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, and by some counts at “over 3,000”.Nigeria alone has over 500 languages (according to SIL Ethnologue), 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.”
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. 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”
Want to enter the African market? Does your product/service tailor to one of the largest continents in the world? It’s time to consider translating and localizing your content. There are over 2000 African languages in existence so it can be quite mind-boggling trying to nail down which one you should choose to offer your product or service in. Luckily enough, we’ve listed the 10 most popular languages spoken in Africa…
This list of languages is not in any particular order.
The most spoken language in Africa is Swahili which is said to have between 100 and 150 million speakers. Known as a ‘Bantu’ language, Swahili apparently originated from other languages like Arabic. This is the official language of Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenya, but it is also used in countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, southern Somalia, northern Mozambique, and the Comoros Islands. Swahili is the main medium of instruction in schools and it’s not considered a difficult language to learn, especially if you already know some Arabic.
Fun Fact? Swahili was the language used in The Lion King. Remember ‘Hakuna Matata’? That means no worries in Swahili and ‘Simba’ means ‘lion’!
Amharic is one of the main languages spoken in Ethiopia by over 20 million speakers. It is considered the second most-spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic – these are languages that originate from the Middle East alongside Hebrew, Tigrinya and more. Amharic is written using the very unique Ge’ez writing system known as ‘fidel’.
Fun Fact? The capital of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa – this means “new flower” in Amharic.
There are over 30 million Yoruba speakers in Nigeria, Benin and Togo combined, making it one of West Africa’s most spoken languages. This African language has more than 15 dialects including Ekiti, Ijebu, Oworo, Ijesha and Akoko.
Fun Fact? The name Yoruba is also associated with the Yoruba Ethnic Group, which is one of the largest African ethnic groups in the region.
A significant language spoken in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Egypt is Oromo. Approximately 30 million people use this language and its people account for over 40% of the Ethiopian population. Believe it or not, the Oromos people were forbidden from writing this language between 1974 and 1991. In fact, it was considered a crime. Later however, Oromo scholars adopted a Latin script and it was then used to teach reading and writing.
Fun Fact? The Oromo language is actually called Afaan Oromoo.
As one of Nigeria’s official languages, Hausa has over 40 million speakers around the continent. It is also spoken in countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Germany, Ghana, Niger, Sudan, Togo, and a lot of North Africa. Hausa uses the Boko and Latin alphabet and it is said to be one of the most advanced languages in Africa as a whole.
Fun Fact? Hausa is the only Nigerian language that has foreign station broadcasts. These include the BBC, Voice of Russia, and Radio France Internationale.
Alongside Nigeria, IGBO is also spoken in countries like Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. This popular African language is spoken by 20 million people and it has over 20 individual dialects including Owerri, Eche, and of course, Central Igbo. Most Igbo speakers are said to be bilingual in English as it is the principal literary language taught in Nigerian schools.
Fun Fact? The IGBO language gained prominence from Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” and whose majority of books were written in IGBO.
One of the most widely spoken languages of South Africa, Zulu is said to be used by over 10 million people. Part of the Bantu language group, Zulu is very much related to other languages including Xhosa and Ndebele. As a matter of fact, Zulu and Xhosa have such similar dialects, that many wrongly mistake them for being one language.
Fun Fact? “Zulu” is not only a language, it is also the largest Ethnic group in South Africa.
Most prominently spoken in Zimbabwe along with English, Shona is an African language used by over 10 million people. There are 3 distinct Shona dialects including the Karanga, the Zezuru, and the Korekore. Stemming from the Bantu/Nguni language family, Shona uses the Latin script in its writing system.
Fun Fact? There are two different versions of Shona used for different purposes. A “low” variety of the language is used on a more casual basis like at home, while the “high” variety is used when praying.
Spoken by 280 million people worldwide, Arabic is also used by people in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia and Eritrea. There is Modern Standard Arabic which is mainly used in communication with most Arabic speakers. This is the dialect used to write the language and is present in media and books. Classical Arabic, on the other hand, is mainly used to learn the language in an academic way.
Fun Fact? Arabic is one of the six most spoken languages in the world!
Did you know that Portuguese is the official language of six African states? Known as “Lusophone Africa”, these states include Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe, and Equatorial Guinea. Portuguese is used as a mother tongue by approximately 14 million people on this continent and it is said that there are around 30 million people who use it as a second language.
Fun Fact? Portuguese is actually the working language of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community.
There are 26 African states that makeup “Francophone Africa”. The top French-speaking countries in this continent include Gabon, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Sao Tome e Principe. Apart from these, French is also spoken in North African countries including Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Overall, French is spoken by over 120 million people in Africa.
Fun Fact? It is expected that there will be over 700 million French speakers in the world by 2050 – 80% will be located in Africa.
About a hundred languages of Africa are widely used for inter-ethnic communication.
