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Detailed Overview of the African Languages & Dialects

Detailed Overview of the African Languages & Dialects
Detailed Overview of the African Languages & Dialects

Written by Natalie Basiuk, follow her on LinkedIn.

Africa is such a diverse, colorful, rich, and fascinating country. It's home to the world's longest river, the Nile, a huge number of wildlife and bird species. Africa - proud carrier of rich cultural heritage. In Africa, you'll come across communities and tribes with specific music, art forms, traditions, and customs. Another interesting question to ask about Africa is how many African languages are there. The answer is somewhere between 1.000 - 2.000.

That is right, Africa is home to one-third of all world languages. Most of these are primarily oral, with little or no marks in written form. 75 of them have more than one million speakers each. Others vary and are spoken by several hundred thousand people or only by a couple of hundred people. That is the case with Njerep, Gey, or Shabbo, with around 200-400 speakers only. It would be impossible for us to list and go through all African lingos. Still, it’s important to learn the major and most spoken ones. This detailed overview of the African languages will help you do exactly that. Let’s take a closer look.

Most Spoken Languages in Africa

Firstly, we’ll classify lingos based on the number of speakers and select those that are most widely spoken. Below is a chronological list of African languages with the most speakers, including details about their history, the regions where they are spoken, other noteworthy information.

1. Arabic

Being the world’s fifth most spoken language, Arabic is Africa’s most spoken dialect, with approx. 100 million native speakers but 400 million speakers in total worldwide. It belongs to the Afro-Asiatic group of African lingos. It’s the official tongue of 26 countries, mostly in the Middle East & North Africa, including Egypt, Algeria, Chad, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, and other countries. It certainly is the answer to the question of what language do Africans speak the most.

Historically, it dates back to the 6th century CE and is believed to have evolved in the Arabian Peninsula. With the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE, it gained recognition as the official tongue of the Quran - Islam’s holy book. It still is an important religious dialect and is often used in religious discourse. Arabic belongs to the group of North African languages and is also considered a major business lingo in the Middle East as well as for politics and diplomacy. If you don’t speak it, you can consult these best Arabic translation services for help.

This most widely spoken African language was also used in literature - some of the world’s famous literary works were written in Arabic. That includes One Thousand and One Nights, The Mu'allaqa, or Kitab al-Aghani.

2. Swahili

Next on our list of the most popular African languages is Swahili, which belongs to the Niger-Congo group. The territory it's spoken on spreads across East Africa and is primarily used in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo. People use Swahili as a second language in other parts of Africa. In total, there are about 100-150 million speakers of Swahili worldwide. This Bantu belongs to Central African Languages and originated in the first millennium CE. It was heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian. Later on, it was influenced by both Portuguese and British colonizers.

What makes Swahili interesting to non-speakers is that it is considered the easiest African language to learn, especially for English speakers. It shares a very similar grammar structure and even some vocabulary with English. It’s the official language of the African Union and the East African Community, as well as the lingua franca for trade and commerce in East Africa.

3. Hausa

Hausa is in the group of West African languages and is spoken in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, and Cameroon. Worldwide, it has nearly 80 million speakers, which is why it deserves a spot on our list.
Hausa dates way back in history and has been used as a lingua franca in the region for trade and commerce. It has notably borrowed words from both English and Arabic due to their interaction throughout history.

Speakers of Hausa utilize both the Latin alphabet and Ajami - a modified version of the Arabic script. It is said to be among the most advanced on the African continent. Being a tonal language, a pitch plays a key role in assigning words’ meanings. Hausa also has a number of variations- African dialects of standard Hausa that are spoken in smaller regions and communities.

Major Native African Languages

There are notable native lingos spoken in countries across Africa that we’ll cover in our overview. These are the dominant tongues based on the speakers’ number or the territory they’re used in. Let’s take a look.

1. Amharic

First on our native African languages list is Amharic, which is official in Ethiopia and spoken in neighboring countries. Worldwide, it has around 25 million speakers. In Ethiopia, people use Amharic for official government business, as well as in media and education.

It has a specific writing system, unique to it only, that is based on the Ge'ez script. Amharic evolved thousands of years ago from an ancient dialect called Ge’ez. Later, it evolved into several other lingos. Amharic went on to become Ethiopian Empire’s official language in the 19th century. It belongs to the group of East African languages.

