With more than 1,500 different languages, Africa boasts greater linguistic variety than any other continent. The tremendous range includes major languages such as Swahili and Hausa, spoken by millions of people, and minor languages such as Hazda, which have fewer than a thousand speakers. The linguistic situation is constantly changing. While many of the continent’s major languages are rapidly expanding, smaller languages are disappearing.

The choice of language is shaped by a variety of factors. As a result of the years of European colonization, many Africans speak English, French, or Portuguese in addition to their indigenous languages. Centuries of Arab influence in North Africa have led to the widespread use of Arabic in that region. In fact, most African countries have adopted Arabic or one or more European languages as their official language.


Most scholars today have adopted a system of classification of African languages that was established in the mid-1900s. Under this scheme African languages are divided into four major groups: Afroasiatic, Niger-Congo (also called Niger-Kordofanian), Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan. In addition to these four groups, the continent contains a variety of creole and pidgin languages that have developed from the interactions between African and European languages.

Afroasiatic Languages

The Afroasiatic languages consist of about 230 modern and a dozen dead (no longer spoken) languages that originated in northern and eastern Africa and in western Asia. They are divided into five major language families: Ancient Egyptian (a dead language), Berber, Semitic, Chadic, and Cushitic. Some linguists include a sixth family, Omotic, in the Afroasiatic group. The number of people who speak a particular language within these five linguistic families ranges from a few hundred to millions.

The Semitic language group, which includes Arabic, boasts the greatest number of speakers. Modern Arabic alone is used by more than 160 million people in North Africa, northeastern Africa, parts of northwestern Africa, and southwest Asia. The Chadic family, named after its place of origin near Lake Chad, contains about 150 languages. Hausa, with about 40 million speakers throughout western Africa, is the most widespread language in this group. The Cushitic language family of eastern Africa can be found from SUDAN in the north to TANZANIA in the south. North Africa is home to the Berber languages. Berber, an Arabic word, came from the Greek barbaros, which originally referred to someone speaking a language other than ancient Greek. This is also the root of the English word barbarian.

Niger-Congo Languages

Most branches of the Niger-Congo languages are found in western Africa, considered the homeland of this major language group. However, Kordofanian, one of these language branches, exists only in Sudan. Some scholars believe that Kordofanian speakers migrated to that region from western Africa. Others, however, consider Niger-Congo languages to be part of the Nilo-Saharan group. If that is true, then Sudan may be the homeland of Kordofanian, and other Niger-Congo languages may have migrated to West Africa from there. The Mande, Gur, and Ubangi languages of this group are each spoken by at least 3 million people. Fufulde, the language ranging over the widest area, is found throughout western, central, and eastern Africa.

Bantu, a special subgroup of the Niger-Congo languages, was long considered a separate language family. The BANTU languages are the most widespread of any linguistic group in Africa. Bantu speakers—more than 200 million—can be found throughout Africa south of an imaginary line that runs roughly from CAMEROON in the west to KENYA in the east. The large number of Bantu speakers is matched by the number of Bantu languages: estimates vary from more than 300 to nearly 700. Scholars disagree as to whether these are all distinct languages or whether many are simply dialects of major Bantu tongues. Swahili has the largest number of speakers of any single Bantu language, but Gikuyu, Zulu, and Xhosa also claim millions of speakers.

Most scholars trace the origin of Bantu, some 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, to an area around present-day NIGERIA and Cameroon. From there, Bantu-speakers migrated east and south. A second migration, along the western coast of Africa, took place later. As a result of these various migrations, some Bantu languages have many similarities, while others are quite different from each other.

Most countries where Bantu is spoken contain dozens of different Bantu languages and dialects. This had made it difficult for government officials, educators, and others to choose a common language in which to conduct business and other activities. East African countries use Swahili for such purposes. However, in most other places where Bantu languages dominate, the language of the former European colonial power serves as the official means of communication. Meanwhile, the local Bantu tongues are used in private conversation, in markets, in local primary schools, and sometimes in secondary schools.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

The Nilo-Saharan languages are found mostly in central and eastern Africa, from the Lake Chad area into southern Sudan and Kenya. A western branch of this group, Songhai, is spoken along the Niger River in southern MALI. However, recent studies have shown that Songhai shares features of Niger-Congo and Afroasiatic language and may actually be a creole language. Although some 150 Nilo-Saharan languages exist, only 3 of them—Kanuri, Luo, and Dinka—are widely spoken. Linguists still debate whether Nilo-Saharan should be a separate group or whether these languages are properly included under the Niger-Congo and Afroasiatic groups.

Khoisan Languages

Khoisan languages are restricted to southern Africa, particularly in present-day NAMIBIA and BOTSWANA. Notable for the use of click sounds, they are sometimes called click languages. The three main Khoisan language groups are the Zhu (Northern), Khoi (Central), and Qwi (Southern). Each group is distinct, and speakers of one group cannot readily understand speakers of another group. Khoisan languages have had a significant impact on the sounds and vocabulary of Bantu languages in southern Africa, and they have themselves been strongly influenced by Bantu and European cultures. The dominance of Bantu languages, English, and Afrikaans (a language developed from Dutch in the 1600s) in southern Africa has led to the decline of the Khoisan languages, and few of them claim more than a few thousand speakers today.

