Note: this article was originally published in October, 2022
Africa is an incredibly diverse continent. It makes up just about 16% of the world’s population, yet is home to over 33% of the world’s languages, with native languages numbering between 1,000 and 2,000 – Nigeria alone has over 500 languages. Many of the languages or ethnic groups are spread across different countries in the same region, due to colonialisation, migration (especially nomadic tribes) and other factors.
In a lot of African countries, one of the official languages is that of their colonisers and subregions in Africa are often described in terms of their colonisers. For example, anglophone West Africa being used to describe English-speaking countries in West Africa, as they were colonised by Britain; and francophone West Africa being used to describe French-speaking countries in the same region which were colonised by France. As for North Africa, Arabic is the official language due to the spread of Islam in the region. In fact, Africa – and mostly North Africa – is home to over 60% of Arabic speakers worldwide. Though, North African countries do have several different local dialects of Arabic, which may not be understood across transnationally.
In many cases, the local languages are seen as secondary languages, especially among the more educated folk – where fluency in the coloniser’s language is synonymous with the level of education for many. Consequently, Pan-Africanists have called for the use of local African languages to act as unifying languages, rather than these ‘forced’ foreign languages.
Whatever the case may be, there is a need to recognise the richness and beauty of our own local languages. Here are 8 of Africa’s most spoken local languages:
1. Swahili (200 million)
Swahili, also locally known as Kiswahili, is spoken by over 200 million people as a first and second language, but mostly the latter – more people speak Swahili as their lingua franca. It is an official language in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo, and is also spoken natively by minorities in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Somalia. In Tanzania, Swahili is spoken more than English, being used by the government and even as the language of instruction in primary schools. The move to use Swahili as a national, unifying language was made post-independence from British rule.
Swahili is a tonal Bantu language of the Niger-Congo language group. Up to 20% of the language comprises Arabic loanwords, due to the interaction between Arab slave traders and inhabitants of the Bantu people along the coast of East Africa centuries ago. The name Swahili itself comes from the Arabic word for coastal (سَوَاحِلي sawāḥilī).
In 2022, the United Nations declared July 7 as World Kiswahili Language Day to celebrate the language’s role promoting cultural diversity and unifying different civilisations. This was the first time the UN would recognise an African language in such a manner.
2. Hausa (95 million)
According to data recorded between 2019-2021, 50 million people speak Hausa as a native language while 45 million people speak it as a second language, totalling 95 million Hausa language speakers. Some estimates even say Hausa speakers are as many as 115 million. Hausa is only an official language in Nigeria and Niger, where the Hausa are the largest ethnic group; but it is also spoken by minorities in Ghana, Cameroon, Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Togo and Chad..
The language is spoken so widely by non-natives because of its use in trade and commerce in West Africa. In northern Nigeria, Hausa is spoken as the lingua franca even though there are other numerous ethnic groups in the region. Hausa is one of few African languages taught at foreign universities due to the significant amount of Hausa literature.
Hausa is a West Chadic language under the Afro-Asiatic language family. Many Hausa words are borrowed from Arabic because of the prominence of Islam among Hausa people, however, Swahili still has a lot more Arabic loanwords. Hausa has many different dialects from region to region, however the basics of the language remain the same.
3. Amharic (57 million)
Amharic is an official language in Ethiopia, Africa’s 2nd most populous country after Nigeria. As of 2018, there were said to be 31.8 million native Amharic speakers and 25 million second language speakers. Outside of Africa, the language is spoken by 3 million Ethiopian emigrants. It is also seen as a sacred language among followers of the Rastafari movement which originated in Jamaica.
Until 2020, Amharic was the only official working language of the Ethiopian federal government, however, this was largely contested as Oromo is even more widely spoken as a native language than Amharic. It was imposed by former rulers in an attempt to make it the unifying language, however, the East African giant now has 5 official working languages, Oromo and Amharic inclusive. Similarly, until 1995, Amharic was the language of instruction in Ethiopian primary schools, however, the new constitution allowed various regions to choose their predominant local language as the language of instruction in primary schools. English is the language of instruction in secondary and tertiary institutions of learning.
Amharic is a Semitic language under the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is the second most widely spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic and ahead of Hebrew. Just like Arabic and some other Semitic languages, it has its own alphabets, but unlike them, it is written from left to right, Amharic has some borrowed words from Italian, due to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia.
4. Oromo (50 million)
With 37.4 million speakers (as of 2018) and 50 million+ speakers in total, Oromo is the most spoken native language in Ethiopia and the 4th most spoken local language in Africa, respectively. Oromo is also spoken by over 500,000 people in Kenya, making Oromo people a recognised minority group there, and over 40,000 in Somalia. Some ethnic groups who are in close contact with Oromo speak the language as a second language.
