Africa: Home to One-Third of the World’s Languages

August 6, 2015 Heba Nady

The African continent has 725 million inhabitants. The African people speak more than 2,000 languages, which represent over 30% of the world's languages. Africa is linguistically diverse with almost one language per 360,000 inhabitants.

Although there are over 2,000 languages ​​in 56 states, only 14 African languages have an official status.

  • GPI_African Languages_home
  • Afrikaans: South Africa
  • Amharic: Ethiopia
  • Arabic: Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia
  • English: The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Saint Helena, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
  • French: Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Niger, Senegal, Seychelles, Togo
  • Kiswahili: United Republic of Tanzania, Kenya
  • Kirundi: Burundi
  • Nyanja: Malawi
  • Portuguese: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe
  • Sangho: Central African Republic
  • Sesotho: Lesotho
  • Setswana: Botswana
  • Somali: Somalia
  • Tigrinya: Eritrea

African languages are grouped into four main "families":

  • Afro-Asiatic
  • Nilo-Saharan
  • Khoisan
  • Niger-Congo

The majority of countries have retained the official language of the colonizer. Very few of the continent's indigenous languages have an official status.

 

The Afro-Asiatic Family

There are 353 languages in this family, totaling 340 million speakers. However, the Afro-Asiatic languages are not exclusively African. This language family also extends to the Arabian Peninsula and covers only the northern part of West Africa.

Berbere, the original language of the inhabitants of North Africa, is part of this language group as well as Arabic, which is the language with the most speakers in Africa.

 

The Nilo-Saharan Family

The Nilo-Saharan family consists of 197 languages with 35 million speakers. These languages cover some of the upper part of the Nile basin and highlands in East Africa.

There are twelve groups of languages that compose this language family. But, only two are located in West Africa: the Songhai (Mali, Niger, Burkina, and Benin) and Kanuri (Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad).

 

The Khoisan Family

This language family is the smallest African language family. It is made up of 22 languages and 360,000 speakers.

These languages are located in Namibia and extend to Angola, Botswana and South Africa. Historically, the Khoisan languages were spoken in southern and eastern Africa. They were slowly replaced by many of the Bantu languages and then European languages.

 

The Niger-Congo Family

GPI_African Languages_1

Image Credit: Niger-Congo

The Niger-Congo family has nearly 1500 languages, making it the largest language family in the world. It makes up 71% of African languages and 22% of the world's languages.

It covers most of the West African countries and the vast majority of the population of the region. The Bantu languages are in this family, which cover almost all of sub-equatorial Africa. Kiswhalili (aka Swahili) also belongs to this language group.

Many experts believe that the original home of the Bantu languages is located south of the Benue (along the Cameroon and Nigeria border). 4000 years ago, the Bantus began a long relocation to Central Africa, driven by the aridity of the climate and the development of agriculture.

This colonization took nearly three millennia. Bantus reached the southern continent in the sixteenth century.

The many similarities between the Bantu languages ​​and their remarkable geographic expansion in a specific language area are often distinguished from the rest of the Niger-Congo family.

 

Summary

Africa is an extremely diverse continent. Anyone looking to travel or expand their global business there should fully research the specific country or region they are interested in to understand the languages and cultures that exist.

This vast continent presents many opportunities for African companies, as well as global companies looking to expand into the African marketplace. Please see one of GPI's previous blogs, African Languages and Locales: Essential Facts, to find additional information on Africa.

 

Additional Resources on Africa and African Language Translation

In order to support the growing needs of our clients for many of the African and Middle Eastern languages, GPI has opened offices in Dubai, UAE and Cairo, Egypt to support our clients doing business in the Middle East and Africa. GPI has built teams of professional native speakers for many of the African languages whether national or indigenous, who are available to help companies with their African language translations needs.

Feel free to review our blogs that are particularly relevant:

Please feel free to contact GPI at info@globalizationpartners.com with any questions about our translation services. Also let us know if you have any interesting blog topics you would like us to cover in future blogs. You may also request a complimentary Translation Quote for your projects as well.

About the Author

Heba Nady

Global Client Services Manager. Hebatullah Mahmoud Nady (Heba) is a native Arabic speaker who lives in Cairo, Egypt. She has 11 years of experience in client relations and project management, working in different industries, such as publishing, oil and gas and foremost translation and localization. Heba holds a B.A. degree in English Language and Literature from Ain Shams University, and has a great passion for language and culture. She has been actively managing many localization and translation projects for major clients since 2008 and is well versed in a wide range of localization tools and practices. Heba enjoys working with teams from different cultures and bringing people together to achieve a common goal. For her translation is a mission that contributes to enriching Arabic and other cultures and languages. In her free time, Heba likes to read about literature and management, and go sightseeing.

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