Ethnologue currently counts 2,143 African languages. This is estimated as a third of the world’s languages. Going by these numbers, Africa is definitely linguistically heterogeneous. But does Africa truly have that many languages?
The discovery, description, and classification of African languages has been quite controversial. The current classification of languages into families based on their demonstrable genetic relationship is credited to Joseph Greenberg, an American anthropologist and linguist who specialized in African languages.
Based on Greenberg’s work, African languages are currently classified into four main language families: Niger-Congo; Afro-Asiatic; Nilo-Saharan; and Khoisan. Greenberg’s work was influenced by earlier scholars including Wilhelm Bleek, Carl Meinhof, and, especially, Diedrich Westermann.
Despite the efforts of Ethnologue and many others to count languages, there seems to be a lack of agreement on the total number of African languages. There are several reasons for this disagreement:
Language or Dialect: One of the main problems is the inability to differentiate between languages and dialects. There are instances where speech forms that could be regarded as dialects of one language are more conveniently treated as separate languages because that is the speakers’ preference.
Herman Batibo provides more insight into this dilemma. According to Batibo, while Sepedi, Sesotho, and Setswana speakers see themselves as speakers of three different languages, their languages are mutually intelligible and, thus, could be considered dialects of one language.
A similar situation exists in Ghana. The relationship between Asante Twi and Akwapem Twi has been quite controversial. Depending on an individual’s affiliation, he/she might refer to them as either two mutually intelligible languages or dialects of the same language, Twi. The opposite is also true where communities which have somewhat similar cultures are lumped together as speakers of the same language. For instance, Batibo noted that there are at least three different speech forms that are used by the Chagga people, which are not mutually intelligible, but the people consider themselves as speakers of one language.
Scholarly Influences: Scholars’ work to define African languages might be influenced by a number of factors including the available literature on a language or dialect; the financial help they receive; and the political system within which they choose or are compelled to work.
Missionaries: The role of missionary groups in identifying African languages cannot be left out. Missionaries spearheaded the development of African languages in different ways. First, they acquired local languages to aid communication with local populations. Second, they transformed oral languages into written forms in order to produce Christian literature, as well as translate the Bible into local languages. Batibo mentions that Ewondo and Bulu are two mutually intelligible languages in Cameroon. However, two competing missionary groups prepared two different orthographies for them.
The establishment of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN),a specialized institution of the African Union, seems to have brought a fresh way of thinking about the importance of African languages in education and in development in general.
ACALAN has been tasked to develop and promote African languages for use alongside former colonial languages, such as English, French and Portuguese, in all domains of society. ACALAN has six core projects, including an effort to update the knowledge about African languages and their dialectical variations. It will, thus, produce a comprehensive linguistic atlas, which will include the precise number of African languages.
About the Author:
Anukware Selase Adzima is an expert in African languages at CETRA. Prior to serving as the company’s corporate strategy advisor, Adzima opened a subsidiary of CETRA, Inc. in Ghana and served as the General Manager of CETRA Ghana Ltd. where he oversaw production and drove business development in Africa.