Languages of Africa

The languages of Africa are divided into several major language families:
There are several other small families and language isolates, as well as creoles and languages that have yet to be classified. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates.
The total number of languages natively spoken in Africa is variously estimated at between 1,250 and 2,100, and by some counts at "over 3,000".
Nigeria alone has over 500 languages, 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 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".

Language groups

Most languages spoken in Africa belong to one of three large language families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger–Congo. Another hundred belong to smaller families such as Ubangian and the various families called Khoisan, or the Indo-European and Austronesian language families mainly spoken outside Africa; the presence of the latter two dates to 2,600 and 1,500 years ago, respectively. In addition, the languages of Africa include several unclassified languages and sign languages.
The earliest Afroasiatic languages are associated with the Capsian culture, the Nilo-Saharan languages are linked with the Khartoum Mesolithic/Neolithic, the Niger-Congo languages are correlated with the west and central African hoe-based farming traditions and the Khoisan languages are matched with the south and southeastern Wilton industries. More broadly, the Afroasiatic family is tentatively grouped within the Nostratic superfamily, and the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo phyla form the Niger-Saharan macrophylum.

Afroasiatic languages

are spoken throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia and parts of the Sahel. There are approximately 375 Afroasiatic languages spoken by over 400 million people. The main subfamilies of Afroasiatic are Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Omotic, Egyptian and Semitic. The Afroasiatic Urheimat is uncertain. The family's most extensive branch, the Semitic languages, is the only branch of Afroasiatic that is spoken outside Africa.
Some of the most widely spoken Afroasiatic languages include Arabic, Somali, Berber, Hausa, Amharic and Oromo. Of the world's surviving language families, Afroasiatic has the longest written history, as both the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egyptian are members.

Nilo-Saharan languages

consist of a hundred diverse languages. The proposed family has a speech area that stretches from the Nile Valley 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. Genetic linkage between these languages has not been conclusively demonstrated, and among linguists, support for the proposal is sparse. 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 Songhay languages is questionable, and doubts have been raised over the Koman, Gumuz and Kadu branches.
Some of the better known Nilo-Saharan languages are Kanuri, Fur, Songhay, Nobiin and the widespread Nilotic family, which includes the Luo, Dinka and Maasai. The Nilo-Saharan languages are tonal.

Niger–Congo languages

The Niger–Congo languages constitute the largest language family spoken in West Africa and perhaps the world in terms of the number of languages. One of its salient features is an elaborate noun class system with grammatical concord. A large majority of languages of this family are tonal such as Yoruba and Igbo, Ashanti and Ewe language. A major branch of Niger–Congo languages is the Bantu phylum, which has a wider speech area than the rest of the family.
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 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 and Dogon, and there is no conclusive evidence for the inclusion of Ubangian.

Other language families

Several languages spoken in Africa belong to language families concentrated or originating outside the African continent.


belongs to the Austronesian languages and is the westernmost branch of the family. It is the national and co-official language of Madagascar and one of Malagasy dialects called Bushi is also spoken in Mayotte.
The ancestors of the Malagasy people migrated to Madagascar around 1,500 years ago from Southeast Asia, more specifically the island of Borneo. The origins of how they arrived to Madagascar remains a mystery, however the Austronesians are known for their seafaring culture. Despite the geographical isolation, Malagasy still has strong resemblance to Barito languages especially the Ma'anyan language of southern Borneo.
With more than 20 million speakers, Malagasy is one of the most widely spoken of the Austronesian languages.


is Indo-European, as is most of the vocabulary of most African creole languages. Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch vernacular of South Holland spoken by the mainly Dutch settlers of what is now South Africa, where it gradually began to develop distinguishing characteristics in the course of the 18th century, including the loss of verbal conjugation, as well as grammatical case and gender. Most Afrikaans speakers live in South Africa. In Namibia it is the lingua franca and in Botswana and Zimbabwe it is a minority language of roughly several ten thousand people. Overall 15 to 20 million people are estimated to speak Afrikaans.
Since the colonial era, Indo-European languages such as Afrikaans, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish have held official status in many countries, and are widely spoken, generally as lingua francas. German was once used in Germany's colonies there from the late 1800s until World War I, when Britain and France took over and revoked German's official status. Despite this, German is still spoken in Namibia, mostly among the white population. Although it lost its official status in the 1990s, it has been redesignated as a national language. Indian languages such as Gujarati are spoken by South Asian expatriates exclusively. In earlier historical times, other Indo-European languages could be found in various parts of the continent, such as Old Persian and Greek in Egypt, Latin and Vandalic in North Africa and Modern Persian in the Horn of Africa.