Oromo is a Cushitic language under the Afro-Asiatic language family. Like most other Afro-Asiatic languages, Oromo is a gendered language. The variants of the language spoken in Kenya are the Borana and Ormo dialects. The former is spoken by the Borana people of northern Kenya and also by some Oromo in southern Ethiopia.
The Oromo culture in Ethiopia has largely been suppressed, from the conquest of Oromia by Abyssinians (now Ethiopia) in the 1800’s, to Haile Selassie’s regime when the use of the language was banned in education, conversation and administrative matters. Up till now, the Ethiopian government underreports the actual numbers of Oromo people.
5. Yoruba (47 million)
Yoruba language is spoken by the Yoruba people, who are primarily in (south-western) Nigeria and Benin, where is Yoruba is a national language. There are smaller communities of Yoruba speakers in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo. As of 2021, there were 45 million native Yoruba speakers and 2 million second language speakers.
Interestingly, Yoruba is also spoken in some parts of Brazil, due to the abundance of West African slaves taken there during the transatlantic slave trade. The term ‘Nagos’ refers to Brazilian Yoruba people. Yoruba religion majorly influenced religions such as Afro-Brazilians’ Candomblé and Afro-Cubans’ Santería, hence Yoruba vocabulary is a part of the chants and rituals practiced in those religions. In Cuba, the Yoruba vocabulary is used in the form of the liturgical Lucumí language. Additionally, due to the large number of Yoruba emigrants, Yoruba is said to be the most widely spoken African language outside the continent.
Yoruba is a Yoruboid language under the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo language family. It is a tonal language with several different dialects spread around the Yorubaland of Nigeria, but there is also Standard or Literary Yoruba which is widely spoken and used in Yoruba academia.
6. Fula (34.4-41.6 million)
Fula – also called Fufulde in the central and eastern dialects, and Pulaar or Pular in the western dialects – is spoken in 18 countries in West and Central Africa, including Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea.
Fula is not an official language in any country, but the Fula (also Fulani or Fulɓe) are recognised minority groups in these countries, except for Guinea where they make up the largest ethnic group. The vast spread of the language is mainly attributed to the nomadic nature of the Fula people, who are said to be the largest nomadic pastoralist ethnic group in the world. Estimates state that there are between 34.1 – 41.6 million Fula people, but these numbers are likely understated as censuses are hardly carried out amongst them.
Fula is a Senegambian language, under the Niger-Congo language family. Most Fula people are Muslim, so there are Arabic loanwords in Fula language. Many opine that Fula is fundamentally the same language across the various countries it is spoken, however, a few believe there are 9 distinct Fula languages based on the region. Pulaar spoken in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania is essentially the same; Maasina Fufulde is spoken in Ghana and Mali; Borgu Fufulde is spoken in Benin and Togo; Adamawa Fufulde is spoken in Chad, Cameroon and Sudan; and Bagirmi Fufulde is spoken in Central African Republic. There is also Nigerian Fufulde and the Fula languages local to Burkina Faso and Niger.
7. Igbo (30 million+)
Igbo is spoken by 30 million people as a native language, according to 2020 data. This figure does not take into account those who speak Igbo as a second language. Igbo is mostly spoken in (South-eastern) Nigeria, where it is a national language, and my smaller groups in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Igbo people are a recognised minority in the Equatorial Guinea and the third largest ethnic group in Nigeria, after the Hausa and Yoruba.
Igbo is also spoken natively in Haiti, Barbados, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, and lends some words to Jamaican patois, due to the Transatlantic slave trade, which moved many Igbo slaves to those regions in the 19th century. Many Haitians attribute their religious culture to the Igbo.
Igbo is an Igboid language under the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo language family. The tonal language has more than 20 dialects across the various regions it is spoken in, however, there is a standard literary language called “Igbo uzegbe”, meaning general Igbo. There are some discussions around the possible extinction of Igbo language in the future largely due to the reduced number of Igbo speakers among the younger generation.
8. Zulu (28 million+)
Zulu, locally called isiZulu, is spoken by over 28 million people in South Africa primarily, Eswatini, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique. As of 2011, there were said to be 12 million native speakers of Zulu and 16 million second language speakers, but this number is sure to have grown.
Zulu is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages (since 1994) and the most spoken first language in the country, ahead of Xhosa, a closely related language. The language is primarily spoken by the Zulu people of KwaZulu-Natal Province. However, it is also widely spoken by South Africans of other tribes, with almost half of the country’s population speaking it in total. Zulu is used as the language of instruction in primary schools up to the second grade.
Zulu is a Bantu language under the Niger-Congo language family. It is the most widely spoken Bantu language after Swahili. Zulu is famous for its unique clicking sounds, which makes the language slightly complicated to speak for outsiders. It is also a tonal language.