Languages of Africa

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Africa is a diverse and rich continent based on the number of languages spoken in each country. For instance, there are about 500 languages in Nigeria. Some languages of Africa are purely for communication between members of the same community, while other languages enhance inter-ethnic relations. For example, Swahili, Yoruba and Amharic are spoken by millions of people across several countries in Africa.

According to Ethnologue, there are about 2,138 living languages in Africa. This infographic expounds the main language families and key subgroups found in Africa.

Languages of Africa can be grouped into several language families. The main language families are:

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

Afro-Asiatic Languages

In Africa, Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken in parts of North Africa and the Horn of Africa. The main sub groups of this language family are Berber, Semitic, Chadic and Cushitic languages.

Examples of the most widely spoken languages in each subgroup are:

Berber

Berber is a national language in Algeria and an official language in Morocco. It is also spoken in Libya, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and in Mali.

Semitic

Amharic is the second most widely spoken Semitic language in the world. It is widely spoken in Ethiopia. Another common Semitic language is Tigrinya, which is widely spoken in northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea.

Chadic

A popular Chadic language is Hausa. It has about 50 million speakers globally, with about 15 million speakers in Nigeria.

african-languages

The different language distributions

Cushitic

A widely spoken Cushitic language is Somali. It is a national language in Somalia, and an official language in Djibouti.

Niger-Congo Languages

Niger-Congo makes up the largest language family in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Its main subgroup in Africa is the Bantu group.

Examples of the most widely spoken languages in different subgroups of the Niger-Congo family are:

Atlantic

Wolof has about 4 million speakers in Senegal. It is also spoken widely in Mauritania and in The Gambia.

West Benue-Congo

Yoruba has over 20 million speakers in Nigeria.

East Benue-Congo

One of the largest languages under the East Benue-Congo subgroup is Swahili. It is spoken in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania among other East African countries. Swahili is an official language in Kenya and Tanzania.

Shona and Zulu are the two other common languages in the East Benue-Congo subgroup. Shona is widely spoken in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia.

Zulu is widely spoken in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

About 30 million people speak Nilo-Saharan languages of Africa. This language family has four subgroups that are Songay, Saharan, Kuliak and Satellite-Core.

Examples of the most widely spoken languages in the main subgroups are:

Saharan

Kanuri is spoken by about 3 million people in Nigeria. It is also spoken in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Sudan.

Satellite-Core

This subgroup has other branches under it such as the East Sudanic language group. Luo is an example of a language under the East Sudanic subgroup, and it has over 3 million speakers in Kenya and Tanzania. It is widely spoken in Kisumu, in the western part of Kenya.

In addition to the main indigenous languages of Africa, countries adopted a number of foreign languages after colorization. Therefore, languages spoken in African can be further subdivided based on the official languages such as Swahili, English, French, and Portuguese etc.

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