8 cool facts about African languages

Did you know that Africa is home for approximately ⅓ of the world’s languages? Yeah, that is a lot. And it means that there is a lot to be known about them. We have gathered some facts about African languages that you might not already know.

There are around 2000 languages spoken in Africa

Nigeria alone has 250 languages, one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. Around 100 of these are used widely, for communication between people from different tribes and groups. Meanwhile, there are at least 75 languages in Africa with over 1 million speakers.

Until 2004 no native African language was considered an official language of the African Union

Until then, the AU operated in English, Portuguese, Arabic, and French. In 2004, former Mozambique president  Joaquim Chissano gave his last speech as chairman of the African Union in Swahili and African leaders were taken aback. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the value of their linguistic inheritance. 2006 was declared by the African Union as the "Year of African Languages".

Zimbabwe is the current Guinness Book of World Records Holder for being the country with the most official languages

Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, the most of any country in the world. Actually, only a few native African languages are official at the national level. After gaining independence, many African countries, in the search for national unity, selected one language, generally the former colonial language (English, Spanish, French or Portuguese) to be used in government and education. In recent years, African countries have become increasingly aware of the importance of linguistic diversity. There are a few languages that are official at a national level: Among them are Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, Chichewa in Malawi, Amharic in Ethiopia, Somali in Somalia and Tigrinya in Eritrea. 

Arabic is the language spoken by the most number of people on the continent

This is because of the Islamic expansion in the 7th century AD, which led to the extension of Arabic to much of North Africa. About 17% of Africans speak an Arabic dialect as their native language. The native African languages spoken by most people as their native language are Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba, Amharic, Igbo and Fula.  

Many of the world’s creole languages are found in Africa

Krio (in Sierra Leone) & Pidgin (Cameroon, Nigeria) – from English

Cape Verdean, Guinea-Bissau Creole - from Portuguese

Seychellois Creole, Mauritian Creole - from French Juba Arabic (Southern Sudan), Nubi (Uganda, Kenya) – from Arabic

Sango (Central African Republic) – from local languages

Camfranglais (Cameroon) - from French, english and local languages

The most translated short story ever was originally written in the African language Gikuyu

The story, called “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright,” by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, has been translated into 54 languages

Igbo language influenced the Jamaican Patois

Originating primarily from the Bight of Biafra in West Africa, Igbo people were taken in relatively high numbers to Jamaica as slaves, between 1790 and 1809 during the transatlantic slave trade. Besides Virginia, Jamaica was the second most common disembarkation point for slave ships arriving from Biafra. During this period, the culture and language of the Igbos diffused into the Jamaican culture. One of the major results of this diffusion is the infusion of some Igbo words into the Jamaican Patois.

Some of these words include: Unu– You people
Ima osu (Jamaica)  Imu oso (Igbo)- to hiss by sucking your teeth
Akara (Jamaica)  Akàrà (Igbo)– bean cake
Soso (Jamaica)  Sọsọ (Igbo)- only

One of the written languages in the movie “Black Panther” is based on Nsibidi, a Nigerian script

Some Nsibidi symbols date back as early as 400 CE. There are thousands of them, dealing with topics as diverse as religion, warfare, and love. And you know what else - Akuko’s next collection is inspired by it!

Nsibidi symbol with the meaning "Congress" from the movie Black Panther.

This article was a part of a theme were we during two weeks time dedicated our social media channels to learn more about African languages. Read more stories and blog posts here and make sure to follow us on Instagram!