Africa is the second largest continent in the world both by population and land area. According to 2016 estimates from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Africa was home to about 1,225,080,510 people. The continent is one of the world's most diverse due to the large population. Linguists estimate that nearly 2,000 native languages are spoken in Africa. One of the countries with the highest number of indigenous languages is Nigeria as some estimates indicate that 500 languages are spoken within its borders. The native tongues of Africa are divided into four major categories, which include Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoe.
The term Afroasiatic is used to classify nearly 300 languages primarily spoken throughout the western and northern regions of Africa as well as in the Horn of Africa. About 495 million Africans speak an Afroasiatic language as their first language. Arabic has more speakers than any other Afroasiatic language on the continent. Arabic is mainly popular in nations with a large Muslim population such as Algeria, Egypt, and Libya and in these three countries, the constitution recognizes it as an official language. Another prominent Afroasiatic language is Hausa which is dominant in the northern section of Nigeria, most of Ghana, and the southern portion of Niger.
Another major group of languages spoken on the African continent is the Nilo-Saharan group. Speakers of Nilo-Saharan languages live in 17 countries with some in the north of the continent such as Algeria and Libya, and others in the east such as Tanzania and Kenya. One of the significant tongues in this category is the Luo which is spoken by a segment of the Kenyan and Tanzanian populations. Slightly fewer than 4.5 million people speak it as their first language. Several other Nilo-Saharan languages are spoken in Kenya such as Maasai and Teso. Another Nilo-Saharan dialect with a significant number of native speakers is Kanuri which is dominant around the Lake Chad area. Songhay is the most prevalent Nilo-Saharan language in West Africa with speakers spread out in several nations such as Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Most of the regions where the language is spoken were once part of one of the most well-known African empires, the Songhai Empire.
The Niger-Congo language group is one of Africa's most significant since it has more speakers than any of the other language groups on the continent. Globally, it is ranked third regarding native speakers and some linguists rank it first regarding the number of individual languages. Swahili is the most prominent of the Niger-Congo languages as it has the most speakers while others such as Yoruba, Shona, and Igbo have the highest number of native speakers. The languages that fall in this category have some distinct features such as phonology and vowel harmony.
The Khoe language group is one of the dominant language groups in the southern section of Africa. The most prominent dialect within this group is the Nama which is spoken in Namibia. Some of the languages within this group are facing the risk of extinction as native speakers opt to use other languages such as English.
European Languages in Africa
One of the significant impacts of colonization was the introduction of European languages to Africa which are mainly used as Lingua Franca in many countries. Languages such as German, English, and French were introduced by the colonial masters to facilitate communication with the conquered communities.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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