Why does Africa have so many more languages than any other continent?


This week's guest blog on languages in Africa comes from Louise Taylor, content manager at Tomedes, a professional translation company. She writes content for the Tomedes blog as well as for other sections of their website.


Africa is considered to be the most linguistically diverse continent on the planet, with estimates putting the number of languages spoken at as many as 3,000 (Epstein 1998: 9), challenging even the largest translation companies to get to grips with all of them! Many of the languages spoken there fall under six main language families (Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger–Congo, Khoe, Austronesian and Indo-European), based largely around geographic regions. However, there are also languages from smaller families, language isolates, which have no clear relationship with any other languages, sign language isolates and languages that as yet remain unclassified.

Given this rich linguistic base, it is unsurprising to find that the country with the highest number of official languages in the world is in Africa. South Africa has an impressive 11 official languages and according to Good Project Literacy, it's not unusual for different family members to cite different languages as their first language, thanks to the multi-lingual status of many households. The 2011 Census found that isiZulu is the most widely spoken first language of South Africa, spoken by 22.7% of the population. isiXhosa is next, at 16%, followed by Afrikaans (13.5%), English (9.6%), Setswana (8%) and Sesotho (7.6%).

While South Africa has taken the unusual step of making so many of them official, the variety of languages spoken there is typical of countries across Africa. At a continental level, Arabic, English, French and Portuguese are widely spoken, while the most spoken African languages include Swahili, Amharic, Yoruba, Oromo, Hausa, Igbo, Zulu and Shona.

The reasons for this vast linguistic diversity lie in historical and political developments not only across the continent, but also across the world. Many believe that modern humans are descended from Africans, so the fact that Africa has been home to humans for longer than any other continent is one influential factor in terms of language evolution. As geneticist Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania explains in Language Magazine:

“There's just been a lot of time for cultural diversity, linguistic diversity, genetic diversity to accumulate in Africa.”

The lack of an assimilationist approach to their kingdoms by many African rulers over the centuries was also an important factor in the growth and maintenance of the continent's linguistic diversity. Evolutionary linguist Salikoko Mufwene from the University of Chicago has indicated in an article for The Christian Science Monitor that kings' reliance on interpreters from the various regions that they ruled created an environment in which multiple languages could flourish, particularly when compared with the approach of many European empires, which was to wipe out existing cultural and linguistic diversity as swiftly as possible.

The results of this difference can be seen most starkly in the numbers. As visualized on Infograph, Africa is home to some 1.216 billion people, while Europe is home to around 743.1 million. However, Africa is home to as many as 3,000 languages (according to Epstein and Kole's Languages of African Literature, 1998), while Europe boasts around 300. So Africa has ten times as many languages as Europe but with fewer than twice the number of people.

The influence of European languages on Africa is another reason behind the continent's vast linguistic diversity. European imperialists had their sights firmly set on Africa towards the end of the 19th century. Some were more subtle than others in their attempts at colonisation, applying diplomatic pressure to get their own way. Others used their imperialist might to push into Africa with military invasions. Resistance was often fierce, but ultimately only Ethiopia and Liberia were able to resist the advances of European colonial powers.

Europe's advancement into Africa was based largely on economic factors (the Industrial Revolution in particular created the need to secure sources of raw materials and flow them into Europe), but its impact spread to culture and language across the continent. Colonies of settlers, like the Portuguese in Angola, the French in Algeria and the English in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda enforced the spread of their languages and created a linguistic melting pot.

While resistance to colonial rule often involved a refusal to assimilate linguistically, the presence of European languages in Africa could not be avoided. In many instances, these European tongues were taken and localized, being converted into local dialects. In South Africa, for example, Roger Lass (2002) identified three distinct versions of South African English: the 'cultivated' English used by the upper class, the 'general' English used by the middle class and the 'broad' English used by the working class. The latter was also closely approximated to Afrikaans English, again showing how European languages became entwined in complex ways with local languages and dialects.

It is this blending of history, economics and politics that is behind the linguistic diversity seen in modern-day Africa. While many of the events that led to the creation of such diversity – invasion, colonisation and the plundering of natural resources – are now viewed in a negative light, they have at least on a linguistic level contributed to the creation of the most fascinating continent on Earth.


Epstein, Edmund L.; Kole, Robert, eds. (1998). The Language of African Literature. Africa World Press.

Lass, Roger (2002), "South African English", in Mesthrie, Rajend, Language in South Africa, Cambridge University Press

Articles quoted available via the hyperlinks above

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