The high linguistic diversity of many African countries (Nigeria alone has 250 languages, one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world) has made language policy a vital issue in the post-colonial era. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance. Language policies being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism. For example, all African languages are considered official languages of the African Union (AU). 2006 was declared by the African Union as the “Year of African Languages”. However, 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.
Some of the most widely spoken Afroasiatic languages include Arabic (Semitic), Amharic (Semitic), Somali (Cushitic), Oromo (Cushitic), Tamazight (Berber), and Hausa (Chadic). Of the world’s surviving language families, Afroasiatic has the longest written history, as both Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian are members.
Nilo-Saharan is extremely diverse and thus a somewhat controversial grouping uniting over a hundred languages from southern Egypt 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. 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 Songhai languages is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the Koman, Gumuz, and Kadu branches.
The Niger-Congo language family is the largest group of Africa (and probably of the world) in terms of the number of languages. One of its salient features is an elaborate noun class system with grammatical concord. The vast majority of languages of this family are tonal such as Yoruba and Igbo. A major branch of Niger-Congo languages is the Bantu family, which covers a greater geographic area than the rest of the family put together (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 the 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, Dogon, and Ubangian.
Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by about 300,000 – 400,000 people. There are five Khoisan families which have not been shown to be related to each other. They are found mainly in Namibia and Botswana. Two geographic outliers are Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, which are language isolates.
A striking and unusual feature of Khoisan languages is their use of click consonants. Some neighboring Bantu languages (notably Xhosa and Zulu) have clicked as well, but these were adopted from Khoisan languages. The Khoisan languages are tonal.
Other language families
Austronesian and Indo-European
Several languages spoken in Africa belong to language families concentrated or originating outside of the African continent: Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, is an Austronesian language. Afrikaans is Indo-European, as are the lexifiers of most African creoles (Afrikaans is the only Indo-European language developed in Africa from the colonial era).
Throughout the long multilingual history of the African continent, African languages have been subject to phenomena like language contact, language expansion, language shift, and language death. A case in point is the Bantu expansion, in which Bantu-speaking peoples expanded over most of Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby displacing Khoi-San-speaking peoples in much of East Africa. Another example is the Islamic expansion in the 7th century AD, which led to the extension of Arabic to much of North Africa.
Trade languages are another age-old phenomenon in the African linguistic landscape. Cultural and linguistic innovations spread along trade routes and languages of peoples dominant in trade developed into languages of wider communication (linguae francae). Of particular importance in this respect are Jula (western West Africa), Fulfulde (West Africa, mainly across the Sahel), Hausa (eastern West Africa), Lingala (Congo), Swahili (East Africa) and Arabic (North Africa and the Horn of Africa).
After gaining independence, many African countries, in the search for national unity, selected one language (generally the former colonial language) to be used in government and education. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the importance of linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.
Official languages – in many African countries there are several official languages.
Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, only a few languages are official at the national level. These are:
The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884-5 divided a great many ethnic groups and African language speaking communities. In a sense, then, “cross-border languages” is a misnomer. Nevertheless it describes the reality of many African languages, which has implications for divergence of language on either side of a border (especially when the official languages are different), standards for writing the language, etc.
Language is not static in Africa any more than in other world regions. In addition to the (probably modest) impact of borders, there are also cases of dialect levelling (such as in Igbo and probably many others), koinés (such as N’Ko and possibly Runyakitara), and the emergence of new dialects (such as Sheng). In some countries, there are official efforts to develop standardized language versions.
Of the 890 million Africans (as of 2005), about 17% speak an Arabic dialect. About 10% speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeastern Africa, about 5% speak a Berber dialect, and about 5% speak Hausa, a West African lingua franca. Other important West African languages are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Northeast African languages are Oromo and Somali. Important South African languages are Zulu and Afrikaans (related to Dutch). English, French and Portuguese are important languages: 130, 115 and 20 million speak them as secondary in general.
List of major African languages (by a total number of speakers in millions):
Some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in Africa, whereas others seem less common. Such shared traits probably are not due to a common origin of all African languages. Instead, some may be due to language contact (resulting in borrowing) and specific idioms and phrases may be due to a similar cultural background.
Tonal languages are found throughout the world but are especially numerous in Africa. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The large majority of the Niger-Congo languages is also tonal. Tonal languages are also found in the Omotic, Chadic, and South & East Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic. The most common type of tonal system opposes two tone levels, High (H) and Low (L). Contour tones do occur, and can often be analysed as two or more tones in succession on a single syllable. Tone melodies play an important role, meaning that it is often possible to state significant generalizations by separating tone sequences (‘melodies’) from the segments that bear them. Tonal sandhi processes like tone spread, tone shift, and downstep and downdrift are common in African languages.
Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb ‘to surpass’.
Quite often, only one term is used for both animal and meat; the word nama or nyama for animal/meat is particularly widespread in otherwise widely divergent African languages.
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