Languages of Africa & ALMA

Languages of Africa and ALMA

1. Introduction

The ALMA Project was initiated by the West African Research Center and West African Research Association, and thus has its roots in West Africa. Nevertheless, this new ALMA website includes videos and text also from East and Southern African languages, particularly in the AV section. ALMA’s vision is to work with authors, editors, educators and publishers from throughout Africa. Participants and contributors from any country, either in Africa or elsewhere in the world, are welcome.

The most widely accepted system of classifying the languages of Africa was done by the well-known anthropological linguist, Joseph Greenberg in the early 1960s, and has generally withstood the test of time. 1 Heine and Nurse write in their introduction that:

A recent authority (Grimes (ed.) 1996) puts the number of African languages at 2,035: this number is not fixed, as some languages are still being “discovered”, while others with few speakers are being elminated. Excluding languages introduced over the past two millennia or so, such as Arabic, Malagasy, Afrikaans, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, this figure of just over 2,000 breaks down into 4 large phyla … [representing] nearly one-third of the world’s languages. 2

Others have observed that there are approximately 4,000 languages spoken in the world, with that figure fluctuating periodically due to a variety of causes. With the recognition of approximately 2,035 African languages, some have estimated that up to a half of the world’s languages are African languages. Regardless of which percentage one accepts, Africa has a significant portion of the world’s languages and perhaps the highest language and ethnic group density of any continent.
In the introduction to their book African Languages – An Introduction, Heine and Nurse point out the importance of knowing where to draw the line between a language and a dialect:

A language is often defined by some combination of: having national status; being written; being the standard form of a range of speech varieties; not being intelligible to speakers of other ‘languages’ and having a relatively large number of native speakers. By contrast, dialects are said to be local, not written, not the standard form, be mutually intelligible, and to have fewer speakers.3

They go on to indicate that such definitions often fail. They opt in many situations to adopt the more neutral term ‘variety’ in order to avoid the confusion between language and dialect.

Some African countries have very few varieties of languages, others have large numbers of language communities. The arbitrary manner in which colonial boundaries that ended up becoming national boundaries were drawn, resulted in many languages being split up and divided into as many as 4 or 5 countries. “Nigeria is said to have nearly 500, Cameroon nearly 300, and three other countries over 100. ”4

2. The Genetic Classification of African Languages

Joseph Greenberg’s system of genetically classifying African languages is represented in the following diagram showing a list of the four phyla and their sub-groups using roman numerals which are then used along with shading to represent all of the families and sub-groups on the accompanying map of Africa.

Classification of African Languages

The 4 phyla of African languages are represented in the following map 5, which also includes a fifth phylum labeled Austronesian. This makes possible the inclusion of the Malagasy language of the island of Madagascar among the languages of Africa.

African Language Families

3. On the Morphological Typology of Languages

The morpheme is the smallest minimal unit bearing meaning in a language – one morpheme is not further divisible. Languages group morphemes in meaningful ways using systems that may be:

a) Isolating morphology

Isolating morphology entails that there be only one meaningful element or morpheme per word in a given language. No further division of these words is possible. In the Songhay language of Mali, and its sister language Zarma in Niger, there is a tendency toward isolating morphology. In the following sentence, every word has only one morpheme:

Ay6 ga  ba   ay  ma  koy ay hu   di   kuna.
1S pres want 1S subj go 1S house DEF inside    I want to go into my house.

As we might expect there are additional types of morphology in Songhay/Zarma. A number of productive suffixes are applied to simple verbs to enhance their meaning. Causative verbs are derived from simple verbs through the suffixation of -andi to the root of the basic simple verb. Other suffixes produce nouns from verbs, as shown here for the verb caw.

caw   learn, study, read cawandi   teach
cawko   pupil, student

These two suffixed morphemes, -andi and -ko, are segmentable and thus are agglutinative morphemes.

b) Fusional morphology

Fusional morphology is not segmentable. Two or more morphemes are combined into one word but are not segmentable. For example in English, we have the verb be, and we have lots of ways to conjugate it using am, are, is, was, were, been, etc. Each of these words contains the morpheme of the verb be, but the word cannot be segmented. It has been combined with one or more additional morphemes meaning 1st person, present tense, plural, singular, formerly, etc. None of the separate morphemes in the verbs that are used to conjugate the verb to be can be segmented and separated from the verb be. Some combination of these morphemes is fused together so that their parts are no longer separable, or isolatable. They are fused.

c) Agglutinative morphology

In the following Kiswahili sentence which is a common leavetaking expression, 4 different morphemes are combined agglutinatively into one word which is a complete sentence. The plus sign here shows the morphological boundaries. Note that all of the morphemes are segmentable.

Tu+ ta+ ona +na.
we+FUT+see+reciprocal We will see one another/Goodbye.

