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African languages, geographic rather than linguistic classification of languages spoken on the African continent. Historically the term refers to the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, which do not belong to a single family, but are divided among several distinct linguistic stocks. It is estimated that more than 800 languages are spoken in Africa; however, they belong to comparatively few language families. Some 50 African languages have more than half a million speakers each, but many others are spoken by relatively few people. Tonality is a common feature of indigenous African languages. There are usually two or three tones (based on pitch levels rather than the rising and falling in inflections of Chinese tones) used to indicate semantic or grammatical distinction.
In the last few decades great strides have been made in the study and classification of the African languages, although the results are still far from definitive. The principal linguistic families of Africa are now generally said to be Afroasiatic; Niger-Kordofanian (including Niger-Congo); Nilo-Saharan; and Khoisan, or Click; two other stocks, Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian, are also represented. Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan are two large families of languages spoken exclusively in Africa. These languages are spoken in all parts of the continent, from the extreme south up to the territory of the Afroasiatic languages of N Africa. The Afroasiatic family is also spoken in the Middle East. Some authorities believe that the languages spoken in the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan families are sufficiently similar to suggest that both stocks had the same ancestor language.
The Niger-Kordofanian family has two branches, Niger-Congo and Kordofanian. The Kordofanian tongues are spoken in Sudan and form five small groups (Koalib, Tegali, Talodi, Tumtum, and Katla). Niger-Congo is an enormous branch whose languages are found throughout S and central Africa and in most of W Africa below the Sahara. It is generally subdivided into six groups: West Atlantic; Mande; Gur, or Voltaic; Kwa; Benue-Congo; and Adamawa-Eastern.
The West Atlantic branch includes many languages, among them Wolof (in Senegal), Temne (in Sierra Leone), and Fulani, the tongue of several million people inhabiting an area from Senegal to a region E of Lake Chad. The Mande group consists of languages prevalent in the Niger valley, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, such as Mende in Liberia and Malinke in Mali. Gur, or Voltaic, is made up of several language groups and includes Mossi, the dominant tongue of Burkina Faso, as well as the Dagomba and Mamprusi of N Ghana. The Kwa languages, spoken chiefly in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, and Liberia, include Ewe, Yoruba, Igbo, Nupe, Bini, Ashanti, and possibly Ijo (which is sometimes considered a separate branch). Benue-Congo includes the huge Bantu group of hundreds of tongues found throughout central and S Africa (see Bantu languages), as well as such non-Bantu languages as Tiv, Jukun, and Efik, which are spoken in Nigeria and Cameroon. The Adamawa-Eastern branch, to which Banda, Zande, and Sango belong, is composed of a number of languages spoken in Nigeria, Cameroon, and an area north of the Bantu territory to Sudan.
A characteristic feature of most of the Niger-Congo languages is the use of tones. Case inflection is entirely lacking, and gender marking is almost unknown in the Niger-Congo family. The verb root tends to remain unchanged; moods and tenses are denoted either by particles or by auxiliary verbs. For example, in a number of languages the infinitival is the auxiliary designating the future. Typical of the Niger-Kordofanian stock as a whole is the division of nouns, which has been compared to the gender system of the Indo-European tongues. However, Indo-European features only three classifications (masculine, feminine, and neuter), whereas some of the Niger-Kordofanian languages have as many as 20 noun classes. One class, for example, designates human beings, another is used for liquids, and a third class is used for animals. Each class has its own pair of affixes to indicate the singular and the plural.
Indo-European and Malayo-Polynesian
Most of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan languages still have no writing (except perhaps for translations of the Bible), although there are several important exceptions. The Nilo-Saharan tongue Nubian, the only modern African language with early written records (dating from the 8th cent. A.D. to the 14th cent.), is of considerable linguistic interest. Its alphabet was derived from that of Coptic. Swahili, a Bantu tongue of the Niger-Kordofanian stock, was written before the European conquest of Africa (see Swahili language), and Vai, a language belonging to the Mande subdivision of Niger-Congo, employs an indigenous script developed in the 19th cent.
Because the majority of Africans do not know a European tongue, the use of written African languages has become increasingly important for the growing field of mass communication. Arabic and Roman letters are now being used increasingly for languages of the Niger-Kordofanian and Nilo-Saharan stocks, and the International African Institute has had some success in promoting the use of the written form of indigenous African languages. Many newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts now employ various vernaculars, and film theaters can switch sound tracks to accommodate the audience in a given language area. However, Africa's linguistic diversity can be a hindrance to mass communication, and European tongues (especially English and French) are still widely used in the media.
The modern scientific study of the classification and distribution of African languages has thrown some light on the history of Africa and its inhabitants. More knowledge can be expected from the combined use in the future of evidence from linguistic sources, historical records, reliable traditions, and archaeology. For example, the study of loan words from languages such as Greek, Latin, Punic, Arabic, and Portuguese should reveal much about contacts between African and non-African cultures. The study of loan words of African origin that have been absorbed by English has become of increasing interest to American linguists and scholars.
See E. A. Gregersen, ed., Language in Africa (1977); M. Mann and D. Dalby A Thesaurus of African Languages (1987).