Small families

The three small Khoisan families of southern Africa have not been shown to be closely related to any other major language family. In addition, there are various other families that have not been demonstrated to belong to one of these families.
Khoisan is a term of convenience covering some 30 languages spoken by around 300,000–400,000 people. There are five Khoisan families that have not been shown to be related to each other: Khoe, Tuu and Kx’a, which are found mainly in Namibia and Botswana, as well as Sandawe and Hadza of Tanzania, which are language isolates. A striking feature of Khoisan languages, and the reason they are often grouped together, is their use of click consonants. Some neighbouring Bantu languages have clicks as well, but these were adopted from Khoisan languages. The Khoisan languages are also tonal.

Creole languages

Due partly to its multilingualism and its colonial past, a substantial proportion of the world's creole languages are to be found in Africa. Some are based on Indo-European languages ; some are based on Arabic ; some are based on local languages ; while in Cameroon a creole based on French, English and local African languages known as Camfranglais has started to become popular.

Unclassified languages

A fair number of unclassified languages are reported in Africa. Many remain unclassified simply for lack of data; among the better-investigated ones that continue to resist easy classification are:
Of these, Jalaa is perhaps the most likely to be an isolate.
Less-well investigated languages include Irimba, Luo, Mawa, Rer Bare, Bete, Bung, Kujarge, Lufu, Meroitic, Oropom and Weyto. Several of these are extinct, and adequate comparative data is thus unlikely to be forthcoming. Hombert & Philippson list a number of African languages that have been classified as language isolates at one point or another. Many of these are simply unclassified, but Hombert & Philippson believe Africa has about twenty language families, including isolates. Beside the possibilities listed above, there are:
Roger Blench notes a couple additional possibilities:
Many African countries have national sign languages, such as Algerian Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, Ethiopian Sign Language. Other sign languages are restricted to small areas or single villages, such as Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana. Tanzania has seven, one for each of its schools for the Deaf, all of which are discouraged. Not much is known, since little has been published on these languages
Sign language systems extant in Africa include the Paget Gorman Sign System used in Namibia and Angola, the Sudanese Sign languages used in Sudan and South Sudan, the Arab Sign languages used across the Arab Mideast, the Francosign languages used in Francophone Africa and other areas such as Ghana and Tunisia, and the Tanzanian Sign languages used in Tanzania.

Language in Africa

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-Equatorial Africa, displacing Khoi-San speaking peoples from much of Southeast Africa and Southern Africa and other peoples from Central Africa. Another example is the Arab expansion in the 7th century, which led to the extension of Arabic from its homeland in Asia, into much of North Africa and the Horn of 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. Of particular importance in this respect are Berber, Jula, Fulfulde, Hausa, Lingala, Swahili, Somali and Arabic.
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. However, in recent years, African countries have become increasingly supportive of maintaining linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.

Official languages

Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, the following languages are official at the national level in Africa :
;French Creole
LanguageFamilyOfficial Status per Country
AfrikaansIndo-EuropeanSouth Africa
ArabicAfroasiaticAlgeria, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan,
BerberAfroasiaticAlgeria, Morocco
ChewaNiger-CongoMalawi, Zimbabwe
NdebeleNiger-CongoSouth Africa
SepediNiger-CongoSouth Africa
SesothoNiger-CongoLesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe
Setswana/TswanaNiger-CongoBotswana, South Africa
Seychelles CreoleFrench CreoleSeychelles
SomaliAfroasiaticSomalia, Djibouti
SwahiliNiger-CongoKenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda
SwatiNiger-CongoEswatini, South Africa
TigrinyaAfroasiaticEritrea, Tigray
TsongaNiger-CongoSouth Africa
VendaNiger-CongoSouth Africa
XhosaNiger-CongoSouth Africa
ZuluNiger-CongoSouth Africa

Cross-border languages

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885 divided a great many ethnic groups and African language speaking communities. This can cause divergence of a language on either side of a border, for example, in orthographic standards. Some notable cross-border languages include Berber, Somali, Swahili, Fula and Luo.
Some prominent Africans such as former Malian president and former Chairman of the African Commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré, have referred to cross-border languages as a factor that can promote African unity.

Language change and planning

Language is not static in Africa any more than on other continents. In addition to the impact of borders, there are also cases of dialect levelling, koinés and emergence of new dialects. In some countries, there are official efforts to develop standardized language versions.
There are also many less widely spoken languages that may be considered endangered languages.


