languages spoken mainly along the Niger River in northeast Mali and western Niger; the B'aga and Koman languages of Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan; the Central Sudanic languages of Central Africa; and the Northeastern Nilo-Saharan languages.


4. Khoisan: "Click Languages"

During his survey of African languages, Greenberg grouped the Khoisan languages together based almost entirely on the presence of click consonants. The reliance on a single typological feature as evidence of a genetic relationship led South African linguist Ernst Westphal to propose the group be split into seven unrelated language families.

Modern linguists agree that there is not enough evidence to support the existence of a Khoisan language phylum, instead grouping these languages into the Tuu, Ju-Hoan, Khoe-Kwadi, Sandawe, and Hadza language families. Despite this, the term Khoisan is still widely used as an informal name to describe these unrelated languages as a single unit.

Research has challenged the idea of click consonants as a central feature of a language, instead suggesting that these sounds are areal phenomenons--features shared within a geographic region. This is supported by the existence of clicks in Xhosa and Zulu, two well-documented Bantu languages that developed in frequent contact with languages traditionally categorized as Khoisan. There is also evidence of languages within this group borrowing click consonants from neighboring languages, or losing click consonants altogether.


The Legacy of Colonialism: European Languages, Pidgins, and Creoles

Beginning in the late 1800s, most of Africa was invaded and occupied by European empire during a period commonly known as the Scramble for Africa. This period of colonization had immense implications for the continent, including its linguistic landscape.

At the Conference of Berlin in 1884, the European occupiers formalized borders which disrupted historical linguistic communities both by isolating them from similar languages and by forcing interaction with unrelated languages. The Europeans' disregard for the cultural and linguistic diversity meant that enslaved people from disparate backgrounds had to develop new ways to communicate with one another.

During this period, many of the enslaved people of Africa developed pidgins, a simplified form of communication developed to interact with speakers of another language. These pidgin languages would use a simplified grammar and borrowed vocabulary from other languages, both borrowing from other African languages and European languages. There was also a strong incentive to learn the language of the colonizer, because clear communication with the foreign power could result in preferential treatment and reduce the risk of violence due to miscommunication. European propaganda depicting African cultures as uncivilized also produced a sense of prestige around speaking European languages.

In areas where sustained communication between multiple linguistic communities remained commonplace, pidgin languages would often develop into creole languages, which become more grammatically complex and are now passed down to new generations as a first language. Modern examples of creole languages developed during the Scramble for Africa are still spoken in West Africa, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, the Republic of the Seychelles, and the islands of Mauritius, Cape Verde and Saõ Tome. Some scholars include Afrikaans as an African creole developed to simplify communication between the Dutch settlers in South Africa with the indigenous communities and British colonists in the region.

After the decolonization of Africa, the legacy of colonialism still had a significant impact on the linguistic landscape of the continent. Newly independent countries were still defined by colonial borders that included multiple ethnic groups, each with their own language. In order to avoid conflict, many of these countries chose to continue using European languages as an official language. As a result, European languages, especially French, English, and Portuguese, are learned across Africa as a second language.

Today, French is the official language of 34 African countries from Niger to the Central African Republic. It is commonly spoken as a second language alongside indigenous languages, though many urban communities in Cameroon and Gabon have adopted French as a first language.

English is spoken as an official language in 24 African countries, including Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Botswana, Namibia, and Nigeria.

Portuguese is spoken as the official language of Angola and Mozambique.

While Spain played a prominent role in the first age of European Colonialism in the Americas, they were much less involved in the Scramble for Africa, a fact that is reflected in the linguistic map of the continent. The only African country with Spanish as an official language is Equatorial Guinea, where it is co-official with Portuguese, French, and English.


Sources: African Languages: An Introduction from Cambridge University Press; The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics; The Cambridge Handbook of African Linguistics; Africa Meets Europe: Language Contact in West Africa by George Echu; The Cradle of Language Chapter 11 by Bonny Sands and Tom Guldemann; The Story of Swahili by John M. Mugane

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