Article 11 of the Protocol on Amendments to the Constitutive Act of the African Union states the The official languages of the Union and all its institutions shall be Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Kiswahili and any other African language.
Africa – More Languages than any other Continent
If you were to embark on a trip across Africa, you’d want to know that English is spoken in the Commonwealth countries; French; in the Francophone countries, and Arabic, in the north and along the eastern coast.
You’d find Cushitic languages like Amharic and Oromo around Ethiopia; and Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa, in west Africa.
That’s the short version.
But Africa is as large as the U.S., India, China, and most of Europe – combined. It is as complex a linguistic area as it is vast, comprising more languages than any other continent.
Indeed, no one knows just how many languages there are.
image credit: AfricanGlobe.net
Low estimates suggest a thousand; high estimates, three thousand. Taking the high estimate, Africa has ten times as many languages as Europe, with fewer than twice the number of people.
As dialects go, estimates have ranged as high as eight thousand.
In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages. And several African languages are whistled, to communicate over long distances.
If Africa has – as many believe – indeed been home to human beings for longer than any other continent, then that’s a key factor in language evolution. “There’s just been a lot of time for cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, genetic diversity to accumulate in Africa,” geneticist Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania has explained to Language Magazine.
Many of Africa’s languages have never been recorded or written down – even though ancient African writing is the oldest system of writing in the world (pre-dating Greek by at least 2,000 years). Africa’s history is tumultuous, to say the least, and that’s been just as true in modern times. The writing of Oromo, the most popular language in Ethiopia, was forbidden between 1974 and 1991 under the Mengistu regime, even though limited usage of the Ge’ez script was allowed. The language adopted the Latin alphabet after 1991.
Very few of Africa’s languages are spoken by large numbers of people. It’s often difficult to tell where one language ends and the next begins, or to decide whether varieties are dialects of the same language or are different languages.
Nigeria alone has 250 languages, one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. Zaire counts more than 200 languages; Tanzania is home to more than 120.
But even in these cases, we can identify the most popular languages. In Nigeria, they are English, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. More than 90 percent of Tanzania’s people speak Swahili as a second language. In Zaire, French is the official language and is used for international purposes. Swahili (22 percent) and Luba (19 percent) have special status, and are widely used as lingua francas.
Some classification is possible. By the 1960s, four main families of African languages had been recognized.
- Afroasiatic languages are found mainly in the northern regions of Africa, including northern Nigeria, southern Niger, and Somalia; and in the North African countries.
- 200-300 member languages.
- Semitic (Arabic, Amharic – the official language of Ethiopia and the second most spoken language in the country after Oromo), Cushitic (Somali, with 20 million speakers, and Oromo, spoken by about 30 million), Berber (Tamazight), Chadic (Hausa).
- About five percent of Africans speak a Berber dialect, and another five percent speak Hausa, a West African lingua franca.
- Hausa is the Chadic language with the largest number of speakers, spoken as a first language by some 44 million people and as a second language by another 20 million.
- Nilo-Saharan languages are found in eastern and northeastern Africa. This group encompasses an area from southern Egypt to northern Tanzania and into Nigeria and Congo, centered on Sudan and Chad.
- 80-140 member languages.
- The Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal. Some of the better known are Kanuri, Songhay, Nubian, and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes Luo, Dinka, and Maasai.
- Niger-Congo languages cover west, central, and southeast Africa. This is the largest group in terms of the number of languages (1,350 – 1,650). Within this group, the largest sub-group is Benue-Congo, with 800 languages spoken throughout central and southern Africa by 150 million people.
- Groups together languages with an elaborate noun class system. The vast majority are tonal, such as Igbo (spoken by over 20 million people) and Yoruba (more than 30 million).
- A major branch is the Bantu family, which incorporates between 300 and 500 languages and covers a greater geographic area than the rest of the family put together.
- One of the characteristics of the Bantu languages is lack of articles and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter). The nouns in these tongues are grouped into ‘classes.’
