Exploring the Linguistic Landscape of Africa

By Emily Duchenne - Geography Student @ Brasenose College, Oxford

The African continent boasts one third of the world’s languages, with over 2,000 spoken and twenty-five signed. In fact, twenty of the top twenty-five countries for linguistic diversity are located in Africa, with Nigeria placing third at 515 spoken languages and ten official languages across 196 million people. When asking the question of why Africa has so many languages, three main explanations can be explored in tandem with one another: the ‘Out of Africa’ theory, the use of interpreters throughout kingdoms, and the growth of pidgin and creole vernaculars (local dialects) out of African and European languages.


The widely supported theory that modern humans originated in Africa and then spread around the world is key in explaining some of the linguistic diversity found across the continent. Geneticist Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania- an expert scientist in the study of biological changes of humans throughout time- reasons that “there’s been a lot of time” for languages to accumulate alongside multiple cultures, climates and populations. This is because Africa has been settled in for longer than any other part of the world, and the estimated 3,000 tribes in present-day Africa, where spoken languages can change every few kilometres, reinforces time as playing a key role in linguistic diversity across cultures.


Limited political and cultural integration between rulers of traditional kingdoms and their subjects has also contributed to the multilingual landscape in Africa today. The use of interpreters by African kings and leaders is presented as crucial in maintaining linguistic diversity across territories ruled by one family - a stark contrast to the objectives of European nations, who focused on cultural assimilation as their empires expanded through methods including the regulation of language. Recognising the value of language in asserting one’s identity allowed a wide range of languages and dialects to flourish within kingdoms throughout Africa. The existence of ‘smaller’ and ‘isolated’ language families with far fewer speakers, as well as unclassified languages, demonstrates how diverse languages have managed to survive.


Finally, inextricable from European colonialism, the development of pidgin and creole languages within African countries further explains the rich languages and vernaculars found across the continent that are still widely spoken today. European expansion into Africa led to the need for a common language to aid communication between European colonists and Africans, and so pidgin languages began to emerge. West African Pidgin English is one such example, which became the lingua franca, or common language, along the West African coast during the Atlantic slave trade. This trading language later became adopted as a primary language, developing into a more complex creole language which is still in widespread use in different variations.


The number of English-based creoles in West African countries currently being used as primary and secondary language has increased greatly over the last century, with over 100 million speakers today. The Aku language in The Gambia, Sierra Leone Krio and Ghanaian Pidgin English are further examples all derived from the early West African Pidgin English. The use of these ‘unofficial’ languages during decolonial and anticolonial movements across Africa shows the power of language in creating collective identity. The diverse pidgin and creole languages that stemmed from solutions to communication during European colonial expansion remain part of everyday life for millions, and therefore play a significant role in the linguistic diversity found across Africa.


Africa is a continent with diverse histories and contemporary societies, where languages have played a prominent role in the various cultures found today. The greater amount of time relative to other parts of the world that civilisations within Africa have had to develop their own forms of culture and communication has allowed diverse linguistic branches to develop, with the use of interpreters within kingdoms allowing variations to flourish side-by-side. Finally, impacts of European expansion in generating the need for common languages resulted in pidgin and creole languages, which remain widely spoken today, indicating just one of the ways the impacts of European colonialism remain embedded across Africa today.


Further Reading:

  1. Fanon, F., 2008. Black skin, white masks. Grove press.

  2. Sands, B., 2009. Africa's linguistic diversity. Language and Linguistics Compass, 3(2), pp.559-580.

  3. Stewart, C., 2016. Creolization: history, ethnography, theory (pp. 9-33). Routledge.