Linguistics Niger-Congo Languages
by
Jeff Good
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0226

Introduction

Niger-Congo languages dominate sub-Saharan Africa, and the family constitutes one of the world’s largest referential language groups, with around fifteen hundred languages. The precise composition of Niger-Congo is not settled. A less controversial “core” of the family consists of the subgroups of Atlantic, Gur, Adamawa, Kru, Kwa, Benue-Congo, and Kordofanian, running roughly from the northwest of sub-Saharan Africa eastward. The Benue-Congo group includes the well-studied Bantu languages, which dominate the southern part of sub-Saharan Africa and have had an especially prominent role in Niger-Congo studies. Other groups classified more controversially as Niger-Congo are Mande, Ijoid, Dogon, and Ubangian. Here, materials on all of these groups are considered. The morphosyntactic typology of Niger-Congo languages is quite diverse with morphologically rich, agglutinating languages found in its northwest, northeast, and southern regions, in Atlantic, Kordofanian, and Bantu respectively, and isolating languages found roughly in its central area in groups spoken around the northern Gulf of Guinea and points inland. The strongest evidence for a genealogical relationship among Niger-Congo languages is the existence of a distinctive system of nominal gender, and the largest gender systems in the world are found in the family. Points of resemblance among Niger-Congo languages were already noted in the early 20th century by scholars like Diedrich Westermann, and the codification of the family as understood today was established in the middle of the 20th century by Joseph Greenberg. Niger-Congo’s dominance of the African continent means that many “African” grammatical features are also Niger-Congo features, and a full understanding of African language typology and history requires good knowledge of the group. This bibliography focuses on comparative work on the family as a whole as well as its subgroups, with more limited consideration of work on the typology and history of the languages of the family. The way that the family is divided into subgroups here is based on the most common conventions used by specialists at the present time. Existing tree-based classifications often make use of additional subgroup names, reflecting various proposed stages of the family’s development, but, on the whole, most of these are of less general currency than lower-level labels.

General Overviews and Textbooks

While now somewhat dated given how much the descriptive picture of the family has improved in recent decades, the most comprehensive survey of Niger-Congo is the edited collection Bendor-Samuel 1989, which contains twenty-two chapters on the major branches of Niger-Congo as understood at that time. Within that volume, Williamson 1989b remains a particularly important overview of the comparative linguistics of the family as a whole. The older edited collection Sebeok 1971, while not specifically focused on Niger-Congo, contains a number of articles on Niger-Congo subgroups that remain useful today. Williamson and Blench 2000 offers a concise overview of the family, and Dimmendaal and Storch 2016 provides more recent discussion, including an emphasis on the earliest work on the family and topics of typological interest. General references on the languages of Africa such as Welmers 1973, Childs 2003, and Dimmendaal 2011 also provide useful overviews of the family. Creissels 1991 and Creissels 1994 are introductions to the morphosyntax and phonology of African languages that include extensive data from Niger-Congo languages. While Niger-Congo is the current dominant label for the group, some sources, such as Welmers 1973, instead use the label Niger-Kordofanian. Discussion of key references for African languages in general, including Niger-Congo languages, can be found in Oxford Bibliographies articles “Languages of Africa” and “African Linguistics.”

  • Bendor-Samuel, John, ed. 1989. The Niger-Congo languages: A classification and description of Africa’s largest language family. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    E-mail Citation »

    An edited volume covering all of the major branches of Niger-Congo as the family was understood at the time. While now somewhat dated given how much the descriptive picture of the family has improved in recent decades, it remains an indispensable resource, and chapters on certain subgroups still serve as the most up-to-date overview references.

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An introduction to African languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/z.121E-mail Citation »

    This textbook is a general introduction to African languages and contains an accessible overview of the Niger-Congo family as well as information on specific Niger-Congo languages.

  • Creissels, Denis. 1991. Description des langues négro-africaines et théorie syntaxique. Grenoble, France: ELLUG.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a general textbook on morphology and syntax in African languages, including extensive data on Niger-Congo languages.

  • Creissels, Denis. 1994. Aperçu sur les structures phonologiques des langues négro-africaines. Grenoble, France: ELLUG.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a general textbook on the phonology of African languages, including extensive data on Niger-Congo languages.

  • Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. 2011. Historical linguistics and the comparative study of African languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/z.161E-mail Citation »

    This monograph is designed as a course book on the historical and comparative study of African languages. It contains an overview of the comparative linguistics of Niger-Congo and considers numerous phenomena involving specific Niger-Congo languages. Its discussion of language classification also includes consideration of apparent linguistic isolates that have been associated with Niger-Congo in some works. It contains an extensive reference list to relevant work in English, French, and German.

  • Dimmendaal, Gerrit J., and Anne Storch. 2016. Niger-Congo: A brief state of the art. In Oxford handbooks online: Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a recent encyclopedia article providing an overview of the comparative linguistics and grammar of the Niger-Congo languages. Available online.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. 1971. Current trends in linguistics VII: Linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa. The Hague: Mouton.

    E-mail Citation »

    This classic reference work on the languages of Africa contains a number of articles specific to Niger-Congo languages. It remains useful and served as a foundational text for many later works.

  • Welmers, William E. 1973. African language structures. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic textbook on African languages, which is still of value today. It includes discussion of comparative Niger-Congo and most of the illustrative data is drawn from Niger-Congo languages. The family is referred to under the name Niger-Kordofanian in this book.

  • Williamson, Kay. 1989b. Niger-Congo overview. In The Niger-Congo languages: A classification and description of Africa’s largest language family. Edited by John Bendor-Samuel, 3–45. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    E-mail Citation »

    Though somewhat dated given how much the descriptive picture of the family has improved in recent decades, this chapter remains a useful overview of the comparative linguistics and grammatical features of Niger-Congo languages. Of particular value is its presentation of comparative data on the forms of noun class markers in Niger-Congo subgroups.

  • Williamson, Kay, and Roger M. Blench. 2000. Niger-Congo. In African languages: An introduction. Edited by Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, 11–42. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An overview chapter of the comparative linguistics of Niger-Congo containing discussion of the family as a whole and concise overviews of major subgroups.

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