African Languages

ancient symbolisms and languages of africa

An example of Aroko. Photo University of Aberdeen Museums

By now, we are familiar with the fact that long before the coming of the White man on the African soil, Africa was developed in its own capacity. Besides the written history of Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and what is today known as Nigeria via Nok arts held secrets and knowledge of its people.

As people source for knowledge on this, there is little information on the languages that were used as a means of communication, especially in their neighbouring communities and during a trade.

African Languages

History reveals that the languages of Africa were grouped into four families: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. Of all four, the Niger-Congo, Afroasiatic and Nilo-Saharan are found in West Africa.

Afroasiatic Language

Afroasiatic languages are spoken across North Africa, and Southwest Asia. One of its sub-family, Chadic, has Hausa as a language, while Semitic sub-family, has Arabic. Interestingly, Pidgin English also falls under this category. Afroasiatic also boasts of having the longest written history- a popular example is the Ancient Egyptian language.


The Kanuri language falls under the Nilo-Saharan family is spoken in Southern Egypt, Northern Tanzania, DR Congo and Nigeria. The Kanuri language belongs to this family.

Niger-Congo language

The Niger-Congo language family is the largest group in the world when measured by the number of languages. Yoruba and Igbo are part of this family.

Khoisan languages

Khoisan is a sum of 30 languages and is spoken by about 300,000 – 400,000 people. This is the only family not spoken by Nigerians.

Why is this information important? It helps lay a foundation on how the languages and symbols used in Nigeria were formed. It is also hoped that this foundation will appease our African consciousness. Two popular symbolisms that were adopted and used to communicate in ancient Nigeria were Nsibidi and Aroko.

ancient symbolisms and languages of africa


Widely used, it only gained attention centuries later after the infamous Marvel film, The Black Panther, used some of its symbols. Historians have often argued about the origin of Nsibidi. Macgregor, in 1909, argued that Nsibidi has its root in the Uguakima, Ebe or Uyanga tribes of the Igbos.

In his work, he notes that legend has it that this language was taught to the Igbos by baboons. However, another school of thought has argued that Nsibidi originated from the Ekoi people, neighbours of the Efik and Ibibio ethnic groups in Nigeria before it was adopted by the Igbos.

Although there is no generally accepted date, scholars say it has been in use in Ekoi for as long as 400 CE. Its oldest archaeological evidence dates back to 2000 B.C.

To have the permission to use Nsibidi meant that you were a part of the Ekpe Leopard secret society, found in present-day Abia. Ukara Ekpe, a popular piece of clothing in Eastern Nigeria has some of the ancient Nsibidi inscriptions. The transatlantic slave trade also saw Nsibidi being exported to the Caribbean islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela and Haiti.

Still found in a few rural communities in Yoruba land, the àrokò messaging system was used to send encrypted letters or messages over long distances. The conveyor of the message was oblivious of its content because of the secrecy. These letters were made from materials like cowrie-shells and seeds. Each string on the cowrie had a message. Records state that the position also determined the message.

For instance, a kernel in the middle meant ‘what is good for me is good for you’, while eight cowries paired together meant “the people of the four corners of the earth”. Sometimes, these letters were done graphically. For instance, a knife positioned in a particular way could mean death to the messenger. àrokò was used to send a message of peace from the King of Ìjẹbú to the King of Lagos in 1851.

Ààlè, a popular symbol among the Ikale Yoruba of Nigeria, featured broken things which sent a message to thieves or a person who is not of high moral or ethical standards on a property. Simply put, it served as a Caveat emptor.

Official languages

Official languages – in many African countries there are several official languages.

Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, only a few languages are official at the national level. These are:

  1. Arabic, in Algeria, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia
  2. Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda
  3. Chichewa in Malawi
  4. Amharic in Ethiopia
  5. Somali in Somalia
  6. Tigrinya in Eritrea (technically a working language)
  7. Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and the closely related Kirundi in Burundi
  8. Sango in the CAR
  9. Swazi in Swaziland and South Africa
  10. Malagasy in Madagascar
  11. Seychellois Creole in the Seychelles
  12. Shona in Zimbabwe
  13. Afrikaans, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda, and Tsonga in South Africa, the only multilingual country with widespread official status for its indigenous languages, in addition to English.

 Cross-border languages

The colonial borders established by European powers following the Berlin Conference in 1884-5 divided a great many ethnic groups and African language speaking communities. In a sense, then, “cross-border languages” is a misnomer.

Nevertheless it describes the reality of many African languages, which has implications for divergence of language on either side of a border (especially when the official languages are different), standards for writing the language, etc.

 Language change and planning

Language is not static in Africa any more than in other world regions. In addition to the (probably modest) impact of borders, there are also cases of dialect levelling (such as in Igbo and probably many others), koinés (such as N’Ko and possibly Runyakitara), and emergence of new dialects (such as Sheng). In some countries there are official efforts to develop standardized language versions.

There are also many less widely spoken languages that may be considered endangered languages.


Of the 890 million Africans (as of 2005), about 17% speak an Arabic dialect. About 10% speak Swahili, the lingua franca of Southeastern Africa, about 5% speak a Berber dialect, and about 5% speak Hausa, a West African lingua franca. Other important West African languages are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula. Major Northeast African languages are Oromo and Somali. Important South African languages are Zulu and Afrikaans (related to Dutch). English, French and Portuguese are important languages: 130, 115 and 20 million speak them as secondary in general.

List of major African languages (by total number of speakers in million):

Arabic (North Africa, Horn of Africa)100 native + 30 secondary
Berber (North Africa)40 native + 4 secondary
Swahili (East Africa)5 native + 80 secondary
Hausa (West Africa)24 native + 15 secondary
Oromo (Northeast Africa)25
Zulu (South Africa)9 native + 16 secondary
Somali (Horn of Africa)18-21
Yoruba (West Africa)19 native + 2 secondary
Igbo (West Africa)18 native + 1 secondary
Amharic (Northeast Africa)14 native + 3 secondary
Shona15 native + 2 secondary
Bambara (West Africa)3 native + 10 secondary
Twi8 native + 2 secondary
Ibibio Language (Ibibio/Annang/Efik, Nigeria)8-12
Fula (West Africa)10-16
Malagasy (Madacascar)17
Afrikaans (South Africa)6-7 native + 6-7 secondary
Lingala (Democratic Republic of the Congo)2 native + 10 secondary
Chichewa (Southeast Africa)10
Xhosa (South Africa)7
Kinyarwanda (Rwanda)7
Tshiluba (Democratic Republic of the Congo)6
Wolof3 native + 3 secondary
Gikuyu (Kenya)5
More (West Africa)5
Kirundi (Central Africa)5
Sotho (South Africa)5
Tswana (Southern Africa)4
Kanuri (West Africa)4
Umbundu (Angola)4
Northern Sotho (South Africa)4

Linguistic features

Some linguistic features are particularly common among languages spoken in Africa, whereas others seem less common. Such shared traits probably are not due to a common origin of all African languages. Instead, some may be due to language contact (resulting in borrowing) and specific idioms and phrases may be due to a similar cultural background.


Some phonetic features include:

  1. certain phoneme types, such as implosives
  2. doubly articulated labial-velar stops like /kp/ and /ɡb/
  3. prenasalized consonants
  4. clicks
  5. 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.

Tonal languages are found throughout the world but are especially numerous in Africa. 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 also found in the Omotic, Chadic, and South & East Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic. 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.


Widespread syntactical structures include the common use of adjectival verbs and the expression of comparison by means of a verb ‘to surpass’.


Quite often, only one term is used for both animal and meat; the word nama or nyama for animal/meat is particularly widespread in otherwise widely divergent African languages.

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