What are some major African Languages?

What are some major African Languages?


In the Academy-award winning 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings” there is a scene in which Muhammed Ali, on a flight to Kinshasa and clearly impressed by the fact that the pilot is African, speaks to the camera and points out that the man flying the plane is not only a pilot but also speaks “French, English and African!”

I think it would be fair to say that a great many people who might otherwise be fairly well informed about what language is spoken where, are no more likely than Muhammed Ali was to know the name of the language other than French and English that that pilot probably spoke (Lingala is a reasonable candidate, although the pilot may have spoken other languages as well). Indeed, the languages of Africa are something of a mystery for almost everyone who has no special connection to that continent.

There are one or two exceptions. Many readers will be aware that English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Afrikaans are spoken in various parts of Africa. The first three are, of course, spoken there as a result of the colonial, post-colonial and occasionally neo-colonial administrations of the various Anglo-, Franco- and Lusophone countries. Arabic, as elsewhere, was spread together with Islam by means of conquest and conversion – and much earlier than the rest (Egypt was invaded by a Muslim army in 639 AD). Lastly, Afrikaans, whose name simply means “African”, is derived from the language spoken by Dutch settlers in Southern Africa. Spanish and German are also spoken by relatively small numbers, in Equatorial Guinea, Ceuta, Melilla and Western Sahara (Spanish) and Namibia (German).

The foregoing, although widely spoken in Africa, are all allochthonous to the continent. With the exception of Afrikaans, they are ‘world languages’ spoken across enormous swathes of the globe and not specifically ‘African’ per se.

In terms of renown, there is only one African language that can lay any claim to parity with those listed above, and that is Swahili. It is a national language of the DRC, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and is also spoken in Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, Zambia and Mozambique. Due no doubt to its appearance in films where safaris take place and in children’s books about Africa, Swahili is most likely the only definitively African language that will spring to mind of English-speaking non-Africans. This is fair enough; it is very widely spoken indeed and is used across a large area as a lingua franca. There are something in the vicinity of 100 million speakers.

Tanzania is an interesting case study. Many languages are spoken there, as is the case in most African countries (an oft-cited number, based on a declaration made by the country’s leader after independence, Julius Nyerere, is 120). Both English and Swahili are used in national life, but Swahili plays a special role. Nyerere developed a guiding philosophy for his country called ‘Ujamaa’, which emphasised the used of Swahili in preference to other languages in order to help build Tanzanian national identity. Indeed, incredible though it may seem to us now, Tanzania was the first post-colonial sub-Saharan country to make an African language one of its official tongues when it made Swahili co-official with English upon the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964.