Languages of Africa

The traditional language families spoken in Africa:   Bantu

The languages of Africa are divided into six major language families:

There are several other small families and language isolates, as well as languages that have yet to be classified. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates (see below).

The total number of languages natively spoken in Africa is variously estimated (depending on the delineation of language vs. dialect) at between 1,250 and 2,100,[1] and by some counts at "over 3,000".[2]Nigeria alone has over 500 languages (according to SIL Ethnologue),[3] one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. However, "One of the notable differences between Africa and most other linguistic areas is its relative uniformity. With few exceptions, all of Africa’s languages have been gathered into four major phyla."[4]

Around a hundred languages are widely used for inter-ethnic communication. Arabic, Somali, Berber, Amharic, Oromo, Igbo, Swahili, Hausa, Manding, Fulani and Yoruba are spoken by tens of millions of people. Twelve dialect clusters (which may group up to a hundred linguistic varieties) are spoken by 75 percent, and fifteen by 85 percent, of Africans as a first or additional language.[5] Although many mid-sized languages are used on the radio, in newspapers and in primary-school education, and some of the larger ones are considered national languages, only a few are official at the national level. The African Union declared 2006 the "Year of African Languages".[6]

Language groups

Clickable map showing the traditional language families, subfamilies and major languages spoken in Africa

Most languages spoken in Africa belong to one of three large language families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger–Congo. Another hundred belong to small families such as Ubangian (sometimes grouped within Niger-Congo) and the various families called Khoisan, or the Indo-European and Austronesian language families mainly spoken outside Africa; the presence of the latter two dates to 2,600 and 1,500 years ago, respectively. In addition, the languages of Africa include several unclassified languages and sign languages.

The earliest Afroasiatic languages are associated with the Capsian culture, the Nilo-Saharan languages are linked with the Khartoum Mesolithic/Neolithic, the Niger-Congo languages are correlated with the west and central African hoe-based farming traditions and the Khoisan languages are matched with the south and southeastern Wilton industries.[7] More broadly, the Afroasiatic family is tentatively grouped within the Nostratic superfamily, and the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo phyla form the Niger-Saharan macrophylum.[8]

Afroasiatic languages

Afroasiatic languages are spoken throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia and parts of the Sahel. There are approximately 375 Afroasiatic languages spoken by over 400 million people. The main subfamilies of Afroasiatic are Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian and Semitic. The Afroasiatic Urheimat is uncertain. However, the family's most extensive branch, the Semitic languages (including Arabic, Amharic and Hebrew among others), seems to have developed in the Arabian peninsula. The Semitic languages are now the only branch of Afroasiatic that is spoken outside Africa.[9]

Some of the most widely spoken Afroasiatic languages include Arabic (a Semitic language, and a recent arrival from West Asia), Somali (Cushitic), Berber (Berber), Hausa (Chadic), Amharic (Semitic) and Oromo (Cushitic). Of the world's surviving language families, Afroasiatic has the longest written history, as both the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egyptian are members.

Nilo-Saharan languages

Nilo-Saharan languages consist of a hundred diverse languages. The family has a speech area that stretches from the Nile Valley to northern Tanzania and into Nigeria and DR Congo, with the Songhay languages along the middle reaches of the Niger River as a geographic outlier. Genetic linkage between these languages has not been conclusively demonstrated, and among linguists, support for the proposal is sparse.[10][11] The languages share some unusual morphology, but if they are related, most of the branches must have undergone major restructuring since diverging from their common ancestor. The inclusion of the Songhay languages is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the Koman, Gumuz and Kadu branches.

Some of the better known Nilo-Saharan languages are Kanuri, Fur, Songhay, Nobiin and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes the Luo, Dinka and Maasai. The Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.

Niger–Congo languages

The Niger–Congo languages constitute the largest language family spoken in West Africa and perhaps the world in terms of the number of languages. One of its salient features is an elaborate noun class system with grammatical concord. A large majority of languages of this family are tonal such as Yoruba and Igbo, Ashanti and Ewe language. A major branch of Niger–Congo languages is the Bantu phylum, which has a wider speech area than the rest of the family (see Niger–Congo B (Bantu) in the map above).

The Niger–Kordofanian language family, joining Niger–Congo with the Kordofanian languages of south-central Sudan, was proposed in the 1950s by Joseph Greenberg. Today, linguists often use "Niger–Congo" to refer to this entire family, including Kordofanian as a subfamily. One reason for this is that it is not clear whether Kordofanian was the first branch to diverge from rest of Niger–Congo. Mande has been claimed to be equally or more divergent. Niger–Congo is generally accepted by linguists, though a few question the inclusion of Mande and Dogon, and there is no conclusive evidence for the inclusion of Ubangian.

Other language families

Several languages spoken in Africa belong to language families concentrated or originating outside the African continent.


Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian languages and is the westernmost branch of the family. It is the national and co-official language of Madagascar and one of Malagasy dialects called Bushi is also spoken in Mayotte.

