In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Languages of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Historically Important Texts
  • Databases and Bibliographies
  • Conferences and Conference Proceedings
  • Journals
  • History of the Study of African Languages
  • Classification
  • Historical and Comparative Linguistics and Language Typology
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Language Contact
  • Endangered Languages

Linguistics Languages of Africa
Tucker Childs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0092


The study of African languages has a history dating back to the 17th century when Europeans first began exploring the continent. This long history, unfortunately, has been marred by ideological biases persisting into the mid-20th century. Early studies were written by missionaries and explorers, and Christian missionaries today continue such work. The 19th century featured the birth of the “Hamitic Hypothesis” in the publications of Lepsius, developed later by Meinhof, another famous German scholar. Lepsius, for example, attributed the more “advanced” features of African languages to influences from Caucasian languages. The expanded study of African languages is relatively recent, advancing with the spread of generative theory, which used African languages importantly in its development. Scholarship on African languages qua African languages is more prolific in Europe than in North America not only because of the colonial past but also because of the greater focus on African studies versus theoretical linguistics. (It should be mentioned that the following references do not treat Malagasy, spoken only on the island of Madagascar, or the many varieties of Arabic spoken in the northern part of the continent, and may depend more heavily on European rather than North American sources.)

General Overviews

Overviews of African languages have tended to be fairly technical in nature until the Textbooks described below began to appear. Their focus had previously been on classification, but more and more they treat issues in typology and language contact. Blench 2006 is particularly remarkable in that it uses findings in linguistics (and other fields) to reconstruct an African past. The earliest overview, Berry and Greenberg 1971, provides assessments of each major family, as well as additional chapters on the history of African-language study and a summary of missionary work on African languages. A single-authored work, Welmers 1973, offers a unique overview of a productive life’s work on African languages. Bendor-Samuel 1989 offers brief sketches, mostly focusing on classification, of the major genetic groups of Niger-Congo, a phylum containing the majority of Africa’s languages.

  • 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.

    This collection briefly presents in a nontechnical way the major families within Africa’s and the world’s largest phylum. For each family there is some historical background to its study, the classification of its members, and its basic features.

  • Berry, Jack, and Joseph H. Greenberg, eds. 1971. Linguistics in Sub-Saharan Africa. Current Trends in Linguistics 7. The Hague: Mouton.

    Begun as the only comprehensive introduction to African languages, it was later superseded by the textbooks described in the following section. The commissioned articles survey the major language families and more, including African pidgins and creoles, a chapter on language policy, and another on missionary work. Two chapters treat the history of African linguistics up to the time of the book’s publication.

  • Blench, Roger M. 2006. Archaeology, language, and the African past. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

    This learned and comprehensive treatise synthesizes much of Blench’s provocative work since the 1990s. In addition to using the findings of linguistics, primarily classification and language contact, Blench combines with them the findings from archaeology, DNA studies, and comparative ethnography to piece together the ancient history of Africa.

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

    This is one of the classic introductions to African languages written by a brilliant fieldworker associated with missionary work (an ordained minister in the Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church). It includes chapters on classification, phonology, tonology, morphology, and syntax, referencing more than 130 languages, more than half of which he worked on personally. The book has been used as a textbook for introducing students to the study of African languages.

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