An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. The whole continent of Africa with more than 30 million square kilometers and one billion inhabitants might be considered a very large linguistic area. About 1,500 languages (25 % of the world's total) are spoken across this vast territory. They are grouped in four phyla of very different magnitude: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo and Khoisan. The latter three are limited to Africa but Afro-Asiatic transcends the boundaries of the continent to spread into South-West Asia. The island of Madagascar belongs to a different linguistic area being more related to insular South-East Asia.

Families and Languages. The two largest African phyla are Afro-Asiatic and Niger-Congo. The first predominates in the north and in the Horn of Africa while the second is predominant in sub-Saharan Africa. Both are separated by a band of Nilo-Saharan languages which becomes discontinuous in the west. Khoisan languages were once spoken across all of southern Africa but they are now circumscribed to Namibia, Botswana and southern Angola with only a few speakers in South Africa and Tanzania.

    Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken by slightly more than 35 % of Africans, Nilo-Saharan by 4.5 %, Niger-Congo by 60 % and Khoisan by 0.05 %. Afro-Asiatic is divided into six branches: Semitic (including Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya), Berber, Egyptian (extinct), Cushitic (including Oromo, Somali, Beja), Chadic (Hausa is the major language) and Omotic (including Wolaytta and Gamo). Semitic and Berber are quite closely related, and both are more distantly related to Cushitic. Omotic is the most controversial member of Afro-Asiatic. The main division in Niger-Congo is between the very large Bantu group of the south, spoken by 250 million people, and the non-Bantu languages of the centre.

  1. Map of African language phyla

A number of phonological and morpho-syntactical features are widespread across African languages and/or are more frequent in Africa than in other areas of the world:


  1. Phonology

  2. - Tones. Most African languages have tones which serve to make grammatical and/or lexical distinctions. They are present in all branches of Niger-Congo (except Atlantic), in the majority of Nilo-Saharan languages, in Khoisan, and in three branches of Afro-Asiatic (Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic).

  1. - Peculiar consonant types. Some consonantal sounds are peculiar to Africa. Labiovelar stops, labiodental flaps, implosive stops, word-initial prenasalized stops and clicks are rare or non-existent outside the continent. The first three consonant types are concentrated in the Sudanic belt, between the Sahel to the north and the Congo basin to the south.

  1. Labiovelar stops are articulated simultaneously at the lips and back palate; there are two varieties, voiceless kp and voiced gb. They occur in a broad area from the western Atlantic to the Nile being frequent in non-Bantu languages of Niger-Congo and in the Central Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan.

  1. Labiodental flaps are voiced sounds started with the lower lip behind the upper front teeth which is then flipped outward. They are present in relatively few languages of all phyla, except Khoisan. They are most frequent in the Central Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan.

  1. Implosive stops are produced by lowering the larynx while the vocal chords are vibrating. They occur in Central Sudanic and in East Sudanic branches of Nilo-Saharan, in Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic branches of Afro-Asiatic and in some Bantu languages.

  1. Word-initial prenasalized stops (functionally single consonants composed of a nasal and a stop segment) are relatively uncommon in languages of the rest of the world, but they are frequently found in the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Bantu languages consonant system includes voiced and voiceless prenasalized stops.

  1. Clicks are ingressive consonantal stops produced by an intake of air followed by a sudden withdrawal of the tongue from the palate or teeth. Restricted to southern Africa, clicks are the most distinctive feature of Khoisan languages.

  1. - ATR vowel harmony. In ATR vowel harmony there is a contrast between vowels pronounced with an advanced tongue root (+ATR) and a retracted tongue root (-ATR); only +ATR or  -ATR vowels occur in the same morpheme. ATR vowel harmony is characteristic of the non-Bantu languages of Niger-Congo and is also present in the Central Sudanic and Eastern Sudanic branches of Nilo-Saharan. It is less frequent in the Chadic, Cushitic and Omotic branches of Afro-Asiatic.

  1. Morphology

  2. - Case marking systems are commonplace in the world's languages but in Africa they are restricted to the north of the continent where they are found in Afro-Asiatic and Nilo-Saharan. Moreover, they are rather rudimentary consisting of no more than two or three cases. A distinctive African feature is that a number of languages mark the nominative case leaving the object case unmarked (absolutive) while in the vast majority of languages that have inflections outside Africa the opposite is true. Another exceptional trait, associated with nominative marking, is the use of tonal inflection to mark case.

  1. - Noun classes. The system of noun classes is probably the characteristic most widely found in Niger-Congo languages. Nouns are grouped in different classes, marked by prefixes, suffixes or both. All members of a given class share the same affix. Most noun class systems have an accompanying concord system: other elements of the noun phrase (such as determiners, adjectives, or quantifiers), and frequently the verbs as well, are marked by an affix selected according to the class of the noun. Some classes are semantic (humans, animals, plants, parts of the body), others are based on grammatical categories (infinitives, locatives, diminutives) but many are heterogeneous.

  1. Syntax

  2. - Word order is more an areal feature than a genetic one. In all of the four phyla the position of the verb varies, having each two or three of the main possible word-orders: Verb-Subject-Object (VSO), Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). In contrast, word-order is more consistent in certain geographical regions. African languages are predominantly subject initial. SVO is the more frequent order in Niger-Congo and western Afro-Asiatic. SOV languages, on the other hand, are most numerous in a belt extending from Lake Chad in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east, including Nilo-Saharan and eastern Afro-Asiatic. VSO languages are rarer and they are circumscribed to the East African Rift Valley region, stretching from southern Ethiopia to central Tanzania.

  1. - Negation markers placed at the end of the clause are widespread in African languages. They can be found in a vast area extending from the river Niger in the west to the river Nile in the east, and in a wide range of languages belonging to Niger-Congo, Afroasiatic, and Nilo-Saharan.

  1. - Logophoricity consists in the use of special third-person pronouns (called logophoric) to specify if the subject of dependent clauses is the same as the subject of main clauses or not. It is more common in a large area stretching from northern Uganda in the east to the Niger River in the west, including languages of three phyla (Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and the Omotic branch of Afro-Asiatic).


A prominent feature in African languages is the use of ideophones or words that evoke vivid sensations or sensory perceptions such as smell, color, sound, shape, movement, etc. Many are formed by reduplication and/or have an onomatopoeic character.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

-The Languages of Africa. J. H. Greenberg. Indiana University Press (1963).

-A Linguistic Geography of Africa. B. Heine & D. Nurse. Cambridge University Press (2008).

-An Introduction to African Languages. G. Tucker Childs. John Benjamins (2003).

-African Language Structures. W. E. Welmers. University of California Press (1973).

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Languages of Africa

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