A Short Introduction To African Languages

10 November 2022
By Sarah Angela Almaden

Unsplash: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu

From click languages like Sandawe and Dahalo to oral languages like Swahili and Arabic, the continent of Africa is home to thousands of diverse languages. African languages are divided into four language families and an additional Austronesian language spoken in Madagascar and the Comoros. These language groups are different from each other, with some as surviving language isolates that have yet to be classified.

Although estimates of how many languages are spoken in Africa vary, some believe that there are over 3,000. These languages are used for inter-ethnic communication and they usually belong to the four continental language families:

  1. Niger-Congo
  2. Nilo-Saharan
  3. Afroasiatic
  4. Khoisan
Language Groups
  • Niger-Congo

    Niger-Congo is one of the largest language families in the world and is spoken in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The Niger-Congo language family is regarded as having the most distinct languages in the entire world. This family of languages includes 1350 to 1650 languages, such as Yoruba, Swahili, Igbo, Fula, Shona, Zulu, Sesotho, Shona, Mooré, Akan, and many others.

    There are nine major branches of the Niger-Congo languages:

    1. Benue-Congo — made up of about 900 languages, divided into 11 unequal groups and it is spoken by around 500 million people
    2. Mande — made up of 40 languages and it is spoken by around 20 million people
    3. Atlantic — made up of about 45 languages and it is spoken by around 30 million people
    4. Kordofanian — made up of 20 languages and it is spoken by around 500,000 people
    5. Gur — made up of 85 languages and it is spoken by around 20 million people
    6. Ijoid — made up of a group of languages and it is spoken by around 2 million people
    7. Kru — made up of 24 languages and it is spoken by around 3 million people
    8. Adamawa-Ubangi — made up of 120 languages and it is spoken by around 12 million people
    9. Kwa — made up of 45 languages and it is spoken by around 20 million people
  • Nilo-Saharan

    About 80 different languages make up the Nilo-Saharan language family. Most of these languages are spoken in 17 countries in the northern half of Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, Chad, Kenya, and Sudan.

    Some Nilo-Saharan languages spoken with at least a million speakers include:

    • Luo — by the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania (4.4 million people)
    • Kanuri — by communities living around Lake Chad (4 million people)
    • Dinka — by the Dinka people of South Sudan (1.4 million people)
  • Afroasiatic

    The terms Hamito-Semitic, Semito-Hamitic, Afrasian, and Erythraean or Lisramic are other names for the Afroasiatic languages spoken in Africa. About 300 languages make up this family, which is primarily spoken in northern Africa in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, northern Nigeria, and southern Niger. Afroasiatic languages have six branches: Berber, Chadic, Egyptian, Cushitic, Semitic, and Omotic.

    Some Afroasiatic languages that are commonly spoken include:

    • Arabic — Semitic language with over 300 million speakers
    • Hausa — Chadic language with over 40 million speakers
    • Ormo — Cushitic language with over 30 million speakers
    • Amharic — Semitic language with over 25 million speakers
    • Somali — Cushitic language with over 21 million speakers
  • Khoisan

    The majority of Khoisan languages are spoken in Southern Africa and they share click consonants. Together, Khoisan languages make up three language families and two language isolates. However, most Khoisan languages are endangered and some are already extinct. One of the most widely-spoken Khoisan languages that makes use of heavy click consonants is Khoekhoe and it is used in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.

    The following Khoisan languages and its numbers of speakers:

    • Sandawe — 40,000 speakers
    • Maligo — 2,200 speakers
    • Gana — 2,000 speakers
    • Shua — 6,000 speakers
    • Nama (Khoekhoegowab) — 233,701 speakers
  • Austronesian (Malagsy)

    Malagsy is the official language of Madagascar and it is one of the Barito languages from the Austronesian language family. It is spoken by about 25 million people on the island of Madagascar and the volcanic archipelago of Comoros. And there are two major dialect groups that make up the language: Eastern dialect and Western dialect.

    Eastern Malagsy Dialect:

    • Northern Betsimisaraka Malagasy — 1,270,000 speakers
    • Southern Betsimisaraka Malagasy — 2,000,000 speakers
    • Plateau Malagasy — 10,893,000 speakers
    • Tanosy Malagasy — 639,000 speakers
    • Tesaka Malagasy — 1,130,000 speakers

    Western Malagsy Dialect:

    • Antankarana Malagasy — 156,000 speakers
    • Antankarana Malagasy — 156,000 speakers
    • Masikoro Malagasy — 550,000 speakers
    • Sakalava Malagasy — 1,210,000 speakers
    • Tandroy-Mahafaly Malagasy — 1,300,000 speakers
    • Tsimihety Malagasy — 1,615,000 speakers
    • Bushi — 41,700 speakers
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