In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Regional and National Language Surveys
  • Historical Linguistics and Linguistic Classifications
  • Typological Studies
  • Lexical Studies
  • Areal Linguistics
  • Pragmatics, Discourse Studies, and Ethnolinguistics
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Language Endangerment
  • Language Policies and Language in Schools
  • Literacy
  • Afro-Asiatic Languages
  • Khoesan Languages
  • Nilo-Saharan Languages
  • Languages in Contact

Linguistics African Linguistics
Jouni Filip Maho
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0088


African languages appear in the written records already from Ancient Egyptian times, though then only a single language (or group of languages), that is, Ancient Egyptian. Dedicated descriptive studies of other languages appear from the 17th century onwards, in Northeast Africa as well as along the coastal trade routes of European travelers. However, until the 19th century only a dozen or so languages had been described (with either dictionaries or grammars). A more widespread and systematic effort to describe African languages commenced with the efforts of Christian missionaries, whose linguistic materials started to increase especially from the 1880s onwards. In modern times, starting with the decades following the Second World War, the field of linguistics has diversified into a multitude of hyphenated sub- or cross-disciplines, growing far beyond mere descriptive studies, and this diversity is reflected in the study of African languages. What follows mirrors this modern trend. Note that this is not an exhaustive list of references, only a selection, and that many of the studies listed below could easily appear under several headings.

General Overviews

Several textbooks and introductions to African languages have been published. Alexandre 1972 is somewhat dated but still readable. Mutaka and Tamanji 2000 is a useful textbook with plenty of exercises, while Childs 2003 is the most recent theoretical introduction. Sebeok 1971; Heine, et al. 1981; and Heine and Nurse 2000 are anthologies, each covering a wide range of issues. Particularly noteworthy is the French collection Perrot, et al. 1981, which contains a considerable amount of information on individual languages and language groupings.

  • Alexandre, Pierre. 1972. An introduction to languages and language in Africa. Translated by F. A. Leary. London: Heinemann.

    Somewhat dated but still highly readable survey of language and linguistics in Africa as they appeared during the early postcolonial period. Focuses on structural issues, with some sociolinguistics. Originally published 1967 in French as Langues et langage en Afrique noire.

  • Childs, George Tucker. 2003. An introduction to African languages. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/z.121

    Very useful and up-to-date textbook covering a variety of topics, mostly typological, both synchronic and diachronic.

  • Heine, Bernd, and Derek Nurse, eds. 2000. African languages: An introduction. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive introduction to African languages and linguistics. Covers all conventionally recognized language groupings, as well as a range of typological and sociolinguistic topics. Translated into French as Les langues africaines (Karthala, 2004).

  • Heine, Bernd, Thilo C. Schadeberg, and Ekkehard Wolff, eds. 1981. Die Sprachen Afrikas. 6 vols. Hamburg, Germany: Helmut Buske.

    Important and useful German introduction to African languages and linguistics. Covers typological and sociolinguistic issues in detail, and contains much data on demographics, then-current classifications, and structural characteristics of various language groups, as well as some individual languages.

  • Mutaka, Ngessimo M., and Pius Ngwa Tamanji. 2000. An introduction to African linguistics. Handbooks in linguistics 16. Munich: Lincom Europa.

    Useful introductory textbook focusing on the phonetics/phonology, morphology, and syntax of primarily Niger-Congo languages, with many exercises.

  • Perrot, Jean, Gabriel Manessy, and Albert Valdman, eds. 1981. Les langues dans le monde ancien et moderne. 2 vols. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

    Invaluable French collection of articles covering the whole of the African continent. Very rich in descriptive, demographic, and bibliographical data. It also comes with large and detailed color maps.

  • Sebeok, Thomas A., ed. 1971. Current trends in linguistics, 7: Linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

    Despite its age, this is an invaluable collection of articles dealing with a multitude of issues, including many language surveys with useful demographic data as well as sociolinguistic and historiographical topics such as multilingualism, language policies, language education, missionary linguistics, and literacy.

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