Of the 1 billion Africans, about 17 percent speak an Arabic dialect. About 10 percent speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeast Africa; about 5 percent speak a Berber dialect; and about 5 percent speak Hausa, which serves as a lingua franca in much of the Sahel. Other important West African languages are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Horn of Africa languages are Somali, Amharic and Oromo. Important South African languages are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans.
English, French and Portuguese are important languages in Africa. About 130 million, 115 million and 35 million Africans, respectively, speak them as either native or secondary languages. Portuguese has become the national language of Angola and São Tomé and Príncipe, and Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique. The economies of Angola and Mozambique are quickly becoming economic powerhouses in Africa. Through sheer demographic weight, Africans are increasingly taking ownership of these three world languages as they are having an ever-greater influence on the research, economic growth and development in the African countries where English, French and Portuguese are spoken.

Linguistic features

Some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in Africa, whereas others are 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 and specific idioms and phrases may be due to a similar cultural background.


Some widespread phonetic features include:
Sounds that are relatively uncommon in African languages include uvular consonants, diphthongs and front rounded vowels
Tonal languages are found throughout the world but are predominantly used in Africa. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The large majority of the Niger–Congo languages are 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 and Low. 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 from the segments that bear them. Tonal sandhi processes like tone spread, tone shift, 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'. The Niger–Congo languages have large numbers of genders which cause agreement in verbs and other words. Case, tense and other categories may be distinguished only by tone.


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.


The following is a table displaying the number of speakers of given languages within Africa:

By region

Below is a list of the major languages of Africa by region, family and total number of primary language speakers in millions.

;North Africa
  • Afroasiatic
  • *Semitic
  • **Arabic: 200
  • *Berber: 30–40
  • **Kabyle
  • **Atlas
  • **Tuareg
  • **Zenaga
  • Nilo-Saharan
  • *Nubian: 5+
  • *Fur: 5+
  • *Zaghawa
  • *Masalit
  • Niger–Congo
  • *Kordofanian languages
  • **Nuba
;Central Africa
  • Niger–Congo, Bantu
  • *Lingala
  • *Kinyarwanda:12
  • *Kongo:5+
  • *Tshiluba
  • *Kirundi
;Eastern Africa
  • Niger–Congo, Bantu:
  • *Swahili: 5–10
  • *Gikuyu: 9
  • *Ganda:6
  • *Luhya: 6
  • Austronesian
  • *Malagasy: 20+
  • Niger–Congo, Ubangian
  • *Gbaya:2
  • *Banda:1-2
  • *Zande
  • Nilo-Saharan
  • *Kanuri:10
  • *Luo:5
  • *Sara:3-4
  • *Kalenjin:5
  • *Dinka
  • *Nuer
  • *Shilluk
  • *Maasai:1-2
  • Afroasiatic
  • *Semitic
  • **Amharic: 20+
  • **Tigrinya: 5
  • *Cushitic
  • **Somali: 10–15
  • **Oromo: 30–35
  • Nilo-Saharan: 1
  • *Gumuz
  • *Anuak
  • *Kunama
  • *Nara
  • Niger–Congo: 1
  • *Zigula
;Southern Africa
  • Niger–Congo, Bantu
  • *Zulu: 10
  • *Xhosa: 8
  • *Shona: 7
  • *Sotho: 5
  • *Tsonga: 12
  • *Tswana: 4
  • *Umbundu: 4
  • *Northern Sotho: 4
  • *Chichewa: 8
  • *Makua: 8
  • Indo-European
  • *Germanic
  • **Afrikaans: 7
  • **English: 5
  • *Romance
  • **Portuguese: 14
;West Africa
  • Niger–Congo
  • *Benue–Congo
  • **Ibibio : 7
  • *Volta–Niger
  • **Igbo : 30–35
  • **Yoruba: 40
  • *Kwa:
  • **Akan : 20–25
  • *Gur
  • **More: 5
  • *Senegambian
  • **Fula : 40
  • **Wolof: 8
  • Afroasiatic
  • *Chadic
  • **Hausa: 50
  • Nilo-Saharan
  • *Saharan
  • **Kanuri: 10
  • **Songhai:5
  • **Zarma:5


  • Languages of the African Union
  • Writing systems of Africa
  • Journal of West African Languages


  • Polyglotta Africana
  • The Languages of Africa


  • Karl Lepsius
  • Wilhelm Bleek
  • Carl Meinhof
  • Diedrich Westermann
  • Joseph Greenberg

    Colonial and migratory influences

  • Arabization
  • Asian Africans
  • Dutch Language Union
  • French West Africa
  • German colonization of Africa
  • Islamization of Egypt
  • Italian East Africa — including Italian Ethiopia
  • Italian North Africa
  • North African Arabs
  • Maghrebi Arabic — via Muslim conquest of the Maghreb
  • Portuguese language in Africa — predominant in Portuguese-speaking African countries
  • Spanish Guinea — presently Equatorial Guinea
  • Spanish West Africa
  • Spanish North Africa
  • West African Pidgin English
  • White Africans of European ancestry