One continent, more than 2,000 languages

Last Updated August 5, 2016

Africa is the most diversified continent in terms of language. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 different dialects spoken there, which is as much as one third of all languages spoken worldwide, while the continent is inhabited by less than one seventh of the world’s population. To compare, there are merely 71 languages in Europe officially classified by the ISO. What makes Africa so much diversified in terms of language?

African countries are characterized by the multitude of languages used on a daily basis there. Statistical data in this respect are hard to believe: in the overwhelming majority of those countries some 100-250 dialects are spoken! To illustrate this situation we can refer to the results of research carried out among one hundred inhabitants of Uganda, which have revealed that each of them knew and used 4.3 languages on average. This is the highest concentration of such a large number of dialects in the world – how did this come about?

The current linguistic map of Africa has been influenced by long-term social, political and economic processes. It was this very area where the first humans lived and where the first languages evolved, which some anthropologists consider to be the reason for the current diversity. People would migrate from Africa to other continents, and the farther they migrated, the more uniform the language spoken by them became. To comprehend this process you can imagine a bottle which is wide at the bottom to become very narrow at the neck. It should also be remembered that throughout the history of humankind, in no other continent have people spent as much time as they have in Africa, which can be another reason for the multitude of languages there.

Multilingualism – yes or no?

Such a great number of languages on a relatively small area was quite a challenge for those ruling African countries in the postcolonial world. In a number of cases, having regained independence, states of the Black Continent designated two or three languages as the official ones to unify a culturally and ethnically fragmented country and emphasize the unity of its nation. It was often the case that the language “inherited” from a former colonizer – e.g. English or French – became one of the official languages in a given state.

It was not until recently that a policy aimed at safeguarding the linguistic landscape of Africa started to be pursued. The rulers realized how important the language is in shaping and enhancing the cultural and national identity of citizens. Hence local languages can be heard more and more often not only in the street but also in the media and schools.

Numerous African dialects are referred to as transborder ones as they are spoken not only by one national or ethnic group but can be heard in a number of states. Those most widely used languages in Africa include Arabic, Swahili, Jula and Hausa. Just as it was the case in other parts of the world, the dialects spoken by nations or ethnic groups which controlled routes and trade are usually dominant languages.

What next?

Africa is not the only continent in the world where so many dialects can be heard. A similar situation can be seen for instance in Asia and Oceania. What makes those areas different from Africa is a greater risk of extinction of local dialects. It is estimated that as much as 60% of them can disappear from the linguistic map of the world in the near future, while in Africa this figure is about 13%.

The reasons for this can be seen in the manner in which Africa was colonized. In the course of the European expansion to other regions of the world (e.g. Southeast Asia or South America), millions of people from the Old Continent would migrate to conquered countries bringing there also their languages (Spanish or English), while Africa has never been inhabited by a large number of Europeans. Local languages could thus continue to freely develop and were not replaced by those of colonizers.

Researchers predict, however, that if Africa continues to develop in the same way as Europe or both Americas, sooner or later the continent will be dominated by two or three languages which will gradually displace local dialects. All we can do is to hope that they will not surrender to economic development and the African linguistic folklore will remain intact.

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