So when we remove the morpheme boundary plus markers, the sentence becomes one word. Kiswahili phonology normally requires a accented vowel on the penultimate syllable of any word. In our one word sentence, the penultimate syllable is accented or stressed.. +oná+ is the 2 syllable verb root of the verb see. So the penultimate na syllable is stressed as shown here by the acute accent on the vowel á: Tutaonána. We shall see one another.

d) Polysynthetic morphology

Polysynthetic morphology is the antithesis of isolating morphology because it entails that many, if not all of the morphemes and words of a sentence be combined into a one-word sentence. All the components are synthesized. In his chapter on morphology from the Heine-Nurse book, Dimmendall writes: “Agglutinative languages such as Swahili have a high degree of synthesis, that is ratio of number of morphemes per word. The degree of synthesis is highest for so-called polysynthetic languages. Compare the following example from Siberian Yupik with the corresponding English translation:

(30) Siberian Yupik (Comrie 1981:42)
“He wants to acquire a big boat.”

In polysynthetic structures, several roots and affixes are combined into a single (phonological) word, sometimes corresponding to a whole sentence in English, although major syntactic boundaries such as that between the nominal agent of a transitive verb tend to be expressed in a separate word from the verb and its complements. Polysynthetic structures appear to be common in American Indian languages, as well as Australian, Paleo-Siberian and Papuan languages, but not in African languages.” 7

When studying the phyla of African languages and looking at the branches into which they are divided, frequently one of these characteristics of morphological typology may be prevalent, and occur frequently throughout a branch of a phylum. For example, within the Niger-Congo Family, the Bantu languages of the Bantu branch are often characterized by agglutinative morphology, as was shown in the above Kiswahili example. Very few languages are characterized by only one type of morphology. Most have usually two or more of them. English has two or three of them.

The classification by morphological typology is just one way of structurally classifying languages and it is not determinative in that most languages have a combination of several types. It is however a useful tool for understanding language differences. Other criteria for distinguishing languages involve a) major constituent ordering, whether a language is SVO (Subject Verb Object), SOV, OSV, or VSO; b) determining noun phrase functions, whether it is done strictly by word order or when major constituents S and O can be on the same side of the verb and in either order, then case or function marking on at least one of the major constituent noun phrases is required, and c) the relationship between word order typology and the need for marking independent nouns with adpositions, i.e. prepositions and/or postpositions.

4. The 4 Phyla of African Languages

In examining the map and its classification system from north to south, observe that Afroasiatic is the northernmost phylum. It is the only phylum of the 4 continental phyla which has languages both inside and outside of Africa, including many languages of the Middle East as well as Arabic, Berber and others of North Africa. The Afroasiatic phylum has a total of 371 languages. Afroasiatic is perhaps the least controversial of the 4 phyla that includes some languages spoken only outside of Africa. The 6 major branches of the phylum are: Chadic, Berber, Egyptian, Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic. They are widely dispersed with nguages in North Africa and in the Malian and Nigerien dessert Sahel areas, and Chadic languages spread out in the Lake Chad basin region and into Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.

Hausa is the most widely spoken and well known of the Chadic languages, probably has spread as a lingua franca (in Niger and Nigeria) perhaps more than any other African language, and ranks (Hayward, p. 77) as perhaps clearly the largest African language.

The Nilo-Saharan family is relatively limited in geographical expanse and quantity of languages, having only 196 languages. It is a phylum which is somewhat eclectic and possibly a collection of non-genetically related groups. The ohylum has a rather widespread distribution from the Nilotic languages dispersed in eastern Africa, to the Saharan languages of the northern desert part of the Sahel, and the Songhay-Zarma dialect cluster of the Niger River zones of Mali, Niger and Benin. Bender writes that “Nilo-Saharan is probably the least widely accepted of the 4 phyla”. 8 In the same chapter (p. 34) Bender discusses the status of the Songhay branch of this family, which is the very latest branch to be added to the family, after much debate about its status, in determining whether it should be part of the Mande branch of Niger-Congo instead of placing it in Nilo-Saharan.

The smallest phylum in both the geographical and the numerical senses is the Khoisan family of Southern Africa once had more than 100 languages, and today has only 30 or 35 languages still in existence. They are the most endangered phylum of the 4, and they are the least documented.. It is made up of sub-groups that historically were called Bushman and Hottentot languages, and they are primarily concentrated in Botswana and Namibia. They have been labeled as “Click Languages” due to the clicking consonants that characterize their phonologies. Güldemann and Vossen write that:

The mechanism underlying the articulation of clicks is well understood … For a proper understanding of variation among these ingressive consonants it is important to clarify the distinction between click ‘influx’ and ‘efflux’. In the production of the so-called suction mechanism, the tongue is moved against the roof of the mouth creating a closure in the oral cavity. The central tongue body is then lowered while blade and back of the tongue maintain the closure. Thus, the pressure of the air trapped in the cavity decreases. Then the front closure is released, the air rushing in being responsible for the loud noise typical of clicks. The way the anterior tongue body is manipulated determines the type of the click influx. 9

The Niger-Congo Language Family.

