The number of distinctive languages spoken in Africa is open to debate. Some experts put the number at around 2,000, while others count more than 3,000. Virtually all of these languages originated in Africa. The most widely spoken indigenous African language is Swahili, spoken by nearly 50 million Africans, followed by Hausa and Yoruba, each with more than 20 million speakers. Several languages have only a few thousand speakers. Scholars generally recognize four African language families: Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan.
Most Africans are multilingual, meaning that they speak two or more different languages. Few can afford to be otherwise, since daily life often brings people into contact with others who speak different languages. For instance, more than 50 languages are spoken in Nigeria alone. Tanzania, with significantly fewer people, has nearly 100 languages, including at least one from each of the four language families.
North Africans and converts to Islam have spoken Arabic for centuries, and the use of European languages has spread across the continent since the dawn of colonialism. Today, the language of a country’s former colonial rulers often serves as its common tongue.
Niger-Congo Language Family
Niger-Congo is by far the largest language family. Niger-Congo languages are spoken by more than half the continent’s people, from the Sénégal River Valley in West Africa to the shores of the Indian Ocean in the east to the Cape of Good Hope in the south. Among its several language branches is Bantu . In one of the world’s great human migrations, Bantu speakers spread east and south from a starting point in what is now Nigeria and Cameroon beginning about 4,000 years ago. Today, various Bantu languages are spoken across most of the southern half of Africa. The Kongo of the DRC, the Ganda of Uganda, the Chagga of Tanzania, and the Shona of Zimbabwe are examples of peoples speaking Bantu languages. Kwa is another large Niger-Congo branch; Kwa language speakers include the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Ashanti of Ghana.
Swahili, widely spoken in East Africa and parts of Central Africa, is an interesting medley of languages. Its basic grammar and syntax are of Bantu origin (so it is classified as a Niger-Congo language), but many words come from Arabic, with a smattering of Portuguese, English, and even Persian words appearing as well. Developed as a trade language along the Indian Ocean coast, Swahili spread inland with merchants in the 19th century. It serves as an official language of Tanzania and Kenya.
Afro-Asiatic Language Family
Throughout much of northern Africa, Afro-Asiatic languages predominate. One branch of this language family is Semitic, which includes Arabic, as well as Amharic and Tigrinya, which are spoken in the Horn of Africa. The Cushitic branch extends south from the Red Sea coast, through the Horn of Africa, and into central Kenya and Tanzania. Its most commonly spoken languages are Somali and Oromo. The Chadic branch includes Hausa, widely spoken in Niger and northern Nigeria. Berber is yet a fourth branch, and includes the language of the Tuareg of the Sahara as well as many other tongues spoken in and around the Atlas Mountains of northwestern Africa.
Nilo-Saharan Language Family
As Afro-Asiatic languages spread over the last several thousand years, they seemed to have pushed out many Nilo-Saharan languages. Nilo-Saharan speakers today are largely confined to portions of the central Sahara and the savanna lands of East Africa. The Masai of Kenya and Tanzania speak a language in the Eastern Sudanic branch, as do the Nuer of southern Sudan.
Scholars disagree over the correct classification of Songhai, a language spoken along the banks of the middle Niger River. Songhai is usually placed within the Nilo-Saharan family, but some linguists now see it as unrelated to any of the four families. If Songhai truly is separate, then its speakers either represent the last survivors of a once far-flung language family, or they are descendants of migrants from some unknown place.
Khoisan Language Family
The Khoisan language family is named after its two primary representatives: Khoikhoi and San . These languages are distinctive for their use of click sounds, which speakers produce by sucking in air. Once widespread across southern Africa and possibly East Africa, Khoisan speakers were largely displaced by Bantu migrants over the last millennia. Today, San speakers (known as San) number only about 50,000, living in and around the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Namibia. The Nama of Namibia are one of the last representatives of Khoikhoi speakers. Distantly related to them are the Sandawe of central Tanzania. It is unknown whether they represent a surviving indigenous Khoikhoi population or descendants of later immigrants.