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African Languages


There are an estimated 1800 languages spoken in Africa. Some African languages, such as Swahili, Hausa, and Yoruba, are spoken by millions of people. Others, such as Laal, Shabo, and Dahalo, are spoken by a few hundred or fewer. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of whose genetic classification has yet to be worked out. Several African languages are also whistled for special purposes.

The abundant linguistic diversity of many African countries has made language policy an extremely important issue in the neo-colonial era. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism. For example, all African languages are considered official languages of the African Union.

The African languages are generally divided into four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. In addition, they include several unclassified languages, and of course sign languages.

After gaining independence, many African countries, in the search for national unity, elected one language to be used in government and education. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the importance of linguistic diversity. Language policies that are being developed nowadays are mostly aimed at multilingualism.
Linguistic features

The one thing African languages have in common is the fact that they are spoken in Africa. Africa does not represent some sort of natural linguistic area. Nevertheless, some linguistic features are cross-linguistically particularly common to languages spoken in Africa, whereas other features seem to be more uncommon. The hypothesis that shared traits like this would point to a common origin of African languages is highly dubious. Language contact (resulting in borrowing) and, with regard to specific idioms and phrases, a similar cultural background have been put forward to account for some of the similarities.

Among common pan-African linguistic features are the following: certain phoneme types, such as implosives; labial-velar stops like /kp/ and /gb/ (i.e. simultaneously pronounced k plus p, etc.); initial nasal consonant clusters; clicks; and the lower high (or 'near close') vowels /ʊ/ and /ɪ/. Phoneme types that are relatively uncommon in African languages include uvular consonants, diphthongs, and front rounded vowels. Quite frequently, only one term is used for both animal and meat; additionally, the word nama or nyama for animal/meat is particularly widespread in otherwise widely divergent African languages. Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb to surpass.

Tonal languages are found throughout the world, notably in Asia, Africa, Austronesia, the indigenous languages of America, and South-America (Mexico and Brazil). In Africa, tonal languages are especially numerous. Both the Nilo-Saharan and the Khoi-San phyla are fully tonal. The large majority of the Niger-Congo languages is also tonal. Tonal languages are furthermore found in the Omotic, Chadic, and South & East Cushitic branches of Afro-Asiatic. The most common type of tonal system opposes two tone levels, High (H) and Low (L). Contour tones do occur, and can often be analysed as two or more tones in succession on a single syllable. Tone melodies play an important role, meaning that it is often possible to state significant generalizations by separating tone sequences ('melodies') from the segments that bear them. Tonal sandhi processes like tone spread, tone shift, and downstep and downdrift are common in African languages.


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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Africa".