Languages of Africa


Map of African Language Families by Mark Dingemanse

It is estimated that there are about 2,000 languages in Africa, and the spoken languages generally break down into the language families indicated in the picture above. Language communities in Africa range in size from millions of speakers to a few hundred.  Many African countries have several national languages.  Nigeria, for example, has 514 living languages and nine official languages.  Nigeria and central Africa have the greatest concentration of living languages, and are therefore one of three areas of the world with the greatest needs for Bible translation.

Languages are an amazing source of anthropological data.  By studying a language you can learn what’s important to a culture.  Important things have a rich collection of vocabulary, while unimportant things may not have any words at all.  For example, some languages may have multiple words for the verb to carry–for example, a different word for carry on your head, carry on your back, carry with your arms, etc–but not a single word for an electronic device like a computer.

Through language analysis, you can also learn some about the origins and migration of a people.  For example, the Malagasy language of Madagascar has Austronesian roots connecting the people who speak that language with peoples who speak Austronesian languages in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even Taiwan.

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