The ancestors of the Malagasy people migrated to Madagascar around 1,500 years ago from Southeast Asia, more specifically the island of Borneo. The origins of how they arrived to Madagascar remains a mystery, however the Austronesians are known for their seafaring culture. Despite the geographical isolation, Malagasy still has strong resemblance to Barito languages especially the Ma'anyan language of southern Borneo.

With more than 20 million speakers, Malagasy is one of the most widely spoken of the Austronesian languages.


Afrikaans is Indo-European, as is most of the vocabulary of most African creole languages. Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch vernacular[12][13] of South Holland (Hollandic dialect)[14][15] spoken by the mainly Dutch settlers of what is now South Africa, where it gradually began to develop distinguishing characteristics in the course of the 18th century.[16] Most Afrikaans speakers live in South Africa. In Namibia it is the lingua franca and in Botswana and Zimbabwe it is a minority language of roughly several ten thousand people. Overall 15 to 20 million people are estimated to speak Afrikaans.

Since the colonial era, Indo-European languages such as Afrikaans, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish have held official status in many countries, and are widely spoken, generally as lingua francas. (See African French and African Portuguese.) German was once used in Germany's colonies there from the late 1800s until World War I, when Britain and France took over and revoked German's official status. Despite this, German is still spoken in Namibia, mostly among the white population. Although it lost its official status in the 1990s, it has been redesignated as a national language. Indian languages such as Gujarati are spoken by South Asian expatriates exclusively. In earlier historical times, other Indo-European languages could be found in various parts of the continent, such as Old Persian and Greek in Egypt, Latin and Vandalic in North Africa and Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa.

Small families

The three small Khoisan families of southern Africa have not been shown to be closely related to any other major language family. In addition, there are various other families that have not been demonstrated to belong to one of these families. (The questionable branches of Nilo-Saharan were covered above, and are not repeated here.)

  • Mande, some 70 languages, including the major languages of Mali and Guinea. These are generally thought to be divergent Niger–Congo, but debate persists.
  • Ubangian, some 70 languages, centered on the languages of the Central African Republic; may be Niger–Congo
  • Khoe, around 10 languages, the primary family of Khoisan languages of Namibia and Botswana
  • Sandawe, an isolate of Tanzania, possibly related to Khoe
  • Kx'a, a language of Southern Africa
  • Tuu, or Taa-ǃKwi, two surviving languages
  • Hadza, an isolate of Tanzania
  • Bangime, a likely isolate of Mali
  • Jalaa, a likely isolate of Nigeria
  • Laal, a possible isolate of Chad

Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by around 300,000–400,000 people. There are five Khoisan families that have not been shown to be related to each other: Khoe, Tuu and Kx'a, which are found mainly in Namibia and Botswana, as well as Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, which are language isolates. A striking feature of Khoisan languages, and the reason they are often grouped together, is their use of click consonants. Some neighbouring Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) have clicks as well, but these were adopted from Khoisan languages. The Khoisan languages are also tonal.

Creole languages

Due partly to its multilingualism and its colonial past, a substantial proportion of the world's creole languages are to be found in Africa. Some are based on Indo-European languages (e.g. Krio from English in Sierra Leone and the very similar Pidgin in Nigeria; Ghana and parts of Cameroon; Cape Verdean Creole in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau Creole in Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, all from Portuguese; Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles and Mauritian Creole in Mauritius, both from French); some are based on Arabic (e.g. Juba Arabic in the southern Sudan, or Nubi in parts of Uganda and Kenya); some are based on local languages (e.g. Sango, the main language of the Central African Republic); while in Cameroon a creole based on French, English and local African languages known as Camfranglais has started to become popular.

Unclassified languages

A fair number of unclassified languages are reported in Africa. Many remain unclassified simply for lack of data; among the better-investigated ones that continue to resist easy classification are:

Of these, Jalaa is perhaps the most likely to be an isolate.

Less-well investigated languages include Irimba, Luo, Mawa, Rer Bare (possibly Bantu), Bete (evidently Jukunoid), Bung (unclear), Kujarge (evidently Chadic), Lufu (Jukunoid), Meroitic (possibly Afroasiatic), Oropom (possibly spurious) and Weyto (evidently Cushitic). Several of these are extinct, and adequate comparative data is thus unlikely to be forthcoming. Hombert & Philippson (2009)[17] list a number of African languages that have been classified as language isolates at one point or another. Many of these are simply unclassified, but Hombert & Philippson believe Africa has about twenty language families, including isolates. Beside the possibilities listed above, there are:

Roger Blench notes a couple additional possibilities:

Sign languages

Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, Ethiopian Sign Language. Other sign languages are restricted to small areas or single villages, such as Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana. Tanzania has seven, one for each of its schools for the Deaf, all of which are discouraged. Not much is known, since little has been published on these languages

Sign language systems extant in Africa include the Paget Gorman Sign System used in Namibia and Angola, the Sudanese Sign languages used in Sudan and South Sudan, the Arab Sign languages used across the Arab Mideast, the Francosign languages used in Francophone Africa and other areas such as Ghana and Tunisia, and the Tanzanian Sign languages used in Tanzania.