In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language and the Study of Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Linguistic Theory

African Studies Language and the Study of Africa
Lameen Souag, Philip J. Jaggar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0030


Africa is home to a substantial portion of the world’s linguistic diversity. Estimating the total number of different languages is difficult, given that much of Africa is in dialect continuum-like situations, new languages continue to be discovered, and others die out, but the commonly cited estimate of Ethnologue is about two thousand. Multilingualism prevails, and Nigeria alone has more than 450 languages. The study of African languages has motivated many contributions to the theory of language, notably by revolutionizing the understanding of tonal phonology (e.g., using the autosegmental approach) and informing lexicalist approaches to syntax. It has also proved to be a crucial tool for documenting and understanding contact-induced language change and social change in Africa; as anywhere else in the world, to study a society one must study its language. The dearth of reliable early documentation for much of the continent makes comparative-historical linguistics an even more important key to the history of Africa than it is for many other regions. Nonetheless, one of the earliest writing systems of the world originated on the African continent among speakers of the Afroasiatic language Ancient Egyptian, and a number of different scripts remain in use there, posing interesting challenges for educational policy and information technology. The languages of Africa fall into four major families, as proposed by Greenberg 1966 (cited under Language, Society, and History): Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan (Malagasy belongs to Austronesian). The preexisting languages spoken by indigenous Pygmies are presumed to have been replaced. In practice, however, this classification probably underestimates the linguistic diversity of Africa. The more cautious list in Dimmendaal 2011 (cited under Language, Society, and History), for example, gives eleven language families plus eight isolates. Of these, the most widely used serve as transnational lingua francas—for example, Manding, Hausa, and Fula(ni) in the Sahel; Yoruba in Nigeria and Benin; Lingala in the Congo basin; Swahili in East and central Africa; and Arabic varieties in North Africa, Chad, and Sudan. Ex-colonial (European) languages also play an important role in modern-day Africa, notably as official languages, while pidgins and creoles based on European and major indigenous languages have emerged as tools of communication in multiethnic situations. Sign languages are used in Africa as in other parts of the world, often independently of formal deaf education systems; most remain inadequately documented or entirely undocumented.

General Overviews

Childs 2003 and Heine and Nurse 2000 are both good introductions to the study of African languages for a nonspecialist audience, although, in both cases, a basic background in linguistics is helpful. Among older overviews, Welmers 1973 and Gregersen 1977 can still be recommended.

  • Childs, George Tucker. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2003.

    This book offers a balanced overview of issues relating to the study of African languages, focusing on features particularly conspicuous in Africa and on issues where the study of African languages has made a major contribution to views of linguistics and taking a moderately skeptical line on macrofamilies. The author often draws on his specialist field, the Atlantic languages of West Africa, for examples.

  • Gregersen, Edgar A. Language in Africa: An Introductory Survey. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1977.

    A general survey of language in Africa somewhat outdated even at the time of publication but still useful.

  • Heine, Bernd, and Derek Nurse, eds. African Languages: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    This selection of edited chapters, mainly by well-known Africanists, is weighted toward a historical-comparative perspective on African languages with a broad overview chapter for each of Joseph H. Greenberg’s four families, another on comparative linguistics, and another on language and history, taking a generally optimistic line on large-scale genetic groupings. It also devotes significant space to theoretical linguistics along with some discussion of language and society.

  • Welmers, William E. African Language Structures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

    Examines phonology, morphology, and syntax across the continent with a focus on specific case studies.

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