History Abridged: Language and the African continent

Historian feature

By Paula Kitching, published 20th August 2021

Language and the African continent

History Abridged: This feature seeks to take a person, event or period and abridge, or focus on, an important event or detail that can get lost in the big picture. Think Horrible Histories for grownups (without the songs and music). See all History Abridged articles

Africa is a huge continent with an expansive geography and an enormous range of peoples, cultures, beliefs and traditional practices, it is therefore, unsurprising that there are many, many languages spoken there. Estimates vary as to the exact number of different languages from between 1,200 to 2,000+. 

There is a mixture of languages that derive from overseas influence as well as many more that are indigenous to the different nations and regions. There are a number of ways in which the languages are broken down into groups but the general distinctions tend to be: 

  • Afro-Asiatic (appoximately 200 languages)
    covering nearly the whole of Northern Africa (including the horn of Africa, Central Sahara and the top Nile)
  • Nilo-Saharian
    gathering appoximately 140 languages with some eleven million speakers scattered in Central and Eastern Africa.
  • Niger-Saharian (Niger-Congo)
    covering the two third of Africa with as a principal branch the Niger-Congo which gathers more than 1,000 languages with some 200 million speakers. The Bantu languages of Central, Southern, and Eastern Africa form a sub-group of the Niger Congo branch.
  • Khoisan
    gathering about 30 languages in the western part of Southern Africa...

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