2. Zulu

Spoken by around 12 million people in different African countries, Zulu is our next native lingo that deserves a spot on the list. It’s among 11 official tongues in South Africa, but people speak it in other countries like Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Zambia, Mozambique.

Being among the most complex South African languages, mostly because of recognizable clicks produced by the tongue. These clicks give specific meanings to words and cause headaches to those trying to learn them.

Zulu's first record dates to the 18th century and when Zulu people were only just a tribe. As they evolved and grew in power, so did this lingo under the influence of other Bantu dialects. Today, many website localization companies have their hands full, working on localizing business content from other African tongues to Zulu.

3. Yoruba

Moving on to one of West Africa’s most spoken tongues, Yoruba has an enviable base of 30 million speakers. They’re mostly spread across Nigeria, Benin, Togo. However, there are different variations, called dialects, such as Egba, Ibadan, Ekiti, or Oyo. Most of them are mutually intelligible.

Yoruba is known for its literary tradition as one of the written African languages with many poems, stories, proverbs. Historically, it originated in modern-day Nigeria and was mostly oral until colonization in the 19th century. Then, it got into contact with several European tongues and developed under those influences.

4. Oromo

Another important African language spoken in Kenya, Egypt, Somalia, and Ethiopia is Oromo. It currently has around 30 million speakers, most of whom account for 40% of the Ethiopian population.

A very interesting historical fact about Oromo is that it was forbidden in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oromo people were seen as a threat to Emperor Menelik II, who wanted to centralize his power. Today, it's one of Ethiopia's African official languages. Oromo is written in Latin and has many borrowed words from Arabic, Amharic, Somali.

5. Somali

Somali belongs to the Afro-Asiatic linguistic group and has around 18 million native speakers. It’s official in Somalia but also spoken in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya. As for the writing, it uses a script similar to Arabic but with some added signs to mark the specific letter of Somali.

It was heavily influenced by different tongues, including English, Persian, Portuguese, Italian, and Arabic, which can be seen in the number of borrowed words. This is due to the nomadic nature of the Somali people and their interactions with different nations. Still, native speakers would need the best translation services to understand Somali.

Minor African Languages

Apart from the official and native languages we’ve covered, there are others that can’t be marked as a main African language but are still significant and have a large base of speakers, both native and as a second language. We’ll list some of the most interesting ones below.

  • Portuguese. As Portugal was a major colonizer in Africa, Portuguese remains actively spoken in several former colonies that are now African countries. That includes Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe. It, however, differs from standard Portuguese spoken in Portugal. 20 million people in Africa speak it. Portuguese is popular in music, literature, and movies. It's also used for government and business, which is why you can easily find certified Portuguese translation.
  • Shona. Shona is spoken primarily in Zimbabwe, where around 70% of the population speaks it as their first language. It's also widely spread in Mozambique. It has several dialects and is written using Latin script. Shona is a tonal lingo which means the pitch and intonation play a significant role.
  • Igbo. Igbo is one of Nigeria's four official languages and is spoken by 10 million people worldwide. It is also written in Latin, like several other African tongues. Still, the script is modified and differs from the standard English version. Unfortunately, it has been in decline in the past decade since English is becoming more and more dominant.

African Language: Extinct List

Finally, we need to address the languages that are unfortunately extinct and thus no longer in active use by the people in Africa. Let us first take a look at some of the main reasons for language extinction in Africa:

  • colonization and forcing colonizer’s language on locals
  • urbanization and loss of tradition
  • migration from small communities to bigger, urban ones
  • lack of support by the officials

The list of dialects that are extinct is quite long, and it includes Meriotic, Old Nubian, Guanche, Kwadi, Damin, Mawa, Kubi, Kore, Esuma, and more.

Final Thoughts

The exact number of African languages remains a mystery since so many of them are either oral, on the verge of extinction, or extinct. A continent with such linguistic diversity is a fascination to many language lovers and enthusiasts.

Our detailed overview had the goal of showing you just how colorful the picture of African languages is. Hopefully, we’ve helped you understand the basics and decide where you want to go with your research next.