“How many languages are there in Africa?”

There is no cut and dried answer to this question, but it is worthwhile exploring what colours the different possible answers. There are sources that propose definite numbers of languages spoken on this continent, and these range between 2,100 and 3,000 languages. Crucially, there are different meanings to the word ‘language’, and they influence how idioms are counted. For most speakers, a language is a particular way of speaking that is related to a particular sociopolitical identity and tied to some extent to a place. Changing social and religious circumstances, political configurations and their consequences on imagining history can all result in changing how a language is conceptualised, how it is named, and what territory it is associated with. Outsiders tend to have their own perspectives on the languages they are aware of, too, and very often they will employ different categorisations that are less fine-grained. So, different people name languages differently at any given point in time, and naming practices can change over time, which makes enumerating languages really impossible

This is why linguists try to skirt the sociocultural dimensions of language and aim at definitions of language that are based on how similar or how dissimilar they are to their nearest neighbours. But this, too, is a really hopeless endeavour, because there are so many possible ways to decide on the cut-off point. Some linguists look at the number of shared words and say that if over 70% of vocabulary is shared, we are dealing with a single language. The problem with this approach is that depending on which vocabulary items are included, completely different percentages emerge. This is why many linguists only compare very short word lists (of 100 to 400) with words that are deemed to be universal – but that means discarding most of the words of a languages and not including those words that have the most cultural significance to speakers. Other linguists look at mutual intelligibility and say that if speakers who speak differently can understand each other, they are speaking dialects of one and the same language. But intelligibility is often dependent on the linguistic repertoire of a person, on their exposure to different languages and lects, and also on their attitude to a particular way of speaking, so it is not an exact measure either. And don’t even get me started on shared grammatical structure…

The names for languages that are contained in language catalogues, then, are mostly based on a mix of all these perspectives, and that means that they don’t offer an exact count but only a very rough approximation of Africa’s linguistic diversity. What we can safely state, though, is that this diversity is huge by global standards. Even the smallest country on the sub-Sahran African mainland, the Gambia, with a surface of 10,689 square kilometers and a population of a mere 1.2 million, counts 11 languages. The country with the largest surface area of 2,344,858 square kilometers, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hosts 212 languages, spoken by 81 million. The most linguistically diverse country is Nigeria, with 525 officially recognised languages for the 190 million inhabitants populating its 923,768 square kilometers.

In the mind of many Europeans, and also of many Africans themselves, sadly, the perception prevails that African languages are not really fully-fledged languages but simple ‘dialects’ or ‘patois’ without complex grammatical structures and with a very simple lexicon. (The same prejudice is applied to the ways in which Africans speak languages of European provenance, including so-called creoles and pidgins.) The posts on this blog showcase the complex lexicon and grammar of African languages and prove these judgements wrong. The reasons for these stereotypes range from sheer racism and patronising judgements stemming from colonial times that are still widespread to powerful ideas of language that are based on European romantic ideas of language: a language is a standardised idiom equipped with an orthography and an associated body of literature that expresses the identity of a people. Under this view, as the linguist Max Weinreich quipped, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”, or referring to African language creators, “a language is a dialect with a missionary and a dictionary”, as I have said in Lüpke & Storch 2013). Multilingual and multiscriptual Africa has produced very different identity concepts that defy this ethnonationalist vision of language. Watch this space to find out more about them!

Read more on the history and social meaning of African languages in this book:

Lüpke, Friederike; Storch, Anne (2013): Repertoires and choices in African languages. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

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