Languages of Africa

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The languages of Africa include more than 3,000 languages. These languages include native languages (languages that come from Africa) and colonial languages, which were brought to Africa by colonists from Europe. The continent has the highest concentration of languages in the world. [1] At least 30% of the world's languages come from and are spoken in Africa. [2]

Over the years, many African languages have died out and become extinct. This happens for several reasons, including wars and genocide by other African tribes.[3][4] Other languages were abandoned, or its speakers disappeared.[3]

Organization[change | change source]

A map showing the six traditional language families in Africa.

There are more than 3,000 languages spoken in Africa.[5] These languages are grouped into several major language families. Linguists do not agree about which groupings are "correct" and valid.


Most linguists[6] organize the African languages into four major language families. These are:

This classification of languages is based on the research of the linguist Joseph Greenberg, who published The Languages of Africa in 1963.[6]


The African languages were traditionally (historically) organized into six language families. Today, some linguists doubt that some of these groupings are valid. The six traditional families are:


Still other linguists believe that the Nilo-Saharan languages and the Niger-Congo languages are part of the same family. These linguists organize the African languages into only three language families: Niger-Congo languages, Afroasiatic languages, and Khoisan languages.[12]


No matter how the major language families are organized, there are many smaller families and language isolates. In addition, there are some obscure (rare, uncommon) languages that are not yet classified into any family. Africa also has some sign languages, which are mostly language isolates.

References[change | change source]

  1. Batibo 2005, p. 1.
  2. Batibo 2005, pp. 1-2.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Batibo, p. 87.
  4. Batibo, p. 11.
  5. Epstein & Kole 1998, p. ix.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Batibo 2005, p. 4.
  7. Brown & Ogilvie 2008, p. 250.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Brown & Ogilvie 2008, p. 253.
  9. Epstein & Kole 1998, p. xiii.
  10. Brown & Ogilvie 2008, p. 252.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Dani & Mohen 1996, p. 223.
  12. Epstein & Kole 1998, p. x.

Bibliography[change | change source]

  • Brown, Keith; Sarah, Ogilvie, eds. (2008). Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World. Elsevier Science. ISBN 978-0080877747.
  • Batibo, Herman M. (2005). Language Decline and Death in Africa. Multilingual Matters. ISBN 978-1853598081.
  • Dani, Ahmad Hasan; Mohen, Jean-Pierre, eds. (1996). History of Humanity. II: From the Third Millennium to the Seventh Century B.C.. UNESCO. ISBN 978-92-3-102811-3.
  • Epstein, Edmund L.; Kole, Robert, eds. (1998). The Language of African Literature. Africa World Press. ISBN 0-86543-534-0.