Creole and Pidgin Languages

When two languages come into contact, one typically becomes dominant because more people speak it or because its speakers enjoy a higher social status. This interaction often leads to the development of a creole, a mixture of the two languages. Creole languages are usually based on the vocabulary and grammar of the dominant language, but they include many features of the subordinate language.

In Africa most creole languages developed as a result of contact between indigenous languages and nonstandard versions of European languages spoken by colonial settlers. In some cases, however, creole languages appeared where speakers of a dominant African language, such as Swahili, came into contact with speakers of less widespread African languages. This often occurred near colonial trading posts or factories, where Africans who spoke many different language groups came together and needed a common tongue to communicate.

The term pidgin was first used in the early 1800s to describe the form of English adopted by Chinese merchants in the city of Canton who conducted business with Europeans. Pidgin languages differ from creoles in that they generally have no native speakers, are used for limited purposes such as trade, and have less complex grammatical structures. Some scholars claim that creoles originally developed from pidgin languages adopted by children who used them as a form of everyday speech. However, historical facts surrounding the development of some creole languages tend to contradict this view.


When the same speakers use two or more languages, those languages are said to be in contact. This occurs frequently in Africa because of the many different languages spoken on the continent. Language contact often leads to the replacement of one language by the other, or to one language emerging as the dominant form of communication.

Language Contact

By examining language contact, linguists can determine how languages have influenced each other. Studies of sounds, grammar, and use of words often show the impact that one language has had on another. Borrowed words may indicate the types of situations in which contact between different groups was most important. For example, Swahili religious and legal terminology contains many words borrowed from Arabic, indicating that contact in these two areas was more intense than in others.

The intensity of language contact often relates to social and economic factors. When language contact occurs, the language with higher social and economic status tends to become a second language for speakers of subordinate tongues. Moreover, languages with lower status tend to borrow more from a dominant language, rather than the other way around. In the long run, speakers of a subordinate language may abandon their original language in favor of the dominant tongue. This generally takes place in stages over a period of time. One part of the group or community may abandon the language first, followed by others until the language dies out completely. Such a change from one language to another is called language shift. An example of language shift occurred in East Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Aasax speakers adopted the Maasai language, and their own language became extinct.

Language contact does not always lead to the abandonment of one language for another, especially when many more people speak the subordinate language. For example, when the FULANI took over the HAUSA kingdoms of western Africa in the early 1800s, they did not impose their own language but instead adopted Hausa as an official language. This not only made the change in leadership less noticeable, but also allowed the Fulani to use their own language as a secret form of communication. English colonists sometimes followed a similar course. When they found that African languages such as Swahili or Hausa were widely spoken in an area, they often learned those languages and used them to communicate with local peoples. In fact, before leaving Europe for Africa, English colonial officials were encouraged to learn the most important local languages in the areas to which they were assigned.

Language Policies

Language is not only a form of communication, it also serves as a way to transmit social and cultural values. When a country adopts a particular tongue as its official language, it gives an advantage to the people who speak the language. Those who do not speak it have a handicap.

The European powers that colonized Africa established their own languages as the official ones for government business and legal matters. This policy gave European languages a much higher status than indigenous tongues and provided a reason for local peoples to learn them. The French and Portuguese conducted all business and even basic education in their own languages. Children in missionary schools or government-run schools learned French or Portuguese from the earliest age. Local languages were considered acceptable only for personal communication.

In the French colonies, the need to master the French language led to the development of a rather sizable group of African upper classes who spoke French. However, a much smaller percentage of the indigenous population was literate than in British colonies. The first missionary schools in British colonies used local African languages for instruction. This was motivated largely by the desire of missionaries to train Africans to preach to local peoples, as well as to spread Christian ideas by producing Bible translations in indigenous languages.

When the British government took over colonial education, they continued the policy of using African languages in schools. Though English was the official language, African languages were widely used for many purposes, even by colonial officials. For this reason, British colonies had many people who learned to read in a local language, but only a small group of Africans who mastered English.

After independence most African nations adopted the language of the former colonial power as their official language. Although only a small percentage of the population spoke that language, it provided a universal means of communication for official purposes. Thus, many African countries have made English, French, or Portuguese their official language. Some countries use African languages for government business. In Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili has become the official language because it is widely spoken. It is not, however, the primary language of most people in either country. A number of African countries have two or more official languages, which may include a European language and widely spoken African ones.

Language Choice in Writing

Since the colonial period, European languages have also dominated African literature. Two factors are mainly responsible for this. First, many African languages had no written form before colonization, so most Africans learned to write in the language of the colonial power. Second, because African languages are virtually unknown outside Africa, the easiest way for African writers to reach a large audience is by using a major world language such as English or French.

Many African writers have accepted the dominance of European languages in literature, and some have even suggested that African languages are inadequate for literary expression. In recent years, however, a number of noted African authors, including Chinua ACHEBE and NGUGI WA THIONG’O, have begun to reconsider this idea. These authors are now using more African vocabulary or grammar in their works, and some are even writing in local languages. Nevertheless, European languages will probably remain the main ones for African literature in the near future. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Education, Ethnic Groups and Identity, Literacy, Missions and Missionaries, Oral TraditionPublishing, Writing Systems.)