By far the largest phylum in every sense is the Niger-Congo family (originally Congo-Kordofanian in Greenberg’s classification), whose domain stretches from the far coast of West Africa, down along the coast and across the expanse of the continent to East African and down to cover most of Southern Africa. Niger-Congo has 1,436 languages of which 500 are members of the Bantu language group. 10 Clearly a significant portion of all of the African languages are in the Niger-Congo family. And within the Niger-Congo family, the most important sub-group is that of the Bantu languages, which the author of the above map separated as if to suggest that it is a separate phylum, constituting more than a third of the Niger-Congo family. At this writing, the Niger-Congo family is particularly united for its shared typological features across the branches of the family, whereas the genetic relationship of the branches to one another has not been fully documented.

In their work, Williamson and Blench point out that there are three important characteristics shared by Niger-Congo Languages: noun class systems, verbal extensions and lexical similarities, The widespread use of noun classes is perhaps the most striking feature of these languages. Unlike languages which distinguish the gender and the number of a noun at the end of the word and other words agreeing with it, these languages use principally prefixes to indicate noun class or gender, and have as many as 18 noun classes, if not more. In a language like Kiswahili, there are five paired singular and plural classes, making 10 of them, and eight other classes that do not have count nouns but express object shapes, abstract qualities, verbal nouns, and three classes of locatives. There are 18 noun classes all together, all distinguished by their prefixes. Infixes in the Kiswahili verb can enhance the valency of the basic verb to indicate passive-reflexive, reciprocal, applicative for an indirect object, and stative.

5. The status and the treatment of African languages historically

The status and the treatment of African languages may vary greatly within one country, and from country to country. A given language may even be treated extremely differently when looking at the same one on the other side of the border. Indeed, the colonial history plays a large role in determining the status of languages. Different colonizers have different attitudes towards their own language and the African languages.

Other factors that play a role include: the nomenclature and official treatment of the languages; the number and density of the ethnic groups and their languages; the role that the languages played in the education system during the colonial period, and after independence; whether or not a hybrid language such as a pidgin or a creole evolved from the contact of the colonial language and local languages; whether the language was used in a written form to be the vehicle of a religion; the degree to which the colonizer favored education and administration in the colonial language while discriminating against the use of local varieties of language in these roles, among others. Whether or not one important local language perhaps by the good fortune of being largely contained within the boundaries of one or two countries in proximity. Such a language may thrive and become an important first and second language -a lingua franca – for the inhabitants of a country.

In Nigeria with its huge language and ethnic group density, interestingly, in the northern region of the country, the British used the Hausa language as a vehicle of their colonial administration, and all of the British administering the north of the colony were required to learn to speak Hausa. It was also introduced into the education system. The result today is that large numbers of the northern language of Nigeria have thereby been threatened and in some ways endangered by this support that Hausa received. Similar events took place in other parts of Africa as well where for example in East Africa, Kiswahili became a favored and very powerful lingua franca within the region.

However, clearly most African languages have been marginalized historically since the advent of colonization on the continent. Indeed today, many African languages are endangered and threatened with extinction due to the colonizing history and to the neocolonialism.

In the face of education systems rooted in colonial languages, African languages have not been privileged when it comes to being documented and also to developing a literature, nor have they been favored in most circumstances to be developed to serve as a medium of public education. Publications in African languages are often printed in small quantities, and frequently are out of print. The way an African language is treated educationally and administratively in a given country may be a function of which European colonizer’s purview they fell under.

6. The ALMA Website

One of the goals of the ALMA website is to provide a sort of institutional memory documenting the richness and the strength of publishing in African languages. It is also designed to demonstrate the many sources from which important African language reading material can be drawn and made available to the speakers of a given language, as well as those who wish to learn the language. The ALMA site is a rich source of reading material in African languages for readers and educators in Africa and in the diaspora.

7. Sources for learning more about African Languages

The Heine and Nurse book, African Languages: An Introduction, is recommended as a resource to those who want to learn more about African language classification and the history of each of the phyla and how they have evolved, before, during, and since Joseph Greenberg proposed his system of classification in the 1960s.

There is a wealth of important and interesting sites on the internet treating African languages both collectively and individually, linguistically, historically, anthropologically and sociologically.


  • Gregersen, Edgar A. 1977. Language in Africa: An Introductory Survey. New York: Gordon and Breach.
  • Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse. 2000. African Languages, An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Welmers, William E. 1973. African Language Structures. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Many universities have pages where African language internet resources are presented. One rich example is provided by Columbia University, on the following page:


1 Greenberg, Joseph. 1963. The languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication no. 25.

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2 Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, eds. 2000. African Languages – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1. A sample chapter from this book can be found at:

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3 Ibid. p. 1.

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4 Ibid., pp. 2-3.

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5 This map was taken from the Wikipedia site for Languages of Africa (

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6 The pronoun ay is the 1st person singular pronoun which can mean I, me, or my depending on its word order position. There is no case marking on pronouns in Zarma but word order determines function. So the first ay in this sentence is subject I, the second is that I or for me to (subjunctive), and the third is my.

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7 Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, eds. 2000. African Languages – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 176.

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8 Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, eds. 2000. African Languages – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 43.

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9 Ibid. p. 105.

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10 The figures for numbers of languages in each phylum are taken from Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse, eds. 2000. African Languages – An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1.

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