- This family includes Shona (more than ten million speakers), Zulu (more than ten million speakers), Chichewa (official language of Malawi, with more than six million speakers), and Rwanda and Rundi (about eight million each).
- Rwanda is also called Ruanda or Kinyarwanda, spoken primarily in Rwanda, and to a lesser extent in Burundi – which speaks the related Kirundi – Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania).
- Shona is the most spoken language in Zimbabwe.
- The Bantu family also includes Swahili, one of Africa’s most widely spoken indigenous languages, and Xhosa, whose click consonants have been made famous by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.
- The most important non-Bantu languages – Edo, Efik, Fula, Idoma, Igbo, Nupe, Tiv, and Yoruba – are in Nigeria and Benin.
- Wolof, the language of Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania, is another important non-Bantu language.
- Khoisan languages are found mainly in southern Africa. This family is concentrated on the deserts of Namibia and Botswana, in an area around the Kalahari Desert from Angola to South Africa. The term covers 40-70 languages spoken by about 400,000 people, but the five families have not been shown to be related to each other. The name is a compound deriving from the name of the largest Hottentot group (the Khoi-Khoin) and that of the Bushmen in the Nama region of Namibia (the San).
- Few of these languages have more than a thousand speakers, and numbers everywhere are believed to be diminishing. Only Kwadi (Angola, 10,000) and Sandawe (Tanzania, 50,000) have substantial numbers.
- Khoisan languages are tonal and use click consonants, as do some neighboring Bantu languages.
The American linguist Joseph Greenberg later added another two major linguistic families:
- Austronesian on Madagascar.
- Indo-European on the Southern tip of the continent.
One might also add the Creole languages, spoken in the Seychelles and a term sometimes used to describe Afrikaans). Afrikaans, a West Germanic language and derivative of Dutch, is spoken by up to ten million people in the Republic of South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It is a derivative of the language which was brought by settlers in the 17th century. As a result of its contact with local African languages, it shows many differences from European Dutch. Afrikaans is one of the eleven official languages in South Africa, and most South Africans can speak more than one language.
There are a fair number of unclassified languages reported in Africa; several of which are extinct.
As is obvious, these classifications are extremely tentative, based on a sadly inadequate comparison of the relatively small number of features from those languages which have been analyzed.
Linguists generally agree that it would be a massive step to move from here to hypotheses about the historical relationship of these languages to each other.
Nor is it easy to find characteristics which unite all African languages; though certain features are typical of certain areas, such as click and implosive consonants, not commonly encountered outside Africa.
As a consequence of all of the above, Africa is a continent of lingua francas, both within and between nations.
There are more than a dozen African countries where English is an official language. Of the former colonial languages, French is common as well, with twenty-six African states forming Francophone Africa. An estimated 120 million French speakers use the language as their mother tongue or secondary language. Portuguese (the official language of six African states) and Spanish (particularly in Equatorial Guinea) also see use.
Of 2005’s estimated 890 million Africans, about 17 percent speak an Arabic dialect. Arabic is the official language in 12 African countries, and the second-most spoken language in Africa.
Ten percent speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeastern Africa. Swahili (or Kiswahili) is used throughout much of East Africa, in an area comparable in size to most of Europe. The name, “Swahili,” comes from the plural of the Arabic word sawahil (“coast”). Ki- is the prefix attached to nouns in the noun class that includes language, so Kiswahili means “coastal language.”
Swahili is an official language in five African countries and is spoken in Tanzania, Burundi, Congo (Kinshasa), Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, and Uganda. Around five million people speak Swahili as a native language. Further, up to 135 million speak it as a second language.
Swahili is said to be the easiest African language for an English speaker to learn. It is heavily influenced by Arabic and Indo-European languages such as Portuguese, German, English, and French. It’s one of the few sub-Saharan African languages that have no lexical tone, just as in English. Its words are read just the way they are written. Swahili also has simple grammar structures and vocabulary that is fairly easy to remember.