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The Most Linguistically Diverse Place on the Planet is Africa


From the beginning of time, humans lived and worked in Africa, leaving evidence of their existence in the sands of the Sahara Desert and valleys of the great rivers, such as Nile and Niger. Some of the earliest great civilizations were born there, and they gave us insight into the smaller kingdoms of ancient Africa.

Because of the huge history diversity of Africa, learning about it may be a bit of a challenge. Africa keeps many secrets, and they are there, ripe for picking – and one of the major ones is that Africa is also a fascinating place from a linguistics perspective.

The continent has more than 2,000 distinct languages, equating to a third of all languages in global terms. Europe by comparison has 300 languages. Based on the Ethnologue index of linguistic diversity, 20 of the top 25 most linguistically diverse countries are in Africa.

History of African Languages

Africa is such a diverse continent of a number of languages spoken as a testimony to this. Nigeria alone has over 500 languages according to SI Ethnologue and the African language program, at Harvard. Most of the languages in Africa are primarily oral with little availability in written form.

There are about 52 listed extinct languages in Africa. These languages are from across different regions in Africa. One example of these languages is Ancient Egyptian - This language is an Afro-Asiatic language. Its earliest known complete written sentence has been dated to about 2690 BC, which makes it one of the oldest recorded languages known along with Sumerian language. Its written system includes; Kariong Hieroglyphs, Cursive Kariong Hieroglyphs, and Coptic.

One other extinct language is Esuma (Essouma) language of uncertain classification within the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo family, once spoken in the villages of Assinie (Asini) and Mafia in Ivory Coast. The Esuma were vassals of the Sanwi capital Krinjabo, and shifted to the Anyin and Nzima languages.

The last example of an extinct language among many others is the Yeni language an extinct language of Cameroon, formerly spoken around Djeni Mountain in the Nyalang area. All that remains of the language, apparently, is a song remembered by some Sandani speakers. However, according to Bruce Connell (the first linguist to report its existence, in 1995), comparison of the song's words to neighboring languages suggests that "it was closely related to [the Mambiloid languages] Cambap, Njerep, and Kasabe

Why is Africa so Linguistically Diverse?

Humans have populated Africa for more than 5 million years. One of the reasons for the continents rich linguistic diversity is simply down to time – people in Africa have had more time to develop languages than people elsewhere in the world.

But the development of Africa’s language is also due to cultural and political factors. According to evolutionary linguist Salikoko Mufwene from the university of Chicago, while European nations focused less on widely spoken languages into extinction as they expanded their empires, in Africa languages were allowed to flourish.

“Traditional African kingdoms were not as assimilationist as the Europeans empires… Say the kings relied on interpreters to translate to them what was coming from territories that they ruled but were people who spoke different languages, there is no particular reason why we should be surprised that there is so many languages spoken in Africa.”

Multilingual Citizens

Although all the languages are important and beautiful, their popularity varies. Of all the diverse languages, tribes and groups; there are 8 languages that more widely spoken on the continent.

The ‘Berber’ language is the 8th most widely spoken language in Africa. It is a group of 26 closely related languages that constitute a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. They are spoken by 14 to 15 million people in Northern Africa. Throughout the Mediterranean coast, Sahara Desert, and the Sahel – an area once dominated by Berbers before the arrival of the Arabs.

The 7th widely spoken language in Africa is ‘Oromo’- it is widely spoken in the horn of Africa and other surrounding nations including; Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya and Somali. It is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia.

Next on the list as the 6th widely spoken language in Africa is ‘Amharic.’ It is the Second-largest Semitic Dialect on the continent after Arabic. Amharic is one of the very few African languages that uses its own alphabet whilst most other languages use either Arabic or Latin letters.

Number 5 on the list is ‘Igbo.’ This is the native language of the Igbo people of Nigeria – One of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. It is approximated that 27 million people speak the language on the continent. Interestingly, the language has more than 20 dialects. This diversity is one of the beauties and dynamics of African culture.

The 4th widely spoken language in Africa is ‘Yoruba’ one of the principal languages in Nigeria but spoken by other west African countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

‘Hausa’ is the 3rd largest language on the African continent. The language originated from a dialect in Kano, Nigeria. It is widely used in business and education in Nigeria and other parts of west Africa. Besides, it is one of the few African languages that are taught in international universities due to its immerse literature.

‘Swahili’ is the 2nd most popularly spoken language on the continent. Huge chunk of the vocabulary in Swahili is derived from the Arabic language because of the interactions of the Arabic traders from the 15th and 16th centuries. There are also other Swahili words that have been originally derived from – German, Portuguese, English, Hindustani and French.

‘Arabic’ is the most widely spoken language in Africa. However, the language is mostly concentrated in North Africa and some parts of Sub Sharan Africa. It is estimated that they are more than 150 million people who speak Arabic as their first language in Africa, making it the most spoken language on the continent. Arabic comes in number of flavors – Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial dialects. If you learn modern standard Arabic, you will be able to communicate with most Arabic speakers around the world.

Arabic speakers on the continent of Africa make up over 50% of the total speakers of Arabic in the world. Arabic is the official language of many African nations.

Final Thoughts

A study conducted by Shigeki Kaji of Kyoto University in 2013, centered on inhabitants of the Ugandan town of Hoima, found that the average inhabitant knows 4.34 languages. Such multilingualism is impressive, particularly when one considers that we are not talking about language scholars, but about average citizens just going about their business and flicking effortlessly between 4 or more languages.

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1 Comment

Weeza Chitangala
Weeza Chitangala
Mar 04, 2022

Africa is indeed rich in its cultural diversity! Thanks for the knowledge. Learnt something new today.

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