A look at linguistic groups on the continent of Africa
Language: a system of communication used by a particular country or community.
Africa is a continent that boasts a wealth of different cultures, ethnicities, and languages. If you were to guess, how many languages would you say are spoken on the continent of Africa?
Take a wild guess.
Would you believe that between the 54 countries on the continent, over 2000 living languages are present? From the Oshiwambo language of Northern Namibia and Southern Angola, the Ewe language of Togo and Ghana or the Tigrinya language of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Language is such a riveting way to immerse yourself in a culture.
We are all aware of linguistic grouping within Europe: Slavic languages, Romantic languages, Latin languages etc. But how familiar are we with the linguistic groupings in Africa? There are 4 main linguistic groups in Africa, and they are further subdivided into smaller groups or families. These groups are:
Linguistic map of Africa
There are also many unofficial dialects that are spoken which don’t often fit neatly into any one linguistic group. As well as this, the linguistic picture of Africa was changed during the European occupation of the continent, thus making it even harder to group certain languages discretely.
Afro-Asiatic languages, also known as Hamito-Semitic languages, are spoken across Western Asia and North Africa. Named for its shared roots in Africa and Asia, this group is comprised of more than 300 languages, some of which date back to approximately 3400 BC (over 5400 years!) It is separated into 6 major branches: Semitic, Cushitic, Berber, Egyptian, Chadic and Omotic. Prominent languages in this group are:
This linguistic group is thought to be derived from areas in East Africa, both east and north of Lake Victoria, extending as far west as the Niger Valley in western Africa. It is comprised of around 160 languages, and the speakers of these languages span from northern Nigeria to Western Ethiopia. Like most African languages, these languages are tonal, giving them distinct vowel and consonant sounds in comparison to European languages. Prominent languages in this grouping include:
A group of Sudanese men. Parts of Sudan feature Nilo-Saharan languages.
The Niger-Congo language group is the largest linguistic group in Africa, comprised of over 1400 languages. It is reported that around 85% of Africans speak a language derived from the Niger-Congo linguistic group, at least 600 million people! Its speakers span areas demarcated by the Niger River and the Congo River, and this may be a reason for the name of this linguistic group. Due to the vastness of this linguistic group, it can be further sub-divided into smaller groups that share similar traits (such as Niger-Congo A and Niger-Congo B, among other separations). Prominent languages in this group include:
A Yoruba woman in traditional dress
The Khoi-San linguistic group is mostly centred in southern Africa, with a cluster of speakers in eastern Africa. This group of languages are some of the most distinct in the world, as they incorporate clicking sounds, making them instantly recognisable. This linguistic trait has spread to some of the Niger-Congo languages and the Afro-Asiatic languages (Xhosa, as an example), though it is thought to originate to the Khoi-San linguistic group. Outside of Africa, very few languages incorporate the click sound, making it a unique trait of the African continent. Despite its interesting sound, these languages are quickly becoming endangered, as their speakers experience marginalisation and as a result, speak in the more commonly spoken languages. Prominent languages in this group include:
-Khoekhoe (also known as Khoekhoegowab, Nàmá or Damara)
Namibian desert. Many of the Khoi-San langugaes are spoken in proximity to this area.
There is so much linguistic life for the Diaspora to explore and engage with. In 2006, the African Union declared the year to be the Year of the African Language, but we believe that a passion for African Linguistics cannot be confined to a single year; it must be an ongoing process within us and our communities to learn more about our languages and where they came from. Language is an excellent way to relate to culture, as the two are often deeply connected. Much of the details surrounding these linguistics groups and the languages within them are beyond the scope of a single blog post, but we strongly encourage you to learn more about your language group, and the history that is embedded in it.
Was your language listed above? Is there anyone around you who speaks the language relating to your people group or country? Are you in a community that speaks a language you are interested in exploring? Do your parents speak a language you are somewhat unfamiliar with? Reach out to them and ask them to teach you a few words or phrases and grow in your language abilities.
Comment the name of your language down below and connect with others who speak your language!